söndag 30 september 2018

How (not) to Handle Playtesting

During the development process we had a couple of playtesting sessions where me and my team, together with all of the other teams, gathered to show and play each others games. The reason we did this was to give us an outsider's perspective on how the games felt to play. Things that are obvious to you when you are building the game might be completely alien to someone who isn’t involved in the creation process. This is something we struggled with a lot.

In our game you’re playing as a boat. Your goal is to move forward and get as far as possible whilst attacked by sharks hiding in the mist surrounding you. In order to protect yourself against the sharks you have to shoot them with your harpoon. In the mist you can also find helpful items to pick up, the problem is that in the mist they look the same as sharks and if you shoot the items they get destroyed. In order to see if it is a shark or an item approaching you have a rotating spotlight attached to your boat. You can turn it on and off, and when it is turned on it drains energy. More energy is one of the benefits you can get from picking up items.

The problems we had during the playtesting was that none of the playtesters could figure out the controls worked and had great difficulties understanding what was going on. They had trouble shooting the sharks because the way the harpoon projectile worked was different from how projectiles usually work in games like this. The testers also never found or noticed items because the placeholder shadow they used looked way to much like a shark. This lead to all of the testers destroying everything approaching them. Even when we told them how the game worked many testers found it difficult to understand the game.

The tutorial screen of one of our early playtesting builds

My point with this post is not to discuss the exact problems we had, but rather point out how our attitude to them were wrong. After the playtesting ended we all sat down and looked at the feedback we received and we could clearly see that the testers had a hard time understanding our game. Instead of identifying that, and making changes to the game design and how the game communicates the mechanics, we shrugged it off and assumed that the testers would get it when the game was more fleshed out. Of course, when we came back two weeks later the testers still didn’t get how to play the game. It was only in the final weeks that we started to take it seriously and made changes that actually made the game more intuitive. We simplified the harpoon and made the shadows covering the sharks and items more ambiguous, which is something that we should have done after the first playtest.

When we put our first prototype out for others to playtest we had most of the basic mechanics implemented, but when they didn’t work we didn’t try to fix them, we instead chalked it up to the testers being stupid and that they would understand if we made a better tutorial and when the game was more fleshed out. This is a dangerous thought because you are trying to protect your ego instead of realizing that your basic mechanics are flawed and you’ve made a mistake, but as long as the basic mechanics are flawed, the game as a whole is flawed. It is only when you realize this and fix it that the game becomes better, and sometimes you learn it the hard way, like we did.

With this lesson learnt we strive forward, that is it for now!

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