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Subject: Reflections on Playtesting rss

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Eric Jome
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Reflections on Playtesting

One of the most important parts of making a game is playtesting. This often means different things to different people. To some, it's simply looking for reactions from potential customers. Did they like it? Would they buy it? To others, it's a process full of ideas and feedback, inspiration and re-invention. This latter form - iterative and incremental work - that's an important form of playtesting often overlooked. How do you maximize this? Get started on it?

Don't just play. Replay!

The first time we play a game, we are involved in a learning process. But what we're really looking for in playtesting is an evaluative approach. Nothing fires up the progress on a game like moving beyond mere introduction, changing exposure into experience. What you're really getting is comparative lessons when you play over and over. Are there variant strategies? Special interactions? Interesting cases? You can't find those things, see how they work, in just one go.

Here's a tip: Don't be afraid to start over mid game! Games have beginnings, middles, and ends and understanding them all is important, but often you need to make the best use of time and learning. Many testers benefit from learning by doing, but they'll really dive deeper after they've come to grips with the basics. Start them over after a few rounds for a deeper vision!

Rapid Evolution

Testing doesn't mean much if there's no feedback and response! Change your game based on input you get. Even if you have a vision or think you're done, listening to ideas and directions is creative fodder and a chance to improve. Consider even outside ideas... but above all? Be ready to bust out changes NOW! That's right, not only should you be ready to play again, but you should be able to take feedback, implement it on site, and try it in practice. Immediately.

Keep spare blank tokens and cards on hand. Be willing to mark up your prototype; stickers and Post-Its can help. Heck, scissors and Sharpie aren't off the table as things to have in your bag - literally. Show your game, listen to feedback, then immediately try that feedback out with the same group if you can. See how the changes work in action.

Family & Friends, Strangers & Enemies

Who you’re getting input from is almost as important as what they have to say; a test isn't just facts and figures, but also feelings and reflections. You want to put your design through a variety of cases; your friends and family provide good reinforcement and proving grounds, but they have their limits. A bigger pool gives more range, more value. You need to be cautious showing a game to people predisposed to dislike it or inclined to spoil it. But weathering their slings and arrows gives you fresh and interesting insights. You don't have to win them over or take their thoughts on board, but it's in the challenges that we get opportunities to rise.

Do be wary of testers, especially designer testers, remaking your game in a new image! Not everything you hear will be usable or useful; you should remain true to a vision if you've got one. Be discerning between making it better and making it different.

Conventional Progress

A game convention, especially one devoted to design and development, is a great place to show off your game. People have set aside time to play, to learn. They're in a receptive frame of mind - in gaming mode. If you can manage a pretty prototype that's a pleasure to play, you'll stand up next to any published product. And some people find the idea of helping shape a work in progress extra rewarding. A game day at your local FLGS or your weekly meet up is almost as good. Events are always looking for volunteers to host things for attendees. So, make it fun and useful.

Blind Leading the Blind

The Gold Standard in testing is being able to hand a copy to people who know nothing about your game and asking them to play it. From the rules. Without you teaching or explaining. This is a tough step! It's a leap of faith. You won't be there to guide or assist... but in the end, this is how your finished game has to live. It has to grow up and move out of your house and get a life of its own.

Still, look for feedback here. Include your contact information. Get their assurance they'll call you back with an evaluation. Be prepared for questions, confusion, or negative reactions. It's still testing! You're looking to polish, to get to a finished form. If it's not final appearance, that's fine, but it shouldn't confuse or alienate. Don't go into blind testing blind yourself! Know the point and value, keep an eye on your goals in this stage.

Lines in the Sand

Did I say goals? Yes! At every point in the process, you need to have goals. Little goals. Big accomplishments. You can't take on board and make good use of tests if you aren’t sure what you're testing or where you're going. Nothing works for motivation and progress like setting goals. Play it faster? Make it clearer? Try it with another variant or twist? Yes, yes, yes.

Get in the habit of making regular progress. A local meet up can be a great tool; commit to have something new to show every session, some discovery or direction to walk away with. Put a date on the calendar. Promise yourself some deliverable on it. And then deliver it, no matter how small!

Good luck and happy testing!
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Jeff Warrender
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Very nice article. A few thoughts:

Quote:
Don't be afraid to start over mid-game

Relatedly, don't be afraid to stop mid-game. Read your playtesters -- if they're losing interest, if they're becoming frustrated by something that isn't working, if they feel they've indulged you and want to move on to other things, don't force them to see the game through to completion. Develop the skill of acquiring actionable information from watching only a limited playthrough of the game, and then, always, offer to the players the option of ending the session after you've reached that point (maybe 1/2 way through). Only complete full playthroughs when players actively insist that the game continue: this has the nice benefit of telling you that your game is starting to be "good".

Quote:
Do be wary of testers, especially designer testers, remaking your game in a new image!

Yes, but, don't dismiss anything out of hand, either. Sometimes "have you thought of [this]?" suggestions reflect a playtester's personal preference, and sometimes they're subconciously telling you that your game is on a trajectory for mediocrity. There are enough mediocre games in the world. Strive to design a good one, even if it means deviating from your original vision. Build your game around the thing that the consensus of your playtesters say is good or engaging about it.


The only other suggestion I'd add is to develop the skill of solo-playtesting. Some flaws can been seen almost immediately once a game begins, and others can be detected without too terribly much effort. It's best to find these before subjecting your playtesters to the game, because you get more value out of their time if they're acting as beta testers rather than alpha testers, and they may enjoy it more as well.
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Keith Matejka
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Nice article, Eric.

I find the hardest part of the design process to be filtering feedback. Figuring out what to explore as a potential change and what to throw out. That filter can change dramatically as the game develops.

Sometimes I feel like I'm disregarding a potentially amazing idea, while other times I feel like I'm exploring a bad idea and I'm being distracted from forward progress.

Keith
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Eric Jome
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kmatejka wrote:
I find the hardest part of the design process to be filtering feedback.

That's easy, Keith. Feedback you get from me is good. Feedback you get from others is bad. Unless they agree with me.
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Carl Nyberg
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One time after playtesting a card game, my playtesters gave me contradictory feedback. One said that the game favored attacks too much and the same person later in the written feedback said that defense was too strong: all you needed to do was sit back and defend.

I made some adjustments to help both attack and defense while taking away their advantages, and made the game better.
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Jack Poon
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Great article!

One thing that I found that helps with getting critical feedback is to begin by agreeing with the person instead of defending. I once had a play tester give me some feedback and I instinctively was inclined to defend the game by saying well, yes, that's what happened but that characters main strength is to be played this way but by agreeing with them, I was able to help advance what they thought was a good idea and also advanced my thoughts on the character and in the end, I was able to make a much more versatile character that was great for different strategies from different people. Playing devil's advocate against myself has often given me new insight and ideas.
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Nate
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I tried once to give feedback to a guy who kept on interrupting me and telling me "that's what I was going for." I was trying to explain to him that his system of rolling dice would have the same probability of success for a player with a high score in that attribute as a player with a low score. And that the player with the lower score (lower was supposed to be bad) actually has a better chance at avoiding a "critical failure".

He kept on interrupting me saying that he wanted there to always be a chance for failure "no matter how high your attribute is". Which is a fine goal, but the system he came up with actually made players with higher attributes more likely to fail. I never got to my point because he kept interrupting me, with that same line: "That's so there's always a chance of failure..."

It was so frustrating I didn't want to playtest anything of his for a long time.

So, yeah. Don't get defensive, and don't interrupt feedback.

Personally, I always try to suss out what the real problem is from what they're saying.

For example, a suggestion might be: "Make the game end 2 rounds earlier." But what they might mean is that the game just feels too long. Well, there are other ways to address that. One of the things that makes a game feel long is downtime. How can that downtime be reduced? Maybe when the downtime is reduced, the game length won't matter so much?

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Craig Somerton
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I don't play to win - I play for enjoyment and social interaction.
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I find the most difficult part of testing is not to find players to test, but to find players who are willing to test multiple times.
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