What happens when you are in dire need of testing your videogame, but most locals festivals and showcases won’t approve you because your game does not have snazzy pixel art, or are so prohibitively expensive you neither have the funds nor the will to participate just to garner some ersatz sense of legitimacy?
Well, you improvise.
Testing is perhaps one of the most integral parts of developing a game, not just to find out technical failures and lack of balance, but to find those small unexpected discoveries that improve and simplify your game, bringing it close to that perfect form it was when the idea popped in your head. In this age of early access and easy acess, long-range testing is easier than ever; I made my fair share of those, including a successful one in the service Gamer Trials. But for me, nothing beats a public, personal test.
Because of the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, most public tests of In Extremis were not in traditional videogame events, which are a bit of a rarity of in my home city, but in alternative places, such as “nerd culture” events (where being the lone wolf indie developer always lifted my mood), job fairs, multicultural gatherings, and even a party or two (if you haven’t fixed bugs live at 4 AM while extremely drunk and failing attempts at flirting, you are not a true indie).
Going to unexpected places also means dealing with unexpected people; one of the most rewarding things about this is to be able to playtest the game with people who are not really into games, or that have a nostalgic bond with the shoot’em up genre. One of my main goals was to make the gameplay universally accessible, and testing with a broad range of players, from small children to taxi drivers to housewives, made me have insights to simplify this approach.
And in public testing, children are your main customer; most because they still have the magical fascination that draw them to games that we old cynics don’t. They are also bitingly sincere about their tastes, and will voice them openly, and it’s up to you to parse their opinions. Children accompanied by their parents also made some uncomfortable moments in testing, as INX has several violent, sexual, and psychedelic moments that might not suit well with their age. Thankfully, the abstracted approach to those matters only elicited chuckles, most of the time.
Public testing was also fundamental to a very particular issues to me; during most of the development time, testing my own game was a torturous process. My struggles with anxiety made playing my game from the start sometimes unbearable, and I had a least one panic attack while trying to playtest by myself (as a mea culpa, that is also the reason I imagine I wasn’t approved on all of those festival – not being able to test it by myself means a litany of bugs went on the final project). Watching others play and silently taking notes was a way of softening the impact of reviewing years of work (and concluding with “oh my god this is crap why I spent 4 years of my life in this oh god”).
My method for this testing, tho, was pretty much barebones; when I mentioned taking notes, I meant it literally. I brought a little notebook to every test where I frantically registered observations. No sophisticated metrics were used in test builds, just good old-fashioned observation. And observing someone play, and trying to understand each individual cultural and emotional baggage while trying to play, is perhaps the most important experience a designer can have.