Using Playtester Feedback, Part 2

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”         –William Pollard


Part one of this series generated intense response from both camps. Some lauded my comments. Others decried them. So long as we’re debating, we’re thinking. As long as we’re thinking, we’re growing.  So long as we’re growing, we can avoid the arrogance of success.  Keep those comments coming folks!

A designer I know asks of his playtesters, “give me your problems, not your solutions.”  In support of this position, he offered five arguments.  My collaborative philosophy finds these arguments fundamentally flawed.


Argument 3. Playtesters tend to get attached to their suggestion and resentful if that suggestion isn’t used in the final design.

This is a valid concern.  It is also a concern that can be alleviated with appropriate courtesy.  Thank each person for their input.  Thank them for helping you make the best game possible.  State that you’ll be looking at all of their suggestions, working to integrate them and refine them in the best way possible.

This response also keeps the peace when two playtesters come up with conflicting suggestions during the same test.  Acknowledge that you won’t be able to integrate both suggestions and that everyone is working for the same goal–to make the game as good as possible.

communication_feedbackA similar excellent solution to this issue comes from Imaginatik in their article Making Feedback More Positive.  “Instead of sending individual [acceptance or rejection] messages, send a group response to all interested parties, praising them for their contributions as a collective. Indicate that each individual response was crucial in helping the review team reach a consensus. Also, mention that all ideas will be moved to the Idea Warehouse for possible future consideration. This way, each person feels good about his or her contribution as opposed to getting negative feedback.”

In other words, thank all playtesters for their contributions.  Then express that every perspective adds to your picture of the game as a whole and helps you to make the best game possible.  In this way, unused ideas have been acknowledged and the tester knows THAT YOU KNOW that she made a meaningful contribution.

This is all most playtesters need to hear.  Playtesters want to know that you appreciate them.  They want your acknowledgement and respect.  Give it to them.


Argument 4. Playtesters cannot see the inner workings of the design.  They are therefore ill-equipped to make informed suggestions.

This argument might be valid in the world of computer game design but it is not a reasonable statement about tabletop games.  The opposite is true.  One of the principal reasons many CG design schools begin by making students create tabletop board games is precisely because tabletop games DO reveal their inner workings.

Imagine you’re playing a dungeon crawl-type game like Orc Vengeance on your smart device.  you know that your hero’s sword has power 38 and your hero has strength 53 but the damage it deals seems to vary from about 60 to 130.  Do you know why that variation exists?  Is the enemy’s armor a factor?  Its agility?  Terrain?  Is your target resistant to your attack?  Or vulnerable to it?  Does the game use a randomizer?  If so, how?  Through trial and error you will likely figure out many of these details.  This will take time and even then you will probably not figure out all of them.  It is tricky to study CGs from the outside because the game engine is obscured by the interface.

Now imagine you’re playing a dungeon crawl board game like Descent.  The rules are there to be seen, to be analyzed, to be assessed.  You can look at the die faces and estimate your odds.  You know what modifiers exist and when they matter.  The inner workings of traditional tabletop games are quite close to the surface.
Argument 5.   Many players don’t want to raise a problem without having a solution as well. Asking players to express only the issues frees them to raise issues to which they see no solution.

This is certainly the most well-meaning among the arguments–well-meaning but implausible.

We need playtesters to be candid. We need playtesters to express every opinion that occurs to them in whatever form that opinion should take.  Once you’ve got that feedback, then you can decide what best to do with it.  Fail to get the feedback and you’ve got nothing to work with.

Many people have been trained by their experiences in the corporate world not to raise issues without having a solution to offer as well.  We definitely need playtesters to disregard self censorship.  However, instructing them to ‘offer issues, not solutions’ constitutes a direct order them to self-censor. It is not plausible that such directed censorship will free them from internalized censorship.

Instead, encourage openness. Practice saying phrases like “I’ll look at that,” and “how do you feel that would improve the game,” and “how do the rest of you feel about that.” Expressions like these make it safe for them to offer every concern and suggestion.  You will quickly see a change in their candor and their expressiveness.  I guarantee it.


Argument 6.   If I incorporate too much playtester feedback, it won’t be my game design anymore.

This was not one of the arguments he put forward but in developing this article, a few other folks did raise the question.

Fashion designer Tom Ford was posed with exactly this quandary in his 2014 interview with Kinvara Balfour.  He has a number of designers working under him and their creations bear his name.  His reply mirrors that which creative leaders have said across the centuries, that ‘while you do listen to everyone’s feedback, it is you who makes the final decision and this is what entitles you to put your name on it.’

While others may have given you a huge number of ideas, it is you who decided what to incorporate and how to incorporate it.  It is this which makes you the craftsman, not the originality of your ideas.  Ask any designer, artist or craftsman and she will tell you that ideas are cheap and plentiful.  Achievement is derived from refining and editing those ideas.

There may be several arguments for “give me your problems, not your solutions”  but I found them to be fundamentally flawed.  Today, we debunked the remaining arguments against soliciting playtester feedback.  That attitude is dismissive, arrogant, unfortunate and ultimately toxic.

On Friday, we return to look at positive ways to playtest and ways to best use player feedback.  See you in three days!

And if you’re near the west coast this weekend, I’ll have the honor of attending Protospiel San Jose.  Grab your prototype and drop by. I’d love to see you there! 🙂

How do you use playtester feedback?  What role would you give your playtesters?  Do you give them any directed instructions or do you encourage them to explore your game?  Or are you a laissez faire tester? 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.