When I joined Ensemble Studios back in 1997, pretty much the first thing that happened was someone plunked me down in front of an early version of Age of Empires and said, “here, play this.” People watched me play and took a bunch of notes. I mostly just tried not to say anything stupid, although I probably did anyway.
This first day set the tone for the years to come. Ensemble’s culture was built around playtesting. Everyone playtested. Not just QA. Not just designers. Everyone. As a naive newcomer to professional game development, I assumed this was how everyone did it. Surely the whole team would play the game to make sure it was fun before you shipped? Over time I noticed that this commitment to playtesting was surprisingly unusual.
Once we were bigger, we tried to get a bit more organized with our formal playtests. Everyone had an assigned playtest day on their schedule. On your day, you’d head down to the playtest area and give your feedback. When the game wasn’t very fun yet (or we were testing something tedious), this served to ensure people were actually filling the seats. By the time the game was really fun, the schedule theoretically prevented people from having to fight over those same seats. Once people started fighting for a spot on other days, you knew the game had really turned a corner.
Because we played a lot of competitive multiplayer, we tried to divide the days by ability. I was part of the Tuesday crew. In terms of skill, we were the group right below the balance team, so we were definitely making an effort to play well, and things could get pretty competitive.
It was not the level of competition, however, that eventually made Tuesday stand out. No, what set Tuesday apart was the, uh, zeal with which we critiqued the game. In addition to being similar in skill, we all also turned out to be fastidious when it came to the game: prone to focus on every detail, every broken piece, every unpolished feature. Mix this with competitive players in a multiplayer environment, and Tuesday soon became known lovingly (?) as “Angry Tuesday”.
During Angry Tuesday playtests, I’m quite certain we exceeded the impact velocity specifications on a few mice and headphones. We no doubt bruised a few egos, including our own — after all, we were critiquing our own work! But we also managed to recognize many polish problems in our games that would have been missed otherwise: things that would not have been addressed by simply following a test plan; things that casual, unfocused playtesting would also miss. The pursuit of these polish details can really make the difference between a mediocre game and a great one. Sometimes it might be the only difference.
As a developer, playing your games often (in a way that real players would play it) is the best way to find where you still need to polish. As you play, you will be constantly reminded of the rough spots. You will step out of your developer’s shoes for a moment and into your player’s shoes. When you go back to writing code or making art or doing design, you will also have a much better sense of the big picture. With the big picture in mind, you will be more likely to make the right choice for how to implement a feature. You will be more excited to go the extra mile and add something that makes the game just a little bit better for players like yourself.
Regular playtesting is probably more common these days than it was back in 1997, but sadly it’s still not ubiquitous. Here at BonusXP, it’s something we do every day. We see it as critical to our development process and culture. Without it, we’d have no shot at building great games — plus, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun!
So consider joining us in having your own Angry Tuesday. It doesn’t even have to be Angry. No peripherals need to be harmed in the making of better games. But you do have to be focused and critical.
I’m afraid “Focused Critique Tuesday” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it?