The Importance of Playtesting

Hey there everyone, and welcome back to Anatomy of a Pug’s Life. Today, I wanted to talk a bit about creating a really great game and the process you have to go through to get it there. While there are plenty of things to consider, I think the single most important thing to creating something special is playtesting over and over. This allows you to find unexpected holes in the game, helps you identify exciting moments you would have otherwise not expected, and generally leads you down a path to maximum fun.

When I first started designing games, I really had no idea what I was doing. I sort of just threw together some slipshod work and called it a game. I didn’t put much thought into it beyond my initial iteration, and when I had finally finished programming it I called it done. That first instance of the game was called Warhawk TBS, a game based off the PS3 game, Warhawk, in which I was heavily involved in the competitive scene. The game essentially functioned as a turn based strategy game where each player would select one method for which to attack the other, and then select a weapon based on that method. The damage and probability of a hit primarily depended on the matchup – for instance, a troop with a rocket launcher versus a Warhawk with a homing missile would generally result in heavy damage to the Warhawk as the lock on feature made it easy to hit the Hawk, but the homing missile was slow moving and could be more easily avoided by the player. Anyway, after creating just one iteration of this I was done – I didn’t go any further.

The problem, of course, was I didn’t get a chance to recognize the flaws in the game. There was no method by which to have players select simultaneously or perhaps through an online connection. There were no limits on weapons, so the best weapons could be used over and over again. Since there was no way of knowing what the opposing player was going to do, players weren’t really making decisions and instead just making random guesses and hoping for the best. It was impossible to know the impact of each individual weapon without already knowing it beforehand, as in you must have played Warhawk to know what was going to happen. There was very clearly information overload with about 20 different combinations of potential choices to choose from. Needless to say, these flaws made the game absolutely terrible. Playtesting the game would have allowed me to iterate and make changes to it, recognizing these flaws before I finished it and sent it out to my friends. Luckily, I learned.

Fast forward to working at Riot and working on the Playtest Team there. Every day, we would go through about 4 games and every day we’d record feedback about different champions and different systemic changes. We’d give that feedback to designers and let them dig through it, allowing them to understand the impact of their changes and how it would alter the game. My favorite instance probably in all of this was a time when a designer put together a placeholder ability for a character, intent on eventually changing it, until it was playtested and, almost universally, people loved the ability more than anything else on the kit. Of course, it ended up sticking and was a huge part of what made the kit exciting and fun.

From all that, of course, I learned how to playtest for my games. Even as I was conceptualizing Pug Life, I began to figure out ways to playtest it. I started with just scraps of paper torn out of a notebook and card names scribbled down on them. I took on the role of 2 players at once and played myself – of course not optimal, but it gave me a fantastic window into what was going on. Even from that very first test I found out the pacing of the game was far too slow and the game felt anticlimactic. I made changes, then looked to see how that impacted the game – sadly, those initial changes made the game even slower – but, most importantly, I learned that more cards being played meant less ability to end the game. I also learned that the goal needed to be somewhat variable(instead of exactly 5 points in each area) – players couldn’t be locked into a specific point requirement that functionally made playing anything outside of that area pointless. Every thing I learned and everything I changed went into making the game more exciting and interesting. Fifty playtests or so down the road (most recorded, some not), and here we are now.

All this is to say, with every playtest and every change I was able to make the game better. So, some advice: playtest early and playtest often. Don’t worry about how good the game looks or the medium in which you play it, just roll with something so you can get a feel for it. Go into each playtest with specific goals in mind about what you want to fix from your previous playtest. That doesn’t mean ignore other issues that show up, but see how changes impact the scope of your game and how it affects gameplay. Listen to the people who give you feedback and I really mean that – it doesn’t matter what you want the ability to do if players are going to do something completely different with it. Maybe that’s ok, maybe that’s not, but you absolutely have to listen to what they’re saying and be honest with yourself. Lastly, follow the fun. When you see someone’s face light up or hear the inflection of their voice change, notice that excitement. Look for the crazy plays that draw people in and engage them with the game. That fun might be from something completely unexpected, but go with it. The goal is to make something enjoyable, so incorporate that into your game.

Playtesting will always hold a special place in my heart because it was my first job in games. However, I also think it’s one of the single most important things a person can do to make a game great – it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how intuitively games come to you, no one makes something perfect on the first try, and nothing can’t be improved with a second go. Understanding that, being willing to make mistakes and learn from them, is the most important part of creating a great game.

Tell me about a time you participated in a playtest! Did you play your own game by yourself or with others? Did you try someone else’s game? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

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