Step 11: The most important Commodity: Playtesters

Once you’re confident that your game is working (this might take a few tweaks to your first prototype!), then it’s time to bring it to the masses.

One of our Playtesters, Xavier, enjoying a prototype of Belfort

Now we come to the most precious commodity every game designer needs – playtesters.  To a game designer, playtesters are like gold.  Here is a group of people who are taking time out of their lives to play a game in an unfinished state and provide you feedback to help you make it better.  Here are our Three Rules about playtesters:

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters. Don’t subject your playtesters to a game that isn’t ready.  We learned this the hard way with The Dig, and all it does is tarnish your reputation as a serious game designer.  It will make it even more challenging to recruit these same people to playtest your next game (or your next tweak to this game).

Rule 2: Let them play the game. Don’t spoon-feed them strategies or help them too much.  Eventually this game is going to be played without you there, so as you continue playtesting the same game, back off further and further with how much support you give players.  This is also a great way to see if the game is broken or just how you explained the rules.

Rule 3: Listen. This has two meanings.  Meaning 1: While the game is being played listen and watch to what players are doing.  Are they complaining about something over and over again?  Are they confused about a specific rule a lot?  Are they trying to circumnavigate the rules to make it work for them?  Watching and listening to people play your game will give you a lot of insight into what’s working and what’s not working.

Meaning 2: really listen and be humble when the game is over.  By now you should have an idea already if they genuinely enjoyed the game, but now it’s time to get their actual feedback.  When they share their feedback, do not get defensive at all.  Accept all comments without defending why you did it your way.  Of course you don’t have to take any of their advice, and it’s impossible to take everyone’s advice all the time, it’s silly to ignore feedback, especially if you get the same feedback multiple times.

The one thing that we’ve found out about playtesters is that they usually enjoy being a part of the process, if you’re open to suggestions at the end.  To some people, helping overcome hurdles that a specific playtest might have had is like playing a game in and of itself.  The more times you get the same people to playtest each improved iteration of your game, the more context the feedback will have as they will understand where the game has come from and what changes have been made.  It’s especially rewarding if you have used some of their feedback in the next playtest.

Matt's suggestion of adding Taxes to Belfort

For Belfort we were having some issues with a run-away leader and were brainstorming ideas on how to overcome this with our playtesters after a specific challenge.  One playtester, Matt, suggested some sort of tax that was higher for players in the lead.  We fooled around with some balance but this feature ended up in the final game!  Thanks Matt!

Remember the purpose of getting playtesters to play your game isn’t for them to pat you on your back, it’s so you can get honest feedback on your game.  Treat your platesters like gold!

-Jay Cormier

Oh, “The Dig”…the Bamboozle Brother’s albatross, hanging around our neck like a millstone…But it was a good learning experience for us. It showed us the value in a) playtesting solo and b) having a solid working relationship with our core playtesters, many of whom we count amongst our best friends outside of gaming.

While some designers might have some difficulty accepting that we can get unbiased, constructive feedback from our friends, I would challenge them in that if you follow the rules that Jay has outlined, you can.

Rule 1: Respect your playtesters…

… and they will respect you. This is really the crux of our playtesting experience so far. We try to foster a mutual level of trust and respect between us,m nnn and our main playtesters. We are open so they are open. We are mature enough to know that there is nothing personal if they provide us with seemingly negative feedback so they are mature enough to give us a reality check when we need one or a boost if it’s deserved. They also know how seriously Jay and I take game design and they want to see us succeed. None of them want us to fail and would not blow smoke up our collective ass just to make us feel good. The fact that most of our playtesters are our friends who we already trust and respect is one thing, but we strive to do this with anyone who plays our games whether we’ve known them for 10 years or 10 minutes.

Rule 2: Let them play the game…

… is a hard one to follow because, as the designer, you have a preconceived notion of how the game “should” be played – and of course you should, otherwise you would never have made the game in the first place. And so we sometimes stick our big noses in when we shouldn’t. One thing we most definitely need to get better at doing is doing “blind” playtesting – where the playtesters read the rules and play without any input or interpretation from the designers. This is the true test of how well the rules have been written, how well your graphic design has been done and how well your player aid and board transfer information to the players. The more you allow your playtesters the freedom to interpret what they see with eyes wide open and a clear mind, the better off you will be because the feedback will be untainted by outside interference (i.e. YOU). One thing that is hard to sometimes recognize is that if the players do something unexpected, it is more likely because your explanation of the rules (be they verbal or written) was inadequate than any fault of the players themselves.

Rule 3: Listen…

… and take notes during game play. Accept their feedback. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it, but you have to respect that their opinion is their opinion and all opinions are valid at this point in the process. I know I often have to stop myself from saying, “We thought of that already…” or ‘No, that won’t work because…” One rule I try to apply to myself when taking feedback is that I will not respond, I will only record. This, again, speaks to respect. For the majority of our serious playtesting, we have serious playtesters – “hardcore” gamers whose opinions we respect, and so we listen. But, for some of our less strategic games, we may have family members and friends who game casually play – does this make the feedback any less relevant? No – sometimes, they have the most realistic view of the game because they do not know common game parlance, memes or conventions and require things to be spelled out clearly. There is no such thing as bad feedback, only bad listeners. Don’t be one of those. Take everything under advisement.

All in all, playtesters are hugely influential in the journey from inspiration to publication. Without playtesters and their feedback, designers would never truly know if a game was worth presenting to a publisher. And no publisher would produce a game without playtesting it. A well-playtested game stands a MUCH better chance of getting published than one that hasn’t been. We’re starting to work with some outside playtesting groups (i.e. not personal friends) so our 3 Cardinal Rules are going to become even more important as Jay and I move forward with our games! I know that just reflecting on this post for the blog has helped Jay and I realize that there’s a lot more we could do to make more efficient use of our most valuable contributors. We’ll definitely have more blind tests. We may have more formalized feedback sheets again (we tried that once or twice), who knows? Maybe we should post them if we can find them…

In closing. I’d just like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks to all of our playtesters to date. We couldn’t have gotten this far without you! You guys and gals rock!

-Sen-Foong Lim


Step 8: When to make the first Prototype

Once we’ve got a bit of balance into our game, it’s time to make a playable prototype.  How good should the quality be at this stage?  As rough as possible, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect game play.  If your game has cards in it, then it’s not wise to just cut up pieces of paper to make them because you’d be able to see right through them and that possibly could affect how someone plays the game.

For a first prototype it’s best to keep it simple.  If you can get away with using cue cards for your cards, then do that.  Don’t spend time at this stage of the game creating any artwork or even a design layout.  After making so many prototypes for so many different games, there is one constant for all of them – you will make a lot of prototypes for each game!  The first prototype needs to be playable enough to see if your concept works as intended.  If your game has a board, don’t spend time gluing it to carboard at this stage.  For now, it’s fine that your board is just paper.  Tape it together if you need to, but not much more than that is needed.

First Prototype for Box Office:

Here’s a first prototype for a game of ours called Box Office.  You can’t get much more basic than this!  Cue cards with cubes for dice and bingo chips.  The concept of this game is intriguing (a game about scheduling movie release dates to maximize profits!) but we haven’t found the balance between simulation and fun yet!

First Prototype for The Dig:

We had this one idea for a game about digging up artifacts around the world.  We appropriately called it The Dig.  In our head everything seemed perfect.  We spent our time balancing the game and then proceeded to make cards using the computer and a lot of clip art.  There were 32 pages of game that had to be printed and cut out!  The prototype looked really good and when we played it we realised that it did not play at all like the game that was in our head. We had to go right back to the drawing board and nothing from our first prototype was useful at all.  Lesson learned!  Get that first prototype made as quickly as possible so you can test the concept before investing too much time making it look pretty.

-Jay Cormier

Oh “The Dig”. It will forever have a special place in my heart. A deep dark pit of doom kind of place. Seriously though, this is the one area where Jay and I work so well together. Jay is more of a hands-on kind of guy while I am more of a conceptual kind of guy. Jay’s my motivation to get prototypes made because he wants to get down and dirty and play the game while I want to try to make sure the game is as perfect as it can be before we make a prototype. I’ll be honest – neither is right or wrong, per se, but after working through several games with Jay in this way, his way has better outcomes if you’re working on a team. Sometimes, the differences you have in conceptualizing how a game will work only come to light when you have something concrete to fiddle with (“Hey! What would happen if we had 4 sections per tile instead of 2?”)

As with “The Dig”, we’ve made prototypes that end up getting shelved. But some games, like “Belfort” have come from us making a very very very simple 24-card prototypes that we called “Pocket Games” (now “Games-on-the-Go” or GotG). This was an excellent idea Jay had – try to make a game with as few components as possible. We tried to make games in many genres (tile laying, resource management, area control, etc.) with a self-imposed limitation that it had to be played with a maximum of 24 cards. That, in itself, is a design challenge (and I might have just stole Jay’s thunder … whoops!). But what comes out of having such a quick prototype made is that we are one step closer from concept to reality. We gain a quicker idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what plays well enough to invest more time in.

When your design partner is an 8-hour plane trip across the country, we need to know what our priorities are when we meet. Having these GotG prototypes lets us decide within a few hours if a concept is worth our while. And some, like “Belfort”, became instantly high priority after a few hours spent with 24 cards and some paperclips.

Remember – everything has to start somewhere. There’s noting like actually holding cards in your hands, be they cut out of recipe cards or made out of old playing cards, printed on a colour laser or written on with a marker, to help you bring your game from the spark of an idea into something much more.

– Sen-Foong Lim

Using one of your game ideas from Game Design Challenge in Step 5, make a quick prototype and playtest it to see if it plays like you intended.  Don’t focus on art at all, just make sure it’s fairly balanced and go!