(We have created an 8-part comprehensive report containing a series of one-to-two page “briefs” regarding learning game design. This is part 7: Play Testing Games — An Essential Step. If you would like to see the white paper in its entirety, check out theWhite Papers section on our website.)

You can definitely brainstorm a game idea in an afternoon and build a simple prototype. However, going from the rough idea to a polished game takes iterations and time. A great game requires lots of tweaking, modifying, and refining. Creating prototypes and play testing them is critical to designing good games. Play testing is the only way you can figure out whether your core dynamics and game mechanics work.

Game play dynamics – how players react to the game and the impact of various rules and feature sets don’t emerge from your written design. They emerge as you play test, which is why you need to build prototypes. The cheapest and fastest way to play test is to start with paper prototypes. Even if you are ultimately creating an online game, first build it on paper (or perhaps in PowerPoint) to see if it works as you imagine it would. You can make changes much faster and cheaper when you haven’t invested hundreds of hours building the first rendition of your game.

* After initial play testing, you will creat a design document. You will update the design after each iteration of play testing. This is a living document, not a one-time creation.


A creative design team can come up with a simple learning game design in a few hours – and build a rudimentary prototype in a bit more than that. Once a prototype is in place, you need people to play it and other people to watch them play. You debrief the experience, and you build another, more robust prototype. However, the second rendition is STILL a prototype with many things mocked up rather than refined (e.g. we may create the cards associated with a board game in a Word table and then print and cut them up for initial rounds of play). A game board might be printed as a series of PDF pages and taped together for initial rounds of play. We avoid going to a production version until we’re confident we have the right user interface and play experience. Only after we are sure the cards are keepers do we invest the dollars in creating the polished version.

If the game is an online game, we may rough out animations and game mechanics in PowerPoint first or build one level and play it to see how we refine things before moving forward. True story: One of our biggest mistakes was with our Knowledge Guru™ game. We were so confident of our game design that we built an entire rendition of the game after documenting our initial design. Once we play tested, we found out our initial game mechanics didn’t work (translation: game wasn’t fun). We had to completely rebuild it. Ouch!

Rule to remember:

You cannot tell how fun or effective a game will be from reading a written design document. You have to play test. Game design and development is an iterative process. Be prepared to play and revise, play and revise again.