How To Gather Attention & Feedbacks on Your Game Prototype
What I Learned Making a Treasure Hunt Roll & Write Game — Chapter #3
Everybody in the game industry knows that you must playtest a game during its development to improve it. There isn’t a single chance to make a functional & polished experience without putting it in players’ hands first.
It shouldn’t be too hard to grab friends to play with you; they might be intrigued by your creation and most likely sympathetic enough to give a helping hand. Friends provide a first fresh look, but their feedbacks still suffer from several biases, such as “not wanting to hurt the people you love” (you).
Ideally, you’d hand out copies of your game to unknowns to receive more authentic reactions. But nobody wants to do this. People have limited time already and tons of entertainment sources available. Why would they spend it playing an unfinished game made by someone they don’t even know?
If you’re coming from the previous chapter of the devlog recounting my adventures making a new ‘roll & write’ game, you’ve read about the benefits of testing. So I thought a lot about this question: how do I get random people to playtest my prototype?
I followed popular advice on the internet: to enter a game design competition. It didn’t work, but I still reaped interesting benefits. Here’s what happened and how you can learn from it too.
Why Showing Your Game Matters
As a designer, you might sometimes have, knowingly or not, a distorted view of prototyping & playtesting. Several times, I fell into the trap and developed the mechanics as if the first version would be final. I’ve heard, experienced, and I wholeheartedly agree that the first versions are always crap, and it doesn’t matter.
It feels like a “confidence bias” trick game designers into believing they can make it work on the first attempt, skipping the whole iterative process.
However, even if you’re a designer with great hindsight, you are, by definition, unable to look at the product from an outside perspective. Moreover, your time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it trying to anticipate all the issues that may or may not arise.
So, you must prototype & test fast, not because you lack expertise, but to be efficient. Playtest is a shortcut: observe actual players, discover their problems and devote your energy to finding the solutions.
The Hierarchy of Playtesting
When it comes to testing, you should always go progressively, starting from the pyramid’s foundations and working your way up.
The first step some designers don’t even bother is to play the prototype yourself. You might use convenient shortcuts and improvise rules, as long as it helps get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Not only this will help refine the design, but you also have to iron out the obvious bugs and issues; it’s basic respect for your future testers.
Friends & close relatives come second. They probably care more about sharing a good time with you than trying a new game experience, which is fair. Still, their input can prove helpful: by asking questions you never thought about or breaking your game in unexpected ways. The key here is to read between the lines: don’t listen to what they say, focus on the emotions they express. Are they distracted or genuinely invested? Which part required several explanations?
The grail is to find “blind testers” who will articulate honest verbal feedback without fearing hurting you. If you’ve ever participated in a professional playtest, I bet the first sentence they told you was, “you can say anything about what you like and don’t like; I’m not part of the development team”. The distance helps to collect raw opinions.
There are two ways to easily attract blind playtesters: money & fame. If you have neither, you can try conventions or local gaming associations. The last frequently mentioned option is open to everyone, including new designers: contests.
Participating in Game Design Competitions
From the start, I was seduced by the idea of participating in a game creation contest as a way to gather attention. It doesn’t matter if I win (I didn’t); I aimed to get valuable opinions from the jury & my co-competitors.
Lucky me, BoardGameGeek.com forums regularly host Roll & Write contests, so I jumped in the next one. I viewed it as a better game jam because I can showcase the game I’m working on instead of inventing a new one for the occasion.
It didn’t go as planned.
Testing others’ games was advised in the contest rules. I did try a bunch, which was fun, but nobody tested my game. Despite the efforts I put into making the game accessible (with a companion app to eliminate the need for cards printing), I only gathered questions & pep talk from the few who glanced over the documents.
When the results came, not even the jury shared their impressions on the submissions, including mine. Even the big winner of the competition wrote a post to ask for more explanations: he knew that he won but couldn’t understand what made his creation stand out. Of course, it’s just a free amateur-ish contest, and organizers also have limited time, but to me, this emphasizes how crucial feedback is to game designers.
Was this contest a complete waste of my time, though?
Sure, I didn’t achieve my main goal of getting playtesters, but I got other benefits out of it. If you’re tempted by design competitions, too, the critical lesson is to approach it first as a way to challenge yourself and yourself only.
Benefit #1: Thinking Marketing Ahead
The first benefit of participating in a contest is to put you in the “marketing mindset” early. At all stages of game development, you have to keep in mind the desirability of your product.
A forum post isn’t different from pitching the game to a publisher. For both, you want to present your creation concisely and attractively. If you want people to put the effort to test your game, you must grab their attention.
All the advice you can find about writing a sell sheet apply to forum posts equally; you should especially:
- Clearly state the characteristics (length, number of players, etc.)
- Mention similar games and how they resemble/differ from yours
- Explain the point of your game and give a brief overview of how it’s played without going into the detailed rules
Your goal is to hook readers enough to convert most of them into testers. Visuals matter a lot: even if you don’t have custom artwork (and you shouldn’t) at this stage, you can find illustrations online to set the tone & convey the atmosphere. Custom banners and good looking photos of your prototype in action go a long way to signal people that you’re serious about your craft.
Benefit #2: Getting Closer to a Finished State
The second and most important perk of contest participation is that you’ll have to submit a complete standalone package, including rules & components. During the prototyping phase, it slows down your progress to keep everything up to date, but once you’re ready to participate in a contest, you should have a near-complete game.
Envisioning the finished product is a great exercise. It’s time to think about your components: do you have them all listed? Are they all useful? Start to anticipate how players will learn & remember the rules: the principles of clever graphic design can help them a lot in this area, making the whole experience more enjoyable (I wrote about this topic here).
More importantly, you won’t be present to teach the game, so you must provide clear and exhaustive rules. As you write them, try to see the edge cases and see if you can eliminate exceptions. When some of your ideas are complex to explain, use detailed examples… or consider simplifying them.
Once you’re done with the first draft of rules, read it all, iterate. Long rules make players run away, so cut some words, organize them better, illustrate. Writing rules is a balancing act between too much and too few, but they are critical to your game success and will drive the feedback you receive, so give them all your attention.
Benefit #3: Crafting both Digital & Physical Copies
Making sleek rules & components is the last step before creating your playable prototype. You have essentially two routes from there, physical & digital, and you should do both.
Making a playable on-screen version is an excellent way to lower the barrier of entry and get random people to try your experience since only a few people are willing to print the custom components of your prototype.
For this game, I made a custom app using Unreal Engine 4 again, where I could comfortably code all the logic behind the scenario setup. I then adapted it on playingcards.io, a convenient albeit limited tool compatible with all platforms, including portable devices.
Even with an online version, a physical prototype remains important: you still want to play with friends & family in “real conditions”, and they won’t really like sitting in front of a screen to test a game.
Here are three pieces of advice to make a good-looking, functional prototype:
- Print cards on A4-format stickers, put them on binding covers, then cut to the proper format. If your game has a lot of shuffling, put the cards in sleeves (which also facilitates post-it corrections later on).
- Use the same method for boards & pawns, but with thicker cardboard or wooden pawns, which can be bought cheaply in large quantities online.
- Print rules on standard paper and consider using a “booklet” format in your print options: it will make them easier to read
Crafting a nice physical prototype is an investment I’ll always make, even when I know the game will evolve significantly. It’s a rewarding task and a way to keep a memory of your past work.
Submitting your prototype to a game competition is specific and might not work for you. However, the general message of this article applies to all game creators: expose your work to the world. Your creation will be exposed to various people throughout the development cycle. Blind testers, publishers and friends each comes with different needs and expectations. The sooner you think about their experience, the better.
You are in a demanding position, you must put the effort to ensure they get what they seek, and you have no guarantee it will work. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating for sure, but you can always learn from the experience and try again with a better approach. Experimenting and iterating on your creation process is as essential as playtesting to improve the game itself.
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