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The Importance of Design in the Playtesting Process

13 replies [Last post]
craigsoup's picture
Joined: 11/03/2015

How important do you think design is when it comes to the first few rounds of playtesting your games?

I ask this question, because my co-designer and I had our first playtest this past weekend, and to prepare, I spent an inordinate amount of time designing cards in Illustrator so we could have something pretty to look at. I printed them out on plain printer paper and stuffed them into card sleeves with some old MTG cards behind them to provide support.

Here's the thing. I'm not a great artist by any stretch. I'm decent with a pencil and paper, and I know my way around the Adobe Creative Suite, but I plan to eventually hire a much better artist than myself for the game's artwork. So after spending all of that time designing cards that I knew were going to be replaced, I started to wonder if I had wasted my time.

But after playtesting, I came to the conclusion that using cards with some kind of design on them, even if they were woefully substandard, enhanced the experience. It felt more like we were playing a real game instead of something that a 4-year-old might have thrown together.

What are your thoughts? How much effort do you put into design in the earliest stages of your development process?

Joined: 09/20/2015
The answer depends on where

The answer depends on where you are in the development cycle and the people themselves. Most people would advise to wait on the card development till much later in the cycle, and there are good reasons for this as you point out. Most of the time cards designed early in the process get changed or removed while new ones added, in the end there is a lot of time spend on card design that goes out the window. The time spent on card design could be used on rules or game design.

I find however that for some people card design starts at the very beginning. Some people are very visual and have a hard time grasping the rules or able to create rules without being able to see the cards. In this case it makes a lot of sense to create at least some cards first. It is true that this process will take more time but it might have a bigger pay off for those visual type of people.

Myself I like to come up with the rules first then use index cards to prototype the early design. I have the rules I want to test and then either write on the index cards or I can write a number on the card and print out the wording that matches the number. This allows me to quickly see if a given idea is good and how it might play out. After several play tests and feedback I might start tinkering with a general card concept. It is not until I have several cards locked down and knowing they will be in the game at the very least do I start looking at card design.

In the end the best process is the process that works for you and will help you along with making the game

craigsoup's picture
Joined: 11/03/2015
Too Much Time

After further rumination, I believe it can be very beneficial to have something pretty to look at while playtesting, and I think it can worth the effort to create something beyond a set of index cards, as long as you don't spend too much time on it. As mentioned before, since the designs are going to change anyways, it's pointless to put too much effort into it.

So I'm going to strike a balance. For our next playtest, I'm just going to print out some artwork that I find online. This will give us something nice to look at while we're playing, but it won't consume an inordinate amount of time.

In case anyone is interested, I wrote another article on "playstorming" at:

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Masacroso's picture
Joined: 05/05/2014
I think you dont wasted, in

I think you dont wasted, in any way, your time.

When Im prototyping if the game use some non general token I need to create it and ofc I put some level of artwork on it, at least to make the token easily recognizable.

P.S.: I prefer to use InkScape+Krita... the later a lot better imo in many senses than photoshop for designers.

bbblackwell's picture
Joined: 10/23/2013
Puttin' on yer face

Hi Craig! In my opinion, I would be solo playtesting as long as possible before I put it in front of anyone, so no art would be needed. By the time it got to a table with others, I would at least know which cards are probably going to survive further iterations (even if I don't know their final values and such) so spending some time on art is worthwhile.

Of course, if you're playing with close friends who are avid gamers and/or interested in design themselves, then you can hold of even longer on creating artwork since they will be able to see through clearly to the game beneath. The later the better when it comes to spending valuable design time on window dressing.

That's my thoughts, anyway.
Good Luck!

Zedrex's picture
Joined: 12/29/2015
I think the real value for

I think the real value for that sort of thing in playtesting is to communicate the "flavour" of the game. graphics, quotes, etc all help a player know what temperament to adopt when playing and this gives them a context to frame it with. people play very differently with and without this stuff.... and part of what you want to test is that you got the 'flavour' or tone right with it too, so the images definitely help there

polyobsessive's picture
Joined: 12/11/2015
Very basic design early on

When I'm first starting on a game cards will almost always be hand scribbled onto flashcards or index cards. After doing a few rounds of solo revision -- and possibly with a very understanding playtester if I can find one available -- I move quickly onto a very rough design using nanDECK, on which I can quickly adapt card setups from earlier games to provide me with a layout that is neat but unflashy.

As for artwork, I usually just grab some placeholder pictures from the internet (I particularly like pixabay as a source for pictures and for, well, icons) and slap them on. Sometimes, if I feel that way inclined, I make my own art, but I'm not very good at it!

During later iterations I may improve the art to better reflect how I see the game going, but I'm not going to spend any money on this.

Having art and design that is at least a bit presentable, even if it is not consistent or high quality, does seem to help playtesters get into the game though.

radioactivemouse's picture
Joined: 07/08/2013
No art

I'm a very big proponent of having NO art on cards when prototyping. Design yes (for functionality), art, no.

Here's why.

I believe you concentrate more on gameplay when there's no art. While I myself am an artist, putting art into a game where I'm trying to build a GAME only just takes away from the game itself and you start using the art as a way of identifying the game and not the mechanic. The art should really be that extra UMPH...that icing on the cake that pulls your game over the top.

Think about this. If your game can not only stand on its own, feel thematic, and immerse people in your game without art, then your game is excellent, no matter what art you put on it.

...and that's the purpose of being a designer, right? Create great games.

Use art as the icing on complete game design, not a crutch to fill the gameplay that's lacking.

Consider this: If you were to have your game taken by a publisher, they will change the art. In fact, they may just assign someone to do the art. Even video game companies put in the art and sound LAST in the design process.

Joined: 12/15/2015
Great question. I think it really depends...

I have been pondering this myself recently.

I really do think it depends. How much information about the game, the characters or the theme does the artwork get across? What types of people are doing the testing of the game? How much does putting together at least initial artwork help you, the designer, define the mechanics and theme?

Personally I lean towards no artwork for the first testing especially if it is just me doing the testing. I tend to like having a first shot at the artwork by the time I start having non-family members testing the game.

I actually just wrote a blog post on this today and came across this chain while searching around on the topic:

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
I agree with mostly all the comments

I too spend 0% time on artwork on early prototypes. What I do invest time in is a game's card layout in Illustrator. It's all vector based and most of the time Black & White, with some (I say some) shades of gray.

Often I re-use a layout from another game concept and then rework it to fit the new game.

But to be real honest, I think it takes me too much time to design that FIRST prototype before playtesting.

While IDEAS sound great when you are designing a game - they may not be so impressive once you have a working prototype. I find that happens to a lot of my designs: very few pass my level of rigor.

And what is most impressive to me is how my WIP "Tradewars - Homeworld" has held strong against criticism. Most people genuinely seem to like the game. I have not been able to (as of yet) design another game that can compete with TWHW. It's fundamentally simple and with a couple expansions will make it hard to master even for a hardcore gamer.

I think my problem stems from too much "optimism". I'm thinking the next design will be a great as TWHW. And to date that has not happened and I've have 2 or 3 other game ideas after TWHW...

Back to the OP: when I have an IDEA I think is good - I usually invest in Black & White card layouts. No art.

Joined: 09/11/2014
My process seems to go like

My process seems to go like this:

- Come up with game idea
- Make quick prototype using plain text note cards / game board drawn on scratch paper
- Do some self testing
- Determine size of components / game board / cards
- Self test a couple more times
- Design card layouts (text sizes and location) and any kind of color coding system
- First test with other players
- When it feels like rules are about 80-90% there, thats when I start adding some art. At this point any art being made is probably going to make it into the final game.

ElKobold's picture
Joined: 04/10/2015
My very first prototype is

My very first prototype is usually extremely raw and very limited both in the visual sense and in the sense of scope. It's meant to check if the core of the game is working as I expected. And if there are any critical issues with the design itself.

When I have the basic concept more/less stable, I tend to spend some time to design the visual style as I like my prototypes pretty. Especially if I`m asking someone else to help me test.

adversitygames's picture
Joined: 09/02/2014
Mechanics first

Sometimes I'll toss in some borders on first prototype cards or mock-up some icons for tokens, because it makes the prototype a little easier to play and allows me to focus on where the *rules* fall down rather than where the UI falls down.

But if your game can't stand without solid mechanics, it doesn't matter how pretty you make it. If you spend a load of time doing graphic design, then playtest and find out that the entire system has huge flaws in practise that require redoing the entire graphic design straight away, you've wasted a load of time making something that is useless.

Also I think if you focus too much on art early on it can result in letting the art build the game, rather than the idea or mechanics building the game, and the game becomes insubstantial and shallow.

A shortcut to having a better-looking prototype is to have a stock of miscellaneous prototyping bits. For example a stash of cubes, tiles, hex pieces, etc that you can use to stand in and can be used for any of your prototypes that might require them.

polyobsessive's picture
Joined: 12/11/2015
And art assets, etc

iamseph wrote:
A shortcut to having a better-looking prototype is to have a stock of miscellaneous prototyping bits. For example a stash of cubes, tiles, hex pieces, etc that you can use to stand in and can be used for any of your prototypes that might require them.


And actually you can extend this to art assets and layout templates, as you can have a load of useful stuff collected and to hand.

Once I am past initial scribbling on index cards and stuff and want to have slightly neater (and actually more flexible and easier to make mass changes on) I throw together some cards on nanDeck (usually I can adapt card templates I have already made for other games in a few minutes) and generally make use of assets from -- it's amazing how often I can quickly find an icon there that is a passable representation of what I want.

Later on I can go looking for more appropriate art (I find pixabay good for this) and improve the templates to make them a bit neater or more appropriate (though my graphic design skills are elementary at best), but I'm not going to spend money on this.

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