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Prototyping and Continuous Playtesting for Live Game Development

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In this chapter of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Launching Live Service Games, we explore the critical domains of prototyping and continuous playtesting. We look at the vital role of iterative design, user feedback, and rapid experimentation in creating successful and engaging live service games. 

What is Prototyping? 

Prototyping is a process that allows developers to test and assess a game's mechanics, playability, and overall concept. It is an important stage in game development since it enables creators to find potential challenges and improve the game before dedicating significant time and resources.

The goal of prototyping is to find the fun as quickly as possible. This means that developers must focus on creating a playable version of the game that showcases the core gameplay mechanics and the overall user experience. To achieve this, it's recommended to use the scientific method, which involves developing hypotheses, designing experiments to test them, and analyzing the results to make informed decisions.

Types of Prototyping

There are different types of prototyping for live game development, such as vertical, horizontal, and rapid prototyping. These methods allow developers to refine specific features, test overall concepts, and experiment with different design elements.

  • Vertical prototyping — allows for a more detailed version of a specific aspect of the game, like the combat system, to test its mechanics and ensure it's up to par. It gives a taste of what a small piece of the game will look like in its final form. Vertical prototyping tends to be as much about the visuals/experience as it is about the playable mechanics, and can also be done in a non-interactive way as well such as video.
  • Horizontal prototyping — creates a basic version of the entire game to test its overall concept and user experience. It helps in quickly exploring and validating different features and interactions, gathering feedback early on to refine the design before full-scale development.
  • Rapid prototyping — comes into play when developers want to try out different design elements and explore new gameplay mechanics quickly. It involves utilizing tools like game engines, asset libraries, and scripting languages to rapidly build and evaluate different gameplay elements before committing to full production.

By using prototyping, game developers can save time and resources by identifying and addressing issues early in the development process, resulting in a better overall game.

How to Create a Prototype

  1. Define your concept: Define your game concept, its target audience, and its unique selling point. This will give you a clear direction on what to include in your prototype.
  2. Identify your core experience: Identify the fundamental gameplay experience that makes your game fun and engaging. Focus on the experience that will set your game apart from others in the same genre.
  3. Build a prototype: Select the prototyping method that best suits your game's needs. Vertical prototyping is ideal for testing specific aspects of the game, while horizontal prototyping is best for testing the overall concept. Create an essential design document that includes details such as the game's story, mechanics, characters, and levels. It should be detailed enough to guide the prototyping process but not too detailed that it becomes a hindrance. Using your chosen prototyping method, create a playable version of your game that showcases the core mechanics and the overall user experience. Ensure the prototype is simple, easy to use, and has clear instructions.
  4. Test your prototype: Test your prototype with a small group of people from your target audience. Get feedback on what works and what doesn't, and use this information to refine your prototype.
  5. Refine and iterate: Use the feedback from testing to refine and iterate on your prototype. Keep testing and refining until you have a prototype that is engaging and fun to play. 
  6. Decide when the prototype is complete. Once you are satisfied that the prototype has answered your hypotheses then you're ready to move onto the next stage of the development process

By following these steps, you can create a prototype that showcases your game's core mechanics, identifies any issues, and helps you refine and iterate until you have a game ready for release. Remember to test, refine, and repeat until you have a prototype players will love!

Best Practices for Prototyping

Developers must follow certain best practices to ensure that prototyping is effective and valuable. Following the best practices below can allow developers to maximize the value of prototyping and create better games in less time.

Reduce your Scope

For several reasons, keeping the scope small when prototyping for live game development is crucial. By restricting your scope to its barebones idea, you can ensure that the prototype is achievable within a reasonable time frame and with the available resources. This helps avoid delays and burnout among the development team.

Additionally, limiting your scope allows you to focus on the game's core experience and ensure that it is engaging and enjoyable. If the prototype is too complex, it may be challenging to identify the key gameplay elements and the areas that need improvement. Focusing on a smaller scope allows you to refine the mechanics and iterate until you have sufficiently answered your original questions.

Define Clear Criteria for Success

A prototype should answer a specific question and have clear criteria for when it is considered successful (or equally unsuccessful). Having well-defined success criteria provides a tangible benchmark against which the prototypes and playtest results can be evaluated; otherwise, prototypes can end up meandering into pre-production and never-ending.

It helps in assessing whether the prototypes meet the desired objectives and if the playtesting provides the desired outcomes. Clear success criteria also aid in making informed decisions on the next steps in development, such as refining or iterating the prototypes based on the playtest feedback. Ultimately, clear success criteria ensure that the prototyping and playtesting processes align with the overall goals and vision of the game, leading to a more focused and effective development cycle.

Test Early and Often

Speed and collaboration are vital during the prototyping stage. At this time, it is crucial to communicate with your team and test your game frequently. This allows you to quickly identify problems and improve gameplay mechanics as soon as possible. The earlier you test, the earlier you can catch and address any problems. Frequent tests save time and resources, as fixing issues early in the development process is much easier and cheaper.

Additionally, testing early and often helps you gather valuable feedback from players. This feedback can be used to refine the game mechanics and ensure that the game is fun and engaging. It can also help you identify any issues with the user interface, controls, or other aspects of the game that may be affecting the player's experience.

Keep the Team Small

Although feedback can be helpful during the early stages of development, too many cooks spoil the soup. Keeping the team small is important as it facilitates faster and more effective communication—which is crucial in the fast-paced and dynamic environment of game development. With fewer people involved, it is easier to coordinate tasks, share information, and make decisions quickly, thus saving time and avoiding miscommunication. 

A small core team can help maintain focus and clarity on the project's goals and objectives. Involving too many people may elicit contradicting opinions that can be confusing if not everyone is perfectly aligned with one another. Keeping the team small can lead to a more cohesive and successful project. With fewer people involved, each team member has more opportunities to contribute their ideas and perspectives, which can lead to a more diverse and innovative approach to game development.

Continuous Playtesting

According to the GDC 2021 State of the Game Industry Report, 56% of game developers said playtesting was the most effective way to improve user experience.

Continuous playtesting is an iterative process of regularly testing a game throughout its development cycle to identify and address any issues or potential improvements. It involves collecting feedback from players and using it to refine the game mechanics and improve the overall user experience.

It helps developers identify and address any issues or bugs in the game as soon as possible. By continuously testing the game, developers can catch and fix issues before they become more complex and costly to address later in development. Playtesting also allows developers to gather valuable feedback from players, which can be used to refine the game mechanics and ensure that the game is fun and engaging. This feedback can help developers understand what players like and dislike about the game, what is working and what isn't, and how they can improve the user experience.

Best Practices for Continuous Playtesting

Developers must follow certain best practices to ensure that playtesting is practical and valuable. Consider the following best practices below.

Set Clear Objectives

To ensure that playtesting is effective, it is important to set clear objectives that align with the game's goals. Objectives could include improving player retention, balancing gameplay mechanics, or identifying and fixing bugs. In addition to setting objectives, gathering a diverse group of testers, including experienced players and newcomers, is crucial. This helps ensure that feedback represents the player base as a whole. 

To make the most of playtesting, it is important to establish a clear feedback loop and act on the insights gained from testing. By continuously testing and iterating on the game, developers can ensure that they deliver a high-quality product that meets the needs and expectations of their audience.

Focus on Your Target Audience

Know your audience and cater to them. Understanding your target market helps developers gain valuable feedback from those who are most likely to play and enjoy their game. By identifying and targeting the right audience, developers can ensure that their game meets the needs and expectations of their intended player base. This means that developers need to consider age, gender, gaming experience, and interests when selecting the right playtesters. Gathering feedback from a representative sample of the target audience can help developers identify areas of the game that need improvement and features that are working well. 

Playtesting with the wrong audience can lead to misleading results and suggestions, as the feedback gathered may not accurately represent the preferences and expectations of the intended player base. For example, suppose a game is targeted at casual players, but playtesting is conducted only with hardcore gamers. In that case, the feedback received may be skewed towards more challenging and complex gameplay mechanics that casual players may not enjoy. This can result in developers making changes to the game that do not improve its appeal to the target audience, potentially leading to a product that fails to meet market expectations.

Associating playtesters to specific cohorts and attributing feedback accordingly is crucial because it allows developers to gather further insights and understand the varying perspectives within their target audience. By categorizing playtesters based on personas such as achievers, builders, and explorers, as well as demographics and gaming preferences, developers can identify patterns and trends in the feedback received. This approach enables them to delve deeper into specific cohorts and address their unique concerns, whether it's balancing difficulty levels for casual or hardcore gamers or tailoring gameplay mechanics to suit different playstyles. By drilling down into cohort-specific feedback, developers can make informed decisions that result in a more satisfying and engaging gaming experience for their intended player base.

Prioritize Feedback

​​Prioritizing feedback is critical when conducting continuous playtesting for live games, as it provides developers with the information needed to improve the game and create a better experience for players. To gather feedback effectively, developers can use a variety of techniques, such as:

  • Surveys - One of the most popular ways to collect feedback from players, surveys provide both qualitative and quantitative data making them an excellent tool for gauging interest levels.
  • Direct observation - Watching players through a one-way mirror or recorded sessions can gather qualitative feedback by understanding how players interact with the game in real time. 
  • Focus groups - Facilitating group discussions and identifying common themes or issues through focus groups can help gather further information. 
  • Collect objective data - Collecting data as players are playing the game can also provide valuable insights into player behavior and preferences. This includes information such as where a player dies or gets stuck. 

Ultimately, prioritizing feedback and using a variety of techniques to gather it can help developers create a game that better meets the needs and expectations of their target audience.

Common Pitfalls When Conducting Playtests

Avoid making these crucial and common errors to ensure playtesting is as efficient and effective as possible.

Playtesting for the Sake of Playtesting

Developers should always have a clear objective or plan for how the feedback gathered will be used to improve the game. Without a clear purpose, playtesting can become a wasted effort that doesn't yield useful information for developers. 

To avoid this, developers must have a hypothesis in mind before conducting playtesting and a specific question that they want to answer through playtesting. This ensures that the feedback gathered is focused and can provide useful insights into the game's strengths and weaknesses. By having a clear purpose for playtesting, developers can ensure that they gather the right information to make improvements to the game and create a better experience for players.

However, ad hoc playtesting, a form of informal and spontaneous playtesting conducted during game development, can be valuable for obtaining early user feedback. It involves gathering individuals or a small group of testers to play the game in an impromptu or unscheduled manner, without a pre-planned structure or formalized testing protocol. While it may lack the structure of formalized playtesting, ad hoc playtesting offers a more flexible and responsive approach to gathering real-time insights, which can aid in the iterative refinement of the game during development.

Not Accounting for Bias

Remain open to new ideas and perspectives throughout the playtesting process, as this allows developers to gather feedback that may challenge their assumptions and preconceptions. Being married to an idea or approach can prevent developers from seeing the flaws or shortcomings in their game and can lead to missed opportunities for improvement. 

Additionally, developers must avoid their own biases and be open to feedback that may not align with their personal preferences or opinions. This requires a willingness to listen carefully to what players are saying and to be very open to new ideas and suggestions. By remaining open-minded throughout the playtesting process, developers can create a game that better meets the needs and expectations of their target audience and ultimately achieve greater success in the marketplace.

Involving Too Many People

While gathering feedback from a diverse range of players is important, inviting conflicting feedback makes it difficult to sort through and act on. Having too many opinions can make it challenging for developers to decide how to improve the game. Additionally, involving too many people can take up extra time and resources. 

While involving too many people in the early stages of playtesting can be overwhelming and counterproductive, the team should involve more people as the process progresses. As the game approaches completion, involving a wider range of stakeholders and players can be beneficial. Developers should avoid involving too many people too early in the process and only involve stakeholders once the game is complete and good enough to be released.

The Importance of Prototyping and Playtesting

During the concept phase of the live game development process, it is crucial to work alongside a core team, define the project's scope, and begin prototyping to better understand your team's vision. Conducting playtests can also provide you with information from your audience that can further help you during the prototyping process. You must be deliberate with the playtests to receive information that answers any questions or concerns you may have. Resolving these issues at this stage is important to prevent you from dedicating additional time and energy later in the production process.

Are you venturing into the realm of live game development? Check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Launching Live Service Games, your comprehensive resource for understanding the intricacies of the game development process.

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