Articles: An Intro to Game and Mod Design: Part 5

Part Five: The Art of Playtesting
What is Playtesting?
Well, congratulations. In the time I last left you, you were still working on the design of your fledging mod or game, using C&C All Stars and C&C 3 as case studies of variety within factions and how goals affect the mod or game design. Since then, if you're at the playtesting stage, it means you've finished all the art, code, and AI scripts you'll need and that you can kick back and relax and have some fun using your perfectly balanced creation to obliterate others.

Not so fast. Odds are, you didn't quite nail it. All those tables you typed out way back with those relativistic numbers probably had some things that didn't quite bring out the vision of equilibrium you had in your mind. How will you know for sure? Just as you test things like new pieces of art and new code, you need to test your design. The surest way to do this is to play as many matches as possible and to keep a pad of paper and a pen next to you as you play. On the pad, write down how each game went, what the deciding factor was, and anything else that comes to mind. You can even create a computer based system to enter this information into, upload replays, and put it all into a database so you can look at all the games the team has played to get a sense for how everything is being used.

What will this tell you? First, it'll tell you what tactics are successful and what aren't. Is Side A really acting as you thought they would? Is the variety you introduced in Side B weakening them unnecessarily? Are you hampering players who want open, faster games by forcing them sit through twenty minutes of base construction before getting any real units? The playtesting stage requires that you go back to your design document and start the conversations again. This time, the question is not "Will this work and should we do it?" but "Based on what we've seen in actual matches, has this worked or do we want to change it?" That's an important distinction. The ability for you to test things out and tweak your new system is invaluable, because it moves the design process from what's in your head and in your document to what's actually happening in full 3D before your eyes.
It is only through consistent testing, breaking your own design by pushing it to its limits, that you can discover things you might want to change. For instance, in All Stars we tweaked our design for nearly two years based on games we played while we were finishing some art. Many of these changes came about because people tried things that were unexpected but that we wanted to know about and address — for instance, I once used a Slave Miner rush to control a map and win a game! Use every oppurtunity you can get to playtest, even if it's with placeholder art or some restraint like that. Playtesting will introduce the human elements of reaction time, boredom, satisfaction, and more into the design equation — elements you cannot really predict or quantify in your mind when you don't have anything tangible to work with.

The playtesting phase becomes very similar to the initial design phase in that you have to get the entire team involved. You want everyone possible on the team — and perhaps outside beta testers — to test the design as much as possible, and to report what they think. You want to standarize the way in which they report things, mindful of the natural differences in playing style. I highly recommend using a computer based system for reporting balance issues, one that lets you group them for discussion based on severity. More than that, though, you want to ask everyone who's played it, even if they are not a designer, how faithfully what you've created upholds the design document. Everything should perform the way you intended, or you should have a reason for changing your intention. Everything should be tested. In a good design, you'll still tweak things and change things to make a better design. You'll rarely ever be completely happy. But there will come a point — usually it comes during a fast-paced frantic battle that could be your 100th or 200th personal match of testing — when you'll realize that your pad is free from complaints and that you're just having fun. That's when you cease being a designer, and start being a fan having fun again. And that's one of the best feelings in the world.

An Introduction to Game and Mod Design by Blbpaws
Part One: An Introduction to the Elements of Game Design
Part Two: An Introduction to Balance
Part Three: Creating Variety: All Stars as a Case Study
Part Four: How Goals Affect Balance: C&C 3 as a Case Study
Part Five: The Art of Playtesting