This is a critical area of the game design process. It is very important to listen to what your playtesters mention. There’s usually a reason they say the things they do. But understanding what they actually mean can be tricky. Let’s start with some basics.
Matt Loomis, fellow game designer and blogger who I had the privilege of meeting at Protospiel-Milwaukee back in March, recently wrote an article all about this topic. You can find it on his blog – TheMetaGame.blogspot.com.
If you are a game designer I recommend reading his article and following his advice. One piece of advice from the article that I have also mentioned is this:
If players start the game taking the same actions every game, start the game from there.
The point of that is that if everyone makes the same decision on the first or second turns, make that decision part of the game setup. Players should start the game making unique decisions. I totally agree with Matt!
Here are a few pieces of common feedback that should be understood and interpreted:
- The game takes too long. (They are bored)
- The game isn’t fun. (They are bored)
- The game felt like work. (The game isn’t fun – see above)
- The game was really slow. (Too much downtime, or not enough to do on their turn)
- I couldn’t do much on my turn. (Not enough unique options or too limited per turn)
- My decisions felt scripted. (Not enough unique options)
- I don’t like the art. (Get over it… it’s a prototype!)
- You should use such-and-such component. (Thanks. Hey, did you realize this is a prototype?)
Obviously some of these are just not helpful. But players are saying them for some reason or another. So let’s try to examine why playtesters say the things they say…
Advice from Chevee Dodd:
I pinged Chevee about advice for interpreting and understanding feedback. For those who don’t know him, please visit his website (cheveedodd.com). He is the designer of Scallywags and a few other upcoming games that are awesome. Here’s what he had to say:
Understanding feedback is a vital part of game design that many people don’t understand. When someone tells you that you should dramatically change your game because they don’t like an aspect of it, that is not bad feedback… they may have just not worded their concern properly. Take this feedback and look at it objectively. If they want you to toss out a portion of your game, or add in a whole new layer, ask yourself “Why?” It is often because they felt that their options were limited or their actions weren’t meaningful enough. So, maybe their suggestion is to add atomic cannons that shoot rainbow fireballs, blinding your opponents and making them discard their hands. It’s very likely that this is completely wrong for your game… but at the core, maybe there IS a need for you to be able to mess with your opponents hands and not having that is making the game frustrating. So, you add a little ability here that lets you discard a card at random from their hand and suddenly you’ve added a bit of control (through chaos) to the hand-management portion of your game.
That is some excellent advice! I think the atomic cannons shooting rainbow fireballs sound particularly awesome!
I think Chevee’s point is that sometimes playtesters will mention something while meaning something else. When players mention things like adding awesome cannons that let you do great things, they are probably suggesting it because they don’t feel like they are able to do great things. And that is an important point of applying feedback. Before we get into interpreting feedback I want to make a more global point about all of this…
Don’t Take It Personally:
You’ve invited people over to try out your latest and greatest game design. This is the one you think will make it big and revolutionize the board game industry. You can’t wait to get it on the table because you just know people are going to laud and magnify you for it.
And then they play it. And then they hate it. Uh Oh.
They slander it. They posterize it. They straight up say it was the worst thing ever. You start to feel angry and think to yourself, “These idiots… they have no idea how awesome this is.” You get upset and ask them to leave. You feel dejected. You feel like you’ve been rocked by a rainbow fireball. You start to wonder where things went wrong and why they don’t like you. Boom… that’s the problem – It’s not about YOU!
Here is my favorite advice for applying feedback:
They are not rejecting or criticizing YOU. They are rejecting or criticizing your GAME!
The same goes for praise. Just because someone might love your game doesn’t necessarily mean they like you. The bottom line here is that we are applying feedback to the game and not to the designer. The game is what matters at this point. Don’t let your emotions cloud your opinion of your playtester’s feedback. And don’t take it personally if they think the design seems broken. Often if players feel a design is broken, it’s because it is broken. Get over it and move on!
Okay. So you did not take it personally and you are ready to interpret what your playtesters were really meaning when they said they hate your game.
Often playtesters do not think like a game designer. That’s why I recommend attending things like UnPub or Protospiel where you can get feedback from other game designers. You can often find other designers at your friendly local game store. But how can you interpret feedback from non-designers who may not know the best way to state what they actually mean? Let’s examine a few scenarios of a hypothetical game about boll weevils.
Your game design has players developing a colony of boll weevils. Players will build a structure for the weevils, feed the weevils, and try to claim the best territory for the boll weevils.
During your playtest someone mentions that colonization seems too valuable. Another player mentions that they think you should have different abilities for the boll weevils. A third player mentions that they got to a point where no matter what they did it didn’t seem to help. Let’s examine these three pieces of feedback and interpret what they may actually mean.
#1: Colonization seems too valuable. (Balance is the issue)
In this case I could imagine the player falling behind another player who had chosen the colonize action. The best way to interpret this feedback is to understand that the player felt like the actions they chose were not as good as those of the colonizing player. In this case, as the designer, you may need to work on balancing the short-term/long-term benefits of taking one action over the other. Balance in a game is often a very difficult thing to get correct. The result is that you will often receive feedback that is directly related to balance without the playtesters mentioning the word balance.
#2: Add Different Abilities. (Lack of interesting choices is the issue)
The playtester that wants different abilities for their boll weevils is likely feeling that they cannot do enough on their turn, or that they cannot do anything interesting on their turn. They recommend adding abilities as a way to specialize their game and give them something more interesting to do. The key to understand here is that the player doesn’t feel like they can do enough interesting things. They want abilities so that they can turn dull decisions into decisions that require more strategy. When playtesters suggest adding things to a game it is often because they feel the game is lacking interesting choices.
#3: Nothing They Do Can Help. (Results of decisions are not apparent)
When players begin to complain that there is nothing they can do that will help them there could be several reasons. The first reason is that the game is about to end and they are so far behind that it does not matter what they do because they just cannot win. The second is that the game limits how much a player can do on a turn that each decision is so insignificant that it won’t matter. And a third reason is that players may not be able to understand how their decisions are effecting the game. Keep an ear open for any time players feel like their decisions don’t matter. This is a big deal. Games are supposed to be fun and if players decisions do not matter, how much fun could they be having? Players may say things like this when they are not having fun, or when they have lost interest. This will require taking a deep look at your game design and perhaps reworking a few things. As a designer it is critical to understand that you want every single decision that a player makes to have a significant effect on their opportunity to win the game.
Those are just a few scenarios out of an infinite playbook of playtester feedback. What I hope you have understood from this is that often playtesters will say one thing and mean something else. They may be very specific about what they think should change in a game while actually meaning something very vague.
So when playtesters offer feedback I recommend asking them why they suggested the change. Asking them why can open the conversation up to the real feedback that they are really trying to tell you. Ask them what is at the heart of their comment. This can be really useful.
We’ve discussed interpreting feedback. Now we dive into applying that feedback. This can be difficult and tedious, but now that you understand what your playtesters were actually saying, you are ready to improve your game.
As shown in the graphic at the top of this article I prefer having ten playtests between changes in my games. Ten seems to be a good enough number where you can likely hear the same feedback from several different players. If, over the course of those ten playtests, you do hear the same feedback, then you likely know this is something that should be changed or adjusted. If you make sweeping changes between each playtest you’ll have no idea what part may or may not have improved the game.
The other thing I like to do with feedback is apply one change at a time. With Scoville, for example, several different people had mentioned that the brown cubes felt a little weird in the game. But it took several playtests to hear it from those several people. Later on other players said they loved that brown cubes introduce a way to mess with your opponents. Here’s the key:
Don’t let one person’s opinion of your game dominate how you change the design.
When multiple people mention the same thing then you know that something’s up. Then you can feel free to address that feedback.
So my two guidelines are these:
- Only apply one major change to the design at a time.
- Try to playtest each change at least 10 times before adding the next change.
Using these two guidelines should help you to understand which parts of your game design are awesome and which need some work.
So now you have a way to interpret and apply feedback. Get to the root of what your playtesters are saying. Apply the appropriate changes one at a time. You will be well on your way to creating a well polished gem of a game! Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave your feedback of this article below. I will try to interpret it correctly!