Whenever anyone asks me for my top tips for budding game designers, I always say the same… playtest, playtest, PLAYTEST!
Playtesting is putting your unpublished game in front of other people for them to play it – whether it’s written in sharpie on the back of a cereal packet or a more beautiful prototype with full artwork.
My top 5 playtesting tips
- Playtest early. It’s tempting to want to perfect a design before you put it in front of other people, but resist the urge. Force yourself to get your idea out as early as possible and you will save countless hours that you would have spent working on broken designs or dull concepts. Early playtesting will tell you if you have the nub of an idea worth pursuing and set you off on the right direction.
- Playtest with game designers and hobby game players. Your family and friends are not the best people to playtest your game. They’re not objective. They may also not be familiar with modern gaming. Avoid playtesters who are immersed in the industry and your game will ultimately suffer.
- Don’t be precious. Come with an open mind and a willingness to change your game. It can be hard getting negative feedback, but it always makes a better game in the long run, even if that means moving away from the original inspiration behind the game.
- Make your own decisions about your game. Pay close attention to the problems within the game that playtesting shines a light on, but don’t feel as if you have to take up suggestions offered. It’s your game.
- Make sure you blind playtest before you pitch or publish. Blind playtesting is the final round of playtesting in which playtesters teach themselves the game from the rule book with no intervention from the designer.
Two games that benefitted from early playtests and then were put in the bin!
Flycatcher above and Strawberry Politics below
The importance of playtesting
Why is playtesting so important? Here are 12 reasons, but I’m sure there are more. Please add your own ideas in the comments…
Seize the Power: A game designed by Bez Shahriari and Tiz Creel. This first playtest was 3 hours after the game first started to be designed.
- You can’t tell what’s going to happen until you start playtesting. You don’t know how other people are going to think and what strategies they are going to use to approach the game. Different people’s brains work in different ways. They’ll see things that you haven’t seen that in some way or other might encourage you to change the game.
- Players don’t behave like mathematical models. They don’t always follow an optimal strategy – other factors will influence play. Perhaps they’ll make plays based on a strategy they’ve already decided to follow, or they’ll opt to collect a certain type of resource because they like the component. Maybe a decision is made because they’re playing over-cautiously or super-recklessly or possibly because it is more closely aligned to their own character.
- You might have worked very carefully to make the game balanced, but if the players don’t feel as if the game is balanced, then there’s a problem. A perception of fairness, will affect how much people want to play the game.
- The bits of your game that you think are going to be fun aren’t always fun. That’s the difference between running a computer program to play the game and playing the game with actual people. Playtesters will tell you when things become dull.
- Playtesting helps you market your game. The act of trying to attract playtesters gets you used to pitching the game. If you pitch a game at a playtesting session or in an online playtesting group and nobody wants to play it, maybe the game you’ve conceived is a little too niche or uninteresting, or maybe you need to sell it better!
- Playtesting helps you to write the rules. When you’ve explained the game multiple times to different players, you develop an understanding of how to structure your explanation for clarity and efficiency.
- It may become clear through playtesting that there is a single optimum strategy and that other strategies are redundant. This reduces the appeal as choices become too easy. It’s possible that a whole section of the game may become redundant due to the optimum strategy issue.
- The elegance of the game is put under scrutiny during playtesting. The fewer questions that players have to ask, the fewer rules reminders or clarifications that are requested, the more elegant the game. You don’t want the game playing experience to be clunky. You want it to be as smooth and intuitive as possible. You want people to be able to get immersed in the game and dive deep into strategy or storyline. You don’t want players to be distracted by the mechanics of the game – or trying to remember what pile of cards to draw from in different situations.
Early Cracker Games playtests… complete with toilet rolls
A blind playtest of Doughnut Dash
A blind playtest of Don’t Count Your Chickens
- Playtesting uncovers runaway leaders. In a competitive game, ideally the end scores should be relatively close. In a cooperative game, you want players to just win or just lose. The aim is to keep all players invested in the game until the very end.
- Playtesters will have played games that you haven’t played. If you’ve managed to create a game that’s very close to an existing title, or if you’re trying to solve a problem that another game deals with brilliantly, another designer may be able to tell you this. Other people have ideas and suggestions that won’t have crossed your mind.
- With blind playtesting, playtesters will help you develop the clarity of your rules and graphic design. Things that are obvious to one person are not obvious to another. Your rules explanation may be woefully lacking. The labels you’ve chosen may go against convention and be unnecessarily frustrating. You may need examples to illustrate points. It’s impossible to put yourself in the position of someone who knows nothing about the game so you need to find new testers then watch them closely.
If you are designing your own games, I urge you to playtest other people’s games as much as possible. Working with other designers’ ideas and seeing how other players react to them is an education in game design and a hugely important development tool. Spark your creativity by exposing yourself to other developing ideas. Helping another designer will strengthen your own skills.
A totally inspiring prototype game by Kieran Symington that I’ve got really excited about