I was asked the other day about playtesting. Over on the Games Design page John said the following:
“I’ve been developing a game with a few friends for a while, could you maybe provide some insight into what kinds of questions to ask playtesters? General feedback is good, I know, but are there specific things you ask or things that you look for when watching others play ?”
Well playtesting is a large and complex subject, and I have been meaning to write something about it for ages. It is, however, somewhat tangled and I would probably want to break it down into a number of bits. That will take a bit of time. However, for the moment, let’s have a think about John’s question and see what there is to say off the top of my head.
Regardless of what type of game you are making, the most important question is this: is it fun? A game that isn’t fun needs something serious doing to it before you worry about any details.
If it isn’t fun then ask what isn’t enjoyable. Do your best to avoid comment here and just let them speak. You presumably liked it enough to show it to them, so you may already think it’s great. But they don’t. You need to find out why. Encourage them to be honest even if it’s painful¹. If your playtesters hold back then you’re only saving up trouble for later.
If there are problems at this most basic level then you need to carefully dissect the whole thing.
Still, all is not lost. Be sure to also ask what they did like. Most designs that aren’t fun overall are still working well in parts. You can build on this. Keeping the bits that did work in mind, be prepared to do some major restructuring.
One important thing is to limit what you ask. Playtesters are dealing with a new game and there are a myriad things to consider. Try to get them to focus on a specific aspect of the game in each session. For example, are the rules clear? Are the different scenarios sufficiently different or do they duplicate each other? Are the different sides balanced? Are the rules really clear?
With some of these you may need to break it down further. This depends on how you have written/developed the rules, which stage of testing you are at, and what kind of game it is in the first place. You also have to consider what the end result of the game needs to be. If you are intending to sell it to the public then you probably want to hold it to a higher standard than if you expect to play it only at Christmas with your immediate family.
So, deal with one bit at a time. This reduces confusion and allows you to get a solid basis on which to build the rest of the rules. Some questions may need several sessions to resolve, others can be fixed on a single run through. Playtesting is an organic process that evolves as it goes along. Don’t be afraid to adapt as necessary and change your plans as you go along. Far better to dwell on something longer than you’d intended than to miss something important.
Sequencing is often critical. For example, there’s not much point in fine tuning the balance of the forces before you’ve finished with the core rules. Changing the rules on which the balance is based simply wastes that effort. By all means do a rough cut, but be aware that you can’t get a final balance till the rules themselves have settled.
As a designer, it’s very likely that you will be more defensive and protective of your design than you really should be for its own good. Spend some time after each feedback session pondering which darlings could be murdered and which criticised elements really need to stay (and why, and what needs to change). Then bin the expendable ones (but perhaps keep some notes) and look very hard at the bits you keep. How can they be improved? This gives you a good idea which areas you still need to concentrate on.
One of the best pieces of advice for making sure a playtester can understand the rules is to get them to teach you how to play. You can do this at a number of different stages in the process, but you can only really do it once with each tester, so save it for important steps.
Simply give them a set of rules and the time to read them. Then sit down and have them explain the game to you. The hardest part here is not leading them on to the conclusion you know you meant (but perhaps didn’t write). Take notes. If they are going down a completely wrong track then you might need to steer them back. Ask them to check the wording of the rule. Perhaps they are mistaken? Most people make mistakes when they play a game the first time.
Remember that you’re testing their understanding here, not their skill (or yours) at the game itself. Are you playing the game you intended, or is there some confusion and miscommunication in what is written down?
I’ll say again that the tricky bit here is keeping your mouth shut as much as you need to. Once you open your mouth, keep comments to the minimum needed to get them back on course and then clam up again. Do not let them get to the point where they are looking to you to check the rules. Keep a poker face. Ask them rules questions. Make them refer to the written rules as that’s all anyone else is going to have.
As with any other creative endeavour, game designers need a fair amount of self belief. There are tens of thousands of games out there already – why is yours worth playing? What’s special about your baby?
You also have to believe in the feedback of your playtesters. By this I mean that we’re all individuals and you have to be careful not to allow a single strident voice to colour the whole development of your game. Ask each person in the test what they thought, especially the quiet ones. Don’t just listen to the loudest voice. Try to gauge the consensus opinion on criticised elements. If everyone hates something, finds it dull, doesn’t understand it, etc then it certainly needs looking at. If a minority don’t like it, especially if others do find that bit works, then you have more of a challenge.
At the end of the day, no game suits everyone, and so you cannot please every individual gamer. But you can aim to please the bulk of your target audience. You did think about your target audience, didn’t you? Wasn’t that part of your brief?
1: Don’t be ashamed to weep openly.