The joy and pain of playtesting feedback
What’s the single most important thing about designing a game? That is, what’s the thing without which your game will almost definitely not succeed? Well, your view may vary, but for me it has to be playtesting. Well that’s right, you may cry, I know my game is brilliant, I’ve played it a bunch of times, with my other half, and my kids and even grandma! They all said it was great! And they can’t all be wrong! Well, no, but… what I’m really talking about is testing it with strangers, and more importantly, getting proper feedback as to what’s right and wrong with your beloved game.
It's great fun designing a game, especially your first one. That first idea, the point when you realise you might really be on to something. I really enjoy all the different stages of game design - that first hour of frantically trying to get the flood of ideas down on paper, making a super-basic prototype with Powerpoint, cardboard and scissors, the first solo playtest, the first exposure of a game to family, and then, eventually and if everything goes well, sending copies out to real, three-dimensional people.
It’s really easy to only expose your games to a friendly audience, especially if they keep telling you nice things. And that may not be wrong – it might be that you’ve actually designed the perfect game for your friends and family. But if you want to take it onto a bigger stage – maybe pitching to a publisher, entering a design contest, or launching a Kickstarter campaign, you need to take it on the road. And get some feedback.
You’ve probably heard the quotes – you might, if you’re really lucky, have seen some of these on a motivational poster or two. Feedback is the breakfast of champions! There is no failure, only feedback! Yes, fine. If you don’t make a real effort to get your pet project exposed to the world, you may not improve as a designer and your game may not fulfil the potential it undoubtedly has.
But it can also be difficult to hear. It’s hard to not be defensive when someone you’ve never met starts picking holes in your game. They think it’s too complicated, too simple, too long, too short. Just not fun. Too much like this game or that game. It can feel like a real smack in the face, and it can be hard not to immediately start explaining why that person is wrong. After all, you know your game much better than they do – you designed it!
But ultimately, which would you rather – someone telling you how you can improve a game, when it’s still a work on progress, easy to change and has been exposed to relatively few people, or your game being publicly savaged by reviewers and potential backers or buyers because they can see the obvious flaws that weren’t fixed earlier in the process. It’s been said many times that ideas are cheap – it’s what you do with them that matters (see this blog from Jamey Stegmaier, for example).
Chances are, of course, that you’ll get massively conflicting feedback. Some people may love it, others will not. Different playtesters may love and hate the same specific feature, with some insisting you leave a mechanism or rule in while others bay for its removal. And that can be harder than the purely negative results – as an old expression supposedly goes:
“If one person tells you you’re drunk, and you feel fine, ignore them.
If ten people tell you you’re drunk, lie down”
But actually, if you hit on something that some people love and others hate, this is gold – because this is how you start to find your real audience for the game. And this is where a real conversation with playtesters becomes important. Who are they? What’s their background and gaming preferences? That rule you were so pleased with – is it that new gamers love that rule when playing two players, and more ‘serious’ gamers hate it? And if so, who are you aiming at? Or is it just that one particular individual loves or hates everything? The more you can find out about your testers and the context in which they are playing, the more you’ll learn about who your game is for.
So here’s twelve tips to get the most out of the feedback offered to you:
Do playtest your game, and go and get feedback – make your game available to people and listen to what they have to say.
Be clear to yourself about why you want feedback – is this just the next stage on your inevitable path to world domination, or do you really want to find out how you can improve?
Ask testers if it’s like anything else that’s been done before. If you’ve got something particularly unusual in there, have other games done it better, or worse?
Find out what’s good about your game as well as what’s not! Sometimes playtesting and feedback can actually remove your existing doubts and show you that it’s better than you thought. A few enthusiastic strangers can give you a huge boost in making that decision to take your game into the next stage.
Understand your backers and their context. What do they normally like and where would they see this game in their collection? Get their views to understand why they’re saying what they say. If they hate a particular mechanic of your game, is it because they always hate that mechanic in other games? Are they a massive deck building fan but found your game super-boring This will help you understand both how much weight to place on their critiques, but also will help you understand who you’re marketing to.
Don’t feel you have to make every change that is suggested to you – listen to everything, but look at the entirety of what people are saying.
But if more than one person is making a suggestion, or criticising a particular aspect of the game, make a careful and conscious decision about how you might resolve the problem that’s being raised.
If you don’t take advice that’s offered, be clear with yourself about why that is – you don’t necessarily need to share that reason with your testers, but make sure you’re clear in your own mind as to why.
If you do take the advice that’s offered, and make a change, think about what this means for those that liked or didn’t notice the thing you’re changing, and how that feature connects to other aspects of the game. Could you be making it worse? Could there be unforeseen consequences?
Don’t forget it’s not just about the gameplay – feedback on your rules, artwork, theme, even the components can be really valuable.
Be kind to your testers, even if you feel like you’re getting unreasonable criticism – they’re taking time to not just play your game, but to give you feedback on it. You can agree to disagree, but be respectful. Even the best games have their haters!
And make sure you spend at least as much time playtesting other people’s games as others do for you. Apart from the importance of giving back and helping others, this will help you to understand how to get better at analysing games, and at giving and receiving feedback.
Whatever happens, however uplifting or bruising an experience you find your playtesting feedback, you’ll learn loads and become a better designer as a result. So grit your teeth, get out there, and good luck!