Venba has been one of the most impactful games I’ve played this year. It’s a short story-based game, following an Indian family who move to Canada in the 1980s. While progressing the story, players rediscover and cook recipes, and follow the families experience over the following decades.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Abhi – the game’s lead designer, programmer and writer. We discussed how he and his team made playtesting an important part of their development process
Since its launch in Summer 2023 Venba has been getting a lot of positive critic and player attention – I asked Abhi about the reception so far: “It’s been really great and wholesome! I’m absolutely blown away by how many people are resonating with this game.”
The game’s core mechanics revolve around cooking – with each recipe becoming a small puzzle to solve, as the player uncovers and figures out partial recipes.
Speaking about how he came up with the core cooking mechanics, Abhi said “It was actually a very organic process. It was clear to us that we wanted to approach cooking mechanics in a very different way than most other cooking games as they focus on the moment to moment actions of cooking and we wanted to focus on the thought process of the cook instead.”
“We wanted to draw attention to the recipes and make the players think about why the recipes are the way they are. When thinking about this, the idea that recipes were only partially legible felt like it fit nicely with these themes and the story.”
I’ve always been fascinated with how smaller teams, without dedicated researchers, build playtesting into their development process (it’s why I made the Playtest Kit!). Abhi explained that playtesting played a huge role in the development of Venba:
“Playtesting was key to our entire development process. Before even programming a level, I would paper prototype the recipe first and show it to my team and we’ll slowly start iterating there. Once we felt there was a cohesive puzzle, we would commit resources to actually flesh out the level with art, programming and then conduct player playtests when it’s ready to play. “
Comprehensive playtesting can look at many different angles – not just balancing difficulty, but also usability (can players understand it), and ultimately – is the game fun. With a game like Venba authenticity was also important, as Abhi explains:
“Many different angles need to be tested when we’re playtesting. We need to figure out if the puzzle is fun to play and figure out for players. We need to eliminate any sources of confusion and see what’s making the puzzle hard for the player in a way we didn’t intend. Additionally, it was also important to playtest with chefs and cooks who are familiar with these recipes. These playtests would focus on authenticity and accuracy.”
Abhi, Developer of Venba
Playtesting was key to our entire development process
“Since Venba has so much knowledge from real life that can affect your playthrough, the playtest feedback can be very varied in how they rate the puzzles’ difficulty. People who are familiar with the recipes may find the game a lot easier than people who don’t. It was important to weigh their knowledge too in our considerations of addressing puzzle difficulty.”
It can be difficult for smaller teams to find the time to schedule and run regular playtests – and especially difficult to find appropriate playtests to take part. I asked about how this was handled in the production of Venba
“We often planned for playtests when a milestone or sprint was about to be wrapped up. We also planned for iteration time after playtests as often playtests would reveal things that need to be addressed.”
“Playtests would happen online over zoom and we followed best playtesting practices. We had a lot of gamedev friends who were very eager to test. A lot of my friends are also from the South-Asian community so it was really fun to gather them to test.”
“As the game got more popular, we were also able to occasionally test with curious fans etc.
Towards the end, our producer also wrote a custom survey we sent to our players after each playtest session.”
Importantly playtests covered not just self-reported feedback, such as surveys – but also detailed observations to spot the issues that players can’t tell you themselves
“We were lucky to have great playtesters who were very kind and detailed with their feedback. It was important to identify patterns in our feedback and decide if that’s something worth changing for us.”
“Since we recorded our playtests, there’s a lot more we can learn from the unsaid things. What objects do they go to pick up first? What combinations do they keep trying? We’ll take notes of these things during the playtests and if they weren’t vocal enough about some of their thought processes, we’ll ask them at the end of the session too.”
Lessons from PLaytesting Venba
I asked Abhi for his advice for game developers, based on his experience making Venba
“We should all playtest way way more! We want to incorporate playtesting even more fundamentally in our next game.”
I also personally took away some important lessons from the team’s approach with playtesting Venba:
- Paper prototyping allowed quick evaluation and iteration, before committing expensive resources such as art or programming time. Use lo-fi methods to create more opportunities to pivot, and avoid having to throw away work!
- Plan for changes, and build in time in the development schedule to be able to react to the findings from playtests
- Observation of player behaviour surfaced issues that wouldn’t have been caught through self-reported feedback. Record sessions so that they can be studied later.
- Pre-existing knowledge of recipes made a difference to player’s perceptions of the difficulty. When playtesting recognise the cohorts that your game might have, and ensure you are getting data from them all.
If you’re interested in improving your own playtests, you can get an early-access copy of Steve Bromley’s book Playtest Plus for free below.
Learn more about Venba (and look out for the upcoming cookbook) on Visai Game’s website.
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