Playtesting is hard work

by Derek Turner

Playtesting is one of the most crucial points in the design process.  It is where a design is truly tested and refined and the hard work of fixing problems bubbles to the surface. You would think I would be prepared for the intensity of the process, but it often catches me by surprise, as I always seem to forget just how exhausting playtesting really is until I’m in the midst of it.

I ran a blind playtest for a fellow designer’s game earlier this week. and I was bushed by the end of it. Then again, including an hour of reviewing the rules, setting up the game, playing the game, and evaluating it during and afterward, it was a fairly intensive four-hour process from start to finish, which I suppose I should have expected.

It did get me thinking, however, about the nature of playtesting as part of the design process and just why it is so tiring. Sure, it is hard work, but I wondered if there was something more to why it is so intense. Here’s what I came up with.

My playtesting experience

Before I started designing, I had not done much playtesting- or at least, the playtesting I had done was not very intense. I had put in a few plays on the Sudden Death expansion for the Blood Bowl: Team Manager card game in the fall of 2013, and I had helped a friend with a couple of playtests of Scythe back in early summer 2015 before it hit Kickstarter.

But neither of those were more than a passing flight of fancy, and I had very little invested personally in those playtests. It was fascinating to start to learn how to playtest, and it was cool to be part of something that eventually would become much larger (and I would cheekily like to think that my suggestions are exactly what helped propel Scythe to its current #7 ranking on BoardGameGeek).

I started to do more playtesting with my first design, Pot O’ Gold, but even that process seemed a lot less intense than I had anticipated that it would be. The game was surprisingly functional from its first play, and I felt like I was mostly tweaking my design from the beginning, rather than having to intensely overhaul it through the playtesting process.

I have really only begun to learn how to playtest in the last year as Regina Game Forge has started to take shape. I went from having one of my own designs to playtest to having a dozen potential designs to playtest, and suddenly a much higher proportion of my gaming was devoted to playtesting – at least once per month, and increasing all the time.

I recognize, of course, that that number is still relatively small compared to much more accomplished playtesters and designers, but I do still think that my (admittedly limited) experience of playtesting has given me a number of insights as to why the process can be so exhausting at times. So, with that caveat out of the way, why is playtesting such hard work?

The learning process

In my experience, there are four different layers that add to the complexity of learning how to playtest and the tiring nature of the process. The first two are more intellectual, whereas the latter two are more personal. And while they are not necessarily mutually exclusive or even sequential, I do think that it is useful to process them as four successive increasingly complex layers in order to see the progression.

The first layer is just the process of learning the game itself. Every game has a learning curve, and every first play of a game – even the well-established ones – has the possibility of being tiring, so the fact that playtesting involves a constant process of learning new games makes it tiring to begin. And depending on how many changes there are between designs, it can sometimes feel like almost every play is a play of a brand new game.

Furthermore, it can be extra difficult for playtesters who do not have as wide of a breadth of awareness of different games. I have enough experience to be able to take some shortcuts in my initial plays from my knowledge of various games, but not all playtesters have the same built-in advantage of experience. So just learning the game can be tiring enough.

The second layer, and one of the more tiring ones in my experience, is the intellectual rigor that comes in learning not just how to play the game, but then in thinking about the game while it is being played. It’s one thing to learn how a game works and the mechanics and strategies; it’s another entirely to learn how to think about those things while playing a game, and it can be tiring for even accomplished gamers to balance the two processes simultaneously, which is further amplified in a playtest of a game in development.

I personally love the process of thinking about the game outside of the immediate construct of the game. I am constantly thinking about trying new strategies and why they worked and why they did not work and what I could have done better and where I went wrong and how I could improve next time, but I recognize that not every player does that. One of my favourite aspects of board gaming is that it lends itself to this kind of process in a way that no other medium does, and I love having the conversations that take place after the game has finished about what happened during the game.

It takes awhile to develop that skill even when playing established (tested) games, and it can take years for players to learn how to evaluate and synthesize the information that they take in over the course of a game. And one of the reasons for that, and why it can be tiring at times especially to playtest, is that this metacognitive process requires a certain amount of self-awareness.

The reflective aspect

The next two layers, then, are the ones that are perhaps a little less intellectually taxing, but equally as tiring in some respects, as they required a heightened awareness of self and others – the reflective and relational aspects of playtesting.

The third layer that can contribute to how tiring playtesting can be is learning the skills of self-awareness – that is, knowing yourself as a gamer and as a person. It’s one thing to know how a game works, or even how to think about the game on an extra level, but it’s another thing to know yourself as a gamer and how you personally interact with the game and in the processes of thinking in general.

I am a logical, strategic, analytical thinker by nature, and I have a well-developed sense of self and reflective practitioning both by nature and by training as an educator, so I know that I am more advanced in some of these areas than some others might be. But I have also worked hard in recent years to work on developing my emotional self-awareness,, and now I can generally identify my emotional state and I can usually identify its source.

That process can be quite tiring at times, particularly when it is connected to significant life issues, but it can be tiring even in the somewhat superficial context of play(test)ing a game. It can be challenging to identify what emotions I am experiencing during a game, much less why I am having that emotional reaction.

Then to learn how to separate that emotional reaction from the game itself and to balance my personal feelings with the intellectual processes of playtesting… Yeah, it can be tiring – and that’s without the final layer.

The relational side of playtesting

The fourth and final layer that adds to the complexity and tiring nature of playtesting is the relational side of playtesting. Sure, you might have determined how to play the game, what’s right and wrong with it, why you felt the way you did about it, and how to separate your own thoughts from the game itself, but then there can be an added layer of complexity of how to communicate all of those things to another designer.

Most designers I have worked with have a good sense of themselves and their designs, but there is always the possibility that someone might not take a suggestion well or react well, and regardless of how self-adjusted a designer might be, there is always some sense of needing to be aware of social norms and queues when playtesting.

This fourth layer is, in my experience, the least significant of the four, but it still requires attention and energy, as it has the potential to take time and energy if done poorly. I think that, if the first three layers are done well that it would be difficult to have this relational layer add much stress to the process, but it is always something to factor in.

Conclusion

I suppose all of this analysis makes it seem like playtesting is this onerous process that requires so much attention and care, but in my experience, that’s not the case. In fact, I often find myself simultaneously exhausted and invigorated by playtests (especially of my own designs), so this is not a complaint, by any means.

It’s more that all of these layers – intellectual, metacognitive, reflective, and relational – are not only present but actually intensified in a playtest that makes the process more tiring than just playing a game. And even though I often find playtesting unexpectedly enervating, I also find it incredibly energizing in spite of itself.

There is honestly nothing like the feeling of when something works in a playtest or when you have had a realization in the midst of a game. It is one of the greatest feelings as a game designer or even as a gamer, and it more than compensates for whatever intellectual or emotional tiredness there might be as a result of the playtest. Now I just need to remember that I will be tired from playtesting, so I should not plan to play another complex game directly afterward.

How about you? Do you find yourself tired from playtesting? If so, what part of playtesting is the most tiring? Are there any tiring aspects of playtesting that were not included here? Share your thoughts.

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