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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:

  1. Will fill in some of your assumptions with their understanding of you
  2. Want to encourage you, and see being “overly” critical as going against that
  3. 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.

– Ryan

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One Response to Your Friends Aren’t Necessarily Good Playtesters

  1. candio says:

    Hi,

    Great points! I especially like balancing the positive w the negative.

    We have been having people beta read our novel, and we developed a set of specific questions to help guide feedback, to check on parts we wanted to make sure we were clear on – like the rules of our supernatural world. We also made sure to have plenty of open ended questions as well so we could hear things that we hadn’t thought of. This helps direct feedback from the vague.

    We also stress w our betas that we want honesty, we will not be upset, and we will not get defensive. You bring up a good point about being overwhelmed, you have to have the right attitude about FB. If people see you really mean it [about not being defensive], they will be freer to be open. That being said, we have had some metaphorical stabs to the heart, but we took the info, and used it to make a better story. We also like to be intentional and let the betas know that we have taken their advice, that their opinion was valuable and their time was not wasted.

    Thanks and good work!

    Candy