The power of lightweight weekly playtests

How weekly testing with “just enough” fidelity helped a fast-growing startup hit their deadlines & delight their customers

For the past few years, I’ve been running small, high-learning experiments in online design acceleration using game thinking. I’ve worked with dozens of teams — all over the world — to bring products, games, apps, and services to life. Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons about what works — and what doesn’t — to accelerate early product design and bring innovative new ideas to life.

“Just enough” fidelity for rapid iteration

After working with many successful teams — and also some less successful ones — I’ve noticed a striking pattern: the teams who setup and ran low-fidelity weekly playtests made MASSIVELY more progress than the teams who didn’t. To quote veteran game designer and innovator Eric Zimmerman:

‘stop brainstorming — start prototyping.’

Here’s one particularly vivid example of how a successful, fast-growing startup disrupted their own processes with this powerful gaming techniques.

Earlier this year, I started working with an educational games company on an exciting new project. They wanted to extend and enhance their (already successful) subscription service with more powerful and adaptive learning games — and they’d setup a crack internal team to make this happen.

When we started working together, the team had designed a collection of ambitious, innovative games, and were facing aggressive internal deadlines to deliver those games to production. They needed to accelerate their design and development process to meet those deadlines — but faced internal resistance, due to established procedures around testing and polish.

The waterfall-like process that worked so well for their existing product — the model that had led to financial success and market leadership — wouldn’t cut it for this new generation of innovative games.

To create a smart, high-learning experimental framework, we clarified their product strategy and learning goals, and identified the right early customers for testing. Then we focused on setting up lightweight playtests with “just enough” fidelity to test their assumptions quickly.

Turns out this was easier said than done. This company had a long-standing practice of testing fully-developed games with high-quality art assets. And the innovation team was already involved in preparing their first game for a “traditional” playtest that involved:

— coordination between several departments — recruiting participants through an outside agency — polishing gameplay and art assets for the test — close oversight by the executive team

In short, it was a big deal, involving weeks of preparations and planning. We couldn’t derail that train without a lot of fallout, so we setup a parallel path to do lightweight testing on our more nascent games.

With some iteration, the team settled on a simple, low-resolution art style that would facilitate rapid iteration while also being pleasing. This new practice required some thought and coordination upfront — and proved to be a big time-saver that’s now being propagated to other projects.

We also setup under-the-radar testing sessions that didn’t involve other departments. Our goal was to collet early, high-value feedback on the core gameplay — without slowing things down with high production value concerns, discussions about color and style, feature completeness, or executive oversight into the details of the process.

Accelerated innovation + gaming smarts

Guess what happened? The team was able to quickly evolve their gameplay and hit their aggressive deadlines. They are now preparing those games for production, and moving on to design their next set of games — which they’ll develop using these rapid-iteration techniques from the get-go. That’s the power of lightweight play-testing in action.

To learn more about applying these techniques to YOUR project, check out Getting2Alpha — programs and workshops for accelerating early design with gaming smarts.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io