Playtesting Shenanigans – Episode 2

You’ve decided to take a brave step by showing your underdeveloped precious idea to the world. You’ve come to terms with the fact that your beautiful baby with tons of promise is probably going to be ridiculed, sneered at, be criticised even though it’s not complete. But you think it’s all for the good of the evolving game concept/prototype. You’ve read my earlier article, but you’re still not sure where to begin. Here’s a set of how-to’s that I use to do my playtesting. Let me know what you think! :)

Reach out at an appropriate time to friends

Wait for them to ask ‘So dude, how’s your startup coming along?’

Believe it or not, most of your friends will actually think you’re doing something very cool. They aren’t as interested in the bad side of what you’re doing, as they are in the promise of the future. So, yes, while you could whine about the problems of working alone, or how demotivating it can be at times… I’d recommend whipping your game out, and getting them to play it. Why wait for them to ask? Because otherwise you’ll be the self-obsessed guy who’s only bothered about getting user testing done, and nobody wants that. You might not be that guy, but this can be the impression people are left with when you push your game in front of their nose when they didn’t ask for it.

Reach out at an appropriate time to strangers

If you thought the best time to waylay strangers was to pick from the crowd at the nearby supermarket, it’s an interesting idea. If you thought the best place to do it is when they’ve crossed the checkout counter, that’s the worst idea.

The way it works is that people who’re exiting something, just want to GET AWAY. They want to do it fast. They’ve finished what they came for, on to the next thing they’d say. They may seem relaxed or particularly chatty with their friends, but most are not in the mood to stop and chat with a random stranger. You’d be better off talking to them when they’re waiting in the long line to the checkout counter. They’re impatient, and everybody feels that their line is moving the slowest. They’re actually open to talking to you. Bear in mind you have five minutes, maybe ten on a crowded day. If your test needs more time, you’re in the wrong place.

I’d avoid supermarkets because you need to take permission from the managers there, and knowing the hierarchical setup in the Indian environment, nobody is as willing to let random people waylay their customers, even if they do it nicely. Nobody wants flak from the boss. Instead I’d suggest hanging out at bus stops. Buses take time to come, and so people are usually looking around and are bored out of their minds.

I personally found that lurking around takeaway places are the best. The person’s just placed an order and has 15-20 minutes to kill. They may be browsing on their phones, or idly chatting with a friend who’s with them.

In a nutshell, what I’m saying is “Approach people who are doing something far less interesting at the moment, so that the idea of playing your game trumps whatever that activity is”.

With strangers, begin with a curiosity-inducing intro

Let’s say you’re a guy who’s just ordered for some food and is waiting for it. Some guy comes up to you and says ‘Oyy! Play my game!”. When you get past the sudden shock of the moment, the first thing that’s going to go through your mind is “WHO the hell? and why would I waste my time talking to this guy?”

People respond to stories. To emotions. Always remember that.

If you approach someone and say “Hey, are you waiting around for your takeaway?”, gauge the way they respond before you identify whether and how to go ahead. For e.g., single Indian women have more reason to be cautious, and may not even reply. So unless you’re a woman yourself, you may want to avoid bothering them. Women with company is easier, they’re more likely to give you a listen. Women with male company is best-est. Assuming the guy lets you talk to her in the first place.

With men, it’s a little easier. They have less to be worried about, but they are going to look at you like you’re about to ask for money. They may answer your ‘takeaway’ question with a hesitant, slow ‘Yes’. So I usually say “I’m a game developer, and am trying to get people to play this new game I’m making. Would you be interested?”. I usually take a slow step back, just to show them I’m giving them space if they thought this was unwarranted. Since the words “game developer” and “new game” are usually magical in their own right, people are naturally curious to see what you’ve got to show.

If they warm up and say “Yeah, sure!” (Which they usually do), you go ahead.

Describe the rules of engagement

In an ideal world, you could dump your device in the user’s hand and watch their reaction as they take a swipe at your game. In the real world, people would prefer some instruction. Everybody wants to look good in front of other people, especially people they don’t know. If they bungle a bit, they’re more likely to say ‘This is not for me’, so you need to provide positive feedback every now and then.

To start with, I point them to the icon of the game and tell them that I’ll be taking notes on the side. If there’s any point where they get confused, they should voice their concern. If they get bored, they ought to say they’re bored. Another advantage of saying this is that people understand that it’s OKAY to be bored. Now that there’s a basic set of rules of engagement, the user’s ready to start.

DON’T tell them what to do in the game

If you’re planning on going to wherever consumers are to help them understand your game, then this shouldn’t be a problem. If you plan to not do that, congratulations, you’re not insane! You need to make your game easy to pick and play. Even if you’re doing something that users are not used to, provide a simple and effective tutorial for them to get the rules of the game.

If you keep jumping in during the play test, saying ‘Do this’ or ‘That’s not right’, you’re essentially scripting the user test for your benefit. You want to see what the user does when there’s no one to guide him/her, because that’s what’s going to happen when your game is released!

Ask and I shalt answer

Usually, it’s a good thing to not interfere with a player’s experience. But if the user is asking you for help, first understand that it’s a flag raised on your product. Then you should consider providing a hint. I’ll say that again, A HINT. Dont tell him WHAT to do. Remember that this was the point/situation where you were asked the question, and work on making it easier later. But for now, help the guy. It’s taken him quite a bit of courage to say ‘I need help’, don’t let him down. Again, this is no excuse for not going back to work on that particular point in the game. It may really need some work.

Scribble, scribble, scribble…

While the user is playing, you should be busy scribbling whatever he’s doing in your little notebook. What I do is that I have a set of objectives that I expect users will go through. Do they understand the basic mechanic in the game. Do they seem engrossed at certain stages of the game? How soon do they hand your device back to you? Are they showing signs of restlessness at any particular stages in the game?

Since you’re watching them play, you’re now sitting in the passenger seat. It’s amazing to feel the difference in gameplay when you’re just watching the screen and the player, instead of being in control yourself. You’re going to feel aspects of excitement, boredness when nothing much is happening, frustration when the player’s actions are not resulting in a desired outcome. As a developer, you know what he should change, but as a passive player you are able to conveniently silence the developer side of you and feel what the player’s feeling.

Usually, it’s a strict no-no to pepper the player with questions while he’s engaged. Wait for an opportune time, either after the playtest or in a calm period when nothing’s happening during the experience and gently put the question out there. And when he answers, scribble away…

You’d be surprised by the insight you can gain by scribbling all this down and looking at it again afterward. It’s unlikely you’ll remember everything from what the user’s doing. Writing it down releases the stress from your brain. Plus, this is some sort of feedback to the player that something he is doing is resulting in the designer paying attention. The player feels valued because he can SEE you writing. This doesn’t mean you should show him what you’re writing, obviously.

Winding down

When the player hands back the device to you, note down where he/she left the game. You might want to see what happens around there, for someone to let go. You may find it had nothing to do with the game, just that the real world got in the way, but keep a note of it… see if there’s a pattern that seems to emerge.

It’s also good etiquette to have some small talk with the player, thank him for his time and give him your thoughts on how it went (if he asks you). Highlight areas where you received actionable feedback from him, thereby letting him know that he’s provided some valuable feedback. If he’s quite curious about what you’re doing, and wants to know more, take the time to answer him with his questions. Everyone’s interested in talking to entrepreneurs, everybody wants to know how you’re doing and how life is in this uncertain realm. If the person seems genuinely interested, what I do is offer to send them an invitation to my facebook page, if they’d like to stay aware of what I’m upto.

Some developers offer a gift, maybe a chocolate or some small token of appreciation. Personally, I haven’t done that yet, but maybe some time. At the end of the day, you want to make sure the user has had a positive experience during that time… time that he might alternatively spent doing nothing, or staring vacantly around him, and that he made a difference for someone.

Besides, you never know… when some other startup somewhere around approaches him, he’ll remember the experience with you and gladly help that person too.

Pay it forward, help build the trend, show some consideration for those startups who come after you! And yeah, you’ll value each of these instances when you went out to do playtesting. It might start out hard and demotivating, but as you fix problems, there’s nothing that feels better than watching people understand your game!