Design and playtesting

Ken Burnside has a very useful, and timely, piece on game development, as opposed to game design. I’m much better on the design side than the production side, so it’s very useful to be given this sort of reminder of the necessity of playtesting:

The middle 20% of the work is sending a draft of the game out to playtesters, and processing feedback. This is where explanatory diagrams are drawn and the first in-text-flow examples get written.  And rewritten.  And re-done. And re-re-done.  The back half of this 20% is taking the feedback from playtesters…most of whom don’t document everything they did to solve a problem.  Or will send you heated emails because the game blew up on them after they played it for two hours, and now their friends don’t want to touch it ever again.  This is the part where the developer feels “picked on” a bit.  Just remember:

Everyone who ever told you your game sucked, but told you what it was about it that sucked, just helped you make it better. You, as a developer, need to figure out how to resolve this issue, and you need to figure out how to differentiate between “The game sucked…” and “The game isn’t one I’m interested in.”

The worst kind of playtesters are the silent ones.  I put playtest material up on the Ad Astra Games Patreon specifically to weed out the silent playtesters.  These are the guys who download the game, and maybe skim it once, and otherwise let it sit on their hard drives.  I would much rather have playtesters tell me the game sucked than download it, decide it sucked, and never tell me so. 🙂

You will want two separate rounds of playtesting in an ideal situation – and you really want to get playtesters who don’t know the author of the game if possible; they’ll come in with things they know from knowing the designer, rather than hit the game up from scratch.  The second group of playtesters gets a draft that incorporates any feedback the first group gave you, and ideally doesn’t have any overlap with the first group.

If you have the time, you want to take any feedback from the second group, incorporate it into the draft and put it in front of the first group and see if the two different revision passes shake out any other “Oh, that’s what that means…” moments. This 20% of the work can take up most of the time.

Most technology companies are SHOCKINGLY bad at use-testing; game companies, for all it may seem that they don’t do much playtesting, are actually much better than the norm. I was amazed when I found out that in a company of over 150 people, precisely ONE person actually used the product that was the bread-and-butter of the company’s market.

Even a program as hoary and well-used as Adobe Reader occasionally shows strange signs of insufficient testing. I prefer to look at files at View/Zoom/Fit Height, but for some reason my documents were opening at 100 percent, which meant that I could see about one-third of the very high resolution images I was reviewing. I went into Preferences, found Page Display, and in it, the Zoom selections, where my options were Fit Width, Fit Visible… and Fit Page. Where is Fit Height?

Now, I’m not an idiot. I correctly guessed that Fit Page, which is NOT an option under View/Zoom, was the functional equivalent of Fit Height. But how is it possible that a program that approximately 11 hundred billion people have used still has basic inconsistencies like this? It’s not like Adobe doesn’t have the personnel to deal with this sort of thing.

Anyhow, I’m hoping to avoid as much of this problem as possible. One of the things we’ll be announcing this spring is our first miniatures game, which will also be called First Sword; it is a fantasy version of the 1977 Avalon Hill game Gladiator, only with a streamlined card-based combat system. (This may or may not be mildly revolutionary in the We the People/Hannibal sense, regardless, it’s not a common mechanic.)

I’m preparing a VASSAL module to test the system, so if you happen to be familiar with either VASSAL and Gladiator (or preferably, both), and you’re interested in helping me test it, send me an email with PLAYTEST in the subject. I’ll probably have the combat mechanic ready for testing in about two weeks; that, the campaign rules are the only elements that really require heavy testing of the miniatures game. The electronic combat management game, on the other hand, will require a bigger group of playtesters, but we’re not ready for that yet.