How to Turn Negative Play-Test Feedback into a Brilliant Game

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

This week, I posted How to Work Alone in the Board Game Industry. I wrote it several weeks prior to this article and now one particular paragraph seems oddly prescient.

Find people who will check your work and give you honest negative feedback. A crowd at large may help you vet ideas in the earliest, most high-level stages, but they won’t help you refine them. You need good play-testers and good friends of your business who are willing to look at the details and help you. That means you need to meet people online or at cons. One of the great sorrows of working alone as a game developer is that your ability to play-test and refine is limited by the lack of different opinions.

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Highways & Byways is in the blind play-testing stage. This is the process that turns okay or good games into great ones. Right now, Highways & Byways is an okay game with a lot of potential. It received tons of positive feedback earlier in the development process, but now it’s time to do more meticulous work. I’ve been working on fixing some big gameplay flaws before I play-test at Protospiel this weekend. Thankfully, I won’t have to reprint any components. I’m just adding another mechanic and a tweaking a few rules.

Blind play-testing is your board game’s trial by fire. All kinds of nasty issues could come out of the woodwork. That’s why it’s so important.

Now I’m going to share with you specifically the feedback I got and I’ll tell you how I’m processing it…

Step 1 – Gather Data through Surveys

Testing through your own community or being present in play-tests is useful early on. After all while, though, your game will need unbiased play-testers to pick it up, play it, and give you feedback. For this reason, I like online surveys – play-testers don’t have to talk to you directly. They don’t even have to know you. That means they are far less likely to protect your feelings.

Creating a good survey is difficult, but you can use mine as a guideline. This is what I’m using to test Highways & Byways from now on. It helps me gather hard numbers and detailed comments.

Step 2 – Go through Surveys and Identify Non-Issues, Minor Issues, and Major Issues

As I wrote in How to Tell When Play-Testing Feedback is Useful or Not, not all play-testing feedback is created equal. This is why you have to go through each test result and triage the feedback as “non-issue”, “minor issue”, or “major issue.” I do this by printing off survey results and going through them with an ink pen and highlighter.

Some of the opinions won’t do you any good. For example, “the setup took a long time in Tabletop Simulator because of technical difficulties” does not tell me anything about the real tabletop game, which has tested consistently at 45-60 minutes. Likewise, I also got feedback which included “Milwaukee should be a stop” – which is funny and I appreciated, though it wasn’t relevant. It was a non-issue.

In early blind play-tests, you’ll probably get a laundry list of minor issues. All the minor issues from my recent Highways & Byways test results took less than 30 minutes to fix. Some examples of minor issues from the recent Byways tests include:

  • The title coloring doesn’t correspond to space colors (the word “Highways” was red on the title, but highway spaces are white).
  • Some of the spaces are close and the lines short.
  • The regional card backs for byways are confusing.

Major issues are ones that involve sweeping changes to the game such as new mechanics or sweeping rule changes. Nearly anything you don’t know how to fix immediately is a major issue. Some major issues came out of the Highways & Byways test, and they included:

  • Too much luck
  • Lack of meaningful choices

Step 3 – Make a Temporary Fix List

Once you’ve gone through the survey results, make a simple fix list for minor issues and major issues. Here was mine:

Minor Issues

  • Title coloring (temp. fix)
  • Route lines (GRR, R66)
  • Long Distance Towing: “move 10”
  • Nerf or reframe accidents
  • Ditch section backs
  • Make the Garret updates – rules (online)

Major Issues

  • Fix Event Cards that feel bad
  • Add more opportunities to make decisions

Step 4 – Reach out to Play-Testers, if Possible

Frustratingly, it can be hard to reach out to people who fill out surveys anonymously. I’ve found that many people include their emails, Discord tags, social media handles, or Steam names. If you’ve got a way of contacting the play-tester, do that. Ask them what went well and what didn’t.

Step 5 – Fix the Minor Issues Immediately

This is pretty straightforward. If you can fix something in less than an hour and it won’t affect gameplay, just do it.

Step 6 – Experiment Alone or in a Small Group Until You Find Fixes for Major Issues

If you have serious issues like balancing that require the introduction of large rule changes or new mechanics, you need to test before opening your game up to blind play-testers. As I’ve said before on this blog, blind play-testers can be tough to find and their time is valuable. You want to try to break your game before you get them involved. If you apply a major fix to your game and you can’t break it by self-testing or testing in a small group, you’re probably okay to proceed with blind play-testing.

Getting to that point will involve experimentation. Don’t rush this part of design. Even a single blind play-test is often enough to find and fix critical game flaws.

Step 7 – Update the Game and Seek More Blind Play-Tests

Once you’re done updating the game, make it available to more blind play-testers. It’s a good idea if you can get the same testers to try it again after the update. They can tell you if you’ve fixed the problem or not. Still, though, you’ll need fresh opinions because they’re not really going in blind any more.

My rule of thumb for blind play-testing is “100 games after the last major update.” That means if Highways & Byways doesn’t significantly change after 100 plays of my most recent update, I’ll consider it done. If it does change significantly, I reset my count to zero and keep going. This is my method. There are many others.

Have you had some tricky feedback on your games? How did you handle it? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments 🙂

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’ve updated Highways & Byways to version Interstate 2 (overall 20). Major fixes include:
    • Event card balancing – no more accidents to completely take your turn away, that just sucks
    • Space trading – it’s a low-key action point system that lets you turn in extra spaces for Event Card related actions
    • More details on the Highways & Byways rules page
  • I’m going to Prototspiel in Atlanta this weekend. It’s a play-testing con, so I’m hoping one of two things will happen:
    • One – Highways & Byways is fixed and I’ll get 10-20 great games, proving it’s just refinements from here on out.
    • Two – Highways & Byways is still broken, but I’ll come up with something because play-testers will get me out of my own head.

2 thoughts on “How to Turn Negative Play-Test Feedback into a Brilliant Game

  1. The first blind playtesting that was done on my game was only played twice and the results were average. The players were expecting a drinking style game. Mine is not that. The second set of.prototypes sent out to 6 groups two months ago and still waiting for any results. I even send them updates of my own that I made mistakes in the printing. I have given them another month to send results before printing better prototypes.

    1. Hey Warren, you touch on a really good point here. Blind play-testers can help you find out when there’s a mismatch between what people are expecting and what they’ll actually be playing. Those expectations can be really important! It can be really strange when someone goes in expecting a drinking game and winds up getting something else.

      Regarding your other prototypes, after that amount of time, I think you’re justified in asking them to return the prototypes. It sounds like the old prototypes are already out of date, so the only real loss here might be the lack of feedback (which you probably need).

      Problem-solving aside here, I think getting average results early on in blind play-testing is generally a good sign.

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