Playtesting is one of the most important things to do in order to bring a game to market. After all, feedback is the lifeblood of a project. Unfortunately, the people that you want playtesting your game the most—normal, everyday players—don’t necessarily know how to give explicit feedback. While almost everyone can tell where there’s a problem, correctly identifying and assessing problems are trained skills, so it falls to you to interpret their feedback. Setting up the right environment is crucial here: watch them while they test your game. Pay attention to their reactions, and write down any questions they might have, but don’t answer them. Then, for all intents and purposes, treat the playtest as if you were GMing a tabletop RPG: read their reactions and write down what you’d change on the fly about your game if you could. Here are some important reactions to look for in your players.
This is when the player approaches a challenge in a way you didn’t explicitly expect. Take note of whether their approach worked or not. Should it have would? Should it not have? Does this solution make more sense than even your planned one? Does this attempted solution mean you need more direct instructions? The player’s instincts lead them down a different path than you expected, so try to figure out why.
Take note of whenever players disengage from your game. Have players tell you when they think they would set the game down and try to notice any times they look like they’re just going through the motions. Take notes of where these moments are in your game, and try to adjust the pacing well before these moments happen.
This is fairly easy to spot, and often the easiest of the list to fix. Players usually get frustrated by either your game being to challenging, too difficult to control, or a combination of the two. Tightening the controls or adjusting the difficulty is a straightforward problem.
This is when a player uses a skill, tool, weapon, or any interaction of systems and the result they get is different than the result they were expecting. This can be fixed with better signaling or tutorials.
By far the most important thing to look for is what they player enjoys when playing your game. It’s easy to focus on the nitpicks and negatives, but most players can overlook a lot of the if there’s enough fun there for them. Take notes of anything players like that you could expand on, add more of, or intersperse to help with any of the above issue. Make sure to take meticulous notes of the things people like, as that will be your best tool for making an enjoyable experience. It also helps you keep your sanity from focusing on all the negatives during testing.
Interpreting player feedback is the best way to ensure success of a project through almost every stage of development. Feedback gives you a fresh take on things you would miss from staring at your own project for so long. Learn what to look for, what it means, and how to fix it. Practice GMing some tabletop games, it will help you practice looking . If you’re looking for some recommendations, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Pathfinder RPG, and Cypher, are good places to start that are easily available, and easy to get a group. If you can get your hands on a copy of Apocalypse World, that is a great, flexible system, but it’s out of print at time of writing, although it’s second edition should be released Soon™. Its PDFs are available online at least.
For more articles related to Game Mastering check out: Mastering Game Writing Through Game Mastering!