Playtesting - Steps

We are cracking away at both Far Away and Mordgeist: two exciting new Cherry Picked titles. Much of our attention is focused on playtesting these games. We are writing a short series of playtesting articles for this blog, discussing our ideology and methodology for designing and refining new games. First, we are highlighting the steps we take from idea to release.

The initial step is finding the experience the game creates. Drink! is for breaking the ice at a house party. Conspire is a fast story game. Far Away is a deep, cooperative experience for two players. Find the reason this game needs to exist; the itch it scratches. Everything that is made later needs to serve this core concept. This may seem basic, but there are numerous games that stray from this thought. They let theme or mechanics overwhelm the human interaction component. Of course, how people play with the game can evolve over time, but the design and testing need to track with it.

Once the game’s niche is understood, then enough gameplay to be functional is draped around it. CPG believes in rapid iterative prototyping. We create a game with the smallest subset of features required to share the experience, and then test it with real people. It is important not to overproduce before testing. Not only does that waste resources, but additional systems or mechanics cloud the experience being analyzed. It is hard to pinpoint what makes people feel certain ways or what leads to particular scenarios if every part of a game is untested.

We stress this minimalist design approach because of our own experiences. Catalyst, Conspire, Far Away, and Mordgeist all had rules stripped following the first test. Even when we thought we had a small core set of rules, it often turned out the design could be even tighter. For example, Catalyst’s card-based actions originally involved picking both an action and a target. This proved cumbersome. We had established Catalyst’s goal was to include a tense, fast combat system that did not sacrifice tactical decisions. With that experience in mind, we paired down combat to have the only card chosen be the character’s action. We also progressed without logistical minutiae, like encumbrance or flanking, and found we never needed them to complete the experience. A simpler design prevailed and persisted.

Our goal is to get these small game ideas in front of real people. We kit up enough cards and tokens to for what we need and sit down with friends. Initially, we do not care about rule conveyance. As long as we can verbally explain the game and allow players to make their own decisions, that is good enough at this step. Watching players touch cards and move tokens lets us evaluate their choices. What options are they using? What do they see value in? What do they keep forgetting? All (good) games have a component of creative freedom. These playtesters show you what they will do with it.

 Far Away - an exotic planet of notecards, Pandemic cubes, and Agricola resources packed into a Space Cadets expansion box.

Far Away - an exotic planet of notecards, Pandemic cubes, and Agricola resources packed into a Space Cadets expansion box.

Some designers will argue we skipped a step: playing a game by yourself. Personally, I find little value in moving pieces alone. You should run through a game in your head and check the basics when making the kit. What playtesting is for is finding the fun moments other people have and chasing those. In a recent Mordgeist test, we saw two players trade items that could be used in their own banishment rituals as a sign of trust. This was excellent. What needs to be in place for more moments like that? How do we use the game to facilitate people acting in that way?

These small, iterative prototypes continue until the mechanics have stabilized. Once you have a fair degree of certainty in the core gameplay, then you can move on to refinement. First, make another kit with an actual rules sheet. Hand it to players who have not played and watch them. At this stage, it is still good to be there and rapidly respond to problems. A typo or omitted rule should not prevent additional feedback from being gathered. If players can make it through a session without you, then it can be distributed through print-and-play.

This phase is also the time to test balance. Many games benefit from doing A/B testing: having two versions and comparing the feedback. Does Far Away get too hard with a three-hunger limit? Is an item that gives players an extra action overpowered? This is the time to check that. Test small things while the cost of changing numbers is low.

Here is the point you start needing graphic assets. Anything used to convey information is top priority. This is also the time people start seeing the style of the game emerge. Art is the hook for people to bring others into the project. Aesthetics make it more accessible and will get your game in front of more people. Start commissioning icons for your core mechanics, then move to the edges of your game as they become set in stone.

When the playtesting circle grows beyond your immediate sphere of influence, make a survey and start passing that out with the game. Get feedback. Also get email addresses. Playtesters are the best fans. They are a critical part of the game and will feel their influence as you react to feedback. Anyone who sits down with an unfinished game and gives you critiques wants that game to succeed. They will be loyal to the game for a while (and probably through the crowdfunding cycle). At a certain point, playtesting switches from a design necessity to a marketing one.

Once your game is mostly done (missing scenarios, optional systems, fleshed out item lists, or numerical balance) you can invest in a material version. Game Crafter makes great components for such builds. This is the version you bring to conventions, share with reviewers, and film in your Kickstarter. Save your precious capital by having everything extensively playtested by this point. This prototype should play like the final product; maybe some numbers and names are different, but the underlying mechanics are the same.

At some point, refinement must stop. You must eventually launch a title. It will never be perfect. Settle on the details, hire an editor, and step back. Something I learned during my tenure as a software engineer was the disruptive nature of bug fixes. Even the simplest changes could have unforeseen consequences in a complex system. Could Catalyst’s meta vein be tweaked? Probably. Would that make meta too powerful or too weak? Maybe. The potential cost pushed that fix out of the scope of release. The game’s quality was not affected in the majority of cases: most people will never experience the test cases we saw. As long as you have shared the game with a wide variety of people who enjoy it, and the quality of what exists is good, your game can ship.

This is our path to launch. Far Away and Mordgeist are both boxes full of notecards and bulleted-list rules sheets. Soon, they will be real games. Please follow us on the journey. If you are a developer, please sharing your own playtesting steps in the comments. Our next playtesting blog will dive into the realm of feedback: how to get it, analyze it, and act on it.

--Alex