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  • Playtesting is Sovereign, Part 1

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Playtesting stages and the 80/20 rule

    "It's not so important who starts the game but who finishes it." - John Wooden, 10-time NCAA Basketball Champion

    "Nobody is as smart as everybody." - Kevin Kelly

    The playtesting and modification process may make as little as a 20 percent difference to the quality of the final game, but that 20 percent is the difference between an indifferent or downright awful game and a good (or better) game. This final 20 percent improvement takes 80 percent of the time, but it's time well spent, necessarily spent.

    Playtesting is time-consuming, tweaking rules or programming is time-consuming. Think of all the mediocre or really bad video games you've played: probably the majority of those games failed because of inadequate playtesting, not because there was something wrong with the idea or the initial execution. Companies such as Blizzard, Epic, and Valve, which can playtest as long as necessary, and which aren't afraid to say "this game is a bust" and cancel it, are the ones that consistently produce outstanding video games.

    There are three stages to playtesting: solo playtesting (also called "alpha"), local playtesting ("beta"), and "blind" or "external" playtesting (often spoken of as part of the "beta" stage). While there are various ways to name these stages, the stages themselves exist, although sometimes video game companies leave out the "external" testing stage.

    Solo Testing

    It's hardly surprising that video games start with playtesting by the individual(s) making the game. But few tabletop games are meant to be played alone. Yet in solo playtesting of tabletop games, the designer plays the game solitaire, playing all the sides independently as best he can.

    At this stage the designer is trying to get the game to a state where other playtesters have a good likelihood of enjoying it, and ultimately of playing it through to the end. At solo stage the designer might try a portion of the game and then stop because something isn't working, or because he has a better idea. When asking other people to play a game I almost never stop a game in the middle, or try something that might be so bad I'd want to stop, though I know of designers who think nothing of doing this. I have been known to change an obviously screwy rule in mid-game, but that's usually when I'm playing alone, not when others are playing.

    Most video games are designed to be played alone, and if there's a more-than-one-player component, it's usually impossible for the designer to play several sides by himself.

    As I gain more experience with tabletop versions of games, I find myself often using a small computer to write extensive notes as I play a game solo the second or third time. These notes help me later remember how the game works if I haven't written a full set of rules.

    Local Testing

    At the local playtesting stage, people are asked to play the game through. For a video game these are usually employees of the development studio. For tabletop games, the designer usually teaches local gamers how to play.

    At this point a video game must be more or less fully realized, fully playable, so it can take much longer to reach this stage than for a tabletop game. At the beginning of this local testing for a tabletop game I may not have a full set of rules if the game is fairly complex, I just have notes about how to play, and some of the details are in my head. As local playtesting goes on, I make a rough set of rules, then finally write a full set of rules.

    However, if the game is simple, or like others I've designed, I sometimes write a full set of rules before anyone other than myself plays the game. I have to judge how much writing time I'll waste because of major changes in the rules; at some point I'll think it's worth the time to write the full rules because really major changes are unlikely.

    The ability to play from notes rather than full rules is a major reason why it is much quicker to design a tabletop game. With an electronic game all the details of the "rules" (the game mechanics) must be settled precisely before the programming of the prototype can be completed. The programming (which enforces the core mechanics of the game) is roughly the equivalent of the rules of the tabletop game.

    As the local playtests occur, I write down notes about what I see and hear, and especially about answers to questions that need to be incorporated into the full rules. A video game designer will do the same thing, observing how the game is working and listening to player comments, especially comments about what doesn't work or what is frustrating. By the time I have a full set of rules, I usually refer to the rules for detailed questions, to see if the rules cover that question and whether it is easy to find that information. You might be surprised how often the designer of a tabletop game not only doesn't remember the rules, but can't quickly find the relevant rule in the written rules. The former happens because real designers have LOTS of games in mind, so they don't try to remember all the details-they write them down. The latter is a defect of the rules, and must be fixed.


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