When is it time to start play-testing with others?

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.

 


 

Highways & Byways has just been upgraded from “State Route 11” to “Highway 1”. Highway 1 is actually version 12, but there is a logical reason behind my bizarre, thematic numbering scheme. The “Highway” designation is my way of saying “I’m ready to play-test the game.”

Passing this major milestone got me thinking about a question which game developers no doubt find themselves asking: when do I start play-testing my game with others?

 

Highways and Byways – Version Highway 1

 

First, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. There is no definitive answer. It depends upon the complexity of your game, the ease with which you can find new play-testers, and your overall project schedule.

No matter what, you’ll have to play-test your game in order to take it to the market. Play-testing requires an organized effort and, if you are partial to digital play testing like I am, playing at least a few times with similar physical parts before you order a sample and start playing with that. This is a given. The play-test question ultimately comes down to one trade-off:

If you play-test with others too soon, you run the risk of running out of new play-testers. That would make it very hard to do blind play-tests.

If you play-test with others too late, you run the risk of spending too much time on gameplay elements that don’t work and which players would not accept.

 

With this trade-off in mind, here are a few questions for you to consider:

  1. How easy is it for you to find new play-testers?
  2. When self-testing, do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels – making no new progress?
  3. Are there parts of your game that you aren’t so sure about and feel the need to run by others?

 

If it’s easy for you to find new play-testers, I suggest testing with others as soon as you have a playable game. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to play without a cataclysmic breakdown that halts the progress of the game. Play-testers are often a patient bunch, but you still want to iron out the obvious flaws before you share your game.

If you have deep connections at cons or game stores, or even an active and large gaming group in your town with whom you frequently play, don’t waste precious mental effort ironing out all the kinks on your own. Get help play-testing soon. You are among a privileged class of game developers.

 

If it’s hard for you to find new play-testers, test alone until your game is close to complete. If you don’t have a lot of gamer friends, I suggest asking family to help you out. Many of you know that I test my games very heavily with my brother. I iron out the catastrophic flaws and turn to him, asking gently (and occasionally begging and cajoling) for his assistance. I also test games with my cousins and parents, all of whom have different levels of experience with board games. You’d be amazed how much quality play testing you can do with a handful of family members.

 

 

You can’t just test with family members and close friends, though. You really have to get the opinions of some acquaintances or strangers. You need people who don’t have emotional attachment to you! You can find them through game stores or through social media. In fact, regarding the latter, Twitter and Instagram both provided me with a handful of play-testers for War Co., which really helped me refine that complex game.

Here’s the thing about recruiting strangers who have no emotional attachment to you for play-testing: they expect polish. Your game should probably have art by the time you speak to them, but if that’s not plausible, it needs to look as professional and possible. Above all, it must play well.

To bring it all in, here’s what I’ve got in mind so far:

  1. Make sure your game doesn’t break down.
  2. Are play-testers easy to find? If yes, start play-testing and stop here. If not, read on.
  3. Do more self-testing.
  4. If you’re still self-testing, do so until you start spinning your wheels. Then get family or close friends to help.
  5. Get your game to a really professional point, then start testing with strangers.

What if you don’t have family or close friends in town? What do you do then? I recommend using online software such as Tabletop Simulator. If that’s not viable, though, and you really have no one close to turn to, then you have one option remaining. Self-test until you cannot any more. Then find strangers to play-test with and grit your teeth through all the vague and dissatisfied feedback. It will take longer and hurt more, but you can still get your game play-tested even without people you know to help.

 

Knowing precisely when to test with others is really tricky. It’s a tough call to make, but I hope this Dev Diary entry has got you asking the right questions. After all, that’s where the magic in game development truly starts: asking the right questions.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • There is no definitive answer about when you should start play-testing.
  • If you play-test with others too soon, you run the risk of running out of new play-testers. That would make it very hard to do blind play-tests.
  • If you play-test with others too late, you run the risk of spending too much time on gameplay elements that don’t work and which players would not accept.
  • Ask yourself these questions:
    • How easy is it for you to find new play-testers?
    • When self-testing, do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels – making no new progress?
    • Are there parts of your game that you aren’t so sure about and feel the need to run by others?
  • If it’s easy for you to find new play-testers, I suggest testing with others as soon as you have a playable game.
  • If it’s hard for you to find new play-testers, test alone until your game is close to complete.
  • Try asking your family and close friends to help you.
  • If you really have no one to turn to, ask strangers at game stores and online. Just know that it will be harder and it will slow down development. It’s still doable.

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Upgraded game version from State Route 11 to Highway 1 (version 12). That means I’m ready to start play-testing with others – within limits!
  • Cleaned up the rule book and added diagrams. This will let play-testers read the rules with the level of detail that I will include in the final rule book.
  • I’ve been running experiments with advertising. This is only tangentially related to the game for now, but if advertising showed to be more cost-effective, it could have changed the whole way I promoted this game in the future.
  • I took a few days to write the entire art spec document. It’s about 10 pages of prose and 45 pages of photos for reference.
  • I’m working on finding an artist. More details to come later.
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