After years of making mods and levels for games like Liero and Super Mario World, it was only natural that my first commercial game – Abacus – took the form of a retro 2D shooter-platformer. I decided early on that I wanted Abacus to have multiplayer capabilities. This decision had widespread consequences for the codebase – every action now had to go through the server – but it also raised an important question: how could I effectively test the multiplayer gameplay?
THE LOGISTICS OF PLAYTESTING
Testing a multiplayer game solo is a lonely business, and it can only get you so far. When it comes to pushing the game to its limits, assessing the balance, and most importantly, making sure it’s fun, getting more players involved is a must. The number of testers you’ll need depends on the game, but it is worth noting that a fairly large group may be necessary to achieve consistent numbers; from my pool of 20 testers, each testing session typically attracted only 3–6 players. Friends and family are good starting points, too, but you may also have some luck enlisting extra testers in online communities such as Reddit (see r/playmygame and r/playtesters, for example).
Discord is an excellent tool for organising sessions, due to its support for multiple channels, voice chat, and fine-grained notification settings. Dropbox is helpful for sharing builds, although if you decide to submit your game to Steam in Early Access, this is easily surpassed by Steam’s support for beta branches.
Development can be a long process, so the question of when to start multiplayer testing is a tricky one. Too early, and the gameplay may be too limited to warrant any meaningful discussion; too late, and it becomes difficult to change the core mechanics. Personally, I would recommend starting the testing sessions as early as possible during development. It may not be much fun for your testers, but catching problems early ensures that you have a solid foundation to build on.
RESPONDING TO FEEDBACK
Playtesting alone is useful, but the real value of these sessions lies in player feedback; players will often have their own ideas or perspectives which fall outside the developer’s vision (admittedly, that is sometimes tunnel vision).
When I hosted the first playtesting sessions for Abacus, feedback was mostly focused on major frustrations and game-breaking bugs. This can be extremely disheartening for a developer, but it’s important to remember that this is the whole point of testing – to identify the areas that most need improvement. Even sessions that feel disastrous can still be extremely valuable: log files can help to pinpoint the cause of any crashes, and feedback can inform development priorities. Over time, frustrations lessen, and the game becomes slicker. The difference between a clunky prototype and a polished end-product is smaller than you might think.
In the later stages of development, expect a shift in emphasis from “Please fix this glaring bug” to “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” This is often the most exciting part of development, for developer and tester alike, because it signifies that the game’s potential is starting to become apparent, and possibilities abound.
It’s important to keep an open mind while listening to such feedback. Often, I’ve found myself resistant to an idea at first, but after further consideration, I realise it’s exactly what the game needs. It’s equally important, however, to recognise that not every suggestion can be accommodated – inevitably, some ideas will be impractical, ill-considered, or at odds with the game’s core values. Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit has an excellent video on this subject (wfmag.cc/feedback). Ultimately, it’s impossible to please everyone, but to me, the most important question is always: Is it fun?
It’s important to ask the right questions. Your testers’ time is valuable, and they don’t want to answer a long survey every time they play your game. But perhaps more importantly, asking too many questions muddies the focus of the responses. Limiting yourself to just two or three questions – and keeping them fairly broad – ensures that the most significant points will be conveyed. For example, “If you could change one thing, what would it be?” or “What was the most frustrating moment?”
Your own time is obviously valuable, too, which is why it’s important to carefully prioritise changes. It’s easy to get distracted by refactoring tasks that have no bearing on the gameplay. While refactoring is important sometimes, it can also become a form of procrastination. Creating a rough schedule, listing key features, and planned deadlines, can help to keep development on track.
Ultimately, Abacus wouldn’t be the game it is today without the help of my testers and their feedback. Inviting a group of players to test your game costs nothing, and the benefits cannot be overstated. While multiplayer playtesting can initially be a gruelling, humbling experience, it can also provide an invaluable insight into the minds of players, help to identify bugs and imbalances, and prompt creative ideas and suggestions.