Friday, July 20, 2012

Playtesting Blues

Do you ever get tired of trying to figure out what a designer meant from a written set of rules? Have you ever set down to play a game, only to discover that such a balance problem exists as to make the game an exercise in frustration? Have you ever wondered how anybody could design such a game that looks fantastic but the actual play itself is about as much fun as having an ingrown toenail removed? The answer is probably that the designer was either too close, or too distant from playtesting. There are some things about playtesting that should be obvious. I've probably stated this before, but here I go again, ranting and raving about playtesting. The major problem with platesting isn't the players, but rather the designers proximity to the playtesting process. It is my sincere opinion that a designer must insulate himself from the playtesting to some extent in order to discover a few things about the game. First, by taking a step back he can learn what portion of the written rules are unclear or ambigiuous. If he explains the ambiguity to the written rules to the entire group of playtesters, say via a mass emailing, then he may not see the need to write the rules in a clearer manner. Believe me, I've seen this done a number of times. Instead of explaining the rules as soon as a question comes up, the designer should answer the question by revisiting the portion of the rules from which the rules derive. If the designer simply explains the rules he permits the playtesters the ability to understand them. If he fails to rewrite the rules that needed such explanation he leaves them in a state that will only confuse the people who actually put out money to play the game. At least one playtester should be assigned the responsibility of compiling s simple alphabetical index to a ruleset. Of course, this may be problematice if page numbers are used as those are bound to change as the written rules are edited and rewritten for clarity. This also may not be necessary for shorter sets of written rules. I don't see the need for an index in a simple six page rulebook, but heavier rulebooks such as those use in more complex wargames nearly scream their demand for an index. If the designer is actually "playing" in the playtest, he needs to be tightlipped and utilize his keen powers of observation to note the flow of the games. In multiplayer wargames, he cannot sit back and say, "Well, I designed the French to _____________________ while I wanted the British to have a stronger ____________________." He needs to quietly see if that design intent is evident and balanced. If he openly shares his intent, players will attempt to steer the game towards that intention and skew the testing. A designer needs to be close-mouthed so that he can see if his design intent is naturally present. Finally, playtesting can not be pushed against artificial deadlines. For example, a boardgame based on a movie or book tie-in cannot have playtesting rushed because of the movie or book's release date. (saw this happen to one boardgame and what could have been a great game was harmed by huge flaws-- which were fixed, but by that time players had moved on.) I guess it is obvious that game companies should hire me to oversee their playtesting programs.. {wink} Okay, it is easy for a blogger to sit back and express his concerns, his ideas about what is wrong with playtesting, etc. However, in closing, let me state a concept that should be blatantly obvious. If a designer is too close or too far removed from the actual playtesting of a design he risks creating a game with confusing rules, poor game balance, and confused, frustrated players who will avoid his designs in the future. With that said, I have to remind the kind readers that while I speak fairly boldly about what they should and should not do, as of this writing and for the foreseeable future, I have no game designs on the market. Therefore, I'm like the movie goer who wants to tell Stephen Spielberg how he should make his film. While I think my points are valid, I'd like to know what you think?