During my daily catch up with game design articles and threads, I was alerted via Twitter to a thread on Boardgamegeek entitled ‘10 Playtest Principles – Advice on how to be a good playtester‘. The title certainly piqued my interest and the thread itself was filled with some excellent ideas and advice to potential playtesters about what they can do to be the most use to a game designer. It is something that is rarely discussed, but extremely important in how effective a playtest can be in furthering a design.
I’m not going to summarise all the thoughts raised in the thread, but there is one point in particular that struck a chord in me. This is the question of a playtester’s gaming preferences, and how this relates to their suitability as a playtester. One post in the thread went so far as to recommend that prospective playtesters inform the designer of which gaming genres they prefer (and those that they don’t) before the playtest, and if their interests didn’t line up with the type of game being tested they were better off not playing the game.
I actually think that one of the most valuable experiences that you can have as a game designer is having your game be played by people whom you would not consider to be in its target audience. Generally, players who are familiar with the sort of game you are making are more predisposed to be forgiving of rough features or suboptimal design choices simply because the experience is vaguely familiar to games they know and like, and as a result their feedback is not as critical or as attentive to the nuances that are present in your design. You will be able to tell whether the game ‘works’ with members of your target audience, but it might be difficult to use the results to further refine your game or to innovate from the expected norm.
On the other hand, players who have little experience with the kind of game that you are making can be incredibly valuable at different stages of a game’s development. Early on, they can quickly debunk the inherent assumptions you make in the way you expect players to understand the game, and force you to adjust your own views. Later on in a game’s development, they can offer radically different suggestions as to how to improve the game – and while many of these may be unsuitable for a variety of reasons – you might only need one good idea to help you escape from an iteration rut (where subsequent iterations of a game fail to address core problems with the design) and really push the game towards completion.