While feedback may be extremely useful for Game Masters and designers alike, I’d like to focus on the latter. Testing your game and modifying it based upon your testers’ opinions is an essential part of the creation process. For me personally, it’s probably the hardest part as well. That is why I’ve created a set of rules and guidelines to improve this process.
Here’s my list of all the things you should adhere to and consider, when testing your game on live subjects.
There is no point in postponing the testing. If your game is playable enough, you shouldn’t hesitate. Even if some parts are not working, it’s still worth giving a shot. It’s your first chance to check if the general idea is comprehensible and appealing to your audience. Seeing your game through other people’s eyes is crucial to its further development. This is especially important if you are working on a game with an extensive set of rules and/or a detailed setting. Rewriting huge portions of text is way harder than improving it at the beginning and building upon the conclusions from the early feedback.
So when should you start thinking about testing? The core mechanic of the game has to be playable, at least from the players’ side. If you’re designing a game that requires a GM and are willing to run the test game yourself, you can start before the GM rules are ready. Remember however, that in this case, you are only testing a piece of the game, not the full design. If you’re planning on having 30 options for the players to chose from, you should start when you’ve got only a couple of them ready. The feedback will be a great help in designing the rest.
Accept what you’re given
I’m usually very critical towards my games. However, when I manage to create something that I do like, I immediately change my attitude, and start loving it. I guess you could say, I have a love-hate relation with most of my designs. This becomes extremely problematic, when it comes to testing. I like my game – I wouldn’t test it if I thought it wasn’t good enough. And sure – sometimes you get positive feedback and that feels great.
Other times though, the testers may not share your enthusiasm. However tempting that may be, do not try to persuade them to change their opinions. You may feel that their negative feedback is based upon that one thing they didn’t understand during the play. That if you simply show things from a different perspective, they will change their mind. It doesn’t matter. Do not persuade them and – above all – never argue with them. You got your feedback. If you feel a simple clarification would have changed their minds, make sure to clarify it in your game, so that the next group understands it.
It’s really hard not to get emotional, when receiving either enthusiastic or negative feedback. It is crucial however, to put your emotions aside (at least to the best of your ability) and analyze the information you’re getting. When someone says bad things about your game, do not argue. Instead, ask them for additional details. Try to understand, why do they feel the way they do. Same goes for positive reviews. Keep your cool, and ask additional questions, to get a better grasp of what made the game appealing. Though it’s hard, this way you will gain the most from the test. And that in return, will help you make the game better. This is why you’ve been running the test in the first place, isn’t it?
Understand what you’re given
Running a test game is similar to doing an experiment. And a deeply flawed one at that. You need to be aware of all the factors that influence your testers’ opinions. Back in the early 2000’s we created an online Werewolf: the Apocalypse fan community. Each week I would write an article for our web page. Before publishing it, I’d always sent it to a group of editors for a review. The feedback was very similar each time. They would generally applaud my article, pointing out the same minor problems with the general tone of the text.
After a few months I felt like something was not right and decided to make an experiment. I sent them three new articles, but told them I got them from a new writer. Not only did I get completely different feedback, each article was also reviewed differently. My friends knew me. When they were reading my texts, they assumed things based on their knowledge of the author. The same goes for testing your games. If you run a game for the players who know you, their feedback will be heavily influenced by that.
Does this mean, you should only test your games on strangers? Absolutely not. Feedback from them will be distorted in a different way. Say, you’re a GM that has a real knack for setting a mood, that you’re adept at creating vivid images with your descriptions. You run a test game for player who do not know you. After the session, they all praise your game for perfectly capturing the mood of the genre. Does this mean your game actually did that? Well, it might have. But then again, the players might have unwittingly just praised your GM skills. Your friends would probably focus on other aspects of the game, since they are already familiar with your style.
The feedback is always influenced by many different variables. You need to be aware of them and take them into account when drawing conclusions. Who were the players? Who was running the game? Where did it take place? Remember, that most of the time, your testers do not review your game. They review this particular instance of playing it. Always take that into consideration.
Do not rely on a single opinion
This should really go without saying, but I’m surprised how often I fall for this trap. While important, a single opinion shouldn’t be enough for you to base your decisions upon it. For me, this rule is fairly easy to use when I’m being praised. Sure, that person loved the game, or an idea/mechanic/whatever, but I’ve got to ask others. One bad feedback however often makes me introduce changes to my design. But it shouldn’t.
The person criticizing your idea might have misunderstood you. They might have had a bad day. There might be something they hated, that most others would be keen on. There’s probably a thousand more reasons, why their feedback should be taken with a pinch of salt. And the only way to know if that’s the case, is to do more tests. It might be hard, because you do not want to hear the same critique of your work again, but trust me – it’s worth it. It’s the only way to be sure.
Having said that, sometimes a single feedback can be enough to influence your design. If the person giving it to you explains their standpoint and actually convinces you why the change would make your game better, you shouldn’t hesitate. If they managed to show you a better solution, and you feel the same way, go with your guts. This is often the case with feedback from fellow game designers, which goes beyond a simple “I like this and I don’t like this aspect of the game”.
Evaluate the test
Ideally, you should do this before getting the feedback. How do you think the game went? Was there something that might have impaired the test? Maybe (if you we running the game), you feel that you’ve made a mistake, that might have made the experience worse. Perhaps, the conditions were far from perfect, as you were playing in a crowded area during a convention? Of course, most of the time, you will have to answer those questions after your hear the testers opinions. If you know what might have influenced the test, it will be easier for you to understand the feedback.
You should also evaluate the way you ran and/or explained the game. It is crucial if you were the Game Master. Did you run the game by the rules? Sure, every GM usually adopts the game to their play style a little, but in this case it may impair the feedback. If you are testing a GM-less game or observing someone else run it for you, focus on the way you explained the rules to everyone. You might have made a mistake that weighted on the outcome. Just as well, you might have told them something that helped the game, but is not written in your design.
So, before analyzing the feedback and jumping into conclusions, take a moment to evaluate the test. Were you happy with the game? Did the game go according to the design? What was different? Only then will you be able to properly interpret the feedback.
Evaluate the ideas
More often than not, your testers will come up with their own ideas on how to make the game better. They might have a suggestion about the game mechanics or an element of the setting. For me personally, it’s often hard not to disregard those ideas by default. It’s like there’s this grumpy goblin inside me grumbling “It’s my game, go away!”. I feel that all the ideas in the game are connected, that everything was carefully crafted to work well together. And now, someone (an outsider!) wants to destroy that balance with their input. If you feel similar about your designs, then this rule is made especially for you.
Hard as it is to admit, our designs are far from perfect. Others may contribute to our games in many ways. It’s helpful when they give you simple answers, but you should never discard their ideas and input. Take a step back, and analyze what they’ve given you. Perhaps their idea actually does work better than your original design. If not, maybe there are parts of it, that you could include in your game. I’m not asking you to do this to make the testers feel better. Do it to make the game better. That was the whole point of the test, remember?
Then again, always keep in mind that this is your game. You are not bound to include other people’s ideas. Just because they seemed really confident about their input, doesn’t mean that they were right. Ultimately, you are the judge of that. Take only what you want to take, it is your game.
So, you’ve been testing your game for quite some time. You’ve managed to change a few aspects, to make it better. Some of the players are now really happy with your design, but others still have their doubts. You feel that though all the main quirks have been taken care of, there’s still room for improvement. And you’re probably right. However, at some point you will have to accept your design for what it is – an imperfect game.
If you keep waiting and improving your game until you get no negative feedback at all, you’ll probably never going to publish it. First of all, it’s impossible to create a perfect game. If you’re ambitious, strive for greatness. If you’re more like me, go for “good enough” instead. But trying to make your design perfect will leave you with dozens of games that you’ve kept on correcting until you lost faith in them and moved on to another project.
And even if you do manage to create a game considered closed to perfect by some, others will find it lacking. It’s impossible to please everyone, as people have different, sometimes contradicting, expectations. Keep in mind, that the testers are there to help you analyze your game. They are not there to judge you or your design. Do not think of them as a jury, that has to approve your ideas. In the end, you are the only person, whose opinion is crucial to the project. If you feel your game is shaping up well, and there’s a group of people that enjoy it, you probably should move to the next stage. It doesn’t matter if there’s another group of players, who do not find this particular game interesting. People have different tastes.
Appreciate the testers
Last but not least, acknowledge the people helping you. Sure, testing a new game can be fun and exciting and hopefully your players enjoyed it. Then again they had the option of playing a regular, complete game instead. I’m a big fan of equality at the gaming table. I believe that players and the GM should all contribute to the same degree. We’re all here to have fun, right? So it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure everybody does.
With test games, it’s a bit different though. You’ve got a clear agenda – you need feedback to improve your design. The testers probably hope for the best, but they know, that they came to the table to help you. In this situation you are not exactly equal. You need something from them and they commit their time and energy to give that to you. Acknowledge that and make them feel appreciated.
Those are my rules of testing the game and gathering feedback. You shouldn’t think of them as strict laws. I simply tried to put my mindset into words and arrange it into a few guidelines. I do hope you find this article helpful. Regardless, I’d love to get some feedback from you. What are you experiences with feedback and testing? Is there a rule you disagree with or do you feel I missed something important? Feel free to comment and share your opinions!