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Project: Dead End part 8 - Why We Playtest

Project: Dead End is a development blog where I am chronicling the process of game design from initial concept through publication. To start at the beginning, click here: Part 1

Sometimes I nail a design from the beginning. I have a specific idea, I work it over in my head and when it comes time to write it out, it just works. We play the game and find out that it performs exactly as I expected. That doesn't mean that it is a good game, just that what I expected seemed to be good in my head. These are rare occasions however. Most times, I design games that need additional help or are just plain terrible. Maybe I missed a mechanic or specific situation that simply breaks the game. Maybe the game is playable, but suffers form a lack of decisions or interaction. Maybe it works as designed, but that design is just not fun. This is why we playtest.

Playtesting Dead End

Project: Dead End has fit into both categories from the beginning. I could have called it done from the first or second playtest. It worked and was as I had imagined without anything being broken. The problem was, it was no fun. The entire inspiration for the game was to make a zombie themed game that was actually fun to play. This is why it fit into the second category. The game needed a great deal of help in order to improve its fun factor. Thankfully, my playtesters are a very vocal bunch that have no reservations about hurting my feelings. We new very quickly what was bad and what was good and they offered suggestions about what needed changing. After a few short weeks we had a game that worked well and was a bit fun, but it needed more fun. It needed more interaction and more challenges.

If you read my last post (you did, right? It's right here) you'll know that I stopped playtesting for a while. I stopped working on the game as well. Why? Because I needed to take a break from it. I had been struggling to bring new life into the game and taking a break would allow me a fresh look. This week, I decided it was time to get some playtesting done, so I started looking at new cards and mechanics. I came up with a few and introduced some new threats into the game. Some of these cards will stay, some of them won't.

That's reason #2 to playtest. Sometimes you just don't know if something will work or not. Sometimes, you have to just try and see what happens. I decided that I wanted there to be a cancel card. I wanted a way for a player to cancel things when it was not their turn. I didn't want this play to severely limit their play options when it became their turn again, so I added a draw to it as well. I thought this card would prove to bee too powerful. You could cancel ANY card in the game, AND draw 1 card! That seemed really good. I even put four in the deck. In our two playtest games, the card got played a total of zero times. That was a result I did not expect. As it turns out, the card really isn't that necessary. There aren't enough super powered cards that just need to be canceled. Does that mean the card is cut? Not yet, but I may need to make it better. Or, it may become more useful as power cards are added. Whatever happens, playtesting will tell me.

The most important reason I playtest, however, is the playtesters themselves. Everyone has a different approach to games. No matter how similar our opinions, they are not the same. Sometimes my players have wildly creative ideas that just don't work for me. Other times, however, they provide some great insight into specifics that could be modified. Personally, I like both forms of commentary. If the playtesters are telling me that something needs dramatically changed, I may not agree with their solution, but I should consider the root cause of their complaint. Maybe there's a set of cards that just don't work together the way I imagined. Maybe there's a mechanic that I am attached too that they feel is clunky or just plain bad. Whatever their feedback, I always make sure to listen. I especially listen to the negative feedback. Praise doesn't help me make my game better, it only serves to reassure me that I make awesome decisions and that hampers my ability to change those decisions later... because, in actuality, I don't always make awesome decisions.

Playtesting Dead End

This week, we added a new playtester to the list for Dead End. Shawn has been gaming with us for about a year now, but for some reason, he's always been absent on the nights we playtested. We coordinated our efforts this week because I really wanted his feedback. He's a great gamer that puts a lot of thought into his turns without suffering serious AP. After game one, I could tell that he was not wowed by what he had just played. Frankly, neither was I. The game ended rather awkwardly with very little actual action. I immediately suggested a second play. The second game was much more enjoyable with a great deal of back and forth play which is exactly what I wanted from the game. Shawn was still not overly impressed as he missed time and time again with his various weapons. After the game, I asked for feedback and he hesitated. I had to inform him that I wanted brutal honesty and he laid it on me: it still wasn't fun. I have to agree with him. We discussed a good deal of what he didn't enjoy and what he thought could be improved and I walked away from those tests with some great new ideas.

There's still a while to go before the game has the correct balance of tension and fun, but I think we are on the right path. I'm not going to share this versions cards this time because there was very little that changed and I'm already preparing for another session this coming Wednesday. My next report will be all about version 5 with a new set for print and play!

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On to Part 9 >>

- May 20, 2012