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Play testing a game design the low fidelity way

Recent missteps during development forced me to re-evaluate the core game activity design. Learn how our low fidelity play tests help firm up the design and instill deeper confidence

When we first started developing the title, our aspiration was to build a game which casual strategy fans could easily pick up, but with enough  strategic depth to satisfy the more hardcore strategist. Over the past few weeks, it became clear that we had built a satisfyingly deep strategic experience, but interacting with the game felt tedious

Panic.

Once the butterflies in my stomach had settled, it was time to look deeper into the issue.

On the surface, the biggest hurdle was the cumbersome user interface. The UI featured plenty of strategic command options but the most common tasks required at least 3 clicks to complete. However, the UI's complexity was just the outward manifestation of the over complicated game design - there were too many commands available to a user at any one point in time, but most of the commands were infrequently used ones, or just badly thought out interactions.

I had inadvertently designed a complicated game and I had not discovered my mistake until 4 months down the road - all because I had convinced myself early on that it was faster to build the tech prototype rather than 'waste time' building a pen-and-paper version.

The game design was in need of some major work (for the third time).

This time, I was determined not to repeat my earlier mistake. After spending a week coming up with a core activity re-design, I started building a low fidelity prototype using game pieces from my board games collection, and some additional counters and tokens from the corner dollar store.

I used components from the 'Halo' boardgame along with some dice and counters from the dollar store

The results were extremely positive.

I translated the core activity into a board game equivalent in less than a day. My partner and I then spend a total of 4 days play testing and refining the core activity. At the end of the play tests, my business partner had a clear idea what it was that we were building, I had a clear data suggesting that the game complexity problem had been resolved without compromising strategic depth (much), and we both had renewed confidence that the game had strong potential.

The first low-fidelity game prototype I built
My second low-fidelity game prototype (2 days later)

In conclusion, I've learnt that most turn-based game designs are faster prototyped as a board game rather than as a tech prototype. If it's arduous building the board game prototype, building the tech prototype is bound to be worse. In addition, the difficulty in building a board game prototype may indicate a significant risk that that the design is too complex or that the design details may not have been fully thought out. In either case, it's a clear signal that the game design needs to be scrutinized deeper.

One of our playtests in progress. We used coloured counters to represent different terrain types
I used a modified MS Word 2010 card game template to build all the cards including these terrain stats 'cards'

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