Game Playtesting: How to Avoid Deadly Tunnel Vision
by Brice Morrison
Can you tell what the above image is? Take a few seconds to figure it out. If you can’t, then take a look at the answer here.
This illusion takes a moment to solve. But once you’ve seen what it is, then it’s obvious to you. However, your personal experience may be different from someone else’s. Even though you’ve taken the time to understand it deeply, it’s still going to look like a bunch of splotches to someone who hasn’t spent time looking at it.
Developing a game can pose challenges like this as well. When making a game, it’s often easy for a developer to get sucked into their own game so deeply that they forget how other players will see it. It’s very natural: you are spending evenings or free time working on your own game project, doing programming, design, artwork, and of course playing through each level, stage, or section. You are thinking about the game constantly and deeply, making sure that the characters are just right, the storyline is perfect, and the difficulty is just as it should be. You are an expert, while your players may be novices at first.
However, the very act of working on the game, thinking about the game, changes how you perceive it, giving you tunnel vision. You become incapable of thinking like a new player; you can only think like the expert who developed the game. Since you have run through the level 500 times, adding a 15th enemy doesn’t seem like a big deal. But to someone who has run through the level 0 times, a 15th enemy might be a nightmare. Or as another example: to you, who built the entire menu and button system from scratch, it may be obvious what it does. But to a new player who didn’t build the system themselves, it may make no sense at all and impossible to understand.
When diving deep into the bowels of a game project, a smart developer needs to remember to come up for air and keep a fresh perspective. Luckily, the modern games industry has developed ways to keep developers from getting tunnel vision.
Seeing From the Players’ Perspective
Many veteran developers learn to think from the player’s perspective, to imagine a game they’ve been staring at for hours as though they’ve never seen it before. However, while this is an important skill, it can take years to develop and even then isn’t always reliable. So what is the best way to see from a new player’s perspective?
Watch another player play your game.
Playtesting your game, having someone else play it while you watch and ask questions, is almost always incredibly useful and informative. Why? Because it breaks you out of the deep mental hole that you’ve put yourself in. It doesn’t matter how much you understand your game, how skilled you are at your game, how simple you think your game is. When you watch someone else play it, you’re going to get the raw truth.
Bugs that you have grown numb to? They’re going to hold a playtester up, and you can make a note to fix them. Complicated controls or confusing instructions? You’ll get to watch as your playtester stumbles over them, and you can know that it’s important to fix them from there. Too difficult and frustrating, or too easy and boring? You’ll be able to find out and adjust the game according to how you want to make it.
If you’ve never done playtesting before, then get ready for a cold shower. It’s shocking to see how other people can treat your game when you just let them play, and how that differs from what you’ve thought you’d see. With that said, it’s an invaluable tool in any developer’s tool belt. Let’s talk about how to get started.
Getting Started with Playtesting
I’ve heard that Microsoft set up an entire testing center with dozens or even hundreds of playtesters to help tune its Halo series. While this may or may not be true, it doesn’t need to be this complicated for you. A simple playtest is trivial to set up and will get you 90% of the way there, which is all most developers need anyway.
Here are the steps to setting up the simplest possible playtest that will give you the most benefit for the least amount of effort:
Get a playtester. Do you have family living in your home? Mom, Dad, brother, sister? Do you live in a college dorm with roommates? Or do you have classmates or friends who come over? Ask them, “Hey, would you mind testing out my game for me really quickly?” You don’t need any complicated online signup form or survey. Just grab someone who is nearby and get them to play your game for a few minutes.
Of course, ideally this will be someone in your target market, that is, someone similar to the people you imagine will be playing your game when it’s finished. So if you’re making a platformer to share on Kongregate, you probably won’t get much useful information from your mom who has never played games. You can break it down infinitely further (age, gender, etc), but it’s not necessary. What’s important is that you get someone.
Get them playing and learn from them. Once you have your playtester, sit them down at the computer or console, load up your game, and ask them to play. And then just…watch. When they make obvious mistakes, “dumb decisions”, or run into problems, don’t think to yourself, “Well, they just aren’t very smart.” No! Instead, try and figure out what the game is doing wrong. How could the game change to make their experience better?
If they are at the first level, and the first challenge is to collect 100 coins, but they keep dying before they’ve even collected 10, then perhaps there is something wrong with the challenge. Or if they repeatedly press the Esc button to pull up the menu, only to find that it quits the game, then maybe you should consider telling them that it quits the game and the menu is on the M button.
Pay close attention. People are rational, just like you. If they are doing something strange, then it is the game that is making them do it. Take their actions as data points for improvement.
Everyone once in a while, ask questions. As you’re first learning the value of playtesting, most of your insights are going to come from just watching. However, it’s also useful to sometimes ask simple questions. One of the most useful questions can be “What are you trying to do right now?”
This is insightful because it gets into the player’s mind. You might watch a player run into the same wall over and over again, thinking to yourself, “What in the world are they doing?” Then you might ask, “What are you trying to do right now?” To which they may reply, “Well, earlier in the level there was another character who ran into a wall a couple of times and found a hole. So I thought that might be what I need to do.”
That’s a really useful piece of information. If this player is thinking that, then it’s likely other players will think that too. So then the question becomes, is that what you want them to think? If so, how can you make sure they are thinking that? If not, how can you steer them away from that thought?
Decide what to do with the feedback. After you’ve gotten all the information you need or your playtester is done, then it’s time to action on the information you’ve gotten. What did you learn? What did it tell you about your game? How did your playtester act that was different from how you thought they’d act?
And the most important question of all: How are you going to change the game with this new information?
The Ultimate Polish
Lets say your goal with the illusion at the beginning of this article was not to be an illusion at all, but to get people to understand what the picture was. If you show people the image at the beginning of this article and they don’t see it, then maybe you could change the image to show the outline. Then everyone who saw the image would instantly understand what it was.
Valve is a company that playtests relentlessly. Nintendo is a company that playtests their games to death. Blizzard often playtests their games for years after many other studios would have shipped the game. And you know what? Their games are immaculate because of it. By playtesting and tweaking the game to make the next playtest better, they can craft incredibly Satisfying experiences.
The goal of a playtest is to remove tunnel vision and have actionable feedback. Things that you notice in the playtest that alerted you to problems then allows you to go and fix those problems. And then later on, after the game is squeaky clean, you can playtest again. The more you playtest, the more polished your game will be, until finally you will have a play experience that will delight your audience.（source:thegameprodigy）