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A tool for improving the efficiency of your playtesting sessions is to utilize controlled game situations. A controlled game situation is when you lay down parameters that force players to test a specific portion of the game mechanics, such as:
The end of the game
A random event that rarely takes place
A special situation within a game
A particular level of a game
You can set up to test different aspects of your game independently of one another during different prototyping stages. In the foundation stage, you may test basic functionality without worrying about balancing or fairness. In later stages, you may want to test for loopholes and dead-ends. Or you may focus sessions on the accessibility of the interface or navigation system.
This type of controlled test situation is vital because it allows your testers to repeatedly experience an event under a variety of conditions. For instance, let’s say you were designing Monopoly, and you wanted to test the “going to jail” feature. Instead of waiting for it to happen by chance, you could force this event to occur and see the results under various conditions. How does going to jail affect a player who owns very little property versus another player who owns a vast amount of property? You may choose to start the game in the middle with the player already in jail, then play for thirty minutes and observe what takes place. Then repeat the experiment with a change in the player’s financial position.
Exercise 8.9: Test Control Situations
Create three test control situations for the original prototype that you created. Describe the purpose of each control and how it functions. Then try it out and make note of your observations.
You don’t have to have your testers start from the beginning and play the game all the way through. You can start at any point: beginning, middle, or end. You can make one of your players grossly more powerful than the others and see what happens. Testing isn’t about being fair to your testers or making sure that they enjoy the game. It’s about seeing what happens under every possible condition. Many of these are rare cases and need to be forced so that they materialize at key moments in the game. This way you can see how it affects the gameplay. Does it ruin the experience? Or is it a nice surprise?
Also, when testing, your time is limited, and some games take days to play. If you don’t have the time, you’ll find yourself relying on test control situations almost every session. One of the most common control situations is starting a game near the end. To do this, you set up the prototype to simulate where players would be in the final conflict. You define the parameters to create the type of ending that you want to test, and then you start the session from this control point and study how the end game plays out. Since it is a controlled situation, you might be able to test the end game four times in one hour.
This is one of the reasons that cheat codes exist for electronic games. They are tools that the game developers use so that the team can test controlled situations. For example, the designers of a real-time strategy game may find it helpful to have a cheat code for turning off the fog of war. This would allow them to better monitor the AI for the computer-controlled units, while a cheat code for infinite resources would allow them to test how the game plays with the maximum number of units. It has become a tradition among game developers to leave the cheat codes in the final releases of game titles. One reason is so that players can have fun experimenting with different game situations that would otherwise be impossible.
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