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Early-stages playtest questions

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Dr. Metropolis
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Joined: 09/08/2008

We're in the intermediate stages of the game design process. We've done some play testing and what we know now is that we have a relatively playable game. But there's still a lot to work out. We're not anywhere near having a written rule-set or a polished set of game components.

So what strategy should we use in our playtests at this stage? We're trying to get as many testers and sessions as we can. Should we re-play the same rules several times, even if we see changes we'd like to make? Should we make small tweaks between plays to compare the results? Should we make in-game adjustments to rules that aren't working?

NativeTexan
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My Playtesting Approach

My process goes something like this...

1) Once the game is playable, I focus upon making it fun. Are player's challenged? Are there multiple paths to victory? Is there a sense of tension and excitement throughout the game or does it lag in certain places? Although I may need to introduce rule changes and element changes to accomplish this, cranking up the excitement / tension / strategy elements are crucial. If the game is fun, people will GLADLY continue to help playtesting. This helps to build energy around the game.

2) Once it is playable and fun, I focus upon streamlining and simplifying wherever possible. Find the parts that seem awkward or unwieldy. Look for the places where people are confused about the next step in the game. Are there extraneous mechanics or rules that aren't really adding depth or excitement to the game. Rip things out, clean things up, smooth things over.

3) Next I create the first draft for the rulebook. At this point you have a playable game that people enjoy which is fairly elegant and simple. At this stage I put together a complete rulebook. I know that it will be changed, but it helps to work through the process of explaining the game to someone else. It helps me as a designer and helps to identify things that are still awkward or non intuitive. It is also important to start an FAQ which you may or may not include with your rules (you might just have it online). This is important as you may have something that you discover in a playtesting session that does not come up frequently, but needs to be documented to clarify how that situation is handled.

4) Try to break your game. Also look for playtesters that are willing to help you break the game. Take a strategy and run with it. See if you can gain an unfair advantage. What if you only ever took actions of type A? How would the game turn out if you stuck with actions of type B? What if you never stopped employing an early game strategy? What would happen if you initiated a late game strategy right off the bat? Is there a certain card, move, or combination of moves that you can consistently exploit to crush other players?

Find the flaws and fix them.

5) Next, work on improving / refining the rules. Continue playtesting, refining the rules, and playtesting some more.

6) Once the rules are reasonably clear and complete, I move on to doing blind playtesting sessions. This involves handing the game components and rulebook to a new group that has never seen it before. Ask them to sit down and read through the instructions as if they had just bought the game at a store. Have them play the game without your involvement. Stand back and just watch. Don't play, don't explain, don't clarify. Just watch and take LOTS of notes. How did they interpret the rules? What sort of discussions do they have? What strategies do they employ?

Update the rules to clarify the game instructions and make any other changes as needed based upon the blind playtesting sessions.

Continue to perform blind playtesting sessions, taking notes, and refining the game until you are able to have at least 3 smooth sessions that execute without issue.

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Back to your original question - small tweaks or major changes? I employ both. If I have a hunch about how to change the game and it is dramatic, I give it a shot to see if it fixes things in one big sweep. If that doesn't pan out, then I go back to the previous format and continue to make small adjustments between sessions. I try to get something to reveal itself as least twice before changing it (trying to rule out flukes).

Designing a game certainly is a lot of fun. I wish you all the best on yours!

The Magician
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Joined: 12/23/2008
rules

Texans advise was good. Though, I don't know if I would wait so long to get the rule together. Infact, as you say you are planning lots of playtesting, I would not even begin a group playtest session until I had a rule set together. It's an important part of the package from the vary beggining of group playtests. Your job is not to have to do much. You want to watch the car run or ride in it with the passengers. You shouldn't have to explain much. You want the players to be able to read the rules and figure it out. If they can play the game than you know you did your job. Writing rules is an important excorsize as well. writing the rules will commit you to defining the system clearly. If it's on computer you can easily edit. I like to also put my rules on notecards point by point because I can exchange rules out if they don't work and carry them with me.

InvisibleJon
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A different P.O.V.; assorted thoughts...

Dr. Metropolis wrote:
We're not anywhere near having a written rule-set or a polished set of game components.

So what strategy should we use in our playtests at this stage? We're trying to get as many testers and sessions as we can. Should we re-play the same rules several times, even if we see changes we'd like to make? Should we make small tweaks between plays to compare the results? Should we make in-game adjustments to rules that aren't working?

Unlike you (and apparently Native Texan), I write the rules first. They're 99% likely to get changed and modified in the course of play testing and development, but I like to have them because I can take notes on them as players play. Also, I can refer to them while playing to ensure that we're playing correctly or to find out why I made a specific design decision. ("Why is it three cards per turn?" "Why does the energize phase come after the reaping phase?")

Do you have a specific game design goal? Is it written down? A design goal helps you keep crafting the rules in the right direction.

So I'd recommend putting the best ruleset you can in writing. That way you know that you're being consistent from sessions to session. Next, I'd note all of the changes you'd like to make and prioritize them for testing.

Regarding changing the game in-play: It really depends . If the problem is so bad that it's going to invalidate any fun or useful information you're going to get from the play test, then either make the change or re-start the game. If the problem isn't so bad, you may want to play through - especially if changing the rules mid-game will result in hard feelings with your play testers.

SiddGames
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I also write the rules out

I also write the rules out before playing, even a "proof of concept" play. Making notes as I go lets me pinpoint problem areas in the game, as well as areas of the rules which may be unclear or overly complicated (which tends to point back to a problem in the design, too).

The Magician
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SiddGames wrote:I also write

SiddGames wrote:
I also write the rules out before playing, even a "proof of concept" play. Making notes as I go lets me pinpoint problem areas in the game, as well as areas of the rules which may be unclear or overly complicated (which tends to point back to a problem in the design, too).

Interesting! What exactly do you mean by "proof of concept". This sounds like heplful practice you mension.

SiddGames
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Oh, well, sometimes I have an

Oh, well, sometimes I have an idea and I play it out in my head a little and I know the basic system is at least functional and comprises a full game, so I will go straight to (what I call) an alpha test -- crude components thrown together, first full rules draft, and usually 2 or 3 of us doing a playtest at our weekly design meeting.

Other times, I don't really have a full game design in mind -- I just have one or two related mechanics, but I'm not sure if they really do what I think they will. In that case, what I call a "proof of concept" is "playing" a few rounds of those mechanics to see how they really work. Sometimes, this is me doing it solo, sometimes it is like a filler at a design night after we have played a regular prototype. I'll have the full rules written for those mechanics and/or phases of a game, but I might not have victory conditions and supporting mechanics in place yet. Afterward, I'll usually know if the system is worth developing further into a full game, or it goes back into the idea folder until some other game design has a place for it.

So nothing formal, that's just what I call my stages. But even for a "proof of concept" I like to have it written out step by step. As Jon mentioned, having the rules provides a structure to follow when trying it out and makes it easier to remember why I did X instead of Y, or see that maybe Z would be a better choice after actually trying it.

Rick-Holzgrafe
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Make Sure It Works First

I don't like to involve playtesters until I'm sure I have a design that works to some degree. My usual process is to get an idea, and start writing it down, making changes and additions as they occur to me and as I think more deeply about the design. This is not a full ruleset at this point, but sort of a skeleton of a ruleset. I may spend a couple of days or a week on this phase.

Next I make a quick-and-dirty prototype, often on a pencil-sketched board with bits of paper for pieces. I play a solo game, pretending to be four different people, to see how it all really works. Usually this reveals my idea to be awful and unworkable, and many of my ideas get thrown away at this point.

If the idea survives the initial solo playtest, I'll put some effort into a better prototype (mainly because I hate playing with fly-away little bits of paper) and start the real development process. This means playing lots of those solo games, getting a feel for what parts work and what parts don't. As I identify problems, I look for solutions and try them out. The rules evolve during this period. Sometimes the design will fail at this point, if there are serious problems that I'm unable to fix. If not, then after a while the rules will begin to stabilize.

When that happens, it's time to produce a really playable prototype, with proper player aids and a complete, well-written rulebook. It is only now that I will risk showing the game to other people. The "risk", in my mind, is this: I don't have a huge pool of playtesters, so I want the ones I have to look forward to my games. I don't want to make them sit through a bad or even mediocre design. That's why I try as hard as I can to find and fix every problem that I can before I involve playtesters.

Of course, the playtests will reveal problems I didn't find on my own; that's what playtests are for. But my playtesters get the best possible experience: a playable game that nevertheless needs their criticism and advice.

I have learned not to make changes to games in progress. I have never really had this be successful, and on one memorable occasion, it ruined a playtest session because the change turned out to be a really bad idea. Yes, it was good to learn that it was a bad change, but I could have figured that out on my own later, and avoided spoiling the playtest.

Some interesting advice I got this weekend: you can playtest portions of a game, focussing on one particular part of a game that's troublesome. For example, you can try several different auction mechanics without having to play the entire game: just set your testers up with a pre-set position, have them try the auction, and stop when the auction is over. Then do it again, with a different kind of auction. Repeat until you've found the method that works best. This is much faster than having to play entire games, just to test a mechanic that only takes five minutes. I've never done this, but I intend to keep it in mind from now on.

The Magician
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@ Siddgames, This is

@ Siddgames,
This is interesting and Thanks!

One thing I find can be a problem for me is that early in my design which I am now, fun can be difficult to calculate when it's not necessarily part of design priority at the stage I'm in. Like testing for functionality when "fun" isn't the bigest concern. Because it can be functional but not so much fun. However it may lots of potential for fun. I have to remind myself not to feel discouraged that it isn't fun yet and not doubt a working mechanic.

Rick-Holzgrafe
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The Magician wrote:fun can be

The Magician wrote:
fun can be difficult to calculate

I can never tell whether one of my designs is actually fun until I hold a live playtest. That's usually the scariest moment: I put a lot of effort into a game before I'll try a playtest. By that time I know whether it "works" reasonably well, but I can't tell whether it will be fun without letting other people try it, and asking them.

The Magician
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Rick-Holzgrafe wrote:The

Rick-Holzgrafe wrote:
The Magician wrote:
fun can be difficult to calculate

I can never tell whether one of my designs is actually fun until I hold a live playtest. That's usually the scariest moment: I put a lot of effort into a game before I'll try a playtest. By that time I know whether it "works" reasonably well, but I can't tell whether it will be fun without letting other people try it, and asking them.


Rick, thank you for saying this. Lately when I do playtests on my own, the game isn't so fun because it's so bare bone at this stage. This has been a little deceaving for me because the fun is lacking. I must face something that I am sure many inventors go through: It's fun to think about the game and design it, but not fun doing the real work of playtesting and acatually pulling it out and looking at it. Now I am tasting the real design process.

Dr. Metropolis
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Thanks to everyone

This has been a really helpful thread, with lots of good ideas. I'm going to try writing up a rule-set before the playtest. I've always found that the writing process really organizes and clarifies my thinking. So I can see how this would be a useful step in the design.

Thanks, everyone.

larienna
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Joined: 07/28/2008
Each time I play test a new

Each time I play test a new version of the game. I write up the rules. The problem is if I don't do it, I could forget the rules and lose all the progress I made so far since I often switch from a game to another.

I take a lot of notes on sheet of paper in the bus and metro. It's Ok to note ideas, but searching though them later is really hard and chaotic. So by fixing the rules as a rule book. You now have a reference point. If you want to know how the game was so far, you just read the rule book and you are back in the design.

For playtesting, solo playtest as much as possible. WHen it's playable, I playtest with designers ( if I have the opportunity). If designers says it's OK, then I can test with various kinds of people. Playtesting directly with people has given me a lot of bad results, so I don't do it anymore.

Katherine
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Joined: 07/24/2008
We use single page printing

We use single page printing for draft rules - Each playtester gets give a set, and notes their changes or ideas on the reverse of the page they relate to.

After a few solo tests of the ideas a new rule book is written up and then playtested again.

this is a good way of doing things for a childrens game, I don't think it would work for a 60 page rule book!

SiddGames
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Caveat

I'm a little spoiled in playtesting, because we do it at a fairly early stage of development among the three of us who meet (ideally weekly) for design discussion. Even after we've done a lot of work on a game, the next stop is another design group that we sometimes exchange games with for playtesting. Our "real player playtesting" has been very rare so far, heh.

adagio_burner
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ZunTzu for solo playtesting

Rick-Holzgrafe wrote:

Next I make a quick-and-dirty prototype, often on a pencil-sketched board with bits of paper for pieces. I play a solo game, pretending to be four different people, to see how it all really works. Usually this reveals my idea to be awful and unworkable, and many of my ideas get thrown away at this point.

I found one good tool for this kind of solo-playtesting: ZunTzu!

Here is how it works. Prepare a ZunTzu package that has a little bit of everything: cards, counters, chits, tiles etc. Only leave the images blank. Make sure you specify "supply =" some large number on all components so you can vary the quantities.

When you need to play-test something, edit the image files to add some text to cards (or tiles, etc.) You do not have to make them fancy; often some plain text or an icon or two suffice. Then you load the editied image into ZunTzu, and in 1 minute you can play with those cards and other components, draw as many as you want, shuffle etc. I found this to be faster and easier than cuting and playing with actual paper pieces.

Rick-Holzgrafe
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adagio_burner wrote:I found

adagio_burner wrote:
I found one good tool for this kind of solo-playtesting: ZunTzu!

ZunTsu, alas, does not run on Macintosh. In fact, its insistence on a high-end video card makes it behave poorly even under emulation.

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