Protospiel Houston (March 13 – 15) is only is five weeks away and Protospiel Milwaukee is just one little month behind it. Designers–aspiring or otherwise–five hundred miles in every direction are scrambling to prep that game that just almost ALMOST works and get it in front of the crowd with the skill to push it through.
Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution. Last Friday’s column focused on questions of preparation.
Both JT Smith and Brett Myers weighed in on my claim that ugly prototypes are better than pretty ones. I must confess to letting a bit of hyperbolic emphasis in this case. JT pointed out that test groups in general respond better to protos that are more attractive. JT is absolutely correct about this. I would suggest that Protospielers are not the norm, however. They are more design-focused and more able to focus on the game itself rather than its appearance. The best advice might be Brett’s assertion that “functional” is preferable to “beautiful.”
Carl Klutze added his “must bring” list of game bits:
- Spare game parts so you can make changes to the game on the fly.
- Centimeter Cubes
- An ultra fine point Sharpie
- 3×5 index cards
- Clear plastic card sleeves (all my prototype cards are in these)
- Polyhedral dice, with some extra d6 (why would you leave home without these?)
Carl also mentioned that The Game Crafter brings prototyping materials to Protospiels in the Midwest. This is a class move on their part. If you have a chance, make sure to thank those guys for doing your fellow designers a solid.
Now let’s move our focus on to execution–what will you do during the event.
- How do I keep someone from stealing my idea?
You don’t. Seriously. Your idea is a starting point and nothing more. It is in your execution of that idea that the value emerges. It is in polishing that idea until is is smooth and flows cleanly that your idea which was once nothing more than a rock gets polished into a valuable (and publishable) gem.
Everyone in the room has several dozen ideas of their own to wrangle with. They haven’t got the time to think about stealing yours. Free yourself of that fear and put your game out into the world. The feedback and support you get will prove you made the right decision.
- Should I have my playtesters fill out NDAs?
This is entirely up to you. As a matter of etiquette, attendees should never discuss a prototype in any public forum without the expressed permission of the author. NDAs make your wishes on the subject explicitly clear.
- What if a publisher asks me to sign a NDA or similar release form?
Sign it. Publishers have a variety of reasons to employ NDAs. They have their own worries and need their own protections. You want to build a good relationship with every publisher you can. Being agreeable about an early request like this one will get you good karma with them.
- Does my game have to be finished? How close to being finished does it have to be?
A prototype can be at any state of being. Testing is critical at every stage of the design process.
Many freshman designers talk about wanting a game to be “ready to test.” This belief and all the reasons underlying it should be carefully researched and written into a large leather bound book. That book should then be thrown into a bonfire. Aspiring designers should be made to encircle that fire and chant “playtest, playtest, playtest” until this demonic belief is exorcised from each of their minds.
No good design comes without playtesting.
Game designs are meant to be tested. Get your ideas on the table. Do it every chance you get. Make new chances and test it then too. Denying your design table time will delay its development and nothing more.
- Is there anything I should tell my playtesters before we start?
You should tell them where your game is at in its development cycle. Is the game new or have you been working on it for some time? Is there any particular part of the game you’d like them to focus on? Be candid. If you feel something isn’t working, tell them. Let them take a look at it. New perspectives bring new solutions.
- What sort of questions should I ask my playtesters?
The answer to this may depend largely on where your game is the development cycle.
For an alpha prototype, my questions focus on the basics–is this fun? Does the overall idea work? Is this idea worth pursuing? What would you say was the core engagement of this game?
For a beta test, I’m hitting those questions of overall balance and asking players to pay close attention to their experience. This is where I return to the question of core engagement and say things like “this game is supposed to be about ______. How well would you say the game reached that goal?”
During final testing, I urge players to look for every sneaky trick they can play, to find every loophole they can exploit, to try and rules lawyer the game out of whack.. Final testing is stress testing. Just like with a new model of car, you want to slam it into a few walls to see how it survives.
- Should I playtest a prototype the same way I’d play a published game?
People play games for a number of different reasons. The purpose of playtesting is to test the game. Players may try more extreme strategies than they normally might or actively seek loopholes to exploit. The pace and the experience will likely differ radically from a normal game play.
- What if they don’t like my game?
This is possible. Different players have different tastes. Every designer in the room has had that experience however. Most of them are also able to separate themselves from their feelings to provide constructive feedback regardless.
- What if I dislike their game?
This situation falls clearly The Golden Rule. Much as you may hope people will be considerate of you, so must you be considerate of them. Be respectful. Also be honest. You do your fellow designer a disservice to be any other way. Tell him exactly what you didn’t like. Be as specific as possible about your emotional response to that game element as well as your intellectual response. Offer suggestions and any changes that occur to you. Trust that he will do the same for you.
- What if I love their game?
Providing constructive feedback to a game you adore can often be harder than providing it for a game you hate. Do your best. Remember that the designer depends on you to describe exactly what you liked about her game, again being as specific as possible about your emotional and intellectual response. At any playtesting session, try to keep your mind on constructive feedback.
- What do I do if the game is bad and its really long? Is it bad form to gnaw my arm off so I can get away?
As Jame Mathe pointed out recently in the Facebook Protospiel page, a game does not need to be played to completion for it to be tested. Some games need to be played all the way through but others can end early. If the game elements are front-loaded, a half play can show all the major parts. Sometimes, only a few rounds are needed.
If the game is truly dreadful, the polite way to express it is “I’m ready to talk about this game. I’m not sure that we need to play any further before I offer my thoughts.” Or something along those lines. From there, you can move on to discuss the issues you had with the game.
If you’re an experienced designer, what do you like to do during a playtest event? Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer? Share with your fellow designers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe. It makes this old designer’s heart young again.
Our next set of questions cover the take-away–what to do after the playtesting ends. See you Friday!