On the Benefits and Limitations of Play-Testing with Family

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.

 


 

I’m juggling quite a few responsibilities with Highways & Byways at the moment, most of which are not particularly rife for diary articles. I’ve got contracts, timelines, and budgets going back and forth between a potential artist and me. I’ve got some Gantt charts and knockoff Vizio diagrams explaining my approach to Highways & Byways as a holistic project and not just a game. It’s decidedly unsexy project management work for me right now. This is all very important, but I don’t have specific details ready to share at the moment in that area.

 

Board Game Pic

 

Yet I did have an experience over the weekend that will dramatically improve the gameplay of Highways & Byways. I played two games with my parents. Just a couple hours of play-testing revealed a lot of things to me – mostly good but occasionally suggestive of opportunities for improvement. What absolutely floored me was just how productive it was to play-test with my parents. I didn’t expect that! This got me thinking about the benefits and limitations of play-testing with your family.

Let’s start out with the limitations. There’s a good chance that your family members do not fall within your intended audience of hobby board gamers. There’s a good chance they don’t know much about games. There’s an extremely high chance that they’ll give you rosier feedback than you deserve, inflating your sense of game quality.

That said, there’s something absolutely critical that comes with testing with family who aren’t board gamers. There are two major benefits that are hard to find somewhere else.

  1. You get to play your game with non-gamers.
  2. You get to play your game with people who understand the points you’re trying to make.

My parents are not gamers, especially not my dad. You could see his eyes glaze over when he was playing War Co., and though he was proud of the effort I put into the game, it very clearly wasn’t appealing to him. My mom is a little more experienced in games, but she doesn’t own any hobby games. When playing with them, I paid attention not to effusive parental praise, but rather places they got hung up. I made a note of any game elements that caused them to hesitate, anything they regularly forgot to do, and anything they asked me. I wasn’t testing for their pleasure, which will always be at least somewhat biased in my favor, I was testing for their confusion.

As a note to people following for game updates: Highways & Byways was – as a whole – intuitive. I still walked away with some to-dos such as rule clarifications and the need to make reference cards for game events and processes.

I like testing with family. It’s a good way of catching up and sharing part of my life. It also just so happens to be a fantastic way to vet a certain subset of game problems. I prefer testing alone first to make sure the game functions, with my brother next to make sure the game feels like it plays well, then with family to eliminate communication issues. I want those communication issues sussed out before I start reaching out to play-testers in game stores or online, because that requires a lot of effort on my end.

Highways & Byways tested well with my parents. My dad picked up the game in about 15 minutes, which is a really good sign for any game and any gamer. It’s especially a good sign with someone who doesn’t play board games. My mom picked up the game in about the same time and this was early in the morning with neither of us adequately caffeinated.  Let’s suppose they couldn’t pick it up. What would that mean?

  • If I lost them before I even finished explaining the game, something would be wrong with the core engine of the game. The very basis of the game would be confusing. This doesn’t entirely destroy a game’s chances to succeed, but it makes the whole thing an uphill battle.
  • If they stared blankly at the board without much of a clue what to do, something would be wrong with the mechanics. I would need to change them to be more understandable.
  • If they continually did things wrong when playing, that would mean the rules are confusing.
  • If they continually forgot aspects of the game, that would mean there are some accessibility issues – namely, having too many things to remember without a reference. (This actually was a minor issue which I’ve corrected this week.)
  • If they complained that the game plays well but doesn’t “make sense”, that could indicate a mismatch between theme and gameplay – a breakdown in the inner narrative, if you will.

 

Long story short, play-testing with your family can be a great source of feedback, if you know how to interpret it. Know the limitations and be sure to appreciate the loving people who can help you vet your game before it reaches uninvolved strangers.

 


 

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Play-testing with family has these benefits:
    • You get to play your game with non-gamers.
    • You get to play your game with people who understand your intentions.
  • Play-testing with family has these caveats:
    • They may not play a lot of games.
    • They may not be in your target audience.
    • They’ll almost definitely tell you that your game is better than it is.
    • Constructive feedback often has to be interpreted in a way other than it’s initially said.
  • Overall, if you understand the limitations of family play-testing, it can act as the canary in a coal mine that catches communication issues before you share your game with people who don’t know you.

 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m working on the details of a contract with an artist. This involves a lot of back-and-forth on pricing and timelines, as well as legal details. It’s going well and I expect good news soon.
  • I play-tested the game with both of my parents in separate play-tests, which uncovered a handful of accessibility issues but largely was well-received.
  • I’ve created a rough timeline and business case for Highways & Byways, which is necessary for me to coordinate a lot of what’s about to come.
  • I’ve updated the rule set and updated the game version to Highway 2 (version 13) based on play-tests with my parents, who are not board gamers.
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