Eric Jome
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Introduction

As a game designer, you'll be putting your work in front of friends and strangers, partners and prospects. This is a necessity of the form, but many can find it trying or intimidating. Here I aim to give you some pointers on the process to help exorcise the demons of doubt and summon a successful spirit. Consider first setting the stage...

An Experience Conceived

To the testers, players, or passersby, your game is an idle entertainment or diverting construct. You should try to see what they see at the outset and understand where they expect their payoff. Who is the audience? Will the game attract a particular person or demographic? How does it fit into the taxonomy of games in weight and depth, length and style? A radical or niche experience often struggles to appeal or reward. Familiarity blends with novelty for the best result.

Avoid comparisons to existing games, even if they are inspirational to your design or it seems to you that fore knowledge of other things would provide clarity. This invites a contentious atmosphere; a false logic provokes the question "If this game isn't better than the older game, why wouldn't we just play the other game?" Games are creative interpretations. We never suggest a book should not be read because there are better books. Both should stand on their own merits.

Recognize that some people are drawn in by a theme. Others might find the action of the game more compelling. Drama, strategy, or beauty can all be hooks and create a diverse field of people who will try your game. But it may not always be a bed of roses.

Everything Is Hated By Someone

Be prepared for someone to hate your game. And by prepared I mean that there will be nothing you can do or say, change or enhance to fix this situation. Games are works of art and therefore subject to whims and tastes. When you can accept that some people will not like it, maybe even vigorously dislike it, that's when you are cultivating a direction and finding an audience. If many dislike it, you'll need to take action with a re-design, but don't rewrite the whole thing to satisfy one disgruntled voice.

Consider confronting an unhappy result by asking for examples of the critic's favorite games or play styles. This helps you understand their perspective in a positive voice. It gives you data to help see how they fit - or don't fit - into your target demographics. But putting on a good show can sometimes help things before they go awry, too.

It's Not The Game. It's You.

Be sure you don't prejudice a test by teaching poorly. No one wants to hear a lengthy description or worse a tedious analysis of the rules! The golden pattern of teaching a game applies most of all in testing. You should stick to the following points and only those points.

* "What do they need to win?" - Victory conditions frame the play.
* "When does it end?" - Knowing the limits empowers planning.
* "What do I do on my turn?" - Describe the flow of turns or rounds and enumerate the options.

Don't fall into the common mistakes! Don't discuss the details of every card and component, list or read all the rules in detail, or provide elaborate suggestions on strategy or tactics. A good test will be a demonstration where understanding comes from clear iconography and learn-as-you-go experience. After all, clarity is part of good design.

Let the players get out of it what they can. A reminder you might hear is "We can't ship you in every box!" It's tough not to try to control every event or nuance, explain all the details or intentions. Try to sit back, answer questions, take notes, and collect data. Recording your observations and those of the players is an invaluable tool for carrying improvements away from testing.

Demonstration or Research?

And speaking of testing, another helpful angle can be having a clear understanding of how far along in the process you are. And sharing that understanding with testers. Although "being done" is more of a continuum or journey, often you can make the distinction between a demonstration and research.

When you're headed into a demonstration, it is important to have more polish and completeness. Players will not expect changes midstream. They're inclined to view a design as more of a product and less an idea. Think of it like a job interview; being prepared pays off. But long before your demonstrations, you'll be doing research.

Research often focuses the work through the lens of questions like "what are you trying to accomplish?" or "what's the big idea?" Look for testers who are design peers or at least aficionados. Give them instructions but be open to collaboration and revision. And playing many types of games yourself gives you a good palette as you create your own works. For your creation, you are the decider, but making informed decisions is best. Gather that information in research mode.

To Fill Out or Not To Fill Out?

Lastly, you should consider the method through which you'll get your feedback. There's a lot to be said for being present in the moment, a hearts and minds, in-person discussion of goals and qualities. You get a fresh take on it directly, with good communication. Take notes. But personal interaction isn't always available. That's when you might consider a feedback form.

Feedback forms have two types. These are general concepts and specific questions. In the general concepts model, you often ask for numeric ratings in simple, interpretive qualities. Rate the "Fun" on a scale of 1 to 10. And rate "flow", "clarity", "fairness", "length", and "complexity" too. Collect enough ratings and you start to get a picture of your game. The specific questions approach asks the tester to write out a longer answer. Questions like "What did you like most?" or "What did you like least?" might reveal hidden insights into things the general model data points do not.

The specific questions model is time consuming for players and the results can be difficult to interpret. The general qualities form is faster and more numeric, but testers will sometimes be confused as to the meaning of categories. You can of course build a hybrid model using both types in some degree, too. Remember that testers may be more frank with you in anonymous feedback, too.

In Conclusion

Hearing your testers is a challenge required of good designers. You'll get all manner of feedback, good and bad, uplifting and crushing. Don't let it sweep you away or control the design. Use it to analyze and grow. It will help you make a better game.
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Eric Jome
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Here's a concept for a feedback form combining both approaches.

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Bojan Prakljacic
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Yeah, but what should I do when playtester points out a critical flaw in my game design and my blood rushes into my head, and I want to strangle him on the spot?

How to control those impulses?

It's not covered in your analysis.
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Eric Jome
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8Oj4N wrote:
How to control those impulses?


Above I mention being prepared by visualizing and understanding it will happen. For even less interesting reasons than an actual flaw; I've seen people tear down a design because they don't like that kind of game.

Asking up front what sort of games people like is helpful. You can steer testing away from people's particular tastes. And testing first with other designers in a collaborative design meetup can be handy, too. Nothing builds sympathy like being in the same situation.

But in the end, you are responsible for you. You'll have to work on keeping perspective and being confident. Confident if not in the design today, then in your ability to make it better over time.
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Bojan Prakljacic
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Oh, well...

Luckily I playtest in virtual environment with ppl online, so at least they are safe.
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Laura Creighton
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8Oj4N wrote:
Oh, well...

Luckily I playtest in virtual environment with ppl online, so at least they are safe.


Any time you feel like getting angry, see if you can have compassion for yourself instead. At least, I want to strangle other people the most when the person I think really needs strangling most urgently is myself.

grin: especially if you want to keep knocking off those wonderful games in an day or less.
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Owen A
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Excellent suggestions, to your 3rd point, my codesigner and I are struggling with how far to go in nuanced rule examples on the online version of our rule book...my line of thought is that if you describe an exact situation to someone who doesn't yet know the game, the possibility of muddying the core rule is higher. On the other hand, nuanced scenarios inevitably happen and failure to address them (when you as a developer are not there for the play test) could come across as a game breaking oversight. What are your thoughts on this?
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Eric Jome
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RelicsOfTheKeep wrote:
What are your thoughts on this?


Rules should be simple and simply explained. Examples of complex interactions are of limited value. And often give the wrong principles.

You're really best off helping the player understand how the rules mesh through clarity and organisation. A library of rulings and examples should be a last ditch effort.
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Stefan Daniels
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cosine wrote:
Here's a concept for a feedback form combining both approaches.



That's a good idea. We've often just handed out index cards before a play session but this more formal and useful
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8Oj4N wrote:
Yeah, but what should I do when playtester points out a critical flaw in my game design and my blood rushes into my head, and I want to strangle him on the spot?

How to control those impulses?

It's not covered in your analysis.


The effect should be total happiness!
A playtester is there to see what you were not able to see in the first place. Thanks to him and the time he spends testing, your game will improve.
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