The Art of the Paper Test: Catching Accessibility Issues Early

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.


 

Many of you know that I am open and activate promoter of the Tabletop Simulator software available on the Steam store. Not only did it help me tremendously by allowing me to stream War Co. prior to and during its Kickstarter campaign, but it is also my favorite rapid prototyping tool. There are a lot of software suites better suited to different games, but I use Tabletop Simulator for its versatility. Still, Tabletop Simulator is just one form of digital play testing for board games.

Digital play testing is an excellent way to reduce the costs of developing early board game prototypes. Tabletop Simulator keeps my early prototyping costs effectively down to zero because I’m not going through a ton of paper and printer ink. Unfortunately, digital play testing does not accurately simulate the physical movements that players must make in order to play the game. Play testing games with a board and components that are roughly the size and shape of the final product needs to be done before committing wholeheartedly to a certain style of gameplay.

That is precisely why I’ve made this…

 

Paper Test of Highways and Byways

 

This is the paper version of Highways & Byways. It consists of nine pieces of printer paper taped together and pinned to a posterboard. It matches the size of the final game based on my best estimate of how big it will be. I substituted perforated business card stock for regular playing cards because of the similar size. I substituted Pandemic pieces for original pieces.

When my brother and I were playing with the first physical version of Highways & Byways, codenamed State Route 9, we noticed a handful of things. It was a mix of good and bad. The board was a nice size, the spaces were big enough for pieces, all the text is readable, and the number of cards you must handle is manageable. Yet we came across something annoying that we never noticed in Tabletop Simulator. You had to shuffle the decks all the time! It was ridiculous. It was adding several minutes to play time and was tedious.

The deck shuffling tedium is a really important issue. Not only is it annoying, but it could outright ruin a game for somebody whose hands can’t make the subtle movements needed to shuffle cards. This is more than an issue of “7/10 – good game, but shuffling gets old.” It’s an issue of making sure customers can actually use your product.

This was a really easy to fix problem since all I had to do was reword a rule. However, if shuffling cards was a part of the game’s core engine, I would have to go back to the drawing board. It is possible, especially for new developers, to tie important gameplay factors to physically clumsy behaviors. If you do this, you want to find it early and nip it in the bud BEFORE you go out of your way to find play testers or commission art.

The point of paper testing is to eliminate physical accessibility issues before they become an irrevocable part of your gameplay. You can eliminate cognitive accessibility issues such as inelegant data and event tracking through digital testing. You can eliminate socioeconomic ones through digital testing, too. Yet for physical accessibility issues such as fiddly components and hard-to-see parts, there is no replacement for paper testing.

Paper testing also allows for some observations that are neither good nor bad, but rather necessary for the development and marketing of a complete game. Tabletop Simulator has a tendency to greatly abbreviate or greatly lengthen games depending on how much fiddlier it is to play on the software. Highways & Byways, in particular, turned from a 90 minute game into a 60 minute game – which is much more like what I was aiming for.

Of course, a simple paper test won’t be the end of testing for Highways & Byways. Once get game art – which is still quite a ways off from happening – I’ll need to test different colors for pieces. I may also experiment with little car pieces as well. When it’s time to deal with boxes, I’ll have to make sure everything fits in the box. I’ll also want to make sure that sideways storage is feasible for the odd handful who prefer to do that.


For those of you who would like to learn more about making games more accessible, I’d like to refer you to Meeple Like Us. On that site, you can find a lot of in-depth discussion about board game accessibility. Those articles can give you a depth of information which I can only touch upon in these Dev Diary posts. It’s very worth your time if you’re a game developer.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Tabletop Simulator is just one form of digital play testing for board games.
  • Play testing games with a board and components that are roughly the size and shape of the final product needs to be done before committing wholeheartedly to a certain style of gameplay.
  • The point of paper testing is to eliminate physical accessibility issues before they become an irrevocable part of your gameplay.
  • It is possible, especially for new developers, to tie important gameplay factors to physically clumsy behaviors.
  • Paper testing also allows for some observations that are neither good nor bad, but rather necessary for the development and marketing of a complete game.

 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Updated to version State Route 9.
  • Updated again to version State Route 10.
  • Started doing “paper tests” with a printout of the board, business card stock for playing cards, and pieces borrowed from Pandemic. This was done to simulate the physical movements players would need to make during the game.
  • I’ve made lots of little tweaks to the rules, the details of which I won’t go into right now.
  • I’ve set up a recurring direct deposit from my checking to my interest savings. This is to help pay for art when it’s time to buy art.
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