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Simon J McDonnell

Creating cool stuff

The Importance of User Testing

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What is User Testing?

Fairly self-explanatory, user testing is when you test your games with actual people. Either letting them play and jotting down notes or guiding them through and giving them a questionnaire. User testing has a lot of approaches. The beta testing weekends that in-development MMO’s tend to use are a kind of user testing, as is getting a family member to try the latest build of your game.

Why should I care?

You should care because user feedback is important. Nay, it is probably the MOST important thing for you to get when building a game. You know why? Because after working on a game for a while you lose the ability to gauge a few things, namely:

  1. How easy it is to understand your game
  2. How fun your game is

I don’t say this out of the blue as a strange aside, it’s happened to me on nearly every game I’ve worked on. It’s easy to lose track of what fun is when you’re focused on meeting deadlines and implementing new features.

The game I made for my fourth year project in college is a good example of the importance of user feedback. The base of it’s combat was a directional system like Mount & Blade’s or War of the Roses. You could attack and block in three directions. The only way to negate an attack would be to block in the appropriate direction: top block with top attack, left block with right attack, etc. We thought it was a good system and we had fun designing and implementing it. All was well and we did our first round of user testing about 2 weeks before the deadline, this was when we got an unpleasant surprise. It turned out that no one blocked, ever. Most didn’t even know they could, but even those that did couldn’t be bothered. This was a big problem because it rendered the main meat of our gameplay unused and weak. People couldn’t engage with the system because it was poorly explained, unwieldy, hard to understand, and not that much fun to execute successfully.

Now you might argue that if the system was this bad then we are simply bad designers for having chosen it, that a better game designer wouldn’t have made the same mistakes. This is possible, but does not negate the usefulness of user testing. More experienced game designers won’t make as many mistakes; they’ll churn out work of a higher quality at a quicker pace. But the simple fact of the matter is that you won’t always be working with great designers, and even great designers can get things wrong. The nice thing is that even if you’re amazing and wonderful, user testing can still improve your game. It allows you to see through the eyes of the people you’re designing for, and shows you the game from a viewpoint unclouded by the development process or familiarity.

When should I User Test?

As soon as you can. Your first goal when developing a new game should be to get it into a state in which you can user test. It can be rough, just use cubes and raw geometry if you have to, but it’s important to get your basic gameplay there and working. Hell, if your game is the type that’s semi-easily transferred to paper or board game format then mock up a quick paper prototype. This will save you lots of time in the long run as you find out what features are and aren’t fun at an early stage, before they’ve sucked up a ton of development time.

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The sooner you learn what is and isn’t fun the sooner you can correct it and the less negative impact a silly design decision will have on your game. Plus you have a much closer idea of what players find fun at all times; use that to guide your further decisions.

Also, don’t worry if some parts of your game aren’t ready before you start testing – you can still test the other elements that are. You have to be wary when testing this early though, ensure that any negative user experiences stem from genuine distaste with a feature and aren’t just because the stuff that makes it fun isn’t implemented yet. Think of a game with great shooting; how much of what makes it great lie in the execution of the shooting mechanic? I bet not so much. If you were to remove the recoil, the particles, and the sound effects then you would almost certainly find it lacking. User dissatisfaction then isn’t always because of a problem with your base mechanic, it could be a problem with it’s presentation.

That leads to an important point, however: the user is not always right. Sometimes a person is having a bad day, isn’t interested in the genre of the game you’re making, or the game just doesn’t click with them. That’s okay, not everyone will like your game (hard to bear, I know). That is why it’s important to do a lot of user testing. Test with your target demographic, test outside it, test with people who play games, test with those who don’t. All this will give you a broad base of data from which to draw results. If a lot of people find your combat engaging then you can probably ignore (or just cursorily consider) complaints of the few that didn’t. However, if a lot of people from different demographics are finding it difficult to understand then you KNOW you have a problem.

User testing is cheap, easy to do, and nearly always improves your game; often in ways you didn’t even conceive. So go on and get your game to that playable state, then moan at your friends until they come test it for you.

You’ll hate hearing some of the complaints, especially the ones about your favourite mechanics. Grit your teeth, because you need it.

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