Jun 28, 2017

Play-Testing Tips Part 2 of 3: With Designers

In this post I'm going to write about how play-testing with other game designers is different to play-testing with consumers or your target audience. Making the most of these opportunities can advance your project greatly and take it in directions you hadn't imagined. Last time I wrote about play-testing alone or solo and you should check that out if you haven't already. 

Most importantly, always show appreciation and gratitude to people who play-test your game; whether it takes ten minutes or two hours, always thank that person or persons who spent their time playing your incomplete project, as their time is valuable and they chose to spend it supporting you.

Play-Testing a Piece of the Game

It is perfectly acceptable (and sometimes even wise) to play-test one part of the game, instead of the full game experience. Especially at the very early stages of design, rapidly playing one part of the game repeatedly can quickly highlight issues and find fixes that feel positive and ensure each part of the game is as good as it can be. It is easy to think that for example, the bidding phase is where all the interaction and excitement happens, and so the other phases don't need to be interesting or meaningful, but play-testing just those other phases in isolation can really bring out the best in them instead of neglecting them as just necessary filler.

For example, with Nevera Wars it was incredibly useful to simply ask another designer to play the first two turns with me over and over. We did this in order to evaluate what options we had in our opening hands, if the options felt overwhelming, if the pacing or rhythm was appropriate, and other elements to ensure the game began as a positive experience, even though the majority of heavy action wouldn't come until later in the game.
If you are only testing the mid game experience, or end game experience, be imaginative and open with how you set those situations up. Try them with one player far out in the lead, and with all players pretty even, and with one player already out, to try and understand the implications of your design in different states of play. Even try with set ups that might not be possible with your current design in case that reveals some new perspective or solution.

Breaking the Game

This is probably the most painful part of play-testing, but is also the most valuable. If you can find play-testers who will intentionally break the game or break the game experience (for example winning by exploiting rules, finding infinite combos, or forcing stalemates) this will force you to confront serious design issues. By playing your game in ways you had not intended, it will quickly get you outside of your own headspace early in the design process.
With Nevera Wars, this was a very difficult experience not only watching another designer purposely try to break the game, but coming to terms with the fact that I had to change so much of the design I had become attached to. In older versions of the game, the only win condition was to destroy nine of your opponent's minions cards, and a designer quickly pointed out that they could force a stalemate by simply refusing to play any minion cards, which is what they did.
I was really adverse to adding any new rules, mechanics or phases, feeling like it would take away from the simplicity and economy of design I was striving for. But after several weeks of brain-storming and play-testing different ideas (remember there is no rush to find solutions) I eventually was able to settle on a small new rule that resolved the issue, and actually enhanced the theme of the game without adding more weight to it.

You Can Defend Your Decisions

Another important difference regarding play-testing with other designers is that you can defend your design decisions. It is important that you communicate your vision for your game so that other designers can help you get closer to it, by making thematically useful suggestions or genre specific suggestions.

If you communicate clearly that you are designing a co-op game aimed at families, the other designers will probably not make suggestions to add Take That maneuvers or interruption mechanics. If you communicate clearly that you are making a portable game that children can play on airplanes and in the back of cars, the other designers will probably not make suggestions to add a ton of counters and cubes.

This is different from being defensive, which generally means to avoid listening or avoid experiencing feedback,  conversationally maneuvering around hearing what someone has to day. More on this in the next section.

Show You Are Listening

Game designers love coming up with solutions to problems, fixes for broken mechanics, and ideas for new avenues of design. But they will stop giving suggestions and advice if they feel they aren't being listened to or that their input is not valued. The simplest way to make sure someone feels listened to is to not interrupt them, and say back to them what they said (or paraphrase).

Also make sure you understand what issue the other designer is trying to resolve when they make a suggestion. If the designer says something like "you could have some kind of bidding mechanic at the end of this phase", make sure you ask what they feel is incomplete or missing to have suggested that. If the designer says something like "you could have everyone take their actions simultaneously instead of one at time", make sure you ask if the issue is the game pacing or the lack of interaction. This will help you settle on a solution that really addresses the issue and help you understand where their ideas are coming from.

You should also have a notebook and be writing down every suggestion and idea you are given. Even ones you wholeheartedly disagree with, hate, or go completely against your theme. The idea itself might not be something you are interested in, but days or weeks down the line something about it might spark the idea for a solution, mechanic, component (or entirely new game). Also if someone sees you write down what they are saying, they really feel like you are listening and valuing what they have to say. Next time I will be focusing on play-testing with your target audience so check back in!

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