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Playtesting is the single most important activity a designer engages in, and ironically, it's often the one designers understand the least about. The common misconception is that playtesting is simple-just play the game and gather feedback. This is fine for a weekend gamer, but if you are a professional, playing the game is only the beginning of a process which involves selection, recruiting, preparation, controls, and analysis.
Another reason that designers often fail to playtest properly is that there's confusion over its role within the game development process. Playtesting isn't when the designer and her team play the game and talk about the features. That's called an internal design review. And playtesting is not having the quality assurance team go through and rigorously test each element of the software for flaws. That's bug testing. And it isn't when you have seven marketing execs sitting behind a twoway mirror watching a representative sample group play and discuss the game while a moderator asks them how much they'd pay for this product. That's focus group testing. And it's not when you systematically analyze how users interact with your software by recording their mouse movements, eye movements, navigation patterns, etc. That's usability testing.
So, what is playtesting? Playtesting is something the designer performs throughout the entire design process to gain an insight into how players experience the game. There are numerous ways you can conduct playtesting, some of which are informal and qualitative, and other which tend to be more structured and quantitative. But the one thing all forms of playtesting have in common is the end goal: how to gain useful feedback from players in order to improve your game.
As you develop the game, other groups will perform other types of tests. The marketing people will try to determine who is going to buy the game and how many units can be sold. The engineering team will utilize the QA department to test for hidden bugs and compatibility problems. The interface designers will employ a variety of tests to see if people can operate the game in the most efficient and user-friendly way. But as a designer, your foremost goal is to make sure the game is functioning the way you intended, that it is internally complete, balanced, and fun to play. And this is where playtesting comes in.
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