Defending your game

At some point in the past, possibly recently (I’ll remain vague), I was sitting near a table of people play testing a game. I have no idea whose game it was, because I wasn’t looking at them, or even what game it was. Whoever these brave play testers were they had just finished the game. As is fairly common in play tests the designer was there to watch, or even play along with the others. It was fairly quiet, so I couldn’t help but overhear the feedback session. It was a lot like many feedback sessions I’ve heard.

Play tester 1: The game was too [something mumbled].
Game designer: Really? OK.
Play tester 2: Yeah, too [that thing again].
Game designer: Oh well, I don’t think [that thing] because [some reason].
Play tester 1: It really does need to be less [that thing].
Game designer: But when you look at [who cares], then it’s not really too [that thing].
Play tester 3: Can you do [some idea] to make it less [that thing]?
Game designer: [That thing] shouldn’t be a problem for people who play games.

First I want to say to Game designer. I hear you. Players just love to not get your game. I mean you’ve thought through every detail, did the math, and probably even did some trial runs in your head before you ever started building pieces. Not only that you’ve played it with other people who played the way you wanted them to. These play testers who have concerns are clearly missing the point. Let them know what they’re not seeing. Right?

Let me be clear. I say that entire paragraph with not a single bit of sarcasm. I mean I could, and it would be much more amusing, but it’s the sincere truth, and I’ve been there myself. Someone doesn’t think through a detail, that you as the designer did, and they think the game has a problem.

Here’s the problem us designers need to remember. Players don’t think through every detail. I mean some do, and those AP (analysis paralysis) players go down in history as the guys we try to avoid at the table, but most players don’t think about every possible interaction of your game, and how any given action needs to be balanced against every other action. That means if your game breaks because a player didn’t think it through, or because “they aren’t playing right”, then you’re actually not thinking your design through.

OK, now I sound like a jerk to my follow designers, so let me step back and say. I’m guilty of this as well. I mean that’s what helped me to see it when other designers fall into this trap.

Play tester A: David, do you think this game would work better if you increased the amount of points given during this round?
David (Me): No I did the math. You see if you shift it up, then it’s too powerful for the guy in 1st place during the next round.
Play tester A (politely): OK.
Play tester A (probably thinking): But that doesn’t mean it’s working right as is.

Play tester A, you’re right.

I’m actually starting to tread into territory covered in a previous article where I talk about listening to your play testers intent, and not what he’s literally saying, so I’ll let that article stand on its own.

Instead, I want to focus on the best way to approach the feedback.

Sometimes the game is actually handling the area of criticism optimally, and the player actually is wrong. If it’s one in fifty people who are saying this, then your game is probably OK. In that case I challenge you to still consider the feedback. This guy might just be seeing something everyone else is missing. I’ve seen it happen. At the same time be careful not to go into a panic mode. It’s easy to take one person’s opinion to heart, and make a change the game didn’t need. Just try to stay objective, and ask yourself “what if?”

Sometimes the game is handling the area of criticism mostly correct, but it needs a tweak to work when players “aren’t doing what they are suppose to.” This is a hard problem to detect because a lot of game designers will either flat out tell the players strategy, or accidentally use leading speech to have them play the game the way the designer intended. (Bad game designer, bad.) I honestly think this is why a lot of sub-par games get published, among other reasons, but that’s a bigger topic than this article, so I’ll save it for another time.

The last case is the game is handling the area of criticism completely wrong. At the very least a tweak is needed. This is the situation that we as designers can too easily turn a blind eye to. So how do you objectively find out if the game needs the tweak? Well that’s probably eight to ten articles worth of approaches I could share with you, so I probably will over time. For now the short story is that you try to get yourself thinking objectively again. I say again because when you first started the game you were at your most objective. You invested little to no time into it, so it was easy for you to scratch an idea in favor of another. When you are in the mid to late stages of play testing your game just try to remember that it’s OK to test out major changes. I’m not saying do a whole redesign, just see how the different tweak plays. I’ll talk more in-depth on that in another article as well.

In the end you just need to say to yourself, regardless of the situation, this feedback, right or wrong, is something I need to consider. Let the person who gave you the feedback know that you’re considering it too. It helps encourage them to think harder on how they can express what about the game isn’t working for them. Keeping that in mind you will find you will defend your game less, and in the end need to defend it less. In that situation everyone wins.


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