[Starting a new series, former Ubisoft designer Luban looks at why regular and detailed playtests are vital to center a game's development around the player.]
There is nothing new about asking testers for their feedback on a game in development. However, the practice of managing playtests by following near-scientific protocols, and of integrating them very early in the development cycle, is a more recent trend.
The spread of real playtests in the game development cycle is probably part of this silent revolution; a revolution profoundly affecting the development environment.
How? Playtests force game development to center around the players instead of the hopes of the development team. Let's look at the effects of this shifted focus:
- Playtests allow the identification of gameplay or level design flaws that could elude the grasp of normal testers.
After all, testers are always seasoned gamers who are not necessarily representative of the target audience. Who better than a casual gamer to pinpoint issues related to the difficulty curve or the overall understanding of the game?
- Playtests fulfill a moderator role in situations of disagreement or controversy within the design team.
A series of playtests can quickly settle a contested issue by resolving almost any counter-argument or dispute, thereby preventing the disagreement from spiralling into an impasse. Playtesting is also a management tool.
- The partnership between playtesting and design can be very constructive. For example, it can be quite instructive for game and level designers to observe gameplay during playtesting, allowing them to immediately determine whether or not particular aspects of their design work as planned.
- Playtests executed on pre-prod mock-ups allow the anticipation of problems very early on, as well as timely corrections of said problems (the faster a problem is corrected in the development cycle, the less expensive it is). Game development can therefore become truly "player-centric".
- According to the playtest protocol and the selection of playtesters (hardcore, casual, etc.), playtests allow the examination of a specific aspect of the game with heightened acuity: game balance, navigation, understanding of the game objectives, etc.
We all have the opportunity to play games that display high production values but nonetheless suffer from obvious flaws: erratic difficulty curve early in the game, navigation issues, overly complex interface, and so on.
Such flaws could often have been easily avoided if they had been identified early enough.