Your Friends Aren’t Necessarily Good Playtesters
One of the issues that game designers — new and old-hat — deal with is getting people to try our games. The newer or less-known you are, the smaller your pool of available testers is, which generally means you ask your friends to help out. However, there’s a bit of a problem with using your friends:
They’re going to be kinder to your game than they should be. And they’re going to be unhelpfully vague.
This is natural, as often your friends:
- Will fill in some of your assumptions with their understanding of you
- Want to encourage you, and see being “overly” critical as going against that
- Aren’t trained in how to critique, so are vague or not especially helpful in their comments
All that can be addressed over time, but understand that vague dislike isn’t going to be all that helpful, and vague praise may make it sound like your game is closer to done when it really isn’t.
Because I don’t want to leave you with a vibe of “uh, it’ll suck early on, deal with it,” here are some tips that might help level up you and your friend-playtest group:
- Have them read your rules, don’t explain how the game works to them conversationally. It’s easier to fill in holes in conversation that it is in reading raw. (This depends on you having the time for that, and a written ruleset — even just bullet points.)
- Whenever you’re doing any verbal explanation, record yourself and record their questions/comments. They will show you either what you’re saying that you aren’t writing, or how what you’re writing is different. (When making Mythender, I ended up writing in a totally different voice than the one I used to explain it at conventions. That was eventually a flag to write the game in a bombastic manner rather than “skalds of the past telling stories about awesome dudes.”)
- Don’t push a creative agenda or throw in much of your input. This is especially true if you’re watching a playtest rather than playing. It’s too easy to prime people to understand what you mean, rather than what you’re writing, when you’re adding in context by your input in play.
- Structure post-game critique. My favorite structure is to have everyone go around and state one thing they liked, without going into problems. Then a round of one thing they didn’t like, without going into how they’d change it. After that, if you’re not overwhelmed, continue the discussion. Without structure, it’s so easy to miss crucial feedback, both on what did work (since often the conversation becomes dominated by what didn’t) and on one or two problems to the exclusion of others.
Being a good playtester is a skill. So is that part of being a designer dealing with playtesting. So your friends aren’t necessarily going to be good playtesters early on, but that can change over time.