There is one thing that we as game designers need more than anything else. One thing that can help us truly nail the design of a game we are working on. And yet is also something that, at some primal level, we are terrified of. Rationally we know it is worthwhile, but emotionally the very idea often scares us. That thing is honest feedback.
No matter how well meaning our regular game testers are, there is a part of them that holds back. Usually they are friends, family, or fellow gamers. As such, there is an aspect of their testing and feedback that is always filtered through the lens of that relationship. They are testing our ideas from a sense of wanting to help out – even if it is never articulated as such. I am not meaning to put down any of the regular play testers we work with, especially not those who have been helping out with Tribal Conflict. Their input has been invaluable, especially in the earlier stages of the project where things were very rough and ready. But at some point the level of useful input starts to tail off. Familiarity with the game and the direction it is heading can cloud their judgement, no matter how much they strive to remain objective.
This is where the value of new play test groups and blind play testers begins to become important. A fresh perspective can reveal so much about our game and the actual state it is in. But even here a subconscious “niceness filter” is often in place. The majority of human beings would rather cushion negative input with niceties. A response of “It was fun, I can’t see anything broken” that is matched with poor engagement by a player rings a little hollow. Actually finding people who will give you honest feedback, especially feedback that is backed up with reasoning (rather than just “I didn’t like X”), is tough but invaluable.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to promote Tribal Conflict at a couple of events over the span of a long weekend. One of those was Board Games by the Bay, an event that allows gamers to come and play board games for the weekend – including the opportunity to test prototypes that local designers are working on. During that time I was able to sit down with a couple of board game designers and play through Tribal Conflict. One of those designers set out to deliberately try and break the game by subverting the core of what they were “supposed” to be doing, which revealed a number of issues with the core gameplay. After finishing the game we sat and discussed it for probably close to an hour. Initial discussions were around specific changes I had been testing, but we soon got to talking about the core of the game in an open and honest fashion. Essentially we tore the game to shreds and then talked through ways to put it back together in a more cohesive way. The perspective from other designers was refreshing and has certainly led to a refinement of the core of the game.
I have been reflecting on the feedback I received, as well as the process we engaged in, over the past week or so. The following thoughts come out of that reflection.
Don’t Take Things Personally
Keep in mind that the discussion is about the game, not you as a designer. I know it can be hard to differentiate between the two at times, especially if this is your first game. Our gut reaction is often along the lines of “So you think I’ve done a terrible job then?” If need be take a moment to step back, take a deep breath, and refocus. If your goal is to make a great game you need to be able to separate yourself from the design. Criticism of that is nothing against you or your abilities. Sometimes the game just needs more work done on it.
Be Prepared To Make Changes
The purpose of game testing is not merely to validate your work. If that is your intention then you are in for a world of disappointment. No game idea, no matter how great it may seem, survives contact with other people. Testing should be revealing issues and helping you to refine the original idea you had. Most often the problems lie in our implementation, not in the idea itself. Take on board the feedback you receive and look for ways to use that to improve your design.
Engage With Your Testers
Feedback, especially from other game designers, should result in a dialog between you. At the end of the day this is still your design. You are the one who carries the vision for the game, the feelings you want to evoke, the interactions you want the players to have. A play tester, no matter how well informed they are, does not carry any of that. All they can see is the game on the table in front of them. Their response is coming out of what they did and what they wanted to do. Their perception of the experience is influenced, at least in part, by what sort of experience they thought they were going to have. By engaging with them you are hopefully able to line up your vision to their experience and identify the key ways in which there is a mismatch. This will then give you some concrete things to work on for your next iteration.
Keep An Open Mind
This links in with all of the points mentioned above. In particular, it is entirely possible (if not probable) that there are approaches or solutions to issues facing your game that you have not yet considered. The perspective of another player may help you discover these. However, if you are closed to external input, unwilling to engage with others, or not prepared to make changes as a result of their feedback then you have ultimately wasted a valuable opportunity.
I had entered the weekend willing to engage with play testing and open a dialog around what changes might need to be made – especially when I was playing with fellow game designers. I still had to catch myself early on and not fight the honesty I was receiving. Once I embraced that and engaged in the process we were able to have a good honest discussion about the experience being promised and what was actually being offered. From there we were able to highlight some key changes that would help align those two things and provide a more cohesive experience as a whole.
Through this process Tribal Conflict has become a leaner, more focused game. Already I can see how the overall experience has been refined. The game feels different to how it did a couple of weeks. Some of my regular play testers are arguing that it is a direction they don’t necessarily want it to go. But I can see that the resulting game will be much better for it.
As a bonus a) the potential audience is now a little broader and b) I can get twice as much testing in due to the fact that the length of a game is being halved.