The First Playtest

Last weekend we conducted the first prototype play-test of our next game. We didn’t kick a slam dunk in the end zone yet, but we didn’t expect to. That’s why we play-test.

A friend recently commented that bringing a creative endeavor into the world is a lot like giving birth, a metaphor that feels especially apt for the game we’re making. There are a lot of similarities. There’s certainly a period of gestation as you work through ideas and concepts, as well as the intense effort required to bring something new into the world. On the other hand, the conception process sure is different.

Anyway, the results of a first test are crucial. Here’s how we structured our first test to get the best results.

Calibrating for the first test

Going in blind – The first play-test is always hard. We were going in completely blind. We had no idea how people would react. It was especially nerve-wracking because it was something we created from scratch, something we’re passionate about, and something we’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any tips for you here other than it’s hard, and you just have to do it. We prepared as much as we could, and I kept reminding myself that the players probably won’t react as positively as I wanted them to (they didn’t). But that was expected. That’s why we…

Start with a minimum viable product – Borrowing a bit from Eric Reis in his book The Lean Startup this first prototype of the game was designed with the goal of being able to collect the maximum amount of validation from our target market with the least amount of effort.

I think of product development and play-testing like this – I’m shooting an arrow at a target, but I don’t have to hit that target right away, I just have to aim in the right direction. By gathering customer feedback along the way, I can adjust that trajectory mid-flight and (hopefully) end up with a bullseye. 

Validate the kernel of value – The goal with our first play-test was to confirm that the kernel of value that we thought was there, is actually there. And, to that end, we think it was successful (see the Pros section below). Building from that, I’ll be much more confident moving into future play-tests and building the additional scaffolding that’s necessary to take this into a final product.

Make a Recording – We recorded the play-test so we could review it to gather additional insights that we may have missed during the game. I’ve already reviewed parts of it a couple times, and it has been helpful.

Feedback – We gathered feedback in two ways. We had a discussion, and also supplied short surveys with just seven questions. Only four questions were open-ended, and those were short. The insights were helpful, and I plan to tweak the questions as we gather more feedback.

Choosing the audience – We chose a friendly audience for this first play-test knowing that it would likely end with supportive feedback. Moving forward we’ll improve the game and bring in additional users (that we don’t know) to validate the value.

So what were our takeaways?

Pros

  • Market assessment – Confirmed the market need and interest within the core demographic, and got preliminary data around a market value (purchase price).
  • Core Mechanics – Validated the value and familiarity of the game concept.
  • Enhancements – Tested and received feedback on multiple play orientations, and non-traditional mechanics that were well-received.

Cons

  • Rules and Instructions – Things got off to a bit of a rocky start, and we almost immediately identified some necessary improvements to the instructions.
  • Prototype box and card improvements – We’re expecting the box to be an important component in the game, and the prototype I designed failed in a couple ways. Additionally, some of our cards need to be higher quality than others. I’m already working through some improvements to both of these for our next play-test.

We have a lot of steps ahead of us. We’ll continue development on the design and game play elements and also integrate feedback and observations from the play-test. Once we line up our next test, we’ll look at continuing to try out some different play styles, and rule alternatives. We have a 2022 goal for the launch of our next game, but there’s still a lot of work yet to be done before we can narrow in on a launch date!

How do you manage your play-tests? Let me know in the comments!

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