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The Silent Revolution of Playtests, Part 2
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The Silent Revolution of Playtests, Part 2

April 9, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Playtest Sessions

Playtests are especially instructive when design team personnel attend the sessions; indeed, a game or level designer will base his work on ideas he will formulate upon observing the behavior of the players.

However, players do not always react as expected, and we must take their diversity into account.

By seeing with his own eyes how real players use equipment or navigate a map's topology, and by asking them the reasons for their behavior at the end of the session, the designer can rapidly make optimizing adjustments -- a demonstration is always more efficient than a long speech! It is thus highly recommended to encourage the designers to attend the playtests.

That's why I strongly recommend that playtests should be conducted on the premises of the development studio itself. Remote playtests are valuable for tweaking map and system settings, but less so for playtests on an embryonic game.

Obviously, playtest observers must follow certain rules: they must not voice their comments or ask any questions until they are authorized by the playtest session manager, in order to preclude influencing the game session or the playtesters' judgement.

If it is desirable for designers to attend the playtests, it is simply essential that the playtest session manager does so. He must not simply organize the session and ask his questions at the end; he must actually watch the playtesters at play.

The reason is as follows: early playtests often have a limited number of playtesters, and the problems found are liable to be numerous. This fact is likely to affect the relevancy of feedback received, rendering it inconsistent at best and flat-out contradictory at worst. The manager must take all of this into account, evaluating the relevance of the feedback himself.

Note, however, that the involvement of the playtest manager can be cause for controversy. In some cases, a playtest manager must simply behave as a mere observer; in fact, this is generally the best attitude to have during playtests occurring later in the game development, when it is time to fine-tune game system settings.

The objective at this point is to collect a maximum of statistical data from a high number of playtesters.

By contrast, during early playtesting meant to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of embryonic maps or game systems, the comparatively low quantity and greater heterogeneity of the collected data require a more aggressive, reactive, and direct involvement on the part of the manager.

At this point, he must necessarily "get his hands dirty", as he'll be working with incomplete data. While there is a risk of error here, my experience has shown me that playtest results are actually more concrete at this stage, and thus more useful.

My experience amidst one of the best development studios in France has taught me that the playtest manager must be wholly invested in the final quality of the game, and must not be content with being a mere observer.

This conclusion once again indicates the need for a close relationship between the playtest and the development teams.


We thus arrive at the final result of a playtest session. The general idea is to bring the playtest conclusions as quickly as possible to those who most need it -- generally the designers and project leaders. Debriefing may take several forms.

First, design team members who observed the playtests may put their most pressing or immediate questions to the playtesters. They often leave the playtesting room with some strong ideas burning in their mind.

Then comes the report, which must make a clear distinction between the facts (statistics etc.), opinions from the playtesters, and the manager's own observations and conclusions. Raw data must be provided so that the designers know on which bases the manager drew his conclusions.

Putting all the cards on the table is a good way to establish trust with the ones who will read the report. Let us not forget that the purpose of playtests is to improve the game, and not to settle scores.

A full-fledged report takes time to compile and to write so a shorter, intermediary debriefing might be needed if the needs for crucial feedbacks is urgent.

As a final note, I'll mention that I had begun to experiment at the Milan Ubisoft studio with a protocol allowing a remote office (in another city or even another country) to obtain a hot report on a map playtest.

Named D3 for "Debrief Dynamique à Distance" (Remote Dynamic Debrief), this protocol consists in quickly establishing a list of the main open issues, and organizing an online session where the concerned designers (at the development office) and the playtest session managers (at the playtest office) can log on.

They can then explore the maps while the playtest team explains the issues with much precision, and all can work together in developing possible solutions. A playtester may even join them, contributing further to the dialogue.

Previous Chronicles

The Silent Revolution of Playtests, part 1

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 1

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 2

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 3

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 4

Physics in Games: A New Frontier

Multiplayer level design, part 1

Multiplayer level design, part 2

Multiplayer level design, part 3

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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