Where there is a will, there is a way - playtesting during the pre-production phase
- Tools for playtesting early in the development
- Wireframing to test game interfaces
- Trace analysis on input behaviors
- Simulation to test storytelling and full body interactions
- Paper prototyping to test interfaces and gameplay
- Developing simple gameplay mecanics with processing
- Studying reference situations
- Rapid iterative prototyping
A while ago, I was talking with one of the students in game user research from ENJMIN. He was eagerly waiting to have the first game prototype to start testing and had a lot of ideas. He was at a loss however as to what to do meanwhile.
In my experience, not having a game prototype is a non issue : that’s when everything can still be changed, it’s the perfect time for testing! Many solutions exist to be able to test concepts and gameplay mecanics even without a prototype. With little help from the developers, game designers it is possible to design a test and anticipate some or most of the major usability issues before having a game to playtest. This article proposes an overview of solutions to still be able to conduct tests early in the development process.
Tools for playtesting early in the development
Wireframing to test game interfaces
Wireframes can be used for any game type when it comes to interfaces, but they can also be used to test parts of the game play, particularly for puzzles and action games, and for some aspects of RPGs. They are particularly adapted for pc and tactile interfaces, and depending upon the tool used to build the wireframes, they allow to go far in simulating gameplay mechanics.
Trace analysis on input behaviors
Traces analysis is particularly efficient in FPS, action and sports games : first of all, they are more prone to video posting of achievements and playthroughs, and second, they often encourage players to discuss strategies online, which can provide valuable data. Since their gameplay is based more on inputs than thoughts, it makes it easier to track their behaviour in game than with more thought based games such as puzzles. Trace analysis can also be efficient for thought based games if the players spontaneously take notes during their play sessions.
Simulation to test storytelling and full body interactions
Simulation relies mostly on imagination. It can be used to find out about possible user strategies, their expectations in certain situations and their understanding of story elements. It can be carried out as pen and paper roleplaying, taking in account part of the game rules / randomness, or as live role playing sequences when it comes to interactive installations, and ubiquitous gameplay, or motion interactions. Simulation takes a lot more time to carry out than the real game would. For instance, simulating a 10 minutes interactive installation take about 1h of live gameplay. As a result, this method is not adapted at all to test game pacing and timing sequences.
Paper prototyping to test interfaces and gameplay
Paper prototyping works really well in many situations. It is adapted both for testing interfaces and gameplay, and gives players solid references to imagine what the final game would be like.
Developing simple gameplay mecanics with processing
Processing is a programming tool which interfaces well with arduino software and other hardware such as cameras. It can also easily be used to implement tracking features. As a result, processing can be used to build very simple prototypes, without bothering with interfacing the feature to be tested with the rest of the game. As such, processing is very adapted to test interaction alternatives, actions, timings, and gameplay logics.
Studying reference situations
Reference situations require to discover either similar games or similar situations in real life. Since most of the time, other games at least have similar features to the one you want to study, reference situations can be used in almost any project.
Rapid iterative prototyping
Prototyping can be used for any genre of game, and any kind of topic to test, however, they are the most costly option and require the development team to invest time in building these prototypes. The more advanced the prototype, the more specific the results and improvement guidelines can be. One advantage of testing iteratively on prototypes in parallel to development sprints is that solutions can be implemented and tested quickly, while they are still cheap to develop.