Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Playtesting: Then & Now

Frequent readers of my missives over at Hobby Games Recce know I’m prone to fits of nostalgia, especially when I start musing how game companies operated before the Internet Age. The process of playtesting a game -- sending out materials for outsiders to play and critique, all with the goal of testing game mechanics and player/customer impressions -- is no exception.

The Analog Past

In my past game company experience, primarily with West End Games, the investment in time, material, and postage proved a steep threshold that made out-of-house playtesting a part  of only the most privileged projects. (In-house playtesting occurred as time allowed, propelled by enthusiastic personalities and overall corporate interest in a project…overall it probably had more influence on a project than out-of-house playtesting.)

West End didn’t send out playtesting material because it consumed too many resources. Editors involved in the process spent too much time coaxing decent copies out of the ancient photocopy machine, then collated them and packed them off in the post. Drafting non-disclosure agreements and going back and forth with signatures and copies consumed time and focus, too. For the effort we received lackluster (if any) input from playtesters; like playtesters then and now, some commentary was useless while input from a rare few playtesters proved valuable. On top of this the sheer scope of dealing with a licensed property at the time -- with numerous levels of approvals with the licensor company -- consumed a great deal of time and effort, though it at least offered one level of authenticity as the intellectual property owner (usually his designated agents) reviewed material to make sure it remained in the spirit of the original property. All this somehow fit within the myriad duties of an already demanding production schedule (for instance, for much of my time at West End Games -- 1993-1999 -- the company released on average two or three books each month, with few coming in at less than 96 pages).

The vast volume of material submitted for The Star Wars Roleplaying Game did not see playtesting beyond an editor’s evaluation and any play experience author’s incorporated in their drafts. Several of my own scenarios eventually found their way into publication after “playtesting” them at conventions or with friends, notably my contributions to Instant Adventures, a few scenarios in The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal, and a charity celebrity scenario I ran with Star Wars author Timothy Zahn and several lucky bidders that later appeared in the Journal (“The Kaal Connection”).

I have vague recollections of sending out bulky packets of playtesting material on a few West End Games projects, notably the DarkStrydercampaign for the company’s well-known Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I’m sure the refined D6 System mechanics for the Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game went out to trusted playtesters given the editor/developer’s enthusiasm for and dedication to that project. My impressions from company lore gleaned over the years indicates earlier games like TORG and the first edition Star Wars rules had far more playtesting, though they came about in an era when West End Games still valued playtesting from its involvement publishing wargames and before an aggressive production schedule made playtesting prohibitive.

The Digital Present

Today playtesting occurs entirely on the computer…no photocopying, no stuffing envelopes, no address labels, no watching the post box for responses, no distant and infrequent communication with playtesters by snail-mail.

I convert layout or text files to easily shared PDF files. Earlier in the Internet Age I e-mailed playtester PDFs directly to individuals and received their comments via e-mail. With such wonderful community networking tools as Google+ I can solicit playtesters for a particular project by posting to my public contacts or private circles, answer initial questions and collect names for participants, post the PDF to a common folder on Google Drive, limit access to invited playtesters, and either receive their comments via e-mail or right in the shared document.

The action threshold is so low, sending material out to playtesters is a no-brainer. Instead of focusing on expending the effort to produce and distribute playtesting material, I can concentrate my efforts at providing tips for different approaches to the material and offering questions to elicit responses that might affect certain design issues lurking behind the scenes.

As an independent game designer attached only to my publication imprint (Griffon Publishing Studio) I don’t have a huge corporate structure to hold me back, and I enjoy a more lenient production schedule releasing games when I feel they’re ready rather than when the company needs them to flow out the warehouse door on a monthly basis (“We release no game before its time,” so to speak). Still, digital advancements make the playtesting process so easy I often send material out several times -- preliminary rules, basic draft, final proof draft -- or offer updated versions or additional material during the process.

Participation in playtesting -- like any other activity -- always falls off, but these days I don’t worry about wasted effort given how little the process takes me to send materials. About half the people I invite to playtest respond, and about half of those who actually look over the material send comments back. Often only half of those are truly useful (even negative feedback), but I’ve been lucky and have a friendly, professional core of playtesters who go beyond answering the questions I pose and really examine the material from several angles.

One of my projects has coalesced to the point where preliminary material is ready for playtesting. Having sent it out and received constructive criticism and insightful impressions within 10 days or so, I’m happy to have access to the digital tools and online community to stay in touch with fellow gamers and developers. My solitaire u-boat wargame Operation Drumbeat endured two rounds of playtesting and a solid proofreading session all handled rather quickly thanks to e-mail and PDF attachments.
It shouldn’t surprise me. Most communication in game production today -- contract work with authors and artists, playtesting, art reviews, editing, -- takes place across the internet through e-mail, chat, collaborative file-sharing, even video conferencing in Skype and Google+ Hangouts. Before the internet the phone and post remained the primarily means of communication, awkward, time consuming, and rarely efficient. The internet has replaced much of the physical infrastructure of running a game company and accelerated the pace of creation, production, and business, helping to put material into the hands of more creative minds, from inspired amateurs to old professionals without the means to operate a full brick-and-mortar operation.

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