Step 26: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Taking Feedback from a publisher

You’ve just played some or all of your game with a publisher, and now comes the moment where the publisher expresses how much he loves your game and wants to give you a ton of money to publish it.  Er…no…

If you’re lucky, you’ll at least get feedback from the publisher at the end of the game (and of course, sometimes throughout the game too).  Now here comes an absolutely critical point – LISTEN!  It doesn’t matter that you already thought of the idea that he just suggested – publishers want to know if you are going to be easy to work with on the further development of the game.  This isn’t to say that you have to roll over and accept all their feedback 100%.  Listen to their entire feedback and then formulate your response appropriately.

When playing Belfort for the first time with Tasty Minstrel Games, they gave a couple of suggestions at the end.  One was about determining player order.  They had a different idea for how players could change player order throughout the game.  I thought it was an interesting idea and then actually wrote a note down while in front of them.  This helped to show that I took their feedback seriously. I was fortunate enough that they wanted to play again the following night and I said it would be easy to incorporate their idea in that playtest.  We did, and the game played better.  I think the ease of working with me made their decision to publish Belfort a bit easier that night.

If a publisher is not forthcoming on their feedback, then start them off by asking them the things that they liked the most about the game, then what they liked the least.  Even if they never publish the game, this feedback is like gold to you as you now have feedback from a publisher on how to make your game better (at least in their eyes).  While you don’t have to change the game based on every piece of feedback you get from a publisher, it’s still wise to listen and keep track of what feedback you’ve received in case you start to see a pattern developing.

Remember that they are giving feedback to change the game into something that they would want to publish.  Maybe this publisher makes a lot of games for younger kids so they keep trying to simplify the concepts and strategies.  Of course, if you did your research beforehand you’d know what a publisher wanted and would show them appropriate games.  That said, sometimes it’s getting near the end of the convention and you haven’t had a bite on a couple of your games, so you start branching out to some not-so-perfect fits!

Sometimes the feedback you get will be that they’re not interested.  If possible, without sounding too much like a doofus, try to find a reason why not.  Humility will be very important here.  Try not to be defensive!  Most likely you’ll get a response that they’re not publishing games with pirates, or card games, or games with high production costs, or games with language on it, or games for that demographic.  Whatever their response – it’s great information for the future.  One day you might invent a game that does fit with this publisher’s needs.

When showing Up in the Air to R&R Games they said that they thought the game was going to be a lot goofier based on the theme of juggling.  When they saw it was more of a serious card game, they lost interest.  Fair enough.  When showing Hog the Remote to Out of the Box Games, Max said that he wasn’t looking to get into any more pop culture games based on the sales of a recent game not performing well. No problem.

Bottom line – listen, listen, listen.  It’s so easy to become defensive about your baby that you’ve been working on for years.  Instead, keep your emotions in check and listen.  You might be surprised how it turns out.

Next up we talk about the last phase of a convention – leaving your game with a publisher.

-Jay Cormier

As much as designers want a game to be played, they tend to design games that they themselves would want to play – sometimes subconsciously. More often than not, the end result is a game that, while good, may not have the mass appeal necessary to take the game to market. Taking feedback is a critical skill as it is the best ways to transform a game from something you like into something more people will like.

Unfortunately, the designers are usually too close to the project after working on it for so long to be completely objective Being detached about their “baby” becomes difficult and accepting criticism is very difficult, but is, in my opinion, the real definition of being professional. It’s not whether you can design a game, or sell 100,000 copies – it’s whether or not you can receive feedback gracefully and implement suggestions in a constructive and positive manner.

So – how do you take feedback in a professional manner? As a therapist, I have studied how to give and receive feedback in depth. Here are some pointers, specific to meeting with a publisher:

Be Attentive

There’s a line in a movie or TV show that’s always stuck with me that goes something like “To be interesting, you’ve gotta be interested.” See the difference? I think it had something to do with picking up the ladies in the movie, but what this means in terms for feedback is that you need to show the person giving you the constructive criticism that you are actively involved in the feedback process.

When feedback is being given to you live, it is not a passive process and it is not one-sided. Your role as the receiver is to first ask for feedback. And from there, your job is to appear interested in order for the person giving feedback to feel like they are being valued, that they are being listened to. Non-verbal cues such as leaning forward attentively, making good eye contact, and writing down what they’re saying are sometimes more powerful than the verbal cues. Make the person giving the feedback feel like they are the only person in the room and that you are hanging on their every word. Add this to verbal cues like saying “That’s great, please go on!”, “Excellent feedback – let me jot that down!” and you’ve got a recipe for helping people open up to you.

Remember though, being a good listener means that they’re doing most of the talking – it’s very difficult to use your ears when your mouth is constantly in motion!

“Please, Sir, may I have some more?”

Will every piece of feedback be useful? Will every piece of feedback even be constructive? No – some of it is not helpful at all and some of it will just be offhand comments with little to no bearing. But there is an art to drawing out the kind of feedback you need from your audience. Once you have a publisher engaged in an active feedback session, you want to get every last bit you can from them.

Again, there are both verbal and non-verbal cues you can give to elicit more feedback. Simple things like nodding and saying “go on” can help make a person feel like you are willing to continue listening. Asking a person to clarify or expand upon their initial feedback is a great way to keep them talking and to get to what they really mean – more often than not, their initial statement is just scratching the surface of what they want to say. So following up their comment with something like, “That’s interesting – tell me more about how you see that working” can help them help you.

The longer you can keep them interested in talking to you, the more memorable you and your game will be to them and the more they will likely feel that they had a hand in helping the game come to fruition. They may even talk themselves into liking the game enough to take the prototype for further consideration.

So, much like a hostage negotiator – keep ‘em talking!

One question I find very useful is called a “scaling question” – you ask the person to rank some aspect of the game (or the overall game, even) on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being poor and 10 being great. Then you ask them how you could make the game even just half a point better (so a 6.5 instead of a 6, for example). This type of solution focused questioning leads to some amazing insights and really helps to involve the publisher in helping you find solutions to their issues with your game.

Be Open and Accepting

The #1 way to kill a feedback session before it has really started is to be defensive. You want to project a sense of collaboration rather than confrontation. So you need to be objective. You need to separate yourself from the project at this moment and recognize your purpose in asking questions. It’s to gain the knowledge you need to get your game published, first and foremost.

Taking feedback sometimes means taking the bad along with the good. You may not particularly agree with what the publisher is telling you. Sometimes, you may have already heard that. But by shutting them down by saying, “Yeah, we’ve heard that before…” or “No, I disagree with what you’re saying” you are effectively closing the door on your own future.

And rolling your eyes when a publisher says something like “Hey, have you considered adding a spinner?” is always a bad idea.

Be open and willing to accept any and all feedback. This doesn’t mean you have to act on all of it. In fact, a high percentage of it you might have already heard or its the kind of feedback you can disregard as it doesn’t fit your artistic vision. Your goal isn’t to get in an argument with the CEO of Company X over whether your game has any merit or not. Your goal isn’t to defend the current incarnation of your game. Your goal is to find out what the next incarnation of your game would have to look like for Company X to consider publishing it.

You may not realize it at first, but the publishers are giving away a gold mine of information when they give you feedback. They are, in effect, telling you what changes would need to be made in order for your game to become more publishable. So, be open and accepting of the feedback you’re given. Some of it may just help you out in the long run.

So that’s just a few hints about feedback.

One of the fringe benefits of working as a team is that Jay and I are constantly giving each other feedback, and while most of it is positive, sometimes we’re telling each other that we really don’t like where a project is headed or that we’re really not interested in a specific game at this time. That’s sometimes difficult, as we usually champion projects separately and in a duo, there’s no such thing as consensus!

Giving and receiving feedback is a difficult thing – it is a skill that takes time to master. But if you can, you will be further ahead for it. As I wrote above, it is the mark of a true professional to be able to take difficult constructive criticism and act on it accordingly. Remember – yes, you are selling your game but you are also selling yourself as someone who can work with a publisher in a rational manner. And being able to give and receive feedback and make positive changes to your game because of it is the best way to show a publisher that you’re in this game to win it.

-Sen-Foong Lim

 

Step 12: Honest Feedback? Honestly?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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?

-Jay Cormier

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:

SCALING

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.

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS

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!

TAKE TIME

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.

AND THEN…

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.

-Sen-Foong Lim