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.
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.
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!
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!