Playtesting - Feedback

Sharing a board game you are designing with other people is an intense experience. You are showing something personal, a piece of art, with the world. The inherent challenge is the need for critique. As we previously discussed, a game needs real players moving pieces and developing strategies for the designer to see how their ideas are interpreted. You need their feedback. However, playtesters have a different relationship with the game. They provide valuable insight, but filtered through their prior knowledge and biases. Refining your game based on these comments is as much of an art as the initial design.

First, let us provide some terminology. Feedback is split into two broad categories: passive and active. Passive feedback comes from play and active feedback comes from the players. The former is observations of playtests or interpretations of data and the latter is things told to you by players with the hope you will address their concerns. Additionally, it is useful to split active feedback into two subcategories: experiential (I did this) and emotional (I felt this) – though there is a third pseudo-type we will address at the end.

Passive and experiential feedback notes are similar and treated by the designer as such. The distinction comes from how you are presented the data. Either way, the value here comes from trends. Of course, there is a challenge in getting such data from players without overwhelming them. We will circle back to that in a future blog. For now, let’s assume we can accurately track some high-level choices players make.

Let us say we are examining our game’s three victory conditions. The choices players make in a single game are like a single person responding to a poll. It is only from seeing several games played we can look at the distribution of victory conditions actually achieved.  If something never happens over that stretch, the design needs to be reevaluated. If no one ever wins through option three, you must decide whether option three is too hard, too easy to counter, too confusing from a rules perspective, or too boring. Can the game survive without it or is having that third choice critical to the overall strategy? Once you have retooled the game, run players through it with the knowledge that victory condition has been tweaked. See if the new data supports your change.

The nice thing from a designer-perspective about experiential feedback is you can easily address the negative points. While there may be multiple solutions, a player has identified a concrete problem. You know there is an extraneous mechanic or misinterpreted rule. These concerns have clear correlations to their fixes, which is important for the patch notes.

Playtesting is a cycle, but the oft-overlooked part of this cycle is the designer’s out-of-game response to feedback. When you are iterating over your playtesting kit, you need something to let repeat testers know what has changed. No one can reset their brain and read your rules anew. They need guidance to see what has been altered between versions. Such notes not only guide their testing, but serve hidden agenda: playtesters see how their feedback has been handled.

A piece of experiential feedback, a “this happened” sort of note, can be addressed in the patch notes directly. A player who told you how hard it is to get victory condition number three will be psyched to read a line about lowering the goalposts for that condition. Your game is better thanks to their note and they see that. Now, that person is invested in your game. They helped and feel ownership over that piece. Assuming you fixed the problem, they are now an advocate for the process and trust your design skills. They will now support the game at a higher level, such as through crowdfunding.

If this sounds manipulative to you, I assure you it is not. Ultimately, the tabletop scene is one grounded in positive social interactions. People want good games and they want to see good games succeed. You are not tricking people into liking your game; they like your game enough to give a note and are happy to see it improve in a way they requested.

Now that we have explored the cycle with experiential feedback, let us examine the more challenging path of emotional feedback. These pieces of “I felt” require you to trace the root cause from the end feeling. For example, if a player tells you a particular character ability is overpowered, that could be directly true, or that the underlying mechanic that power taps into is more important in the game’s system, or that the other character abilities are underpowered, or that the player using that character had some other advantage, or any number of other possibilities. There is something to their concern. Finding the answer just requires more digging.

Luckily, emotional feedback is rarely isolated. This is why it is critical to get everyone from a single game to respond to the same survey. Look for correlations between players, particularly for difficulty and balance concerns. With a couple data points, you can see if certain strategies dominate or if certain players learn your game quicker. Again, trends show where your attention is needed. The main difference being emotional trends require sifting through the data with an interpretive mind.

This leads to a challenge presented by emotional feedback: sometimes the playtester is wrong. This may be seen as a heretical statement is some circles. How can a person’s feelings be written off as incorrect? Part of it is a game can never have universal appeal. Players who cannot lie are going to have problems with a bluffing game. We had hyper-competitive Conspire players upset they could not use influence tokens to guarantee last-minute victories. They left feedback about the game being unfair to “harder” roles. While there was still data to unpack from that session, we ultimately found that these players had difficulties with losing. As much mitigation as Conspire has for losing players (fundamentally that you are still telling story and losing does not really matter), the goal system is a fundamental mechanic and conflicting goals drive the action. We explored the feedback, made adjustments where applicable, but still could not have a design that would make those players happy every round.

This always reminds me of a software usability test I watched several years ago. The tester was evaluating a piece of HR software, despite having no background in HR. They had an eye-tracker and were told to narrate their every thought. At some point, the person was confused by some options and said, “I wish there was a button that explained these things, like a help button.” The person was staring directly at the help button. Whether it was their inexperience or the environment, the tester identified a problem that simply did not exist. They were wrong.

Another challenge emotional feedback presents the designer is writing the patch notes. The balance issues mentioned earlier should be written to address both the root cause and the reactive feedback. If the tester told you “character X was over-powered”, but you made Y and Z more powerful, address the issue by saying you “rebalanced the characters”. Do not disregard what they identified, as they may think you ignored their findings. This can be a delicate act, but do your best. Make players feel rewarded for helping while also informing everyone what has actually changed.

Let us wrap up this feedback dissection with the final type I alluded to above: show-off feedback. While I try to be open to criticism and adapt my games according to the players’ experiences, sometimes people rub me the wrong way. The thing in common with every other type of feedback we have discussed is the central desire to see the game improve. Feedback that does not attempt to help the game is bad.

Often, you have people compare your game to others or harp on design ideology mentioned in popular podcasts. While this knowledge could be useful, too often it is a symptom of someone trying to show superiority. This is a problem endemic to cons: people approaching you in an unfamiliar environment and speaking without concern for future interactions. My advice is to listen to players giving your game a fair chance and ignore people who talk over you during the pitch or rules explanation. While the hobby is overwhelmingly positive, there exists a small contingent of gamers who seem resentful towards board gaming’s current golden age.

As a designer, you are part of this golden age. You can make a wonderful game. If someone says your game is similar to X, that’s fine. Everyone has the right to make their own story game or their own haunted house game. How you create it, how you craft your experience, will be unique to you. Use your intuition. Use the insights of players digging into your design. Explore the crowd’s wisdom and refine your game into an amazing one.