A Beta in a World of Alphas: The challenge of playtesting with strangers
Updated: Sep 14, 2018
Last night, Mort-A-Mania had its very first successful Beta playtesting event.
We set up a table at the Archive Bar in Salem, OR, during their bi-weekly board game night. It wasn’t much, just a few players sitting at various tables while the regular bar patrons cast funny glances our way. But it was an important milestone on our long trek toward publishing, and a very useful first lesson in how to both teach the game and take constructive criticism.
As people filtered by, we introduced ourselves and the game, and invited them to play a round. We quickly realized that, to fully take advantage of the crowds, we ought to have at least two decks, if not three. In addition, it became clear that a simplified “training deck” might be of use to help explain the basic rules of the game without being bogged down in the minutiae of complex card effects.
Once started, the game seemed to progress nicely, and it was very handy to keep a notebook nearby to remember what areas players liked, and what areas they didn’t seem to care for, and what they might not have understood fully (due to the complexity of the game or our explanation quality).
However, the most difficult part of the evening was the post-play talk. It is one thing to understand, conceptually, the idea of constructive criticism and listening carefully, and another entirely to sit there while some playtester tears apart your favorite ideas and concepts. This is a totally different skillset from game design; to receive feedback from total strangers requires thick skin and strict self-control. It is all too tempting to try and defend your ideas, especially the ones you already spent hours debating with the rest of the development team. The problem is, it doesn’t matter what defense you can offer—if a player feels that way, that’s how they feel. You can’t go the home of every person that buys your game and explain to them why you made the choices that you did; all you can do is make good choices from the beginning.
All of this is not to say that Mort-A-Mania received poor reviews—in fact, most of the feedback we received was positive—but it is the poor reviews that teach us the most. Things that we create are always difficult for us to judge, and some truths are difficult to hear.
At the same time, however, it is important to carefully consider the source of any criticism, as well as how frequently a given complaint is heard. If only one player takes issue with a component, after a few dozen have all praised, the odd player out may be an outlier. It is important to not let any one thing get under your skin, because it is impossible to please everyone.
All told, the live demo/beta test model is incredibly useful, but can be difficult at times. As we move inexorably toward a more refined, finished product, we hope that the comments we get will continue to be useful, and until then, you will find us trying our hardest to make the best game that we possibly can.
*This post has been edited. Previously, it contained some rather harsh parts about negative feedback. These parts did not accurately reflect how we feel about feedback, and we have changed this article to better reflect our overall attitude towards tester input.