The Company Playtest is a Sacred RitualApr 20, 2023
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Before we start, We’d like to give a shoutout to the brilliant Sophie Vo of Rise and Play. We love this article she wrote on building a games’ studio from scatch and her key lessons. Her newsletter is launching later this week and you can sign up here. Go subscribe!
Imagine getting feedback about your game from someone who has never played it. They claim they are speaking on behalf of players, but their experience with the product is zero. Would you take that feedback seriously?
Then why are you letting people who never play the game build it?
Playtesting your game is the next best thing to real player feedback. It’s also something you can start doing right now.
Playtests are a simple way to…
Maintain a connection to our audience and the genre
Keep the team focused on the work that matters now
“Fill in the cracks” between features by getting you in touch with the overall experience sooner
Internalize responsibility for the quality of our game within the team
If playtesting is so valuable, why aren’t most studios doing it?
Well, it’s hard to set up & maintain. It requires:
A stable version of the game that’s up and running continuously
People to stop “working” long enough to play it
Fixing many playtest-related issues that weren’t in the ‘original plan’
That might be a ton of work you didn’t anticipate.
“But”, you might say, “there isn’t much we can learn from an internal playtest! Not enough of the features are in yet! Our developers aren’t the same as our audience!
“Let’s build a clear plan, knock out the first major version of the full-production roadmap, then get it out to players in a friends & family alpha as soon as possible. Sound good?”
If you take that path, your players will discover many issues you could have spotted on your own. To make it worse, now change is costly, AND players may abandon your game.
To sum up, you’re getting a ton of pressure to deliver, you have a high burn rate, and you’re trying to push your game to “fun” at the 11th hour. The odds are not in your favor.
The mistake you made: You miscalculated what could be learned through internal playtesting, and you forgot that the benefits aren’t just to the game but to the people making it.
Here’s the recipe for setting yourself up the right way:
Build a Playtesting Culture focused on connection with the player experience from day 1
Develop the Organization, Tools, and Tech to support a regularly testable game Build
Prioritize and Focus based on what you learn from the playtest
Build a Playtesting Culture
Playtesting must be viewed by your team as a sacred ritual. When the playtest is “down,” it should be a huge deal. Leadership should be facilitating this from every angle. “Working” on the game is not enough to help your team make great product decisions. They need to understand the game.
We’ve seen a clear pattern: Teams that maintain a connection to their game understand what’s most important for the overall experience and come up with solutions to those problems first. Few things are more tangible and motivating for teams than having a terrible experience in the company playtest.
Leaders need to take personal responsibility for ensuring that culture exists, then calibrate it daily by reminding the team of what’s valuable. Be the first to jump into the company playtest, and make sure everyone around you understands this is the most important “work” of all. Take a leadership role in the post-playtest feedback conversation, and ask clarifying questions to help developers surface key takeaways or concerns with the current build.
If leaders are always “too busy” in meetings to play the game, don’t be surprised when nobody else takes it seriously.
I want to see your studio head in company playtests!
Reward developers who generate unprompted solutions to problems from the playtest, build tools that make it easier to run playtests, or actively inspire the team to focus on things that will make the game more fun/engaging. When you see this behavior more often, you’re moving in a winning direction.
“How can we test that?” should be a powerful question often asked.
The playtest should inform how we prioritize work.
Each leader at the company needs to be the first to playtest and reinforce the value of regular playtests.
Ultimately, the word “done” should start to look like, “we playtested this, and it’s awesome.”
Develop the Organization, Tools, and Tech
Maybe you don’t even have a testable version of the game. Perhaps when work is “done,” it’s not fully integrated or ready to be played. Maybe your whole roadmap is organized such that you won’t have a testable experience in the next 6-12 months.
Introducing playtests may mean a fundamental shift in approach for your studio or team. The idea of “testability” could change how your backlog looks, your team's approach to work, and what tools & tech you need. Don’t be intimidated! We’ll walk you through it, and trust me, your studio will be better off.
First, you need to have a stable build that can be loaded up on a machine and messed with by anyone on your team. This might not be how you develop today, and you’ll need to sit down with your engineering team and figure out the gap between today and that world.
You’ll also need to build things in an order that gets you to something “testable” as quickly as possible. If you view your roadmap as just laying bricks one after the other, you’re likely missing this. If fishing is a big part of your game, build a slice of the whole thing and have people start playing with it ASAP. Prioritize what you need to to get fishing working in a playtest. You’ll start to see that many of the “feel” things and the overall experience get more important, whereas what color the fish are may not matter as much.
You’ll also need to change how you view “done” when it comes to work and ensure that your team is ready to react to the playtest environment when problems arise. When the playtest goes down, it should be seen as a “drop what you’re doing” situation. Help your teams understand that if work they’ve finished breaks the playtest, it’s not done.
Prioritize the technology & tools necessary to create a playtest environment and keep the build up and running.
Make sure that your organizational definition of done includes work being in the company playtest.
Build a support structure that can rapidly respond to and resolve issues with the playtest build or environment.
Have your team’s priorities based on getting key gameplay elements into the playtest ASAP so you can learn about them.
Prioritize and Focus Based on what you Learn
Games usually have some sort of comprehensive plan or journey/experience map laid out as to how a player will move through the game. It might be level by level or story beat by story beat for single-player experiences, and it might be the flow through the UI into the multiplayer experience and back out with some form of meta-progression for multiplayer games.
Those plans are great, but when you build a product feature by feature, you might be surprised at how often a player can ‘fall through the cracks’ in the product between story beats or different steps in the UI (like the intro menus and getting into the game). So how do you find those things? If you guessed playtests, you’re catching on.
When your team plays regularly and deeply understands the game, knowing what’s critical to the experience and what can go will be much easier. Additionally, it will become crystal clear what’s unimportant, and you’ll be cutting proactively. This is beautiful and gets you shipping faster than any project-planning tool we’ve ever seen.
Make a process to get the feedback/takeaways from playtests into your backlog and prioritized
Have a conversation about what should be cut (or what isn’t important) after playtesting for a while.
Use the playtest to “fill in the cracks” in the experience and document them when they come up.
As we close up, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Don’t worry; here are 3 steps to get you started on the company playtest journey:
If you have what you need to get a running build of the game going: Schedule playtests starting next week with as many people as you can get involved. Tell them why it’s important; maybe this article can help! If you don’t have what you need to run a playtest build, find a game that’s in your target genre and play that together instead.
Create a shared space where teams can request “eyeballs” on certain features they’ve finished (a doc, miro board, whatever). Target those in the next scheduled playtest.
Get everyone together after each test is over to talk about their experience. The more focused this conversation is, the better.
When people are playtesting the game and don’t want to stop, it’s a great sign that you’re on to something. If everyone is bummed after a playtest because they aren’t enjoying the game that’s a warning sign that something needs to change.
We did a podcast episode on playtests over a year ago. Check it out here:
Whenever you’re ready, there are two ways we can help you…
—>We’ve helped many high-profile game studios save a ton of money & time by building a clear vision and leveling up leadership. If you’d like to work with us, please reach out at [email protected].
—>Regular deep dives on critical game development topics on the BBG podcast
“If it takes hours for an artist to see their art in game... if it takes hours for a designer to try their ideas... if it takes hours for an engineer to test a new feature or bug fix... it drives people out of the sandbox of discovery and into the world of documentation and meetings. If the team can't quickly check out and play the latest changes, they won't..”