What Are You Testing For?

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When you built your original prototype, we discussed the four basic steps of design: foundations, structure, formal details, and refinement. These four steps allowed you to visualize first the core gameplay or foundation, then carefully add structure to the system, one rule or procedure at a time. Only then did we go on to the formal details and refinement.

When we talked briefly about these steps in Chapter 7 on page 174, we spoke mostly in terms of prototyping, getting your ideas into physical form—we didn’t talk much about playtesting, revision, or your goals at each of these stages. At that point, we just wanted you to get some experience building out a design of a game from scratch. Now that you have a handle on the art of prototyping and playtesting, we can go back to these basic steps and discuss the design goals you should keep in mind as you work your way through each of these phases of development, using the iterative process and playtesting at each step along the way.


During this stage, your main concern is that the basic idea for your game is fun. Your prototype may only consist of a main core mechanic with which to engage, and there may not be much else. You may have infinite loopholes, dead ends, etc., but don’t worry about all of that right now. At this point, you just need to get a sense that the core of the system you’ve thought of, so that you can judge whether or not it is the compelling base for a game. As we mentioned in Chapter 8, at this stage, you will probably be playtesting the system on your own. The game is really only valid as an exercise in confirming your intuition that the idea makes a good foundation for a game.

Formal details

Let’s say the spark is there—you’re on to something. Now you’ve got the problem of having to build out a fully functional version of the game system you envisioned. What should you do first? You know there are problems; they’ve already come up in the first few playtests, but where to start? The answer to that question is the basis of this chapter. During the formal details stage, your focus should be on making sure the game is (1) functional, (2) internally complete, and (3) balanced.

These three tasks may seem deceptively simple at first, but they require skills that you may never entirely master—you will only get better and better as you learn the craft of game design. Every game is intrinsically different, so the answers you found during one playtesting process are not the right answers next time. Experience will help you judge what decisions to make, what choices will make your game a clean, well-balanced system. But this process is really an art—a game can sink or swim during the formal details stage.


Once you have a solid foundation, your next goal is to add enough structure to make the prototype functional for playtesters other than yourself—probably your close friends or co-workers, but still, someone other than yourself. We’ll discuss the essence of “functionality” in detail, but intuitively, you already know what it means: your prototype works at a basic, albeit clunky, level. You need to build out the rules and procedures to the extent that the system can be played by people who don’t have a full vision of the end experience in mind.

What you want to know when you get to this stage is: was your intuition right? Does the foundation hold up under the rigors of a real playtest with real players? Your focus here is on both functionality and fun. Are the formal elements working together, even in this basic state? Is there a beginning, middle, and an end to the experience? Can the players reach the objective? Are they engaging in the conflict you’ve designed? Are they enjoying that engagement? Is there a spark to your game? Should you even continue with this idea, or is it time to head back to the drawing board?

What about fun you say? Why don’t we test for fun during this stage? Of course, you are always keeping your eye out to make sure your game stays “fun” as it develops, but remember, we’re trying to focus here, to break down the process so that you don’t have to worry about everything all at once. Making sure your game is functional, complete, and balanced is huge undertaking.

click to expand
Figure 9.1: What are you testing for?


During the refinement state, we’re going to assume your game is functional, complete, and balanced. You tested primarily for fun in the first two stages of design—by yourself and with confidants, and if your core gameplay was fun to begin with, completing and balancing the game shouldn’t have detracted from that, on the contrary, it probably added to it. But perhaps something of that original spark got lost in the process. Now is the time to focus all your energy on making sure the fun you envisioned from the start is there in spades.

You probably noticed the quotes we use around the word “fun.” This is because fun is such a broad term that it is almost impossible to define what it is and how you make sure your game has it. And yet, if you ask a player what they want in a game, nine times out of ten they say it should be “fun.” We all know when we’re having fun, even if we can’t define it—as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Your playtesters know fun when they see it. And so Chapter 10 is all about how you can make your game more “fun” for players, with strategies and ideas for adding that elusive emotional pull to a game system that keeps players coming back for more.

Last, but not least, during the refinement stage, you will be testing for accessibility. Remember, your game has to stand on its own without you there to explain it. You may have the most functional, complete, balanced, fun game in the world, but if it isn’t accessible, players won’t ever know this. And so this final aspect is as critical as any of the others that come before.

When you feel overwhelmed by the process of playtesting and revision, review Figure 9.1 to remind yourself of the stage of design you are in and where your design focus should be. If you don’t try to solve every issue in your game at once, your tasks will suddenly become simpler, and your next steps much clearer. With these steps in mind, let’s look at functionality, completeness, and balance in detail.

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Game Design Workshop. Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games
Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, & Playtesting Games (Gama Network Series)
ISBN: 1578202221
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 162

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