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Today we’re going to prepare you for external playtesting. We already have gone through how to present your game, so this time we’re going to focus on the feedback aspect.
Up to this point, you’ve been playtesting with family, friends, colleagues, and by yourself. Most of the feedback you’ve be given is probably very supportive of your project (regardless if it’s positive or negative). This feedback has hopefully helped you make a lot of progress in your game development. Your game should be functional now (although it may not be fun), and you’re probably feeling pretty proud of it (ie. me with my first project). So it’s pretty natural that your hopes are high that everything is going to go great for external playtesting.
The reality is that the majority of the time external/public playtesting is not going to be as supportive or positive. You will get negative feedback, your game may not be as entertaining as you thought, some playtesters will make it clear they don’t like your game, and problems are going to be found (potentially very big ones). For new designers, and some experienced ones, this sometimes hurts more than it should.
Now, we’re not saying you shouldn’t go into public playtesting feeling proud of your game in order to avoid this potential pain. Instead we’re going to focus on how to mentally prepare you for public playtesting in a way that you will be ready for what may otherwise be a demoralizing and hard-to-accept experience. We’re also going to go over what you need to do to make your playtests productive and to make sure you don’t put up a wall to criticism of your game.
The main thing you can do to prepare is to do your best to separate yourself from your game. Whatever playtesters may say about your game is not a reflection of who you are as a person. It is also not because they want to ruin the thing you’ve worked so hard on. You’ve asked these people to give their feedback and perspective on your game--not you, not how much work you put into it, not what your vision is. The only thing you’re asking them to provide feedback on is the game, and that’s exactly what they’ll give you.
Another way you can prepare for external playtesting is to keep in mind that your game is still in development and is not perfect. Being ‘in development’ implies that more work is expected to be done on your game and that you’re still tweaking/fixing parts of the game. Don’t fool yourself into believing that because your game has been working smoothly so far that it will continue to work smoothly forever (as this is rarely the case). Development happens in stages and sometimes you take steps backwards instead of forwards. That’s okay though because in order to develop a great game you need to know what doesn’t work as much as you need to know what does.
Accepting criticism and critiques also requires you to understand that there is no perfect game. You can’t reasonably expect to have everyone enjoy and give glowing feedback for your game because there is no game in existence that works flawlessly and pleases everyone. The number 1 game on boardgamegeek.com: Pandemic Legacy, has 3587 10/10 ratings. It also has 278 ratings of 1/10 (certainly not a number to be scoffed at). Not everybody will like your game--and this is just a reality of designing and playtesting.
Regardless of what you do, a playtester who doesn’t like social deduction games (for example) is almost guaranteed to not like your social deduction game. So don’t get too worried or upset if they don’t like your game. However, even if the don’t like your game you still need to listen to what they have to say--they may have some advice about how to make your game more interesting to other types of players!
Furthermore, when someone says they didn’t like an aspect of your game, you need to do your best to understand this is not out of hatred, but rather to help further develop your game. This isn’t necessarily about them not understanding the game, what your vision is, or how much work you’ve put in. Instead of getting overly defensive when you receive that negative feedback, try to figure out why the playtesters are saying that, and ask how you can fix it so that it works with what you were planning. You need to do your best to be unbiased and neutral in order to avoid influencing playtester feedback and show you are willing and enthusiastic about improving your game (same goes for presenting your game).
Alright, we’ve started to make that transition into a productive playtest. So what should you be doing to get the best feedback?
The first thing you should make sure you’re doing is recording the feedback you’re getting. This shows that you’re taking the playtesters’ feedback seriously and it will help you remember what was said when you go to apply your feedback. Of course, to apply feedback you need to be able to sort through it. So make sure you keep things neat and in order for your own sake. Part of that is writing down when (including start time) and where the playtest took place (something I’m not very diligent in doing, but Allysha is--see the picture to the left). If there’s an idea that comes up multiple times from different playtests, you should highlight it (use a different colour, put a star, asterisk, rainbow, or whatever else beside it)--this change should be something you consider for your game. There’s a reason multiple people are suggesting it, and there’s a good chance it’s going to improve your game.
Just like in internal playtesting, most of your feedback for external playtesting will probably come at the end of the playtest. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taking down feedback during the playtest. Just do your best not to interrupt the flow and speed of the game as we mentioned in Designing Your Core: Internal Playtesting.
If a playtester mentions a piece of feedback during game that requires additional detail, the best practice is usually to write it down, and ask for further clarification after the game. Don’t delay the game for others by focusing on one person’s feedback during a playtest. The only time you may want to do this is if every playtester is thinking the same thing. If this happens to be something that’s potentially game breaking, ask the playtesters if they’d like to stop at this point. If they do, figure out if you can make a quick fix (with help from your playtesters if you need it) and keep going. If that’s not possible, have a discussion on how to fix it for the next playtest.
Stopping your game because of a large flaw is difficult, but you have to be respectful of your playtesters’ time as well as your own. Playing and getting feedback on a game that is not fully functional is not going to be as productive for you or your playtesters. Take the time to figure out how to potentially fix it, and then go from there.
When the playtest is done, write down the end time so you know how long the playtest took. This helps you determine whether your game is taking too long (or is too short, how we wish we had that problem) or if your playing time seems to be inconsistent. When you’re asking for feedback, remember that how the game felt is just as important on how the game played. You’re looking for how the experience played out for your playtesters, and feelings is a big portion of that. Don’t discount the fact that someone felt a card was overpowered just because they couldn’t tell you exactly why. Also, always allow players to explain how they’d like to see the game progress or improve after the playtest. You might find something you really like or can fix something you’ve been struggling with.
Lastly, take the time to review your feedback after a playtest. Think about if the feedback is consistent amongst that playtesting session, consistent among other playtests, and/or if it’s consistent with your own thoughts on the game. Think about what you want to try (or should try based on volume) for future playtests. When you have those figured out, come up with how they’d work in game, apply them when you get the time, and start again. If anything is inconclusive, stick with what you got, and playtest with another group. You can ask them at the end of the playtest if they thought the same as the other playtesters, or if the game would go better with the previously proposed changes.
We’ve focused a lot on converting negative feedback into a positive experience in this blog. However, there will be times when you still get external playtesters who are enthusiastic about your game (even if they didn’t like it in it’s current state). Usually this happens after you’ve done your work and have applied feedback correctly. So don’t think that it’s going to be rough experience all the way through. You will be rewarded for properly playtesting and adjusting your game, and enjoy watching your game grow into something great.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.