How to make the most of quick and dirty playtests by Steve Bromley of Playtest Kit

We all know playtesting is important, but it’s often hard to find the time. It takes a lot of effort to find playtesters, prepare the build, and gather and analyse their feedback. This can be difficult to prioritise alongside everything else indie game developers have to do – marketing, social media, and… actually making the game.

Because it’s hard, not enough playtesting gets done – even though we all know it’s important, it’s just too hard to find the time. And our games suffer – less playtesting means less iteration, discovering problems too late, and underwhelming releases.

I’ve spent over 25,000 hours with players during playtests, and I’ve seen that a quick and dirty (‘guerilla’) playtest is better than no playtest at all.

Let’s see how to make the most of informal playtests.

What is a quick and dirty playtest?

A structured playtest involves finding the right players, designing tasks for them to do, gathering data, and analysing it to inform game design decisions. Games user researchers do this as a full-time job, and most game developers understand the value of running these formal playtests throughout the development of their game.

Structured playtests take time to prepare and have a process behind them to ensure the results are reliable.

A guerilla playtest throws a lot of the process out – finding some people, putting them in front of your game, and seeing what happens. Minimal prep, minimal time, just instant feedback. And sometimes that’s all we have time for.

What are the risks with these playtests?

There’s a reason why playtesting (and “games user research”) is a discipline – it’s easy to get accidentally misled by feedback from players and draw wrong conclusions about your game.

Some traps include:

  • Finding unrepresentative players, which can lead to balancing the game to be either too easy or too hard for your real players
  • Focusing too much on what players say about the game and not enough on their behaviour
  • Helping players too much and biasing their experience artificially
  • Believing players who tell you “I’d buy this game”

There are four principles to keep in mind when running quick playtests. They are easy to incorporate and will improve the quality of your informal playtest.

Four ways to make your informal playtests more effective 

Decide your playtest focus

You might learn something if you just put your game in front of players and ask them “what do you think”. But you’ll get much more useful results if you think about what you want to learn from the playtest first.

Consider questions like “What bits of the game am I most uncertain about?” or “What do I absolutely need players to understand about this game?”. From that, you can write a short list of objectives – things you want to learn from your playtest.

This can help you decide which tasks to set players, which questions to ask them, and what to watch out for during the playtest. 

Find the right players

It matters who takes part in your playtests. If they are game developers, their feedback is going to be very solution focused. If they are your friends they are going to be too kind. And if they don’t normally play this type of game their experience isn’t going to be typical of your real players.

Finding the right players takes time (here’s a guide on how to get started with finding playtesters), but for your quick playtest, make sure you’re consciously thinking about “how can I find people who are similar to my real players?” and “how will the type of people who playtest for me influence their feedback?”. You can then keep this in mind when analysing the feedback from your informal playtest, and use it to prioritise or deprioritise what you hear.

Watch people play

It’s tempting to rely on surveys or feedback on a Discord channel to get data from playtests because it’s convenient, but it relies on players self-reporting what happened to them, which misses a huge amount of valuable information.

Players can’t tell you features they didn’t discover or didn’t understand. They can’t tell you what they missed. They can’t give you enough detail about why problems happened so that you can fix them.

Watching just two or three people play your game gives a huge amount more rich information and puts you in a much better position to actually make informed changes to your game rather than trying to guess what players meant on a survey.

Analyse what you see and hear

After you watch people play your game and speak to them about it, you’ll have a bunch of raw data to draw upon. It’s crucial to actually analyse this feedback, rather than act on their suggestions immediately.

A good rule of thumb is to trust what you observed. If you saw a player do something, or saw that a player didn’t understand something, you know that is an objective fact, and it’s safe to take action to fix it.

You have to be more careful with ‘feedback’ from players that they reported themselves. Their opinions about the game being too hard, or not enjoying certain bits are a clue that you should investigate that area more – but not necessarily trust their interpretation of what should be different. For example: “This game is hard” might be fine if you want the game to be difficult. Or “You should add a new weapon” is a clue that something is wrong – but the fix might be completely different to adding a new weapon, and needs exploring.

Trust the player behaviour you see yourself, and use what players say as a clue to investigate further – but don’t act immediately on their feedback.

Get serious about playtesting

If you’re interested in learning how to run better playtests, I send a lesson each month on playtesting and games user research. Sign up for the monthly email here. (No spam, just a single nice email from me)

Or if you are ready to get serious about playtesting today, get the Playtest Kit – a complete playtesting process, with all the templates and guides you need to get started finding players, running tests + surveys, and improving your game today. 

Learn more about the Playtest Kit, and get an exclusive 10% off this month with the code “indiebandits”.

Steve Bromley is a games user researcher working to make playtesting easier for all game developers.

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