Identifying Problems in Your Game

Posted on Posted in Know-How

I’ve written before about the usefulness of documenting your playtesting. I highly suggest you read it before continuing with this article. It contains both pragmatic advice and a primer to the mindset I want you to take into playtesting.

If you expect to identify problems in your game, you better expect to play it a lot. Make the minimum playable version of your game – on paper or a rough digital version, whatever works – and play it until it breaks. You will need to play your game dozens or hundreds of times until you are confident that it works. Assume your game is totally broken until you categorically prove it is not.

Rubik's Cube Taken Apart
Your game is broken, but it won’t always be. Photo taken by Hangsna and posted to Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0 (Source).

First, play your game as it is “meant” to be played. Play it alone, assuming the role of all players. Play it for each number of players that the game can accommodate (i.e. if it’s a 2-4 player game, play as 2 players, 3 players, and 4 players). Assume that every player will behave as you expect them to. Your game will probably still have major flaws. Identify each one. Fix them one at a time. Test each fix after you do it. Keep playing, assuming everyone will behave as you expect them to, and correct every single flaw you can find. Now you have a good baseline.

You’re not out of the self-testing woods yet, my friend. Now play it alone, assuming the role of all players. Assume all players are attempting to break the game. Identify places you think your game can be broken, and make all the players behave in a way that will attempt to break it. Identify each way players are successfully able to break your game. Fix them one at a time. Test each fix after you do it. Keep playing until you make all the corrections you think you need to make. Now you are ready to share your game with others.

Other people will play your game for the first time. They won’t understand the rules. Eventually, you’ll have to edit the rules until they help them learn. In the meantime, clarify fuzzy parts where necessary, write down their feedback, and keep playing. Other players are likely to use strategies you wouldn’t expect. Document their strategies and any way they break the game. Fix each problem one at a time. Test each fix after you do it. Keep bringing your game to players. Correct your rules as you go along.

Stock Image Guy finds your rules confusing, but you can fix that.
Stock Image Guy finds your rules confusing, but you can fix that.

Correct your rules until the people you play with don’t have any more trouble with them. Get the game to where you can play with other gamers without game-breaking flaws. Now your game is ready for blind playtesting.

Send your game to blind playtesters – people who have never played your game before and who do not have any help from you. They will struggle with the rules and might have issues refereeing the game. They may even uncover game-breaking flaws. Correct your rules. Correct the game-breaking flaws. Send your game to new blind playtesters. Keep doing this until your game does not have issues.

You may have noticed that I haven’t given specific advice on how to correct game-breaking flaws. That’s because that’s up to you and how you interpret your situation. Every game is different, and as you playtest, you’ll understand the nature of your creation on a deeper level. This is not just about quality. It’s about self-discovery, too.

If you can pass the blind playtesting golden standard and your game is met with criticism rooted in opinion and not objectivity, you’ve succeeded. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where opinion and objectivity separate. You’ll never receive 100% positive feedback. However, if you follow this process and get mostly good reviews from your blind playtesters, you’ve succeeded at identifying game-breaking problems.

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