Playtesting is a core component of my everyday work as a game design researcher at Amplify Learning. We are attempting to build the next generation of educational games. Our mission is to build games that are first and foremost fun, while also conveying learning content and critical thinking through the game system. While a lot of work has been done in this area, there is no canon of educational games that do this successfully. This leads us to make a lot of assumptions while designing our games. To help ensure success, we’ve integrated playtesting directly into our development process. We test every two weeks as a sort of capstone to our development sprints. This is the first time I’ve experienced such tight integration of playtesting and development and after seeing the results, I’ve become an advocate. In the other places I’ve worked, testing has not been so tightly integrated. It wasn’t because people didn’t see value in the process, rather, there was a lack of understanding of how it fit into the development process. I hope to help clarify that in this article.
Just to clarify, playtesting is not the same as QA testing. In fact, when conducting a test, I generally ignore the bugs unless it interfered in some critical way with what was being tested. The goal of playtesting is to hone the game system.
I find it helpful to break development into three phases each with it’s own testing goals. It not always obvious when you are shifting from one phase to another. In fact different aspects of the game might be in different phases at the same time. What’s important here is how to focus your attention and how your findings are valuable to the game’s development:
- During pre-production we test our assumptions about concepts and subject matter. This occurs even before we start the design process. We refer to tests during this phase as mental model tests. During this phase of development we are selecting and building tools.
- Early development tests help us understand the dynamics our game system and help us find the fun within them. During this phase of development we are implementing the game system.
- Late development tests help us find sources of confusion and unintended frustration. During this phase we tighten the screws and polish the game.
Mental Model Test
A mental model test addresses initial assumptions: Does our target audience like “X” style of game? What affordances do they bring to games of this type? Since we are making educational games, we’ll also test what knowledge our target audience is bringing to the game. This type of test is akin to market research.
Don’t be put off from doing this type of test because you have what you think is an original idea. Talk to your peers about your idea. This type of research can be done through conversation. Focus on what the player expects from the genre or theme you are working in. Understanding a player’s assumptions will allow you to make informed decisions within the framework of your original idea. Asking these questions is going to get you thinking about your idea in new dimensions.
Test results during this phase will help you narrow down your concept and find where you want to express yourself through the game’s design.Joseph Mauriello is an award winning game designer, educator, and developer who's been working in the games industry since 2006. He's created games for Google as well as major motion pictures. Joe currently is helping to usher in the next generation of educational games as a game design researcher for Amplify Learning