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  • Playtesting is Sovereign, Part 2

    [09.02.10]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • What the Players Are Doing

    User Interface Convenience. This applies to all games, but especially to video games: can the players use the interface to control their game conveniently. How many video games are ruined because it's too fiddly to make the moves the player wants to make? Keep your eyes open for this kind of thing.

    Rules difficult to grasp. What do the players find hard to grasp. In my prototype Age of Colonization (AoC), players had trouble grasping the difference between movement of units and placement of units. I used the same distinction in an abstract stones-and-hexes prototype, and no one has a problem, showing that context makes a big difference. Even though players "get it" after playing, it might be necessary to change something that's hard to grasp. In AoC I changed the rules extensively to recast/eliminate the distinction, and the problem disappeared.

    When people are playtesting a game, after 20-30 minutes, if I walk away do they still know how to play the game? For all but the most complex games this should be true even at first play.

    What do players tend to forget? This isn't quite the same thing as what's difficult to grasp. Some options just don't stick in people's minds. Is there anything you can do about it? Is there some play aid to help people remember? In a video game, can you show something on the screen to remind people of the option?

    What do players not bother to use? Some rules/options exist but no one uses them. If the threat of using them is not making a difference in the game, then perhaps you should eliminate the option. For example, in my hex-and-stones game "Law and Chaos" I originally allowed people to move a piece rather than place one. This happened rarely, as it was usually better to place another piece and increase the number on the board. So I eliminated the possibility, except as an "optional rule".

    Horns of a Dilemma. Are there enough plausible decisions in the play to make the players think, but not so many that "analysis paralysis" sets in. Even in a simple game, if a player can do only two of five possible actions in a turn, is there tension here or are the plays obvious? As one commenter put it, do the players sometimes feel "so much to do, so few actions allowed?" That would be a good thing, for a competitive game.

    Player interaction. Do the players have to take the actions of other players into account? Yes, some games are virtually multi-player solitaire, and some players are happy with this. But most players want to be able to affect other players with their moves.

    How the Game Plays

    Length. A game is always longer to new players, of course. But if it takes too long for new players, will they play again? Length is quite dependent on how much players enjoy what is happening in the game. The original boardgame Civilization can take 8 to 12 hours, but those who love the game don't find that time weighs upon them.

    Downtime. Downtime is the time people must wait while someone else is taking a turn. This can be a problem even in a video game that's turn-based. A great advantage of turns is that they give people time to think. If the game isn't encouraging thought, and they must wait too long, there's a problem.

    Game balance. Even if the game is symmetric (all players start with identical situations), there may be an advantage to playing first (or last). Chess is symmetric except for who moves first, but move-first is a huge advantage. For a single-player "interactive puzzle" video game, are the challenges matched by the rewards? Is the game fundamentally too hard or too easy?

    Dominant Strategy. Look for any dominant strategy ("saddle point"). This is a strategy that is so good that a player who wants to win must pursue it; or a strategy so good that some will pursue it, yet that strategy renders the game less than entertaining. For example, in a Euro-style 4X space game I've designed, one player found that by getting together a sufficiently large force, along with certain technology research, he could completely dominate other players who weren't pursuing the identical strategy. I want the game to offer a variety of ways to success, so I had to change the rules fairly extensively. This is why it is important to have testers who are dynamite game players, so that they'll find these strategies during testing, rather than have someone find it after the game is published. I'm lucky that I can be such a player myself when I put my mind to it.

    Taking it to the Max. Can extreme behavior within the rules break the game? Sure, if someone pursues a bad strategy, they'll lose. The question is, is there some extreme strategy that results in an unfair or unenjoyable game?

    Adequate control. Do the players feel that they can exert a measure of control over what happens in the game? Remember, any (strategic) game is a series of challenges and actions in response to those challenges.

    Analysis paralysis. Are there too many things to watch for or keep track of, or too many choices, so players either freeze up or give up on figuring out what is the best thing to do? There are always "deliberate" (slow) players, the question is, is everyone slow or frustrated?

    "Derivativeness". Just because something is done in one game does not mean you can't do it in yours. In fact, there are few original ideas in games. But try not to make your game TOO derivative of another. E.g. there are many deduction games, but if yours has items and people and rooms and questions and is otherwise a whole lot like Clue (Cluedo in the UK), maybe that's too derivative to be commercially viable.

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