Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 3

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You prepped and polished your prototype.  You made the trip to a Protospiel event, an Unpub event, or some other awesome playtesting event. You put it your design in front of a bunch of total strangers.  They gave you tons of feedback.  Now the convention is ending and your next steps lie before you.  Where should you go next?

Successful design has three parts.  You had good preparation.  You had good execution.  Now you need good resolution.  What will you do AFTER the convention is over?

  1. A publisher expressed an interest in my game.  When should I contact her?

Your first step when a publisher expresses an interest should be to establish a timeline.  If you haven’t, there are a few general rules you can follow.

It is most likely that the publisher either took your prototype with her for in-house testing or asked you to send a prototype.  Send this within a week of the request and follow 3-4 business days with an email to confirm that they’re received it.  After that, my experience is that it takes publishers about a month to have a reply.  If you haven’t heard anything by then, send a short, polite message asking if they need any adjustments or have any questions.

  1. “They said it was awesome! How do I get it published? Should I publish it myself?”

Me? no.  You? Maybe.

I personally self-published one game–The Great Migration–for the experience.  I’m glad I did it.  Going through the whole process taught me a great many things about that end of the industry.  But I wouldn’t personally do it again.

Kickstarter and other similar crowdfunding platforms are opening new avenues for distribution and advertising however.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, I would urge you to contact some of the folks who have already gone that route.  Folks in this industry are sincerely supportive and will give you solid advice.

  1. The playtesters wanted to completely overhaul my game.  If I take their advice, is this still my design?

This is a question I struggled with for quite some time myself.

The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is that playtesters will give you every manner of idea.  It is your job as the game designer to analyze each suggestion, to carefully pick which ones to incorporate and which ones to set aside.  It takes a great deal of work to do that kind of fine-tuning.  It is that work which entitles you to put your name on the box.

  1. I got contradictory feedback from two different groups.  Now what do I do?

Congratulations!  Having too many ideas is one of the best problems a designer can have.

In this case, I often try to temporarily pursue both approaches.  This may go so far as to assemble two distinct prototypes.  I then alternate tests of each approach.  Eventually, one of these designs will reveal itself as superior.  When that occurs, you can drop the weaker design and focus on the superior one.

  1. But I have limited time and other responsibilities.  I can’t be working on two (or more) different versions at the same time.  Should I quit my day job?

In a perfect world, we have all the time and opportunity needed to pursue every avenue.  That nasty devil reality does tend to assert itself from time to time however.  Do not quit your day job.  Instead, pick the one(s) about which you feel most strongly and focus there.

  1. Was this playtest a “bad” playtest?

Gil Hova contributed this question.  Rather than trying to answer it myself, consider the response he offers.  I think it’s better than anything I could possibly say.

There are playtests where the game breaks down and everyone tears it apart, but I don’t think those are bad playtests, just difficult ones.

To me, there are three kinds of bad playtests…

First: The playtesters only say “Yeah, I liked it, it was okay,” and you can’t read any more feedback.

Second: The playtesters all LOVE the game. Then you play another, less polished game and they LOVE that one. Then you play a totally broken game and they LOVE that one too. And you realize that they’re cheerleaders, and they like pretty much anything they play.

Third: One playtester spoils the test somehow. Perhaps he is a high-maintenance special-needs kid who isn’t adjusted enough to social situations to play a game, or he is actually, literally insane and only offers lunatic ravings. These have both happened to me. They throw so much noise and static into the test that it makes the session tough to parse.

  1. This game just isn’t working. I’m afraid it’s a dead end. Now what do I do?

Mistakes and dead ends are all a part of the design process.  Take a step back.  Let the game rest for a little while.

This question of what to do with a dead end design hits one of the reasons keeping a journal in some form is so very important.

Your design journal is a repository for all those other game theme and mechanism ideas you may wish to return to.  It is also a place to look for inspiration if a project stalls or if you wish to go back and look at options you set aside earlier.

Take a look at your options.  Have you tried each approach you considered?  Perhaps there is an idea you had, an idea which didn’t seem useful at the time but now fits your situation perfectly?

  1. I set this game aside for months, then returned to it, polished it up and brought it to Protospiel.  It still isn’t working. Now what do I do?

It might be time to retire this design.  Perhaps this one simply doesn’t work.  That’s okay.  You will have plenty of failures along the way.  Keep working and keep trying new things.  Your successes will far outdistance your failures.  I promise it.

  1. “How can I keep in contact with all the wonderful people I met?”

Apart from trading email addresses with everyone you met, become an active part of the design community.  Facebook has a Protospiel group.  Boardgamegeek has its game design forums.  Board Game Designer’s Forum is another great place to commiserate and to exchange ideas.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do you like to do after 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, create and account with wordpress and follow this blog.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Next week, you folks get a look into the creation of Dragon Tides, the martial arts action movie game featuring Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee and a host of other familiar faces. See you then!

Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 2

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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:

  1. Spare game parts so you can make changes to the game on the fly.
  2. Centimeter Cubes
  3. An ultra fine point Sharpie
  4. 3×5 index cards
  5. Clear plastic card sleeves (all my prototype cards are in these)
  6. 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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1.  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.

 

  1. 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!

Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 1

Protospiel events are big game design parties.  Most of the attendees are authors, carrying work that varies in completion from “heading to the printer” to “thought of it this morning.” Playtesters–people who attend to play and nothing else–will be milling about.  Publishers will be scouting for the jewels among the mass.  No matter what your role, everyone will be playing a variety of games, offering feedback, impressions, and suggestions.

Design events like Protospiel have become increasingly common both as stand-alone events and as part of a larger whole.  In the last year, Origins, Gen Con (http://www.gencon.com/) and BoardGameGeek.Con all featured “designer alley” or “designer/publisher speed dating” or both.  There are playtesting events scattered across the US and Canada.–check the main page at protospiel.org to find one in your area.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

There is a Protospiel event coming up here in Houston is March 13 – 15.  Another one right around the corner from ours is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 10 – 12.  There are even more this summer.

How do you get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success? Let’s take a look.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Today, will focus on questions of preparation.  On Tuesday, we will focus on what to do during the playtest.  Next Friday’s column will resolve resolution.

  1.  What is the most important thing to bring?

An open mind.  Each person you meet will have ideas for your game.  Some will take your game places you’ve never considered.  Some criticisms may make you uncomfortable. Take them all in.  Remember that their only wish is to see you and your game succeed.  Prepare yourself to that each person for her time and feedback.

  1.  What kind of game can I bring?

Protospiel events are primarily about tabletop game design.  Board games, card games and party games are the most common but Carl Klutzke did bring, test, and publish a roleplaying game.

Computer games are extremely rare, however.  For those, you may want to look into GDC (Game Designer’s Conference http://www.gdconf.com/) events.

  1.  How many times will my game get played?

The answer to this varies wildly with the event.  Some events are structured and plan specific schedules for each game.  Some are freeform.  In the case of the former, the number of plays is limited only by the time you have been allotted.  In the latter case, I find that my own games get played only once or twice a day.  Your mileage may vary however, as I often treat these events as a chance to get a peek at other people’s approach rather than a chance to hammer on my own designs.

  1.  How long should I expect each playtest to take?

Give yourself plenty of time.  Playtests generally run from 50% to 100% longer than the normal play time for the game.  Post-play feedback can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  This means that your 15 minute card game will need about an hour to test and discuss while your 2 hour game will need about 3 hours.

  1.  I’m not that experienced at designing games. Will my feedback worth less than someone more experienced?

Designers need as much feedback as they can possibly get.  Come to the event with that firmly in your mind.  Plan to be honest.  Plan to be brutally honest.  Your honest feedback is priceless, no matter how experienced you are.

  1.  How nice should my prototype look?

When it comes to prototyping, uglier is usually better.  If you’ve invested a great deal of time making your game attractive, you may find yourself unwilling to make needed changes.  But you MUST be willing to make changes on the spot.  When a player makes an excellent suggestion, you are going to want to get that idea into play as soon as possible.  If that means altering, defacing or even destroying existing components—do it!

A good general rule is that you should be willing to take a sharpie to any component you bring.

  1.  Uglier is better?  Really?!?

Yup.  Experienced designers and publishers tend to view suspiciously any game which looks “too good.”  Several experienced designers have told me off the record that when a beautiful prototype comes onto a nearby table, they immediately head the other way.  Add to that the horde of horror stories among publishers who decided to give a beautiful prototype a try–and discover that the game was all flash and no substance–is astounding.

Keep your focus on core engagement and gameplay.  This will impress the people you meet much more than any flashy component ever will.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.  They are Protospiel veterans and all-around solid people besides.

Our next set of questions get to the heart of good execution–what to do during a playtest. See you Tuesday!

If you’re an experienced Protospieler, what do you do to prepare for playtesting?  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.  You keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 4

The first Protospiel Houston event was last weekend. This weekend–March 21 – 23 will see another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More, listed at the main Protospiel page are coming soon.

Several followers asked for a report from the event.  It is a strict rule of playtester etiquette to keep every prototype you play secret unless its designer specifically gives you permission. Many details have been left out for this reason. With that disclaimer in place, here are some of the high points.

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Successes

Our attendance target was 30. We had 41 attendees.  We hosted three speakers.  We successfully hosted a design challenge.

We had a great number of playtesters who attended with no affiliation to any particular designer–they were simply interested in being part of the design process and in providing helpful feedback.  

APE Games and Living Worlds Games generously donated to the event.  Without their support, we would never have been able to have Protospiel at all.  These are great companies that deserve your support.  Check out their games.

 

Murphy’s Law

Not everything went according to plan. Three of our scheduled attendees were not able to be with us due to circumstances far outside of their control.  We wish them well and hope everything resolves itself as soon as possible.

 

Lessons For Each Of Us

All creative endeavors include plenty of mistakes.  Mistakes are a good thing.  They give us an opportunity to learn, to adjust, to adapt, to improve.  Many of the best teachers and managers I’ve met refer to mistakes as “opportunities for improvement.” It seems to me that this is exactly the right mindset.  The stories which follow each showed me an opportunity to improve.  I hope you will find them useful as well.

The first game played at Protospiel Houston was Cubic Conjurers by Richard Gibbs.  This was a highly interesting spin on a few relatively common game mechanisms.  Once fully polished, this will be a solid addition to any gamer’s collection.  Interestingly, Richard did not plan to bring Cubic Conjurers out.  Lesson: give every prototype its chance on the table.  You might be surprised by the feedback you receive.

I was scheduled to give a talk at 7:00 Friday evening.  Of course, it’s hard to stay on schedule when you lose your flash drive.  One frantic dig through my email found a copy I’d shared with a proofreader.  I downloaded it and went straight to the talk.  Lesson: always have a backup.

A prototype making the rounds over the weekend was strongly simulationist.  Unfortunately, the simulation was so accurate that pure luck could catapult a player forward or leave that player far behind with no way to catch up.  Most of the feedback at the table addressed this issue.  Lesson: Always leave room for skillful play to overcome bad luck.

Another prototype which spent a great deal of time on the table looked quite a bit like a published design.  Although the designers asserted that they’d spent years developing their game and the game it resembled has also been on the market in major outlets for years, they both insisted that they’d never seen the published version.  Much of the feedback at this table focused on ways in which this design could distinguish itself from its preexisting competitor.  Lesson: Market research is essential.

Sunday morning was my chance to run a playtest of a game in development for APE Games with Mr. APE himself, Kevin Brusky.  Although many game elements are performing well, quite a few were far off the mark.  I’d fallen victim to the classic designer problem of trying to be too clever.  Rather than the clever effects I was aiming for, I’d written effects so situational as to be essentially useless. Fortunately, the playtesters spotted the problem and brought laid it out for me.  Lesson: Be prepared to rethink your ideas, particularly the “clever” ones.

 

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Closing Thoughts

Protospiel Houston was a success.  Attendees seemed to be steadily productive.  At our most packed, every table held a game but no players were standing around waiting for space to open up. Guest speakers were well received. And we’re definitely doing it again next year. 🙂

Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 3

You prepped and polished your prototype.  You made the trip to a Protospiel event (or some other awesome playtesting event) You put it your design in front of a bunch of total strangers.  They gave you tons of feedback.  Now the convention is ending and your next steps lie before you.  Where should you start?

You had good preparation.  You had good execution.  Now you need good resolution. What will you do AFTER the convention is over?  Let’s get right into it!

18. A publisher expressed an interest in my game.  When should I contact her?

Your first step when a publisher expresses an interest should be to establish a timeline.  If you haven’t, there are a few general rules you can follow.

It is most likely that the publisher either took your prototype with her for in-house testing or asked you to send a prototype.  Send this within a week of the request and follow 3-4 business days with an email to confirm that they’re received it.  After that, my experience is that it takes publishers about a month to have a reply.  If you haven’t heard anything by then, send a short, polite message asking if they need any adjustments or have any questions.

19. “They said it was awesome! How do I get it published? Should I publish it myself?”

Me? no.  You? Maybe.

I personally self-published one game–The Great Migration–for the experience.  I’m glad I did it.  Going through the whole process taught me a great many things about that end of the industry.  But I wouldn’t personally do it again.

Kickstarter, and Indiegogo other similar crowdfunding platforms are opening new avenues for distribution and advertising however.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, I would urge you to contact some of the folks who have already gone that route.  Folks in this industry are sincerely supportive and will give you solid advice.

20. The playtesters wanted to completely overhaul my game.  If I take their advice, is this still my design?

This is a question I struggled with for quite some time myself.

The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is that playtesters will give you every manner of idea.  It is your job as the game designer to analyze each suggestion, to carefully pick which ones to incorporate and which ones to set aside.  It takes a great deal of work to do that kind of fine-tuning.  It is that work which entitles you to call this game your own and to put your name on the box.

21. I got contradictory feedback from two different groups.  Now what do I do?

Congratulations!  Having too many ideas is one of the best problems a designer can have.

In this case, I often try to temporarily pursue both approaches.  This may go so far as to assemble two distinct prototypes.  I then alternate tests of each approach.  Eventually, one of these designs will reveal itself as superior.  When that occurs, you can drop the weaker design and focus on the superior one.

22. But I have limited time and other responsibilities.  I can’t be working on two (or more) different versions at the same time.  Should I quit my day job?

In a perfect world, we have all the time and opportunity needed to pursue every avenue.  That nasty devil reality does tend to assert itself from time to time however.  Do not quit your day job.  Instead, pick the one(s) about which you feel most strongly and focus there.

23. Was this playtest a “bad” playtest?

Gil Hova contributed this question and spiffy dude that he is answered it as well.  Rather than trying to offer my thoughts, we can all all learn from the response he offers.

There are playtests where the game breaks down and everyone tears it apart, but I don’t think those are bad playtests, just difficult ones.

To me, there are three kinds of bad playtests…

First: The playtesters only say “Yeah, I liked it, it was okay,” and you can’t read any more feedback.

Second: The playtesters all LOVE the game. Then you play another, less polished game and they LOVE that one. Then you play a totally broken game and they LOVE that one too. And you realize that they’re cheerleaders, and they like pretty much anything they play.

Third: One playtester spoils the test somehow. Perhaps he is a high-maintenance special-needs kid who isn’t adjusted enough to social situations to play a game, or he is actually, literally insane and only offers lunatic ravings. These have both happened to me. They throw so much noise and static into the test that it makes the session tough to parse.

24. This game just isn’t working. I’m afraid it’s a dead end. Now what do I do?

Mistakes and dead ends are all a part of the design process.  Take a step back.  Let the game rest for a little while.

This question of what to do with a dead end design hits one of the reasons keeping a journal in some form is so very important.

Your design journal is a repository for all those other game theme and mechanism ideas you may wish to return to.  It is also a place to look for inspiration if a project stalls or if you wish to go back and look at options you set aside earlier.

Take a look at your options.  Have you tried each approach you considered?  Perhaps there is an idea you had, an idea which did not seem useful at the time but now fits your situation perfectly?

25. I set this game aside for months, then returned to it, polished it up and brought it to Protospiel.  It still isn’t working. Now what do I do?

It might be time to retire this design.  Perhaps this one simply doesn’t work.  That’s okay.  You will have plenty of failures along the way.  Keep working and keep trying new things.  Your successes will far outdistance your failures.  I promise it.

26. “How can I keep in contact with all the wonderful people I met?”

Apart from trading email addresses with everyone you met, become an active part of the design community.  Facebook has its Protospiel group.  Boardgamegeek has its game design forums.  Board Game Designer’s Forum is another great place to commiserate and to exchange ideas.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do after a playtest event?  Are you a freshman designer with a question 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, create and account with wordpress (http://wordpress.com/) and follow this blog.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Next kicks off with the details of Houston’s first Protospiel event and what I learned running it. See you Tuesday!