MAG: Playtesting

3 Simple Rules

Hey guys!  In our last "Making a Game" article,  we talked about getting a minimum viable product out faster so that you can get feed back as soon as possible.  We shared the designer's mantra of "Fail Faster".  Today, we're going to talk about what to do during your playtests and how to get the most out of them.  Also, by having a better understanding of what you should be looking for in a playtest, you can become a better playtester too.

We just got back from Protospiel in Madison, Wisconsin, so I'll be drawing on a few examples from there.  Specifically, I'd like to give a shout out to Josh and Heylon over at Battle Command Games for all their help (you can check them out here: https://www.facebook.com/BattleCommandGames?fref=ts.  We sat with each other for a few hours at Protospiel playtesting, so I'll be referring to them and their game a bit through this article.

1. Listen to the problem.

This may sound incredibly simple and obvious, but trust me... it isn't.  Listen. Listen to every single person, every single time.  It doesn't matter if they are saying good things, completely trashing your game, or just asking a ton of questions.  You listen.  Engage with them.  If nothing else, people love to know that you care enough about what they have to say to listen to them, so at worse you're proving to this person that you aren't a terrible person.  At best, they may lead you to the perfect solution for a problem you've been working on.  These people want to help you and you are literally asking them for that help.  Pay them the time and respect to hear them out.

Listen.

After a few play tests, you'll probably start to hear the same things come up over and over.  Do not dismiss people with "Oh yeah, we're working on it", or "We fixed that but it's not in yet."  Dismissing people not only discourages them from offering up more feedback, but it also is a lost oppurtunity for you. If you have something in mind to fix it, instead of telling them you've fixed ask, ask them "Do you think doing this will fix that problem?".  Ask if they have any ideas for how to fix it. Continue to listen.  

Maybe their suggestions go completely against where you want to take the game  Maybe they are annoying.  Maybe they "just don't get it".  

None of that matters.  

Listen.

2. Understand the problem.

It is easy to understand what someone is saying.  It is harder to understand why they are saying it.  Someone may explain they had a problem with a mechanic, but in reality, that mechanic may not be the issue.  The banned lists of competitive card games are a great place to look to prove this.  In Magic, for example, the big creature that beats you to death is not the card that you actually have a problem with.  It's the seemingly innocent card that allowed them to get that big monster onto the field in the first place.  No one ever died because an artifact land attacked them to death, but all 5 artifact lands are banned because they enabled other things to kill you.

A classic method for helping with this is asking the "5 Whys".  Here's a theoretical example:

Someone says they hate mechanic X.

Why do they hate it?

Because they feel like it is overpowered and broken.

At this point, many people might say, "No, I've done extensive testing, and I know it is 100% balanced".  You obviously won't say that, because you just read rule 1 and know that you should LISTEN to what they are saying, instead of dismissing it. Instead, you need to ask more questions to get to the real problem.

Why did they think it was broken?

Because when their friend used it, they couldn't figure out a way to beat them.

Why could they not figure out how to solve it?

Because you didn't make the counter strategy obvious to a new player.

At this point, you have gotten deep enough to understood a deeper problem.

We had this almost exact situation come up in our playtests.  The Battle Command Games guys had mentioned that once they was outed as the Origin, the game was essentially over for them.  We instinctively started to explain that no, you could feed your other infected players and still win.  We realized later though that we were dismissing the comment and hadn't understood the deeper problem: we hadn't showcased that mechanic well enough for a first time player to know it existed.  The game did not naturally lead the player to recognize that they had that option.  This comment that we almost dismissed opened our eyes to a very real problem we had.

3.  Solve the problem.

This is the hardest part.  Figuring out one solution isn't difficult, but figuring the best one can be.

Josh and Heylon were demoing Battle Corp, a mech-warrior inspired game that combines drafting, deck building, and crazy multiplayer combat.  During our playtest, I commented on a mechanic that allowed you to multiply your damage output by 4.  I shared that I thought it had a very serious chance of being over powered.  It is important to note that I had only played the game once, so my feedback was based on feeling, and not on facts.  As someone running a playtest, it is important that you recognize the difference.  Josh and Heylon, on the other hand, had played the game many, many times and knew the numbers better than anyone.  They had the numerical proof that the mechanic was, in fact, balanced.  However, this meant that we needed to look deeper at what was really going on.  Even though stats are the preferred tools for balancing a game, players don't tend to look at stats, but rather, remember and act on their personal feelings and anecdotes.  So, we know that even though the mechanic is balanced, by using our rule number 2 to explore a deeper issue, we see that there is a potential problem with it feeling like that mechanic is more powerful than it is.  

There are a lot of potential "fixes" for this:

Option 1.  Do nothing. 

Having done extensive testing, we know the mechanic is balanced.  This option means that players may naturally over value the cards that enable this mechanic, and will either eventually learn not to value it as much, or will win around 50% of the time anyways because it is balanced. This is always a perfectly valid option, and should always be considered.  The first question you should ask when trying to fix a problem is, "Is this actually a problem?".

Option 2.  Remove the mechanic.

This is the other end of the spectrum, and I mention it only to be complete.  This should not be your go-to option, but it is something you should always consider.  Nothing is ever locked in for your game.  There is nothing that you cannot do without.  You made it; You can take it apart in any way you see fit.  For our example this is a very extreme "solution", but when brainstorming fixes you should always keep in mind that sometimes, the right answer is to get rid of it.  If your game can stand without a mechanic, sometimes it is stronger for it.

Option 3. Recognize that it may be a First Order Optimal strategy.

This topic is a pretty deep rabbit hole to dig into, so let's just say that it has the potential to be something that new players will continue to use until they either hit a brick wall (ie a player who is good enough that it never works on them), they grow bored of using it and quit your game before seeing what else it has to offer, or they choose/are forced to learn a new tactic.  The first two options are bad, as they lead to players quitting your game. If the designers see that most new players gravitate towards this mechanic, then they want to make sure it acts as a stepping stone to the other strategies in the game, rather than a crutch that prevents players from exploring the rest of what it has to offer.  The "noob tube" in Call of Duty is a pretty good example of this, whereas Zerg rushing in Starcraft is an example of the not-so-good.  They both provide a clear and obvious route to victory that newer players can accomplish and have fun with, but these strategies are sub-optimal and encourage the players slowly branch out to other, more skill intensive, options.  The reason the Zerg rush is an example of the bad part of FOO strategies is that if a player has sunk all of their time into learning how to Zerg rush, they are going to find switching to a new race to be much more difficult now that they are higher in the ranks, and may grow frustrated with their lack of apparent growth and success. The key is to encourage exploration before the players get burnt out or get to a point where their competition is good enough to prevent exploration.

Option 4.  Make the mechanic look worse than it currently does.  

This may sound counter-intuitive, but making a mechanic that looks amazing but is just ok can be much worse than making a mechanic that just looks ok but is actually awesome.  The first one causes players to expect a higher payoff then they usually get, meaning they are disappointed more often.  The second one allows a player to "discover" how good a "so-so" mechanic actually is, and thus feel clever when they figure it out. 

Option 5. [Insert solution]  

The great things about making games is that its kind of  a game in itself.  What you have here is a list of basic strategies... rules of thumb to keep in mind as you playtest and iterate.  Once you become a better game designer, you'll discover all sorts of new and interesting solutions.  The important thing to remember is that with each new fix, you want to make sure that it does actually fix the problem, and that the players are actually able to use it.

Thanks again for reading, and be sure to check out Battle Corp from our friends at Battle Command Games!

~Nick