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You down with O.P.P.? (Shake it don't break it, part II)

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Come talk design at the Jeff's World of Game Design blog!
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Autumn in upstate New York always brings my thoughts around to Cross Country season, which occupied nine autumns (or "falls" as we say in upstate) of my formative years. I had played baseball all through childhood and didn't really even know running was a sport, but a few friends told me in 8th grade that they needed a 5th runner to have a complete team, so I joined up, and still run to this day. A useful reminder (to myself as much as to anyone else) that an active invitation sometimes goes a long way toward getting someone involved in something.

One of my favorite memories from Cross Country in high school was that time that Al got all of us on the bus singing the call-and-response chorus of Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P.", until at last the bus driver, who was more of an enthusiast of Neil Sedaka and Eddie Rabbitt, let us say, stopped the bus and screamed at us to stop it. "I don't want to hear any more of that 'P.P.' or whatever it is!" The "ruh roh"/"oh boy I've gone and done it now" look on Al's face was priceless. Geez lady, just let the kids have their fun.

bluetaj:

Here's a post about playtesting other people's prototypes. As a playtester you're often called on to play games in all stages, but what we don't always realize is that different approaches to playtesting are appropriate at different stages of the game's life. There can be a mismatch when a playtester provides input that might in other times be useful but that's poorly suited to the present stage of the design.

bluetaj: "Haha, I broke it, two points for me!"

Some playtesters believe that their chief responsibility is to discover the ways that a game might possibly be broken, and to try strategies or playstyles that will uncover its broken elements. That is a useful and important contribution, in a game's mid- to late-stage development. Early on, of course the game is broken, there's no need to go looking for ways to make it break. Finding a situation that locks the game up or a card that's O.P.P. doesn't help the game's development, because that's not the information the designer is trying to get at that point.

A related behavior is telling a designer all the ways that an early-stage design is bad. Early-stage testing can be a bit like brainstorming, and the rule of brainstorming is, we don't critique the ideas as we write them on the board, we just write them all down. It's not usually necessary or helpful to say what's bad about an early stage design; much better is to say what seems exciting or distinctive about the design, to focus the designer's efforts on that promising idea.

bluetaj: "Ooh, you should add in..."

Often times, a playtester gets excited by the game's theme and rattles off all the aspects of the theme they can think of that you might consider including in the game. Early on, this can be somewhat helpful, although it makes two possibly incorrect assumptions: first, that you haven't done a brainstorming exercise of this sort (or have not done so competently), and second, that you are particularly married to the theme.

But later on, this advice can be less helpful, because the further a game progresses, the more likely it is to have settled on a central idea and a central abstraction, and so suggesting the designer pivot to a different abstraction isn't necessarily useful unless that pivot makes the game more interesting in some way, and specifically, it makes better use of the game's mechanics as they currently exist. If the designer would have to rip up the floor and gut the walls to build anew the game so as to implement your suggested alternative conception of the setting, chances are that advice will be ignored and can simply be left unsaid.

bluetaj: "You've got some homework to do".

"Here are ten different games that have a superficial similarity to your game, you should look them up." Why? Are you genuinely advising the designer in a way that's going to help their design progress, or are you simply showing off your knowledge of all the other games that exist?

I think the motivation for comments like these stems either from the idea that you should steer your game away from games with even a glancing similarity (which is probably untrue), or that you're inclined toward an approach that entails cobbling together elements of other existing games and should mine the suggested games as sources of inspiration. Now as to the latter point, a lot of people use that approach, so this advice can be helpful to such a designer, but unless there's a specific similarity and a specific reason the game is especially important to look up, this advice often comes across more as just fishing for something to say.

bluetaj: "I have seen your game's future, and it is ... dim"

"I don't see how this could sell in the present market." I've heard, and seen, this feedback a lot from other designers, particularly in design contests. "The market is saturated with this type of game." "No one will want to play a game about this subject". And so on. Unless you have direct experience with trying to bring a very similar game to market, you're pretty much just guessing, and the truth is that no one actually knows what is or is not viable, what is or is not capable of becoming a hit or even a sellable game. It's true, publishers have to make bets, and we'll never know whether the games they didn't bet on could have become hits, but there's no reason not to work on a game that interests you, whether or not some other person thinks it won't find a market.

bluetaj: "I don't like it".

It's very common to make your own opinion the center of gravity for the feedback. Sometimes that's important, if your dislike flows out of your experience with the game: it was frustrating, it was boring. But often playtesters or gamers will voice their distaste with the game itself. "I don't like this kind of game", "I don't like the theme you've chosen." And they think that it's very important to share this, not just as context for their feedback, but because they feel strongly that you need to know that at least one customer isn't interested in buying a game like this. Playtesting isn't (usually) market research, at least not at the earlier stages. Late in development, in a focus group type of setting, assessing market demand is in scope, but early on it's much better to just try to help the person make the game they're trying to make, instead of steering them away from it simply because it doesn't agree with your tastes.

bluetaj:

I hope this doesn't come across as a "diss" of playtesters; it is emphatically not! As I say in my book, playtesters deserve the utmost respect, and by playing your game have earned the right to say whatever they want. If anything I'd say this post is directed less at non-designer playtesters, who are usually upbeat and helpful, and more at designer playtesters, who can be know-it-alls. Insofar as I'm a designer-playtester who is guilty at times of all of these mis-timed behaviors I need to read this post more than anyone!


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