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Alex Greenberg | Studio Director, Founder

Dec 29, 2023


December is the heart of the holiday season for many cultures. As such, it is filled with outings with loved ones, family get-togethers, and the long awaited “how are ya?” between close friends separated by great distances. For us at Studio Unknown, the festive comradery of December has coincided quite fittingly with our first official playtest events for ULTRAMASSIVE. While tabletop games in all their forms are a gratifying way of bringing people together, playtesting a designer’s work-in-progress is a uniquely humbling experience of teamwork and communication. A playtest allows the designers to play their game through the minds of their playtesters, challenging the way they understand their own game. At the same time, players get a perspective on the often calamitous thinking behind the games – and people – they love. So grab a blanket, a cup of hot chocolate, and a notepad because it’s time to discuss playtesting.

To begin, we must define a playtest and identify what makes them so important for the development of any game. Playtests involve a group of people, often the maximum player count for a given game, playing a game which is under active development. Designers observe how players interact with, and react to, the game, as well as how the game responds to players’ actions. During and after the play session, players give feedback to the designers about their experience. Both designer observations and player feedback are what make playtests crucial to a game’s development. As a designer, one of the most satisfying aspects of a playtest is watching players find success and joy in the systems you designed for them. The elation players express when a game clicks for them is priceless. “Oh, I see!”, they exclaim to no one in particular, eager to show their excitement at having grasped a new concept. Watching players understand the reasoning and purpose behind the mechanics you created is a wonderfully validating experience.

A playtest would not be productive, however, without its critiques. More important even than the expressions of comprehension and joy are players’ moments of dissatisfaction. For designers, the real lesson begins when a player fails to understand a mechanic or acts disappointed by an outcome (assuming that outcome was not designed to be disappointing). This is also the hardest part of playtesting from the designer’s perspective. In these moments, designers must ask themselves a slew of questions: did the player misunderstand due to poor explanation? Is the mechanic itself underperforming or out of place? Or perhaps the most difficult question of all: is this person not the demographic for my game? Reflections like these form the basis of the value of playtesting in a game’s development cycle. Ultimately, a designer may play their game to death, becoming increasingly more blind to its faults as they experience them dozens or hundreds of times. It is only when a fresh set of minds, naive to the shortcomings of your game, collide with your creation that its blemishes rush forth, demanding solutions.

Further contributing to the importance of playtests is the invaluable relationship between designers and playtesters. A fortunate designer will have a group of playtesters who offer solutions of their own, sometimes even synthesizing ideas that work their way into the game with minimal edits from the designer. While a designer cannot always rely on the presence of outspoken playtesters, it is one part of what makes the relationship between the playtester and designer special. More broadly, this relationship fosters a unique dynamic of teamwork, opening the door to the designer’s studio and allowing players to not just enter, but contribute, if only for the duration of the play session. However brief, this teamwork endears designers to the needs of their players through focused dialogue and keen observations. At the same time, playtesters are given an open mic and an attentive audience. The beauty of this dynamic is its inherent appeal for everyone involved. The opinionated playtester speaks, their thoughts and ideas reaching eager ears, unhindered. Meanwhile, designers transcribe with fervor, their notebooks freshly full of purpose and direction.

Woven throughout the developmental value of playtesting, however, are gratifying and fun experiences for all involved. Ultimately, playtesting is about synthesis. The creation of new ideas and relationships pervades almost any playtest, engaging players and designers in analytical comradery. With all participants focused on a shared goal – making a game the best it can be – the resulting teamwork is undeniably enjoyable. A lively collection of players make for an especially entertaining play session, and oftentimes, an even more fruitful one. Additionally, as a game develops further and its appeal becomes increasingly more refined, designers can look forward to the added reward of players expressing their enjoyment for the game alongside their feedback. And lastly, for both designers and players, the conclusion of a playtest elicits feelings of fulfillment and appreciation– the signs of a job well done.

For Studio Unknown, both private and public playtests of ULTRAMASSIVE have been immensely productive and fun events. They have been, and continue to be, opportunities for us to engage with new and receptive communities, as well as form a community of our own. As 2024 emerges, and we continue to playtest ULTRAMASSIVE, we remain incredibly excited to explore and share our game with these communities. Further playtest events are on the horizon and we can’t wait to see what (and who!) they bring.

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