Playtesting Feedback Tips

IMG_4525A few weeks ago, Valour was tabled FOUR times in one weekend, with four entirely different groups. One group, after having the game significantly stalled early on by an edge case I hadn’t yet considered, soldiered on to completion late into the night.

Overall, feedback was extremely encouraging. Many of the mechanics are feeling more streamlined, and the repeat players all said this was the best session yet. A few systems in the game which are absolutely critical to gameplay are still experiencing some ambiguity and confusion, so those are the next things I need to address.

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently from other first-time designers struggling with how to react to feedback during a playtest. This can be really hard, but I’ve developed a few strategies to make the most of it, no matter what the situation. Putting them down here in hopes they’ll be useful.

Everyone has an opinion on just about everything, and that includes your game, and all the mechanics therein. Obviously your design isn’t complete, so when presented with this, it puts players in a very different state of mind than when playing a published game (and you want this!) I’ve never heard players suggest the movement arrows in Arkham Horror should be redone, or that the voting system for missions in Battlestar Galactica is bunk. Regarding Valour, though, I have, heard that control of Caesar should be handed over to a player, the map should be completely rewritten, the thematic inevitability of defeat should be undermined, and even that a calendar/timing system should be entirely nixed.

It’s easy for play testers to say these things. Often, they haven’t seen older versions, so are unaware of things which have been changed or removed previously; they aren’t in your head, and don’t have the same vision of the final outcome which you do; they may have mentally mapped the solution space of the game from the play side, but likely haven’t considered exactly how connected each game system may be, and what the long reaching impacts of a small change may be. So it can be hard to hear these things.

The key things to remember are that:

A) This is why you asked them to play. There’s a theory in winemaking that grapes which have undergone the greatest hardships of weather and soil make the best wines. Having more smart people hammer on your designs and question your assumptions will always end up landing beyond what you could have constructed on your own. As long as you remember…

B) It’s your design. Unless it’s a publisher or developer who is demanding changes before optioning it or publishing the game, you literally do not have to take anyone’s suggestions. I believe taking it to that extreme would be folly, but that route is available to you. Your job as a designer is to absorb all of this, as well as your own observations of players interacting with your rules, and to percolate these reactions through your own filter, hopefully ending up succeeding in your design objectives, while delivering something which is both functional and fun for players.

In Aikido, when being corrected on a movement by a sensei, the only acceptable response is “Hai!” (yes, in Japanese) to indicate that you are acknowledging and will attempt to do better. This mindset is great for receiving comments and criticisms during a test. I jot down the comment in Evernote and make sure to include a little context so it will make sense later. If the tester’s idea isn’t fully formed, I’ll ask followup questions to try and help them flesh out their reaction. “Why do you feel this should be different?” “How would you want that to work with <other mechanic>?” or “What would you recommend doing to offset <second-degree effect they may not have considered>?”

This can sometimes spark a lively dialogue, including great insights from the other players. This can also help put the players in the mindset of not only considering the changes they want to see, but also how those changes may fit into the game at large.

I’ll take all these notes and go over them after the test, consolidating, looking for patterns, and rewriting to try and distill out the valuable nuggets. After I’ve digested everything, and made decisions on whether the items are things I need or want to address, and then I’ll use my collated notes to update my rules for the next playtest.

It can be frustrating to feel like everyone thinks your design decisions are wrong, or that your well-calculated systems are broken, but every piece of feedback, positive or negative is an awesome chance to make your design stronger — either by making a positive change to your design, confirming that you made a correct decision because you disagree with the suggestion, or by giving you a new perspective. Even if everyone totally hates it, you’ve learned that either there’s more work to do, or perhaps you simply haven’t found your target gamer audience.