It’s important to note that this isn’t an article about what to do when someone doesn’t like your game. It’s an article about getting honest feedback no matter what they think of your game.
I’ve talked a few times about play testers and the experience they bring to game design. However, I’ve only danced around one of the most important concepts in working with your testers. That is, for the most part, they really want to like your game. This is something that is true in film and stage. Anytime a person puts themselves out there for others the people receiving the performance, art, or medium, all things being equal, want to like it. It’s empathy. They know if they put that much of themselves out there that they’d want someone else to give them a fair shot, or maybe more than a fair shot.
That’s a good place to come from as makes it easier to get new people to test your games. However, it is very much a double edged sword because when it’s all said and done most people will have a hard time telling you the truth when the test is over. Let’s assume for a minute that they didn’t hate your game, odds are in favor they’ll like it more than that, so most people will honestly like or love your game. The problem is when you have people who would have liked it if something was a bit different, but they don’t want to bring the play test down with their honest feedback. They don’t want to “be that guy.” These are the play testers you need to watch for. I find it’s best to resist the urge for feedback mid game. It tends to hurt the flow, and can cause outcomes in the play style that would never happen in the wild. So you have to work from experience at spotting the people who are actively stuck on a point in the game’s design. Sometimes you will get it wrong. I know a few times I was certain someone wasn’t into one of my games, and at the end they couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved it. Still, with practice reading the body language of a gamer will tell you who needs coaching at getting honest feedback at the end of the play session more than not.
So once you’ve hit that point for feedback it’s still best to guide the players without leading them. Just because you think you know who will have more insights to share doesn’t mean you should push them to the front. Again, partly because you might have guessed wrong, and partly because that may make them shut up faster than anything. I find it’s best to give them open questions that make them feel safe. In the past I opened with “Did you have fun?” but that can put a person on edge if they didn’t have fun, or if they only had a little bit of fun. Instead, I assume the negative, and ask “what got in the way of the fun?” This tells them I’m OK with negative feedback, and I assume it will happen. Fortunately, the typical answer is “nothing.” However, sometimes that “nothing” is followed with a “but I’d like to see…” The best part is their thoughts are usually the kinds of things you need to know.
Having a great opener is nice, but you need to back it up with your body language, and follow up questions. You need to resist the urge to defend a point in the game’s design. It’s OK to clarify a design point, but remain open, and take their feedback into consideration. If they are the only person who has ever felt that way, then you’re probably OK. If they are the 3rd, 4th, or 5th person to mention it over time, it’s time to really take a close look at it. In general, it’s just a good idea to remove yourself from the equation, and be glad you have people who are putting your game through a gauntlet of testing.