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As mentioned earlier, the only way to fully understand a system is to study it as a whole, and that means putting it in motion. Because of this, once a game designer has defined the elements of their system, they need to playtest and tune their system. They do this first by playing the game themselves, possibly with other designers, and then by playing with other players, who are not part of the design process. There are several key things that a designer is looking for when balancing a game system.
First, she needs to test to make sure that the system is internally complete. This means that the rules address any loopholes that could possibly arise during play. A system that’s not internally complete creates situations that either block players from resolving the conflict or allow players to circumvent the intended conflict. This can result in “dead ends” of gameplay and, sometimes, in player conflict over the rules. If players are arguing over how the rules should deal with a particular situation, it’s probably because the system is not internally complete.
Once the system is judged to be internally complete, the designer will next test for fairness. A game is fair if it gives all players an equal opportunity to achieve the game goals. If one player has an unfair advantage over another, and that advantage is built into the system, the others will feel cheated and lose interest in the system.
Once a system is internally complete and fair for all players, the designer must test to make sure the game is fun and challenging to play. This is an elusive goal that means different things to every individual game player. When testing for fun and challenge, it’s important to test the game with its intended audience of players. Generally, this is not the designer or the designer’s friends.
For example, when a designer is testing a game for children, they may not be able to accurately judge the difficulty level, making the game too hard for its young audience. Determining the needs and skills of the target players and balancing a system for them requires a clear idea of who the target players are, and a process for involving players from that target in the playtesting. Chapters 7 and 8, on prototyping and playtesting, will talk more about how to identify those players and bring them into the design process.
Testing for fun and challenge is an ongoing process that will continue throughout the production of a game. When the designer finds problems with the system, he makes changes to address the problems and playtests again. This is a very important part of a game designer’s job, which we'll address in detail in Chapters 9 and 10.
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