By using the keys of usability checklist, we can avoid many usability issues – on a theoretical basis. The concepts make sense and should help us minimize problems. The lingering problem is, we just don’t know for sure. That is where usability testing comes into play. Usability testing lets us evaluate the game’s effectiveness in engaging an audience, its efficiency in delivering its concepts, and players’ satisfaction in playing it. It mitigates glitches, player frustration, and any other problems in the game’s design and implementation. Mostly it pinpoints the true user experience and allows time and a process to correct any problems that create a negative user experience. For video games, this is an extremely important process, as user satisfaction is really the difference between success and failure. Remember, gamers are only going to put up with usability issues so much before they simply move on to another, less frustrating game.
So usability testing is important, now, how do we do it? One way is through expert review. Developers and game experts take a red pen to the GDD and mark out known and unknown issues and then rank those issues according to severity. The review teams then meet and discuss possible solutions. The value of this method is that it is quick and can be done multiple times throughout the development process. It is also a very flexible process that can be scaled according to issues of greatest importance. Expert review often involves rapid prototyping, which is a sort of pen and paper testing of concepts, UI design, and other instant evaluation techniques (we will expand on rapid prototyping in a later Module). The end results are well worth the effort as this kind of scrutiny can reveal many usability problems with good use of time and personnel. As a small indie developer you can hire programmers to check your work and correct any errors.
Playtesting is another form of usability testing. Usually this involves allowing an early version of the game to a limited group of gamers to try out and find usability issues. This type of usability testing goes straight to the audience that may purchase the game and gets their opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Generally, players testing a game give honest, yet sometimes harsh, evaluations on whether or not they would want to play the game and detailed descriptions on why or why not. This is a group that genuinely wants good games on the market and has familiarity in evaluating their own user experiences. Remember, this is not QA testing, this is much more limited in scope. Test groups are usually less than ten people who are drawn from the game’s target demographic and often testing is done in a “lab”, in a controlled environment, as opposed to loosely tested at home.
Be Creative – Spice It Up
When designing your game try not to resort to simple crates and “whack-a-mole” gameplay. Think about the “whack-a-mole” game where little moles pop up and the player simply bops the moles with a mallet as they come up and knock them back down. That’s about as simplistic as it gets so don’t make your game that bland unless you’re doing it on purpose. One trick is to have gameplay that takes advantage of some kind of special trait or ability, like extra speed, strength, flying, etc. When you give your player character new abilities, use them to the fullest in a variety of gameplay settings. Things like a crate or box that cracks open to reveal a power-up or money is old and tired. Use something dynamic or themed to fit your game to deliver or present special items. Imagine a space game where loot appears in capsules and hidden compartments in ships. Imagine a game about a speedy main character with power-ups and items that require quick reflexes and great timing to acquire. Sometimes it may even be necessary to build some of your in-game content (story, environment, gameplay, graphics) around a really cool game mechanic that you want to show off which fits the game.