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Four Tips for In-Person Betatesting

There are two overall phases to playtesting a game: early development playtesting, where you’re in the room and explaining much of the game as it is in your mind, and betatesting, where others are playing off of documents you’ve provided and trying to learn the game for themselves. Sometimes, there’s a point where you’re both betatesting and you’re in the room, either because you’re just there to note reactions or because the game needs another player to work.

This can get tricky, because your presence will inherently taint the results. However, by following some short tips, you can work to mitigate that effect. These tips work for any sort of game, not just tabletop roleplaying games. (In fact, I learned the second point from playtesting a board game.)

Don’t Explain the Rules

Have people read and teach each other. When people have questions, write them down without answering them or directing them to another part of the document. After all, you won’t be there to do that for every game.

Only answer them if the game grinds to a halt, and say as little as possible. If the answer is elsewhere, start by saying that you’re sure the answer is in another part of the book. Above all, make sure you note down every point of confusion that happened, even if the playtesters address it for themselves later.

If you’re playing the game with the others, have them tell you everything you need to do, and don’t get ahead of them.

Let People Play Wrong

This is something James Ernest taught me while playtesting Deadwood. He had me read the rules, and I missed a sentence. Then we all played the game (including him), and halfway through he pointed out that I missed a rule. He wanted to see what would happen if the rule was missed in our group, if anyone else would catch something being off. (We didn’t until he said something, but we were focused on figuring out the game in general.)

Write down what people miss, how that affects play, at what point someone catches on that there’s a problem, etc.

Restrain Your Body Language

Even if you’re sitting in the corner of a room trying to not to not interrupt, you may give tells could taint your playtest. Most humans respond to feedback cycles, so seeing you grin with excitement or frown with frustration provides at best unconscious direction. Do what you can to treat it like an experiment where every reaction is interesting, and curb your emotions and body language.

A Method of Critique

This last tip doesn’t apply only to in-person beta playtests, but to any playtest or similar activity where you’re trying to extract useful critique:

At the end of a playtest session, carve out some time for everyone to talk. To structure it, go around and have everyone involved (except you) state one thing they liked or found good about the game. After that, everyone states one thing that was a problem or that they didn’t like about the game. After everyone has had a say, then open up for other discussion.

You’ll need to be a strong moderator to get the most out of this. Some people will want to tell you multiple things that they did like — and just as often, multiple things they didn’t like. Keep people limited to one. It’s okay if people want to talk about one someone else did because they can’t think of anything else or they want to highlight something in specific. Note these down, and don’t engage in dialogue or follow-up until after everyone has gone around for both phases of this.


What tips do you have for doing an in-person betatest?

– Ryan

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6 Responses to Four Tips for In-Person Betatesting

  1. Odin Phong says:

    Don’t allow yourself to make changes to the game during the testing unless you missed a glaring issue early on.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right. If you revise your rules too soon, you might not see other important elements of interaction. The advice I would give about letting people play wrong applies as much to the rules being wrong as the players misreading. Good call!

      – Ryan

  2. As I approach the stage where I’ll be playtesting my first game, I think it’s a good idea to mention what you’re looking for as far as feedback _before you begin_.

    The downside of this is that sometimes things will get missed due to a narrowing of focus.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s early development testing. In betatesting, you can’t solicit for focus. That taints the testing.

      Still, your comment’s worth addressing. Framing a playtest can be a useful tool for dev-testing. Don’t be afraid to also stop for a moment if people are critiquing elements that aren’t on the block. There was one bit where a playtester commented extensively on the character sheet, and the designer had to spell out what he was actually needing to get feedback on. (In that case, the character sheet’s format was set by the publisher to match a line of products, so he had no sway to change it, but it also would apply to games where the character sheet isn’t in question yet because more systemic elements are the question.)

      – Ryan

  3. Carl Lehmann says:

    It seems to me that there is another level of brilliance in the “Let Them Play Wrong” piece of advice. If your play testers play your game in a manner other than you intended, they might actually provide you with a better way of accomplishing what you wanted out of that particular rule or subsystem.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Carl,

      Totally! Either you’ll learn that your game is broader or even different in nature than you think, or you’ll have some hard data (or at least some anecdotes) in your pocket that you can use to explain why not to play a certain way.

      There was one lesson I learned early in Mythender: people kept asking if they could play demigods and other half-Mythic/half-mortal beings. I kept saying no (because I envisioned Mythender to be only about mortal-types fighting gods while trying to stay mortal) without trying it, and eventually I let a couple folks “play wrong” in convention games. It turned out not to hurt the game at all, and over time some of the poignant moments came from those characters as their struggle with mortality has a different sense of color.

      – Ryan