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Playtesting Super Robo Gems

A brief introduction before talking about the main topic... Crystalink is a Windows Phone game I have been working on for the last couple of months that should be in the marketplace in the next few days.  I'll be working on the iOS and Android ports soon after.  Basically, it's a different take on the swap and match puzzle genre that embraces the touch screen rather than porting existing mechanics to it. You can freely swap crystals and clear then by dragging your finger across those with matching colors. The other twist are enemies that spawn as new rows drop down once the bottom row is cleared (swaps cost you "turns" that eventually cause a bottom row clear). You destroy these enemies by surrounding them with like-colored crystals and clearing them.

Introductions aside, I want to share some lessons I learned while showing and playtesting my game to people.

Getting over the fear and embarrassment

Crystalink is the first game that I consciously decided I wanted to sell and be as accessible to as many people as possible. My previous projects have been either for competitions or stuff that was just "hey, lets see if this works and is sorta fun".  I still wanted to be original and not outright clone a popular mobile game on Windows Phone.  Sometimes original can be not fun or unintuitive so I knew I needed a lot of people to get their hands on it and tell it to me straight.

My main problem, and I'm sure its one several indie devs share, was showing off my game to people I know in person.  I love to talk about game development but when it came to showing projects off to friends or family it always felt so exposing and embarrassing even if they end up liking it.  For almost all of my games, I was the only one to actually play them before releasing them.  No playtesting, no hands-on feedback, only screenshots I showed during development.  This was ok in my eyes though, since I was releasing everything for free and people not liking the controls or the gameplay didnt translate to lost sales.  Obviously, this fear of being judged wouldn't work for a commercial release.  I wish I could offer some advice on getting over it, but all it took for me was the realization that feedback from hands-on playtime was one big requirement for success. 

I still waited for some of the flashier stuff to be done before playtesting, but only because I felt it added substantially to how the game felt.  Sure enough, that first playtest exposed a lot of issues.  Being the only person to have played the game up until that point, there were quite a few things that I had grown used to.  The controls at that point favored precision over speed, and were unforgiving if you did not stop at the exact crystal you wanted to end your chain at.  If you ventured off to a different color with your finger, the chain was cancelled.  Again, this was something I was accustomed to and saw no problem with until I saw my friend struggle by starting his links over at least once most of the time.  Having the current action (swap or link) complete rather than cancel upon touching an invalid color was such a simple change that completely transformed how the game was played and made it feel much more slick and fast rather than clunky.  There was another huge transforming change that came out of playtesting, but more on that later.

Watch, listen, and take notes

My approach to playtesting involved handing my phone to someone without explaining a word about the game.  The main reason for this was to see how intuitive the controls and gameplay were.  Some people figured it out immediately, some took a while, with several in between.  I tried to say as little as possible during this phase and took notes of anything interesting that was attempted.   Sometimes I would ask for a reason why they thought something worked a certain way or threw some hints to help them figure it out, but for the most part just watched, listened to what they had to say, and took notes.  This also helped determine what to put in the optional tutorial screens and the first-time popup help.  I did ask the expected questions of what they liked, didn't like, etc. but that wasnt nearly as helpful as just watching someone play your game and the different ways each of them played it. 

Explaining the game to people

Stepping back a little, I made some realizations about the gameplay before even getting the game to a testable state.  I described my original concept to some people early on and learned a valuable lesson when it came to making a game accessible to a wider audience.  Explaining the core gameplay shouldn't take you more than a couple of sentences.  My original vision, and maybe an idea I'll reincorporate into a future game, was almost everything I explained above minus the method for destroying the enemies.  The prototyped system involved setting up patterns with jewels, clearing them, and each pattern would then give you a certain weapon.  You could save these weapons and use them on enemies in different ways.  Before I even got to how you use the weapon on an enemy, I had lost the person I was talking to on the different patterns and types of weapons.  [Also: Before you think "THATS COOL" this system had an unrelated problem in practice due to balance and board real estate that made it feel really broken and clumsy]  I eventually came up with the surround mechanic which still had to be explained but was easier to learn and was way more fun.

There was a much bigger revelation which I hinted at earlier related to explanation.  Remember, if you're the only one playing your game there are some things that will be obvious to you but non-intuitive to others even after explaining them.  From the get-go, I had decided that each link in a chain of clears had to be 3 or more crystals in length.  A good example of this is in the left-most screenshot above.  It was a completely arbitrary rule, but it was what I decided the game should play like.  It took me several playtests and a review of my notes up to that point (see its important) to realize that people ALWAYS tried to clear in links of 2, even after explaining it to them a few times.  This explanation of the at-least-3-per-link rule had to be repeated yet again when it came to surrounding enemies in the corners or on a side.  The smaller links were just intuitive to every playtester and my system at the time was not, again resulting in awkward play.  So again, I made an easy code change the ended up being a radical transformation in the gameplay for the better.  The game became way more fun again since crazy snaking clears were now possible (see the middle screenshot above) and encouraged since changing directions already gave you a bonus.  This made enemies easier and less frustrating to destroy when they were close together or in corners.  Another incredibly beneficial change that probably wouldnt have happened without thorough playtesting.

Deciding what to change or ignore

Of course you can't please everyone, nor do you have the time to make every change that someone suggests or could even make the game better.  I made several small tweaks but the two I described before (speedier controls, shorter links) were the most significant in terms of the gameplay.  These greatly changed the way the game was played but did not destroy my original vision for the game.  People suggested some good (and some bad) ideas that I had to weigh against that vision.  Some of these suggestions would work well for some players, but I felt they would change the game too much so I decided to pass on them.  For the smaller suggestions, a lot of which were valid, were passed on because the return on investment was not big enough.  This is especially true when you're the only person working on a game and already have a pile of work items to get through.  Sometimes you also have to accept that the game doesnt work for this one person but it works for these other ten people, and changing something significant for the one would comprimise the experience of the ten.

Lessons learned

The obvious lesson and conclusion to all of this is PLAYTEST PLAYTEST PLAYTEST.  Even if you dont want to sell your game, the feedback is extremely valuable and making sure you're not the only one that enjoys your game will only benefit your reputation as a game designer.  Like the above sections suggest, watch and listen attentively, take notes, and pay attention to how verbose or simple your explanation of the gameplay is.  Don't be afraid of the bad feedback, in fact be happy when you get it because it suggests a way to improve your game.  I dont think I can put another game out there without playtesting after this experience.

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    Roach Puppy Games - Blog - Playtesting Super Robo Gems
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Reader Comments (2)

[...] Puppy Games has an article about Playtesting Crystalink, a windows phone puzzle game. As the article suggests you have to expose your game to a lot of [...]

Great notes, and inspiring since I'm also working on an abstract grid-based puzzler. On an unrelated note, the comments section on your blog is white text on a white background (at least on Mac OS X Safari). So basically I'm going off of pure hope that this is the "comments" field I'm typing in right now and not, say, the "please type here if you want me to come to your house and abduct you" text field. Which are rare, admittedly.

May 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShay Pierce

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