What is a “bad playtest”?

by Gil Hova


One sentence I hear from game designers that I’m not always on board with is, “I had a bad playtest.”

What happened? Maybe you spent a long time preparing a radical new change to the game. Maybe a new playtester tried a completely unexpected strategy. Maybe this is a new game’s maiden voyage.

In any event, no one had fun and you had to cut the test short.

Is that a bad playtest? I’m not convinced it is.

They’re tough playtests, sure. I would love all my playtests to end in wild whoops and cheers, and people telling me, “Gil, you’ve done it again. I expect this game to win the SdJ, a Pulitzer, and a Nobel.”

But we all know that doesn’t happen. Sometimes you have to stop the playtest once you see the game state has stalled. Other times the game lurches to an end, and no one wants to be the first to talk.

These are tough playtests. But they’re not bad playtests. They’re necessary playtests.

These are the playtests you need to have if you want your game to grow. Every game has been through them. You have the patient open on the table. Don’t be squeamish now; go in there and find out what’s wrong.

Did the game stall? Why? Did players run out of money? Were they always taking the same actions? What’s the interesting thing you want them to do? What would have incentivized them to do those interesting things?

Did one player run away with the game, or fall helplessly out of competition early on? Was there an action she did early on that made her unbeatable or made the game unwinnable? What was that action? Was there something the other players could have done to prevent it, or something she could have done to pull herself out of the situation? Does your game need a negative feedback loop to rubberband players’ scores?

Were players simply not engaged? Did they not see their available choices? Were things too opaque? What can you do to make your mechanisms more transparent?

These are all examples of difficult, tooth-gritting playtests I’ve had for Prolix, Battle Merchants, and Prime Time. I needed all of them to figure out fundamental problems with the game, and learn their root causes. Once I acknowledge that the game isn’t going swimmingly, I start probing why players aren’t having as good a time as they could.

The main question to ask during a difficult playtest is: what should the game be encouraging to be doing (or forbidding them from doing)?

It’s tough at first, especially if this is your first game. These games are your darlings, and you have to make the painful acknowledgement that there is a deep, serious flaw with that darling.

But once you do that, the process gets surprisingly easier. Most playtesters will enthusiastically tell you what went wrong for them. Some of them will suggest fixes. Listen to everything. You don’t have to implement all the feedback; in fact, at times, the players may be suggesting fixes to a problem that you can more elegantly fix with your perspective (for example, check out this wonderful post by Daniel Solis that describes just that).

Okay, so with that said… is there such a thing as a “bad playtest”?

Well, of course there is. Here are a few bad playtests I’ve had…

Example 1:

We finish playing. There is silence. I ask, “What did you think?” Everyone says, “It’s okay. Not bad.” I try to get more feedback out of the playtesters, but they just shrug. They lack the vocabulary to tell me why they simply found the game “okay.”

This is a tough case. You’ll see it with inexperienced gamers. You have to watch their body language closely as they play. Are they leaning forward, paying attention to the board? Do they complain when a player takes something they wanted? Do they ask for rules clarification? Do they take their time figuring out their move? These are all possibly signs that the player is actually engaged in the game.

On the other hand, are the players leaning back? Are they texting on their phones, or on social media? Do they make moves without really caring about implications? If so, they are not engaged in the game. It could be the player, or it could be the game.

In these examples, rely on your experience with this gamer, and with other gamers who have played your game. If this is the only player who’s detached, and you don’t know him very well, then it may just be an issue with him. But if you repeatedly see players getting detached from your game, you will want to study your game. Is its core engagement working? Should it be shorter? Should it be more tense and dramatic?

Example 2:

We finish playing. Just like before, there is silence. I ask, “What did you think?” Everyone says, “It’s okay. Not bad.”

Now, these aren’t casual gamers this time. These are playtesters I know and trust. There’s something missing in the game.

We talk. The game works well enough to be playable, and kind of fun. But we can’t figure out what would have pushed it to the next level. The game is at the dreaded good-but-not-great stage.

This is really bad. It’s one of my worst game design nightmares. If you come across this, one of the best things you can do is just put the game down. Work on something else. Maybe take a break from game design altogether; not because you’re bad at it, but because sometimes, creative silences are good. I did comedy for a year and a half, and I returned to game design refreshed and energized.

Whether you work on another game or some new enterprise, you’re gathering new perspectives. When you return to your okay game, you might find some place to insert that missing spark.

Example 3:

We finish playing. But now, everybody LOVES it. They rave about the game. They ask where they can buy it, and act stunned when I tell them it’s still a prototype. They can’t think of any way to improve the game. I feel incredible. Dr. Knizia, look out!

So we go to another game. Maybe it’s a game they’ve never played before. They LOVE this game too. They rave about it. They write down its name, and make sure to buy it when they can.

At some point later in the game day/convention, I see the group playing amongst themselves. They’re playing a game I detest. And they LOVE that game too. They talk about how great this game is, and how, if they never had to play any other game, it would be totally fun. They tell me that my game is just as good as this game.

And I realize, my heart sinking: these guys just LOVE every game they play. Maybe they were being polite to me (I love Ignacy Trzewiczek’s story about this). Maybe they genuinely have no capacity for criticism.

Honestly, this is a waste of a playtest. Your playtesters should know to be honest. If they’re not enjoying the game, they need to say so. They do you no favors when they’re polite to you. And if they’re being honest? Just toss it into the aggregate. Maybe, just maybe, you actually have a loveable game. (Note: I like you and everything, Dear Reader, but chances are, your game isn’t that loveable yet.)

Again, reading your testers is vital. If one player just got unfairly screwed by something, ask her how she feels. If she laughs it off, make sure she understands that you need her to be honest. She should then give you the truth: either “yeah, okay, that was a bit of a raw deal. I should have a chance to…” or “no, really, it was my fault putting myself in that situation.”

In Ignacy’s words, don’t trust your playtesters. Make sure you get the truth from them, even if you have to dig.

Example 4:

You play with That Guy.

You know how it is. Maybe he’s starved for attention. Maybe she was never properly socialized, and someone is bringing her to the group as a “project.” Maybe he’s somebody’s Significant Other, and doesn’t really want to play. Maybe she’s genuinely sweet and nice, but just has no clue how to play a game competitively.

In any event, the session is ruined. This player plays in a way that makes it all about herself, and in order to get any signal, you have to sift through a whole lot of noise.

It’s strange to come across competitive imbalance issues when playtesting, because most gamers understand that the important thing is improving the game, not winning. But this player doesn’t get it. He breaks everything by playing in an unreasonable way.

Should your game hold up against this? Sometimes. But as a designer, you can only make a good game with the assumption that everyone else is trying to make logical, competitive decisions. It shouldn’t break if someone makes a poor decision in an attempt to be logical and competitive. But if someone is deliberately making illogical, game-spoiling decisions? That’s not something you can necessarily address out of the box.

Ask the testers if they’re enjoying the game. Don’t be afraid to cut it short. And remember that if you have any say in the attendance of this event, you may want to leave That Guy out of it next time.

Those four examples are all Bad Playtests.

But a playtest where your game breaks? Whether it’s truly a bad playtest is up to you. It could be the most important test of your game’s development.