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How to Practically Playtest Your Game

Picture of Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Many things are flexible when it comes to game design and development, but playtesting isn’t one of them. Playtests are absolutely required if you want your game to be strong, appealing, and enjoyable.

While many of us have been raised to expect games to magically appear and stun us one day, the truth is the teams that made those games ran hundreds or even thousands of playtests over the course of years.

The recent success of Baldur’s Gate 3 is heavily supported by the years of early access feedback, playtesting, and iteration before launch, in addition to the masterful writing, acting, and content. The same is true for your favorite board games and video games.

Every game we created at Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games had tons of playtesting. For example, my colleague Brian Feeney one of the design directors in Riot Games is a huge proponent of leveraging paper prototypes to quickly prove ideas.

Another example is my roommate Tom Cadwell, now Chief Design Officer at Riot Games, brought me into his office to playtest League of Legends early in development for feedback. The fact that we had dedicated internal quality assurance teams never replaced the need for public betas or feedback playtests with friends and family.

While it might feel like the game isn’t ready, full of design flaws, or imperfect gameplay, you need to hear that feedback early on to confirm you’re putting your time into the right places!

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

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Why You Must Playtest Your Game

Most new game designers think playtesting happens to tweak the final game balance and can be done late in the process.

image4 2

Not so! If you think about it, you’re creating a game for the players. So their experience matters most.

The success of a game is literally measure by its ability to retain players’ attention. So the more you’re in touch with their feedback, the more likely you’re game will deliver for them.

Here are just a few of the many specific reason why you always need to playtest during the entire game development cycle:

  • Testing whether a brand new game idea is worth exploring
  • Finding a focused direction early in design
  • Checking whether the rules are clear enough
  • Bug testing new content or systems
  • Testing game balance at different skill levels
  • Discovering problems you can’t identify on your own
  • Confirming that your gameplay and theme match player expectations
  • Seeing what elements catch player attention

Playtest Early and Often

Test the game yourself to see if it works for you. Test with your team internally. Test with friends and family. Test with people outside of your team. Test with your target audience. Playtest, playtest, playtest.

Here are some tips for making those playtests effective:

  • Iterate, iterate, iterate – Constantly make changes and test them.
  • Be flexible – Your first idea is rarely the best idea.
  • Playtest solo – Set up your game and play it yourself. If it’s multiplayer, play both characters. (If you can’t resist cheating, walk away for a bit between turns so you forget the hidden information.)
  • Save time with simple prototypes – Don’t force yourself into a digital playtest too early when a paper version will meet your needs.
  • Write down all of the feedback – Don’t try to overexplain why the game is the way it is. Just capture their thoughts!
  • Have clear, simple instructions – The faster people can jump into the game, the better. Try to streamline the setup as much as possible.
    • For board games, use example images of an initial board state.
    • For video games, create a cheat that sets the player up ready to go.
  • Minimize internal lingo – Use plain English where possible and provide a definition list.
  • Respect player time – If the game is dragging on, end a game and start a new one.
  • Don’t be afraid to tweak mid-session – During Karazhan design in World of Warcraft, I would actively change balance values between pulls to improve the experience for the participants. This dramatically sped up tuning and balancing.

Know What You’re Testing

While gamers are used to fully fleshed-out games even in early access, as a designer you need to know exactly what the goals of your test are going to be.

If you’re fretting about VFX being visually unappealing in the prototyping stage, it’s a sign you’ve focused on elements that are not core to your goals.

image3 2
(A prototype of Control that focused on what mattered at that development stage. Screenshot from Should You Play It?)

Early on, you just want to see if the game is intriguing enough that the players are curious about how to approach it. If the theme, challenges, and gameplay align, you’re probably on the right track.

Later on, you’ll be curious about whether two strategies are complete enough for players to have a strong back-and-forth.

Eventually, you’ll be letting the testers take the reins and focusing on bugs the developers didn’t see during development. No game survives first contact with the players—and that’s a healthy part of the fun of game design.

Before you start a playtest, be sure you can list out the following:

  1. What is the goal of the playtest?
  2. Where do you want to focus your attention?
  3. Do you have instructions to set up the game?
  4. Are you more focused today on emotional responses to the experience or strategic responses to the game?
  5. Are you taking advantage of the kind of playtesters you found?
  6. If something unexpected happens, do you let it play out or expect to interrupt?
  7. Which developers will be attending and why?
  8. Have you, yourself, tested the exact version you’re showing to other people?

Find Playtesters

Once you have your playtest plan, you need to pick the right group of testers. Different pools of people will help you test different aspects of your game. Let’s go over the most common resources and when to use each one:

Family and Friends

The best playtesters for your first practice runs are friends and family. They already like you, so they will put up with bugs, understand when details are missing, and be more willing to volunteer their time playing a game in a rough state.

Family and friends are the warmest group of playtesters. They have the ability to console you when things go poorly, as well as respond to questions you might feel uncomfortable asking strangers.

Unfortunately, this also means they are the least likely to tell you what you need to hear to make major improvements to the game. If you’re often hearing “it’s great!” then that’s a sign they are there for you more than for the product.

That’s OK! Just remember that this isn’t an unbiased review of your game and that ultimately you’ll need people who tell you what you don’t want to hear. Those are the most valuable kind of playtester to a developer.

The other downside of friends and family is that they are of limited use. At some point, they’ll be too familiar with the game, or not familiar enough with the genre, to give more nuanced feedback.

You can only get someone’s first impression once—and eventually, you’ll be out of friends and family.

Board Game Designers

Many cities have board game designer groups that trade playtesting. These make excellent, forgiving playtesters who not only enjoy games in their rough state but often have identical experiences giving and getting feedback. In general, they are less likely to hold back and more likely to be critical of your product early on.

Gameprototype Screenshot
(Board game prototype by Brian D. who took Build a Game Challenge)

If you aren’t involved with board gaming groups or the idea of reaching out and contacting them has you intimidated, just remember they are often in the same boat. They are more willing to playtest games without final assets and to show up in the same place on a consistent date.

Designers by nature do love to contribute their own new design ideas. Write those down, but don’t get too distracted from your core concept.

As a new developer, these groups often make ideal survey targets to ensure your game is on the right path to fun before release.

Online Video Game Playtest Groups

The world isn’t perfect though. Some of us don’t live close to a major city or aren’t plugged into a playtesting community of other developers.

In those cases, online playtesting groups such as the Funsmith Club provide teams of warm and welcoming designers who playtest once or twice a month, sharing their games.

 

image1 3
(A playtest session with me and some of the other Funsmith Club designers.)

Just as iron sharpens iron, so too does working with other designers improve the fun of your game.

A sign of a healthy playtest group is people spontaneously setting up play sessions, playing games together and of course discussing new games when they are released.

Contacting these groups can be intimidating, but just jump in on your first visit and try playing other designers’ stuff first. You’ll learn the tone and nature of these communities quickly.

Your Target Audience

Finally, the most difficult group to find, but the most effective one, will be your actual target audience.

Contacting and grouping them up can be very challenging, but as you create the community and shape your product into something appealing, people will start inviting their friends and growing your audience on their own.

Traditionally, you find this audience by going to board game cafes, gaming conventions and anywhere else you can shop your idea around.

In modern days, some indie developers do A|B testing on Instagram with paid ads or so on, trying to build up an audience early before the product is ready. You can achieve this with even just a few hundred dollars and some images of your game mocked up.

Finally, AAA developers will hire professional UX-testing services to headhunt entire playtest groups for them. This is an option only available to teams with a large budget.

How to Run a Playtest

Alright, you’ve got your goals, you’ve got your audience—how do you actually playtest?

Prepare in Advance

Most of the work happens ahead of time. Be sure you have the following prepared:

Things to know before you start:

  • What exact part(s) of the game you’re playtesting
  • How long the session will take (shorter is better)
  • What exact instructions you’ll give to the players (verbal and written)
  • What data you’ll collect and how you’re taking notes

Give the Right Amount of Instructions

If you’re dealing with players who have never played games before, a step-by-step process is required. If you’re dealing with experienced gamers, then just instructions for how to login and where to start might be enough.

The information you leave out is actually a test; it tells you if the flow from point A to point B in your UI/UX is intuitive enough. So sometimes it’s reasonable to let them struggle for a bit.

However, if you’re trying to test combat, having them stuck at a login screen creates pointless frustration!

While it’s obviously essential to warn them of what kind of themes and content they might be exposed to (violence, sexuality, and self-harm being the most common reasons they would opt out), you will also benefit by framing the experience for them.

Are they going to be getting a full-game experience? Is it just a combat prototype? Will you be cutting the test short before they finish the level, boss, etc?

Saying this ahead of time will prevent disappointment that might distract their feedback from the essentials of the playtest.

Observe without Interfering (Mostly)

For the most part, let the players figure things out. If they get stuck for too long, just make a note of it to correct later. Some amount of frustration, resilience, and exploration is normal in games, so don’t jump in prematurely.

Make an exception if they aren’t even vaguely close to the playtest area, or if they are clearly getting visibly frustrated trying to progress. In these situations, step in to guide them to the point where they can test what actually needs testing.

Striking this balance is easier if you let the playtesters know before the test starts that they can ask for help if they get stuck.

Once a playtester asks for help, feel free to give explicit instructions to move them forward.

If a player doesn’t speak up, but seems to disengage—for instance, their eyes are wandering to other people’s games—then you should probably step in.

In that case, just provide the minimum viable hint, which can often be framed as a missing piece in the game’s implementation. (“Oh, there should be a glowing torch at that spot there, we’ll put it back in.”)

This approach can help keep players moving without demoralizing or coddling them.

End the Session Whenever Necessary

If the playtest isn’t going well, maybe because the game is broken or your players have got themselves into a severely frustrating or unappealing scenario, then end the session.

If you’re not learning anything and no one is having fun, you’re burning out your playtesters and not getting any value. Just move on and do better next time.

Similarly, if someone crosses the line, becomes abusive or controlling, or doesn’t engage with you, end the playtest. There’s no need to escalate the situation or take it personally. End it and walk out.

Collect Feedback

When collecting playtester feedback, ask questions that direct them to the areas where you want more insight. Ask them to explain a decision or set of plays you didn’t understand, or to confirm that their understanding of the game logic was in line with what you taught.

Never argue with their feedback. It’s their subjective opinion, and resisting it will provoke a desire in both of you to prove yourselves right rather than to grow. Just write it down and politely move on to another topic if they get stuck ranting.

Once the feedback is written down, you can assess it without the pressure of the playtesters right in front of you.

Here are a few example questions you could ask that guide playtesters to the kind of feedback that’s most helpful:

  • What caught your interest the most?
  • Would you do something differently next time?
  • What’s the most important thing to fix, in your opinion?
  • What other options did you consider?
  • Have you played another game that’s explored this concept well?
  • Who do you think would enjoy this game the most?

How to Be an Effective Playtester

If someone asks you to playtest their game, and you’re willing to do so, here’s how to be a great playtester:

  • Speak the quiet parts out loud
    • Great playtesters voice their thinking process
    • Great playtesters call out what’s got their attention
  • Try things out, but don’t stray too far
    • While a great QA tester finds the unexpected, a short playtest isn’t the time to check the collision on every surface
  • Don’t censor yourself
    • Express your feelings earnestly and authentically
  • Don’t soften the rough parts
    • Your job is to point out issues, not just the things you enjoyed
  • Try to stay relaxed
    • It will be okay if you don’t get everything right
  • Be respectful and truthful about problems
  • Separate out your emotions from your interpretations of the situation and describe them separately
  • Share your design ideas, but realize they are less important than expressing your situation and the problem you faced
  • Ask for help when you’re stuck
  • Write out any additional thoughts that occur to you and share them via email later
  • Playtest multiple times
    • Finding a stable group of regular testers is a hard challenge for many game designers

Learning from Playtests

Analyzing Data

Ideally, you can screen capture or record the playtests and watch them again later. This works well when you have just a few players and can watch their experiences firsthand.

As the number of players grows, you’ll need to utilize additional tools like forms, surveys, and so on, to start categorizing the feedback and looking for patterns.

image2 3
(An in-game telemetry mockup; developers use tools like these to track what players do and in what locations.)

If you get large enough, you should look into tools like telemetry and analytics events to track just what exactly your players did.

Plan Your Next Steps

Early on, each playtest will likely lead to many ideas of what to improve or what alternate focus to try out.

Eventually, you’ll need to lock in your core concept, and then make final design and content decisions one by one. As this happens, your playtests should get more and more focused on the elements of the game that are still in active development.

Just don’t forget that you can’t act on every piece of feedback. In the wise words of Wyatt Cheng, Lead Designer on Diablo 3 and Diablo Immortal:

“Only act on one piece of feedback out of four. If the other three are a problem, they will come up again. Your time and attention are a limited resource.”

Remember, if players say there’s a problem, they’re usually right. If they suggest a specific solution, they’re usually wrong. As the designer, finding the best solution to the problem is your job, not theirs.

Playtest at Every Stage of Your Game

Alright! You’ve collected all of your data and playtested it for the very first time. What’s going to happen next?

Well, you’re going to keep playtesting as you add new features and iterate. Treat each playtest as a gateway. Have you figured out the answers to the following questions? If so, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

This is generally the flow to your design attention over the course of the game’s design:

  • Early design
    • What’s appealing about the core gameplay?
  • Mid-design
    • Who’s your audience?
    • What are the main flaws you need to work on?
  • Late design
    • Does each phase of the game provide the experience you’re looking for?
    • Accessibility testing
  • Final stages
    • Competitive players testing balance
    • Innovative players testing creative ways to break your game’s strategy or physics
    • Stress tests

Playtest Final Thoughts

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, pat yourself on the back. This was a lot to take in at once. New designers regularly get paralyzed by fear of testing their game, by not being sure which feedback to act on, or by the feeling that they’re stuck in an endless loop of feedback.

If you’re feeling any of those feelings, it is OKAY.

You’re a human being and your emotions will rise and fall like the tides. It’s okay if sometimes a critique or playtest doesn’t go the way you’d hoped. Those are the best playtests, because they force you to change your perspective.

Not everyone will love everything you do—sometimes you’ll be showing a sci-fi game to a fantasy lover—but more often than not, the cycle of feedback, analysis, refinement, and change will make your game far, far better.

What are your thoughts and experience on playtesting?  Feel free to share or comment below.

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan