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  • Pro Game Dev Tips: Play Testing

    [03.06.08]
    - Bruno Urbain
  •  Play testing video games is similar to focus testing other products. The basic goal of play testing is to improve the game by watching new users play it and recording data about what works and doesn't. Play testing is not the same as bug testing or functional testing, as its known in software development. If anything, it's closer to usability testing. [For a thorough explanation of play testing, see "Beyond Psychological Theory: Getting Data that Improve Games" (Word document download) or visit the Games User Research web site.]

    I was first introduced to play testing while working on David Douillet Judo, a mid-sized combat sports game developed at 10Tacle Studios Belgium, where I am a game designer. The development cycle was only one year, and play testing started six months before release. We planned to have about 200 testers for approximately 40 sessions.

    Using David Douillet Judo as my point of reference, I've come up with 10 tips to help you -- less experienced game designers and student game-makers -- achieve greats play testing results while learning how to organize play test sessions at the same time. The tips are based on my empirical data and experiences, and may diverge from usual playtesting methods but I assume you can figure out what's relevant to you and your game project.

    At small studios, the job of arranging for and managing play testing often falls on the designer. I learned most of what I know about play test management from Pascal Luban, the play test manager on Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (multiplayer) for Ubisoft, who helped me set up small in-house sessions.

    Play tests are a matter of people and psychology. Every manager has his or her own way to drive play test sessions, and there is no good or a bad way to do it, taking into consideration a few simple rules and tips.

    1. Know the Game
    "Knowing the game" means being 100 percent clear in your understanding of all aspects of the game, from the target audience to the experience the game designer is trying to convey. Because I was both the game designer and play test manager on David Douillet Judo, the goals for the game were very clear to me.

    Even if you aren't the designer, the better you know the game, the more useful your feedback to the development team will be once the play test data are collected. Part of your job as play test coordinator is to solicit recommendations from players, and to sort them out efficiently, you have to understand all the needs of the project and what will make it successful.

    2. Invite Team Members
    The participation of team members on play test sessions is an important factor for a successful play test program.

    Team members spot problems more accurately than play test managers. It's nothing personal; in fact, it's normal. They've been creating the game and its mechanics for several months. Letting them watch how testers play the game may sometimes reveal things that they haven't spotted, such as a missed item in a level or a camera angle that is not very helpful in a specific situation.

    However, any team members who are invited into the play test sessions must be open to change and must be prepared to hear abrupt criticisms from players. Be sure to brief your teammates about this before they come into the session.

    Team members will very accurately see if the intended behavior of a mechanism is working as it was designed and should take notes of possible solutions to trouble spots.
    After the session, organize a debriefing with the team to expose and prioritize the biggest problems. Most of the time, the team will come up with clever and efficient solutions. At the end of the debriefing all the top-tier problems should have a solution. If you're working under management who must validate solutions before they're implemented, draw up a report detailing all your suggested fixes.

    One of the more important reasons to invite your team into the play testing session is because it will strengthen the trust they have for you and your work. Everyone will be more open to the changes that the play test department is suggesting if they can trust the people behind it.

    If you're strapped for outside play testers, as student game developers sometimes are, you can of course start play testing with the development team itself.

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