It was Newcastle Playtest again on Tuesday, and now Christmas is out of the way it was better attended than it had been for several weeks. We started off with a couple of quick games of Zombology which led to a really useful discussion about ways to improve it. After that I rather selfishly grabbed Paul and Alex and we played Codename: Vacuum too while the other table played a couple of games of Paul von Scott's The Thing with the Ring and then Dan's Samizdat. I'd made some changes to Vacuum since Paul had last played it, changes that were specifically triggered by Paul's last set of feedback so I wanted to see what he made of those changes. All that got me thinking about how as a designer to get the best of out a playtesting session.
A playtest session of a game that's in development serves many purposes:
- To allow you to try out ideas and see which ones work well and which don't
- To check whether it's worth continuing with the design
- To find broken mechanisms or combinations
- To see how the game works with different play styles, numbers of players and levels of experience
- To gather feedback from other people
- To test how the market might respond to your game
- To find flaws in the rulebook (for blind playtesting)
Depending upon how mature the game you are testing is, the relative importance of those questions varies - finding flaws in the rulebook is very important near the end of the process, but less so at the beginning when you are just testing out a rough idea. Some of these questions you are the best person to answer, but usually it's the opinions of the playtesters that you are trying to gather. Your playtesters are a small sample of the game-playing market that you are exposing your game to in order to try to predict whether your game will be successful or not and to work out what changes are required to make it more successful.
In order to be successful, your game needs to be:
Enticing means that your potential customers want to play as soon as they hear about it, and after playing want to play again and again and again, despite the endless stream of shiny new games pouring onto the shelves. Enticing is a mixture of theme, attractive artwork, affordable price point and interesting mechanisms, but also replayability, fun and a lack of frustration. A game that no-one can quite conjure up the enthusiasm to play or that only ever gets played once is never going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Like successful YouTube videos, successful games have to go viral: someone buys them, plays them with lots of people who also buy them and play them with lots of people...
Enjoyable means that it's got to be fun for its target market. The market is flooded with tens of thousands of games and hundreds more go up on KickStarter every year. A really successful game has to compete in that crowded market, and win. I own 70-odd games, but only a few of them I've played hundreds of times. Those happen to be really successful games, not just with me and my friends but in the market in general. Because they are fun. Different groups will have different ideas of what makes a game fun, but if no group likes your game then it's going to tank.
An engaging game is one that draws you in and keeps you involved throughout. If you look round the table during a game and everyone is either playing games on their phone or staring morosely into their pint that's not engaging. One that keeps your attention throughout is. If you have little downtime between your turns or the ability to get involved on other player's turns then you're more engaged. If the game isn't so random that you can plan ahead for your next move or if the theme and events keep you excited then you're engaged. You're not going to rush out and buy a game if it lasted four hours, and you spent 3 hours and 45 minutes of that playing Angry Birds and praying that the game would just end.
Playtesting is your chance to see how your game performs against these yardsticks, get the opinion of people who aren't so close to the game and have the critical distance required to be objective about it and to work out what you need to do to make it perform better.
A while ago I heard that Tom Lehmann (designer of Race for the Galaxy) likes to ask two questions during playtests: 'Is there a game in here, and have I found it'. Those questions get to the nub of designing games: Is this going to be a worthwhile addition to the legion of available games - is there any point continuing working on this idea - and how close is it to being finished.
Dan, my Newcastle Playtest co-host has his own favourite questions: 'What did you like about the game, and what did you not like'. These allow you to quickly zoom in on which parts of the game are coming along nicely (and should be emulated/left alone) and which parts are potentially putting off gamers (and should be removed/re-designed).
Back when I ran Reiver Games I used to ask my playtesters after they had played one of my prototypes whether they would buy it and how much would they pay for it (useful market research when you're a newbie publisher).
Now I tend to ask my playtesters to provide some critical feedback via email after they've played my games - the slight disconnect of providing the feedback via email makes it easier for them to be critical without worrying so much about upsetting me and, with my particularly pants memory, having the feedback in electronic form means it's easier for me to revisit it and remember it later.
What are your favourite playtesting questions, and how do they help you assess the game?