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Keeping Your Focus
by James Youngman on 03/23/11 06:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Originally posted on the Chromed blog here.

Focus testing is an important part of game development. Once a team has spent a lot of time on a project, they start to grok the game in a way that people who have never played it simply won’t, and can at times lose perspective. Focus testing is a way to regain that perspective.

I’ve been on both sides of focus testing. As a focus tester without industry experience, it’s a lot of fun. You get to play a game before it comes out, you get to be at the studio with the people making the game, and the customary pay is pizza and beer. It’s a great way for a college student to avoid doing homework for an afternoon.

Once I entered the game industry, focus testing took on a different character. The largest change was that I started finding myself as the tester. It is an eye opening experience. Things about the game that I as a designer on the project took for granted were completely lost on the first batch of focus testers.

It took tremendous effort on my part, when I saw the testers having a hard time, to resist the urge to hint to them, or tell them outright, what the “correct” course of action was. To do so would have been to taint the results of the test.

The second focus test on that project went a lot better, as I’d been able to integrate what I’d learned from watching the uninitiated, people who did not grok the project that was the primary focus of my life, interact with it for the first time.

Recently, I had the chance to participate in a focus test being run by a friend at Fugazo. Once again, I was the unfamiliar player, being observed by the grokking developers. This time, however, I had a different perspective.

With industry experience of my own, I knew what they were experiencing performing the test. Additionally, my perspective on playing games has been changed by my experience as a designer.

It is a rare pleasure to be able to get an immediate answer, straight from the developers, when I have a question about the design choices on a game. In asking the question, I exposed an area of interest in the game to my friend. In answering, he shared his experience with me, helping me grow as a designer.

For a game designer, focus testing is crucial when developing games, but it is also valuable to be in the hot seat for other developers. Being able to have a dialog between designers, with an in-development game immediately present, strengthens the skills of both designers, leading to better games for everyone.

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Eric Schwarz
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Focus testing is important, but not necessarily right from the start of a project. The worst thing one can end up with is "design by committee". Games should not be afraid to make players think, to make them figure things out on their own, without explicit hand-holding. Of course, this is very different from making the mistake of simply not revealing gameplay concepts to players, or not designing an environment properly to highlight where the player needs to go to proceed, but I've played many games that simply don't leave any exploration left because everything is explicitly stated in a tutorial message. There's rarely any mystery anymore, and while it's frustrating to be stuck because the game never teaches you what the "grapple hook" button is, I think more designers need to have more confidence in their players, and their ability to learn and grow.

It's also worth saying that focus testing is only as good as your focus testers. Bringing in hardcore shooter fans is never a good idea to test out a turn-based tactics game, for instance. Different genres have different conventions, and oversimplifying a game to appeal to an audience that likely isn't interested it in the first place is just a bad move, since it will alienate the existing fans of that genre - even if your game is great, if the intended audience feels insulted and patronised, that's a major blunder that I think few games can recover from.

Kamruz Moslemi
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I think the current approach to focus testing is somewhat erroneous. The blindness towards trivial, and sometime crucial flaws in the design and implemention of a game for people who have been around it for a long time is undeniable. But grabbing a mostly random selection of people and gauging their opinion is entirely the wrong approach.

I think a better way to approach the issue, especially in big studios with several concurrently running projects and teams is to have internal peer reviews at a strategic point in development. Before this point the project being developed should have been purposefully kept away from view of the professional designers of other teams working on other projects.

Then when things are far along that the astute eye of a designer can relate to it in a meaningful way, but well before it is too late to change things if need be, the designers are allowed to review the project at its current state and offer some constructive criticism.

The difference here is that you get the benifit of a fresh perspective that will no doubt raise a few flags that were right in front of your eyes but you were blind to it, but you also get it from a professional perspective that understands design in a way that random strangers and their mostly shallow knee jerk responses could never do.

A designer can judge a game and its mechanics on their own merit and that is a great benefit.