So you’re playtesting your game and at the end everyone showers you with praise and makes you believe that you have the next big hit. Wow! Maybe you should give up your day job and spend your life savings on publishing this game yourself. Um…maybe not.
For most people the playtesters you’re going to have the most access to are going to be your friends and family. While this is great, the obvious challenge is that they are going to be biased and also don’t want to offend you. We’ve found three ways around this.
- Be the first to criticize the game. After getting some general feedback if I feel like I’m not getting enough honest input then I’ll offer up something that’s bugging me about the game. The speed to which your friends agree with your criticism will tell you how big of an issue it really is. If they blurt out “oh yeah, I didn’t like that either” immediately after you say it, then you know it’s a problem that needs resolving.
- Make a lot of games. If you only ever make one board game, then you’re going to get biased feedback from your friends and family, but if you make a dozen board games then you’ll be able to discern which ones your playtesters are anxious to play again. By making a lot of games it’s easier for friends and family to criticize a game, knowing that they can still provide praise on another one. This aligns with my MVP methodology that I outlined in my first few posts on this blog. I love playing at least two prototypes in one session and then asking which they preferred. That’s a huge indicator for which one is more publisher-ready. It’s important to note that not all gamers are the same so this feedback might differ from one group to the next, but if the feedback is consistent then you know which one you should focus efforts on getting to a publisher and which you should focus on getting back to the drawing board. Now that my friends have played dozens of our designs, they know I’m serious about game designing and that I am humble when listening to feedback on our games. I’ll often ask them if this is a game I should invest $25,000 and self-publish. Usually their love for me not going broke and becoming homeless overrides their need to be nice to their friend!
- Play with strangers. This one should be obvious, but in order to not get biased feedback, play with strangers! Now this doesn’t solve all your problems because a lot of people still want to be nice to people and some find it hard to criticize others, even if they’re strangers. One way to mitigate this is to provide your playtesters with a form to fill out anonymously at the end. This is something Sen and I don’t do enough of but we should because it’s exactly what publishers do when they playtest games to help them determine which ones to accept.
The most honest form of feedback though is not at the end of the game, but during the game itself. If you can, let other people playtest while you sit on the outside observing. See if people are engaged throughout the entire game. Are there tough challenges and decisions? Do they get distracted or bored easily? Are they trying to break the rules because they’re bored and just want to see what happens when the gather the most gold? (note: this type of playtesting is important but only if you set it up by asking them to break the game – more on this later!). Bottom line is that you have to see through the love and find the honesty in whatever way you can.
To the other game designers out there that are reading, how do you ensure you get honest feedback from your playtesters?
When not making games, my job is as a therapist. I work with kids with various disabilities, their families, teachers, and support staff. And, really, the only way I can do my job properly is by getting feedback from everyone involved in the car of the child. It’s only through listening to honest feedback that I can really meet my clients’ needs in a way that makes sense to all parties involved.
The same theory (that a person’s honest feedback is one of the most important factors in making a positive change) luckily applies to my “jobby” of game design (N.B. A “jobby” is a hobby that sometimes makes me some money, and one that I’d love to do full time if the fates allowed). We are planning on making some more formalized pen and paper tools to collect feedback and I hope to use some of my professional training in soliciting feedback to help design these forms for Jay and I to use.
I follow a school of thought in therapy called “Solution Focused Interviewing” which focuses on the positives of situations instead of the negatives to try to help patients work towards a change for the better. Here are a couple of techniques that I use from this type of interviewing that I think could be very useful in getting good, honest feedback:
Have people rate things on a scale. Most people can easily rate things on a scale from 1-10 (Personally, I prefer a 7-point likert scale, but I digress). You, as the person asking for feedback, should anchor the scale at both ends. For example, 1 could mean “Not clear at all” and 10 could mean “Very clear”. But the secret to scaling isn’t in collecting the first number or even analyzing why they chose that number – that’s actually not that important – it’s in asking this magic question: “So what could we change to make it even just ½ point better?” This is so critical because in asking this one simple question, we make the respondent part of the solution to the problem, we focus on positive change (not on the problem itself), and we agree that the concern is valid (we don’t dismiss or diminish the feedback). I think this kind of technique could have enormous repercussions on the quality of feedback and suggestions our playtesters give us.
This is an interesting technique in which people are asked to see the issue from another person’s perspective. For example, “ If your son was playing this game, what would he say about it?” – it’s very useful in helping people put themselves in other people’s shoes to help broaden the scope of their feedback. I suspect we could use this particular technique with children’s games or in very genre-specific games where you may not like the game no matter how good it is if you don’t like the theme. This type of question, however, would probably be more of the type of question we’d have to ask in response to a specific response as opposed to being used on a standard form…
IN THE MOMENT
…which brings me to my next point – one that Jay’s brought up. Some of the best feedback happens during actual game play. The difficulty in getting feedback in the moment is that you will immediately want to change the game. Now, there’s definitely some times where you’ll want to stop the game and immediately make changes if something’s broken, and there are sometimes where you won’t because the change is minor. There are sometimes where you can proceed from where you are without missing a beat (“Ok, all mines now give 2 gold instead of just 1”).
The other issue is that we’re often playing the game with our playtesters, so we’re not picking up on some critical things to look at:
– How long does it take to explain the rules?
– How long is the game / a single turn / a single round?
– How many times are people engaged in side chat?
– How many people leave the table, only to come back to play without needing to be there for other player’s turns?
– How much time is spent in analyzing options?
– How long did the game take to get to a state where it was in “full swing”? I liken a good game to a novel with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution where we want more rising action than anything else.
– What is the body language of the playtesters during the game?
– Was the game actually over before the rules say it should be? i.e. should it be ended sooner. Or vice versa, could it be extended in length if warranted?
– What was the overall mood of the game?
Basically, I think one of us needs to be out of the game more often so we can concentrate on some of these other things that are sometimes more subtle. We’ve talked about video taping our playtesting sessions before. Maybe it’d be a good idea!
Still from Solution Focused Interviewing, is the concept of allowing the playtesters time to formulate their feedback. Give them time and space to think about the game without bombarding them with questions or rushing them. The glaringly obvious is really easy to point out, but really specific feedback about mechanics or subtle nuances that just aren’t working right can take more time and effort to pin down. Allow playtesters time to think without you interjecting. Allow the question to “breathe”, like a fine wine. Because, like a well-aged wine, good feedback is worth the wait.
Last one from the Solution Focused school of though is always asking for more, never assuming that someone is done, even though they themselves may think they are done. You’d be surprised what people will say when you ask them “What else?” Don’t close any doors – always be open to accepting feedback and you will find your games changed for the better. Why? Because they don’t exist in a vacuum – they exist to be played by people with different ideas and sensibilities than you. So, in being receptive to the feedback of others, you will most likely make a game that others will like to play.