Davy Wagnarok’s Top 5 Playtesting Tips
Would you purchase a car that had never been tested for the road? Would you drink a mystery soda that hasn’t been approved by the FDA? Testing a product for hidden hazards can be the difference between happiness and frustration, profits or loss, and sometimes even life and death. Fortunately, the consequences are not so dire when it comes to playtesting a tabletop game.
Playtesting is, by definition: “the process by which a game designer tests a new game for bugs and design flaws before bringing it to market” (Wikipedia). Your game is not ready to go to market until it has passed through a gauntlet of playtesting and rewrites to the rules. Simply put, if you push an untested game to market you risk losing something much more valuable than profit: your reputation as a game designer.
And if you intend to publish your game through a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter, then you need to understand just how invaluable your reputation is for building trust in potential backers/sponsors. Your reputation is your business card as well as your line of credit. Some game designers and publishers are so popular and trustworthy that they can wave their business card in the air, like a war banner, and draw thousands of eager, loyal backers to their cause. Don’t you want an army of loyal followers who not only pledge to your projects but also spread the word to others about your awesome games… your solid-gold reputation?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know my stuff when it comes to playtesting. Between solo-playtesting, observation, and blind- testing, I’ve clocked in somewhere around 340-360 hours playtesting not only my prototypes, but other designer's games as well. I've also read several really insightful books and articles that mulled over this subject (I’ve cited some of these at the end of this piece). Nonetheless, I have noticed a few very important – and profitable – tidbits that are glanced over by these authors that I feel could use further elaboration. So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Playtesting Tips that have helped me to the run entertaining, engaging, and effective playtesting sessions:
1) PLAYTEST AT GAME SHOPS. Don’t you find it easier to study in a quiet library than in your office at home with screaming kids, barking dogs, and honking cars in the background? Let me ask you this: how many times have you seen a tennis enthusiast go to a basketball court to practice his/her swing? I’ve found that the best playtesting sessions I’ve ever had were held at my local tabletop game shop, which we’ll refer to them as “game shops” for the remainder of this article.
Gamers feel most at home when surrounded by games and fellow gamers. I know. Duh, right? But I’ve playtested my prototypes in many locations: Pizza Hut, in my office, at a mall food court, a friend’s living room, in a creepy attic, in the lawn outside of a college English department, while waiting in a hospital ER lobby (I bring my latest prototype EVERYWHERE I go)… Apart from playing a horror game in a creepy attic, I can testify that I have yielded the best results from playtest sessions at game shops.
For the past month-and-a-half, I've been clandestinely taking notes on some of the behavioral traits I have observed while playtesting at my local game shops. These are two of the most pertinent commonalities that I’ve witnessed between gamers at one game shop that specialized in war games, and another that focused on card games:
When playtesting at game shops, the gamers were more laid-back, honest, open to trying new things, and willing to sit down for greater lengths of time. Public areas, such as a college cafeteria, can be distracting and also uncomfortable to some gamers, who may feel “un-cool” when seen playing games by their peers. Not to mention, playing at a restaurant, or anywhere that sells food for that matter, can endanger your prototype to drink spills and repulsive food stains. Your friend across from you may not care about this, but how ‘bout the next gal that sits down to playtest your game? I discuss food in greater detail in #4, because it is super important to conducting a successful playtesting session!
Many of the gamers had played my game on other occasions but in the different locations mentioned above. They appeared to have a more enjoyable play experience now that they could share their opinions with more people that belonged in their tribe. Being surrounded by all of their friends gave many of these gamers more confidence when it came to giving me negative feedback. This is a good thing, as I am chasing that negative feedback like Pacman sops up pellets. I would rather hear one negative comment about my game than 100 glorious compliments. After all, Turtle-waxing your fresh-off-the-car-lot Ferrari 488 GTB won’t take out the nail that your tire ran over on the way out. You should be seeking what’s wrong with your game, not what is “awesome sauce.”
2) LEAD WITHOUT DECREE. Sam Walton once said that “outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish.” The first step to becoming a good leader is to familiarize yourself with the men and women who will serve under you. Here are a few methods you can use to help build morale, steer the conversation to keep the focus on your prototype, and deal with toxic gamers.
Don’t just ask questions about your game; ask your gamers to tell you more about themselves. “What are your favorite games?” “Did you ever try making a game yourself? Oh yeah? What was it like?” Bring them to your level. Sometimes, playtesters get a little gushy and fanboy-like when they shake hands with an actual game designer. Confession: If I met Daisuke Ishiwitari face-to-face, I would kneel before him, proclaiming “I am not worthy!” as I kissed his snakeskin rock star boots. Show people that you are down-to-earth and don’t view yourself above them; remind them that Kickstarter is for everyone and that they can make a game, too! And should they go down this path, you will be there to help them in every way imaginable.
You are the conductor on this passenger train called, Playtesting Limited. It is your job to steer the conversation away from subjects that might derail your playtesting experience. Some conversation topics to avoid: sports (unless your game has a sports theme), movies, anime, toys, comics, manga… pretty much anything that doesn’t pertain to videogames or tabletop games. Worse than all of these are politics and religion – they can be the iceberg that sinks your Titanic (forgive me for switching us from a metaphorical train to a steamboat). Whenever the overall language becomes noxious, it is your duty, as leader, to step up and politely coax your playtest group to refocus on your prototype.
Should you encounter a toxic gamer that is ruining the experience for others, do your best to remove this individual from the table (example approach: “Excuse me, but we are going to run a blind test between [so and so] and we’re asking that everyone but them leave the table. Don’t forget to grab some refreshments on your way out, though.”) Hopefully, your toxic avenger will get bored and move onto play MtG or Warhammer. If he/she comes back, and you instantly hear sighs erupt from your table, then it may be time to usher this individual outside for a little tête-à-tête. Be polite and gentlewomanly as you explain that he/she is making the others feel uncomfortable and that it would mean the world to you if this playtesting session went without hitch. Reinforce that this is YOUR time in the spotlight, your 15 minutes of fame, and that they are besmirching it (without saying that). Guilt runs a long way… I know this, because I still feel guilty from the “talkin’ to” I got from my dad after being caught stealing a candy bar from a gas station. I was 8 years old.
In the end, you are just a gamer who is fortunate enough to be in the position to make games for a living. The only difference between you and your gamers is that you’ve taken the knowledge and experience you’ve acquired throughout your gaming years and applied them to make a game. Your veteran gamers are just as smart as you – and this is precisely why you have come to them for help! You cannot finish your game without the data you will be collecting from playtesting sessions. Make sure that your fellow gamers know this!
4) TREAT YOUR PLAYTEST GROUP LIKE ROYALTY. When food is entered into the equation, the playtesting session megamorphs into a playtesting “experience.” The overall atmosphere changes into something akin to a sleep-over party, everyone chowing down on pizza, playing games, and having a merry ol’ time. Yet, not all of us have the same tastebuds, so you shouldn’t assume that all nerds have the pallet of a teenage boy. If you do order pizza, top half with veggies and the other side with triple meat. Order a cheese pizza for your Plain Janes and a white garlic pizza for those who do not care for marinara sauce (blasphemy, I say!). Have a vegan in your group? Text them beforehand and find out what sort of food he/she would like to nibble on.
Pizza seems to be the go-to food for playtesting, but I have qualms with it for a few reasons:
Pizza is greasy, and I don’t want to have to enforce a “glove” policy to ensure that my prototype doesn’t start growing pimples. However, if the masses are crying out for pizza, then be a good Caesar and give it to them - but don’t order from Little Caesers, for god’s sake! Well, unless they like eating lukewarm pizza that is too cheap to be real ($5, really?). I suppose the rule of thumb here is “don’t serve a meal that you wouldn’t eat yourself.” I treat my playtest group as a king might treat noblemen and dignitaries visiting his court. You want to win the favor of your people? Feed them well and provide a shelter over their heads. I’m not making this up; I’m taking pointers from Machiavelli here (The Prince and Discourses on Livy).
I say all this, but in a lot of ways, YOU are the nobleman staying in their court (remember, the game shop is THEIR home, not yours). The most important thing I learned while serving food at Applebees for four years was that you never approach a table empty-handed. I believe this applies to conducting a successful playtesting session as well. On top of providing an out-of-this-world dining experience for your playtest group, I strongly advise bringing a bag of goodies to hand out at the end of the day/night. Imagine if you were them and you got to eat heartily while playtesting a new game by a designer who hooked you up with a gift bag that included a MtG booster, a $7 gift card to Subway, and a comic book. Wouldn’t that put a smile on your face and make you feel that the four hours you invested in playtesting last Saturday were well worth it? Doesn’t that make you kind of want to do it again?
You may be King, but your shop’s owner is the emperor. As such, you should take extra measures to tidy up after the session is over. Don’t simply throw away any paper plates, delivery boxes, and coke bottles that are left behind; offer to spray down all of the tables (including those not used by your playtest group) and take out the trash. Did someone throw up in the bathroom under your watch? Bleach that shit. Did someone spill some Chinese takeout on the floor? Sweep it up, dude(ette)! Cleaning up after yourself isn’t just courteous, but it also shows that you take pride in your local game shop. The shop owner will consider these merits, and over time, your relationship with him/her may blossom into something more professional.
I sincerely want my game shop owner to succeed with me – he knows this because I do everything I mentioned above and also buy merchandise to keep his sales rolling. Personally, I hope that by bringing in locally-developed tabletop games, along with food and gift bags, that it brings more joy - and more traffic - to his store. And he seems to reciprocate my sentiments: he has offered to build a special display to showcase my card game upon its release.
5) WHAT EVERYONE SHOULD GET OUT OF PLAYTESTING. First off, ask yourself if your last playtesting session followed what I call the “Three Es”: Entertain Engage, and Effectiveness. Did gamers have fun playing your game and enjoy the overall playtesting experience (Entertain)? Were your gamers able to cohesively read and understand the rules well enough to play without losing interest (Engaging)? Was the data you retrieved from the session beneficial to your game design and offer ways to improve or fine-tune the play experience (Effectiveness)? I gather that the ultimate question you should ask yourself is: “Was the playtesting session worth your money and time?” If not, then you may wish to draw up a pro and cons list or do some earnest self-evaluation and try to pinpoint what’s unentertaining, unengaging, or ineffective about your game/playtesting session.
Hopefully, your playtesting sessions went well and you now feel more confident that you are on the path to success. Oftentimes, I leave a playtesting session feeling pumped and ready to go on a warpath inside my game design document (GDD). It’s also hard for me not to feel like I did something good for my local gamer community. Seeing gamers smile as they playtest my game, surrounded by delicious food and goodie bags full of gamer swag… it fills me with a sense of goodwill that I can’t properly describe in copy.
I say this because I’ve had a lot of internet acquaintances come to me for help with their projects (“Can you please share a link to my Kickstarter?” “Will you contribute to my IndieGoGo?” “Can you take three hours out of your week to edit my playbook?”) but hardly anyone offers me anything in return. My time is valuable to me – time spent peer-reviewing another dev’s GDD is time I could be spending on my own project. But this same ideology carries over to playtesters. I recognize that the time these gamers are spending to playtest my game is time that could be invested in playing games or constructing a deck for next Friday’s Cardfight! Vangaurd tourney.
Do you wanna know just how valuable your playtester's time is? According to Louis Doverpike of eHow, “(e)ntry-level video game testers are typically paid by the hour, usually $10 to $12.” On average, I assemble around 8-12 playtesters in a given session, with the typical scenario lasting around 4 hours. Let’s use the wages listed above to find out how much it would cost me to run a typical Saturday playtest session in my hometown.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that I wanted to pay 8 playtesters at the standard wage in the industry: $10. Let’s crunch some numbers and see what happens:
$40 per 8 playtesters x 4 hours… that’s a whopping $1,280 USD! Now, I’ve heard rumor that Bungie and other AAA-list videogame studios don’t actually pay their playtesters and, instead, offer free copies of their newest game to their Child Labor Force.
Personally, I don't ever want Booyah Games to pick up that Girls Gone Wild mentality of throwing a person a T-shirt to get them to debase themselves. I'll never promise "exposure" or a free game to under-handedly profit off of someone else's hard work.
Yet at the same time, Booyah Games is an up-and-coming game publisher with only one title under its belt. I'm no McDuck; most of my fellow gamers know that I don’t have a pool of gold that I swan-dive into every morning. I work a normal 9-5 job, like they do. Nevertheless, I’m 100% positive that most of them would lend me their time and invaluable critique for free, if I just asked. But I won’t, because I value their time as much as I do my own!
In parting, I have a bonus tip for all you start-up game publishers out there with LLCs, S-Corp status, and so forth. Did you know that you can write off some of the expenses used to purchase food for playtest sessions? Despite being told I was “flat-wrong” on several occasions, my CPA was able to make these deductions for my 2014 Schedule SE. Whether or not you feel this is ethical is on you. All I know is that states have spent butt-loads of taxpayer dollars to build baseball stadiums with aquariums skirting the entire facility. It’s a far cry to say that I am “milking” the system to write off miscellaneous company expenses.
Assuming you haven’t rolled your eyes and closed this tab, allow me to show you how I did this last year. First, you must keep ALL receipts from food and drink purchases made for your playtest session. Secondly, the IRS frowns upon “business expenses” made from a personal checking or savings account. If you intend to go this route, I strongly advise that you create a separate business account that is attached to your LLC or business license. I failed to do this by tax season and almost got audited!
Some other Dos and Don’ts:
DO: Liquour can be written off, but in moderation. Like so many things, if you drink too much from the IRS you will start to feel sick and wish you hadn’t kicked back the keg.
DON'T: Writing off “2 bottles of Sauza Tequilla, a 24-pack of Budlight Lime, and 4 Vodka shooters” will get the Eye of Sauron looking straight at you in a heartbeat. Similarly, trying to write off a $200 bottle of champagne will also raise eyebrows. I advise (though I’m no accountant so take this with a grain of salt!) allowing no more than a six-pack of beer and maybe 1 bottle of hard liquor annually.
DON'T: Did I mention moderation? Because I’m totally gonna talk about this again. If you try to write off $3,000 in meal allowances, the IRS may audit you just for being an overreaching dick-hole. The goal here is to be as quiet as possible as to slip by the Eye unnoticed so you can cast your meal ticket into the pit of Return.
DO: Now, there are actually two ways to deduct meal costs: Actual costs (shown on your receipts) or by using the IRS standard meal allowance. Regardless of which model you use, I have the unfortunate task of informing you that the IRS statutes a 50% limitation, meaning if you spent $50 on a meal for your playtesters, you will only be able to write off $25. Generally speaking, if you are an independent contractor or running a charity event, then you will want to use the first model, Actual Costs. The rest of us go by the IRS standard meal allowance. I could go on for another 4000 words on how the IRS meal allowance works, but I found this online article that sums everything up quite neatly.
Well, I hope you learned something or at least had a chuckle or two while reading this. As I said in the intro, there’s plenty of documentation on this subject. For instance, I didn’t even go into hiring a game developer or using a focus group, frankly, because I don’t make enough money to use these services.
I implore you greenhorns out there to do as much research as possible before running your first playtest session. Try a couple mock sessions with friends at the dining room table. Practice and consider the rhetoric you will be using during the real thing. How will you approach the game store owner when you ask if you may run a playtest session in his/her store? Consider every option from every angle and always strive to improve.
As promised, here are some of the books and articles I have read on playtesting (in no particular order):
1) “Game Design” by Lewis Pulsipher
2) “Kobold Guide to Board Game Design” by Mike Selinker and David Howell (the last chapter goes over playtesting pretty extensively).
3) “Overcoming Struggles in Playtesting,” a Gamasutra article by Peter Angstadt.
4) “10 Playtesting Principles – Advice on how to be a good playtester,” a blog post on BGG by Eric Jorne.
5) “Board Game Design Basics: Playtest! Part 1,” an article by Nothing Sacred Games (“Part 2” link at bottom of page).
About the Author: Davy Wagnarok is the game designer for N30N City RUMBLE, the world’s first “beat-em-up” tabletop game. Go to the Shop to order your copy today!