You rarely get it right your first time. Whether you’re writing a story, filming a movie scene, or designing a game, you’ll probably need multiple takes to work out the kinks. In game design, playtesting is the proving grounds where the original idea for a game gets hammered and molded into a finished product. Without a strong playtest effort, many games wouldn’t be balanced, re-playable, or even fun.
For most designers, both aspiring and established, they need to go beyond their inner circle of friends to find the game within their idea. Playing your own ideas over and over again with the same people will only tell you so much. You’ll get a great perspective on the opinions of a closed group of people, but that doesn’t prepare your idea for the realities of the open market. A strong community of people is necessary to make a published game a reality.
One designer who is no stranger to the rigors of play testing is Eric M. Lang. His games go through a lot of work between the initial ideas and the balanced, completed product that hits your tables.
“Playtesting is the most important thing,” said Lang. “Without playtesting, there is no game.”
What Lang wants from the people who play his prototypes is their honest reaction. He wants them to find the flaws and let him know about them.
“It’s the playtester’s job to find problems with the game, but not the solutions. It’s my job to finalize the game.” Lang notes that there is usually very little in common with the prototype that is played in the first playtest session and the final game that is published at the end of the process.
Around the world, designers get together formally and informally to play each other’s games and offer feedback. As an artist (and game designers are definitely artists), it can be tough to hear critical responses to your ideas. Aspiring game designers develop a thick skin pretty quickly when they start opening up their ideas to the public.
Fel Barros is a designer and Senior Developer at CMON, and a lot of his job entails playtesting new games. You can read the development diary of one of his most recent co-designs, Looterz, in a three-part series here.
“Playtesting is the cornerstone of the design process. It’s where your ideas fall flat, where you watch people having fun (or not), and where you can finally say the game is done,” commented Barros.
Playtesting does more than give designers direct feedback from the players. It allows them to watch the game being played and see people react to it, developing strategies the designers had never expected.
“Usually the best feedback is not in words. I remember a game of Gekido where players were cursing and laughing at the very end with some card interaction I was not sure would work but ended up working well. “
Board game cafes are a great meeting place for designers looking for people to try out their prototypes. Many, like Snakes & Lattes, hold regular play testing nights where designers can find willing participants to play their games and give them feedback. Finding willing participants is really the key. People can sometimes be turned off by the idea of playing a game that hasn’t really been fully vetted and produced. Prototypes can appear as anything from a nearly completed representation of the game, to some scribbled notes on some scraps of paper.
Michael Shinall is a Designer and Developer with CMON, and on a regular basis, he playtests his own designs as well as the games of others.
“Playtesting is one of the fundamental cornerstones of proper design and development. It’s not just data-gathering, but an incredibly useful tool when it comes to the ascetics of a game as well,” said Shinall.
One thing that a lot of people might not consider when they’re playing a game is how much work goes into the layout of the board or the look of the icons. A well-designed ascetic is often the result of a lot of playtesting. Board games aren’t just mechanics on their own. Art, components, rulebooks, and overall production all play a role in the completed design.
“It's important to look for not just mechanical issues that arise, but visual ones as well. For example, it might continuously come up that a certain symbol you use is constantly assumed by players to mean something other than its intent. That would be a visual tweak that needs to be addressed .”
More than anything, playtesting is a chance for a designer to see their prototype come to life. They have an idea in their head how the game will go, what people will have fun with, and where the points of conflict will be, but until people start actually playing, it is only an idea. Playtesting is how people will find out how good their idea was and where they need work. Shinall, for one, doesn’t look for only positive feedback when testing out his games. If someone thinks the game is perfect as is, it can often mean they haven’t played it with a critical eye.
“The very best feedback is going to come from people trying to break the nitty-gritty of your design,” according to Shinall.
It’s only after the design has been broken and rebuilt, again and again, that it will become a completed game.