Game Design

Soliciting Playtester Feedback

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I’ve not written much about game design, but I feel constructive feedback is one of the most important things to any game designer. I think getting this right can be a huge challenge – ask too open questions and you get completely incomparable results, ask too closed questions and you never really find out what your playtesters think.

If you are there in the flesh, watching your playtesters, you can generally pick-up what’s going right/wrong and their feelings towards the game. But what if, for whatever reasons, you find it difficult to solicit playtest feedback in person? What if you rely on the wonderful online tabletop community? How do you get useful and comparable feedback from them?

I’ve been refining my feedback form for the past couple of years now, based on my own experience in work, other playtest forms I’ve seen (thank-you Playtest UK) and just what makes sense to me and I’ve come up with the following key areas that it should cover:

  1. Who is the Playtester;
  2. Game Setup (assuming there are multiple options);
  3. Game Outcomes;
  4. Rating & Improvement Suggestions;
  5. Targeted Questions;
  6. Any Comments & Permissions.

Lets look at each of these in turn or if you just want to see my form, scroll to the bottom if you want to download an editable copy of it.

1. Who is the Playtester?

Perhaps the most important thing is to first find out more about your playtester. This will determine how much weight you give on their feedback. If you have created a cooperative Euro sci-fi game and the playtester has declared themselves as an Ameritrash competitive gamer that loves historical themes whilst also having a particular dislike for Euro mechanisms you then know if they hate your game, it’s probably simply because they aren’t your target market. But if they love your game then your are probably doing something right!

However, and this is a big however, you still shouldn’t disregard their feedback. Firstly, they have spent the time to play your game and send you feedback. You should read it and understand their reasoning, they may have an insight that your core market doesn’t have as they fall in love with the theme and disregard everything else. But overall, it should influence your future decisions less than say a Euro loving sci-fi geek who has a soft spot for cooperative games. There is a caveat though, if they both say say the same thing, listen to them!

But how can you find out who your playtester is? I tend to ask the following questions:

  • Personal Details (name, age, country, contact);
  • Preferred categories and/or genre of board games;
  • Experience as a playtester;
  • How many times they have actually played your game;
  • Open text question letting them (optionally) tell you more about themselves.

So now lets look at each of these in turn.

Personal Details: I think it’s important to be able to credit everyone that has helped develop your game. Name is always optional in my feedback but if they give it, I will credit them in my rulebook. Similarly, contact details are also optional but useful to be able to follow up on anything that isn’t clear or that you want to find more about. Also, if someone spends the time to give me feedback, I always send a personal thank-you to them and let them know how their feedback has influenced my thought processes – i.e. is there anything actionable from what they have given me? It’s the least I feel I can do in return for them spending time not only playing my game but also sending me feedback.

If you are targeting your game at children as well as adults then knowing the age of your playtesters is highly important. But even if you are only targeting adults, collecting this information will verify that you have widely playtested your game. If you are getting similar feedback across all ages then you can be pretty sure that what you’ve got is a good game applicable to the wider market. If you have only got feedback from say 18-25 year olds then how do you know your game will be liked by 26+ year olds? If you are targeting only at the younger market then that’s fine, but if you want broader appeal then make sure you know that you have tested your game widely.

You may also notice trends among different age groups too and may find trends in which age group have more of a preference / dislike to your game which may help you better market your game if you choose to crowdfund it.

Here’s a distribution of the ages of my playtesters:

ageI ask for the playtester’s country of residence for a similar reason as age – if I only playtested my games with UK gamers, how could I be sure it also appealed to US, Canadian, Australian, German, French, …, gamers? Yes you can’t cover every gaming country in the world, but you can at least ensure you haven’t only tested in one country. And as an added bonus, if you proactively seek playtesters from other nations, someone may even offer to translate your game for you!

If you are considering crowdfunding your game, this information will also help you better understand the distribution of your market which will become particularly useful for shipping estimates.

Note: Remember to state how you are using their personal information and ensure you are compliant with data protection regulations such as GDPR.

Game Preference: This is perhaps the most important part of this section – what sort of games does your playtester normally enjoy playing? There are several ways of doing this:

  1. A list with multiple checkboxes but asking them to just give their top 3 plus if their leaning is more towards Euro or Ameritrash games.
  2. A list with multiple checkboxes which they can tick as many as they choose.
  3. An open question where they can write whatever comes to mind.
  4. An open question asking them to tell you some of their favourite games.

With the first option, although you will get a gamers preferred game type it doesn’t mean they won’t like their game or that on a different day they may responded differently – this is likely to be strongly influenced by the last game that they played or they may feel they have to justify that they are the sort of gamer that likes the type of game your game is.

The advantage of a top 3 list is you find out how well aligned they are to your game in a more binary way plus if using an online form it will automatically display the distribution of gamers you have playtested with as a summary without any additional work.

The second option is a list with no limits and is my preferred option. You get a broad view of the types of games they like to play (always include an ‘other’ option!) which should be quite representative and if you use an online form it will show you the distribution of game preferences. Below shows this data for a recent round of playtesting for Assembly. You can see there is a strong preference towards cooperative cards games which is great given I was testing a cooperative card game!

game preferenceNote: Solo and abstract were added later so were not available to most respondents.

An open question is great to get what first pops into someone’s mind but the results will be harder to compare and if you want the form software to do the work for you then you’ll be out of luck. It also has the disadvantage that the response can be very much influenced about what they were just thinking about, the last game they played, what they just read, etc.

Asking about their favourite games may give you some good insight into the exact sort of games your playtesters enjoy but will require some interpretation. I’ve not really tried this; my own personal favourite games are quite different to the variety of games that I enjoy playing so feel that this is less representative of my game likes and thus the least useful information.

Experience: I generally just ask if they have playtested before – this is really just to give me a feel of how to take the feedback – will it be more of just an ‘I liked this / I liked that’ or a more critical assessment based on the game design process. Both are very valid but you may find that one appears to be more negative than the other – that’s because experienced playtesters are trying to break your game, to find the issues with it, notice the mistakes. Those who haven’t done much playtesting before are more likely to be telling you about their play experience. Both are valid and useful, but you need to understand how to interpret their feedback.

Number of Plays: This one is really important. I generally ask for people to play my games a minimum of 3 times. I would rather they played it more times but there’s a fine line between asking too much of a volunteer’s time and getting useful feedback. If you’re anything like me, the first game is learning the rules and making mistakes. The second game you are gaining confidence and the third game you are in full swing, especially if they are all played relatively close together. Therefore, if someone only played your game once, read their feedback with some suspicion (whether positive or negative!).

Open Question: It’s always good to get some free flow answers letting the playtester tell you any thoughts that come to mind. It’s often in these sections you will get some gems of insight as to what was going on in the playtesters mind and often great quotes to use for marketing your game, whether it be to a publisher, gamers or potential future playtesters. If it’s a paper form – you can just do one of these at the end. If an online form, I suggest at least 1 per page/section of the form. However, you should not make this a required field as not everyone will have something to say.

2. Game Setup

If you are testing multiple configurations of the game it’s worth asking which configuration(s) they used. As a minimum, I’d suggest you find out:

  • Difficultly level played;
  • Number of players;
  • If you have multiple characters, which were used.

Try to minimise these questions to what you really need to know else you will end up with a load of data you may not know what to do with and you are placing quite a burden on your playtesters to record it all too.

3. Game Outcome

It’s important to get a feel for how long your game takes to play and the win-lose ratio if your game is cooperative. It’s also useful to collect information about the end game state for both cooperative and competitive games (for example you may be verifying that run-away victories are a rarity).

For competitive games, it may be useful to get a bit more feedback about the game group – for example how many times they have each played your game – this will tell you if your game gives experienced players an unfair advantage or if all players have a similar chance at winning once they know the basics.

For cooperative games, I find it useful to find out how difficult they found the game – you don’t want it to be too easy but at the same time you don’t wan it crushingly difficult to the point that it demoralises players. Although, ultimately it’s up to you where on the spectrum you want your game to sit – I prefer the slightly more challenging side with options on how to make it easier or harder.

Again, for an online form, it may be useful to ask an open question about how they found the game as you may get some useful insight influenced by these questions.

4. Rating & Improvement Suggestions

This is perhaps the most important and useful feedback you will receive but the previous questions will provide context to it which is also really important.

Using a rating system gives a very good quantitive way to assess your game. As you move through rounds of playtesting, you should see the ratings increase.  I always ask about the game in its current form rather than future potential so it can become an excellent indicator of if your game is ready or not.

I have opted to use the BGG rating system system. It not only should be familiar to most gamers but it will also give me an idea, if my game is ever published, how well it’ll do on BGG. If after several rounds of playtesting I’m still getting scores of 6 or less then I know I need to significantly rethink the game or possibly even scrap it and try something new.

But a rating on its own is useless. You need to understand why they have given that rating. I find the following 2 questions helps with this and are what I find most useful of all the feedback I receive:

  • How could we make <insert game name> better? Please tell us 2 things we could do to gain a higher BGG rating from you.
  • What did you like about <insert game name>? Please tell us 2 things that you wouldn’t want us to change.

I think it is equally important to find out what my playtesters liked as well as what they didn’t like. It will help guide you on what not to cut/change as well as what you should change, as well as the fact that if you only receive negative feedback it can be quite demoralising!

5. Targeted Questions

These are useful when you are want to get feedback on a specific part or recent change to your game. They may also help you understand how others see your game and verify your assumptions, but try not to ask leading questions. These questions are likely to change and evolve as your game develops so this section will be quite fluid.

Targeted questions that aren’t specific to my games that I’ve asked include:

  • Which were your favourite characters?
  • Does <game name> remind you of any other games? How so?
  • What weight game would you describe <game name>?
  • What do you consider to be the main mechanism(s) in <game name>?
  • If you were telling a friend about <game name>, how would you describe it in a couple of sentences? (i.e. genre, play style, mechanics, objective, etc.)

6. Comments & Permissions

The final section I always include as an open text box and is a catch-all for anything that you haven’t asked that the playtester might want to tell you. I do, however, provide suggestions of the sort of thing I’m looking for such as how their game group took to the game, if they were able to break it and how, any errors they found, feedback on the rulebook, etc..

The last thing is to ask if you can use any of their comments for marketing. If you don’t ask, don’t use anything they say for any purposes other than to make your game better. If you do include it, you may get some great comments that you can use on your website, sell sheet for a publisher or even your crowdfunding page.

I hope you’ve found this article both useful and interesting and it has perhaps given you some insight into our game design process.

Example Feedback Forms

You can download our generic printable playtest feedback form here (great for events, optimised for A4). I tend to print both pages on a single side of paper and it gives just enough room for people to write on – at events people generally don’t have a huge amount of time so big boxes make your form look long and you’ll get less of them completed! On the back of the completed form you can scribble any notes such as duration, problems you noticed, game setup/version, game end stats, etc.

Alternatively, you can take a look at a demo version of one of our online feedback forms – I tend to break it up into 3 pages but I’ve put it all on one so you can see all the questions at a glance.

We hope you’ve found this post useful and please do tell us if you have any better ideas – we are always looking to improve everything we do :). But perhaps more importantly, thank-you so much to all our playtesters so far – you really have helped to shape our games.