Playtesters are the sole authority of their own experience. There is not a single person in existence better qualified to comment on the player’s experience than the player herself. We designers need our playtesters to share their experiences with us. It is critical to gather as much of these as possible.
It would be ideal if our playtesters could state exactly what issue they see in our design. In that case, they could point us directly where we need to put our eyes. Unfortunately, that will seldom be the case. Be mindful that playtesters are not generally experienced designers. They know what they like (or don’t) but they may not be able to fully articulate why they like it. This is not to say in any way that their feedback isn’t useful but instead to emphasize the role of playtest data as an indicator. This is why it’s so very important to ask follow-up questions.
I recommend that your follow-up questions should be structured along the lines of “What is the issue you’re seeing” or “how would your change address that issue” or “let me say this back to see if I’m fully understanding you” and “What if the game (had/didn’t have) _____. Do you think that would address the issue?”
Sarah Aronson Uses Her Feedback
Writer Sarah Aronson related her relationship with feedback in a 2012 post on Through the Tollbooth. She says that the feedback she receives points her to what is working, to what is not working, to the seeds of good ideas which need watering and a bit of TLC. Aronson used her next post to share some of her key questions: where are the hooks that pull you in? Is the plot balanced? What were the most memorable moments? How was the pacing? How was the length?
Daniel Solis Listened Beyond the Comments
Designer buddy Gil Hova is one of the folks I consulted while working out my thoughts for this series. He referenced a blog post by Daniel Solis in which Daniel laid out his process for evaluating playtester feedback. Daniel says near the end of the article “I didn’t end up using any of these new suggestions directly, but instead tried to suss out what those suggestions were trying to fix. They were trying to make early choices matter.” Again, playtester feedback may not be the solution but it is a valuable indicator.
Gil Hova Listened Beyond the Comments
Gil also shared his experience applying Daniel’s approach. Gil brought his new game Primetime (which is excellent by the way and you should plan to buy a copy as soon as it drops) to a gamer con and showed it around. The first two groups each told him that it was boring to have so much money but little to do with it. “I should be able to spend money to X,” they said where X was any number of player options.
Gil stepped back and asked what underlying problem might lead to these comments. His conclusion: it was not a problem of too few options for the money, it was a problem of too much money! He tightened the game economy up drastically and the game began to sing.
An Enhancement For Rolling Freight
Rolling Freight came with us to BGG.Con a few years ago, shortly before it went to the printer. This would be our last chance to get outside feedback, to look for loopholes in the rules and the like. One of the players mentioned that improvements lost value over the course of the game and that they should therefore get cheaper as the game proceeds. Through three years of development, this idea had never occurred to any of us–what an awesome idea!
That idea had to be left out of the core set. Rolling Freight was already a bit rules-heavy and I was concerned that the extra rule would have been the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial. But I held on to it. And I put it in Expansion #1: Great Britain/India. And it will appear in Expansion #2: Austro-Hungarian Empire/Mexico as well. A huge breakthrough. All for the low low price of listening to a playtester.
The last three columns have been devoted to my thoughts on the relationship between designers, playtesters, and their feedback. This topic–like core engagement–is an essential tool in the designer’s toolbox. It is one to which we will often return. The phenomenal Julia Cameron who we can imagine knows a thing or two about the creation as she has been an author, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist remarked in her book The Artist’s Way that
“All too often too often we try to push, pull, outline and control our ideas instead of letting them grow organically. The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.”
Researching this series led me to evolve my position as each new source made it progressively clearer that this is a broad concept with no simple answers. Reading your comments led me to adjust my position as each new response made it progressively clearer that we all will have our own take on the issue. Writing this series has matured me as a designer. I hope that in reading it, you have too.
If you’re near the west coast this weekend, I have the honor of attending Protospiel San Jose. Grab your prototype and drop by. I’d love to see you there! 🙂
How do you playtest? What sorts of feedback are you seeking? Do you give directed instructions or do you encourage testers to explore your game? How do you record your data? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.