Adding Playtesting to your Game Design Process

Playtesters playing
Figure 3: Playtesting a paper prototype is always fun. This is a game called Galaxyfication and players have to move planets from one galaxy to the other using small wooden sticks and rubber bands (Photo by the author).

The aim of this article is to help the reader reflect on the value playtesting activities can add to the process of designing learning games or any type of playful learning activity. A general conceptualisation of playtesting will be presented followed by a short guide on how to run playtesting sessions.

PLAYTESTING

Playtesting is the moment of truth, the moment that you or other players try your prototype and you record the feedback and reactions and try to understand what works and what needs to be changed in the game. Playtesting can be useful to improve game design even if one person plays your game. You still gain loads of interesting feedback that can help improve it. Don Norman (2013), one of the most famous researchers of cognitive design and usability that helped Apple design some of their most iconic products, suggests that testing your product with five users helps identify 85% of the problems the design has at that stage of development.

Playtesters playing
Figure 1: Playtesting the prototype for Box It, can you guide the globe to the end of the maze by blowing through a straw? (Photo by the author).

Prototyping and playtesting are a coupled iterative process that can happen again and again until you feel you have a game that can go into the final design and production phase. Fullerton (2018) presents the below model conceptualising the relationship between prototyping and playtesting and how the process helps you test and narrow down your game’s details the further you go into the design and development process.

Fullerton's games design model
Figure 2: Iterative Game Design Model as presented by Fullerton (2018) (Figure recreated by the author).

The Iterative Game Design Model demonstrates the process of going from your initial prototype to the final version of the game with play testing sessions providing data that are evaluated and then enable revisions of the game. Playtesting helps identify what game elements are working and which ones need some tweaking, always keeping in mind that game designers should be serving the game’s end users.

HOW TO RUN A PLAYTESTING SESSION

You and your team can be the first play testers and many times there are a lot of insights that you can draw from playing your own game but there are limitations to how much you can learn from people that are close to the game. After you make sure you have a playable prototype you can give it to your close friends and family to try out but again do not forget that these people are close to you and they might be biased towards liking your game or might have a hard time giving you honest feedback because of your personal relationship. The best play testers are people you do not know that can be considered potential end users.

If you are making an educational game for elementary school kids for example, testing your game out with children or their teachers can be very useful. The first thing you need to avoid when playtesting is to defend your game. Ideally, someone else should be facilitating the playtesting sessions and game designers should be just observing or watching a video of the playtesting session afterwards. The point of playtesting is not for the designers to pitch the game to anyone but to identify which elements of the game work and which elements need to be tweaked or even taken out. Listen to everything the testers say and write it down or record it with your phone or on video if possible. There will be plenty of time to analyse the data your testers give you. Do not answer a lot of critique during playtesting. Just make sure you write everything down. Before you start playtesting do not pitch your game to your testers, there is no need for a 15 minute presentation of why you built this game and what the goal is and what your aspirations for it are. A 2-3 minute intro to the game and a brief explanation of its rules are enough. Ideally you should have written all the rules on a piece of paper and players should be able to play without your help.

Playtesters playing
Figure 3: Playtesting a paper prototype is always fun. This is a game called Galaxyfication and players have to move planets from one galaxy to the other using small wooden sticks and rubber bands (Photo by the author).

If you are part of the game design team, I would advise that every member of the team be present at the playtesting session if possible. If you have a team of twenty people or some similar large number, make sure to record the session on video and share it with everyone. It is normal for a designer to get defensive about their game. If the feedback is visible to all though then there can be no disagreements about the changes that should be made to improve the game.

Vasilis Gkogkidis
Vasilis Gkogkidis is the author of “Designing Games and Gamification for Learning” the book which this article is originally part of. In the book Vasilis discusses various ideas that can help the readers reflect on their game designs and further improve them.

Vasilis Gkogkidis has had long experience in the learning space both in education and facilitating organisational learning. Vasilis has designed and taught gamification courses around the world serving various organisations going on their journey in playful design. Vasilis has also taught in three different Universities in the UK using playful learning approaches like gamification, game based learning and Lego Serious Play. He has written and published articles about playful teaching in journals and conferences.

Reach out to Vasilis at vasilisgkogkidis@gmail.com

References and further reading:
Deep Dive: Playtesting – How to Get Good Feedback on Your Game (video)

Books: “Game Design Workshop” suggested chapter “Playtesting”

The Art of Game Design” suggested chapter “Good Games are Created Through Playtesting”

The design of everyday things”.Fullerton, T., (2018). Game design workshop: a playcentric approach to creating innovative games. AK Peters/CRC Press.

Norman, D., (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic books.

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