Monday, February 25

Why Critical Feedback Is Crucial

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've finally got round to asking for some structured feedback from the mates who I've been testing Codename: Vacuum on.

I really don't want to be that guy who keeps nagging his mates to play his game that they'd rather pluck their own eyes out with skewers than play. I don't want them playing it to avoid hurting my feelings; I want them playing it if they want to play it.

Playtesting is different to gaming. You play a game that's often crap or broken, each time you play it the rules or components are different, sometimes you have to abandon a game halfway through because it doesn't work and then after all that you're expected to give feedback and constructive criticism. Not all gamers enjoy playtesting - and with good reason.

So the system I came up with to avoid being that guy, was to invite people to play Vacuum with me once. If they wanted to play, they had to email me. If they wanted to play again, they had to email me again. No nagging, no guilt, just helping out if they felt like it and enjoyed it.

Seven of my mates at work are on the Games Night email list (though not all of them come) so I invited them and left it at that. All of them took me up on the offer. Most of them have played between two and five times, a couple only once. Two of them want to play pretty much every week.

What I was most interested in was: why do the five who don't want to play every week not want to play every week? What is it about Codename: Vacuum that has left them feeling cold?

Most of them are Software Engineers like me, so they understand the value of critical feedback. I asked them for answers to a simple questionnaire, and for them to be critical in particular - no sugar-coating!

By far the biggest criticism that came back from everyone was that the learning curve was steep and the wealth of available strategies overwhelming. At the moment the game has five 'standard' decks which you play with every time and ten 'advanced' decks of which you play five per game. Each deck has an end-game scoring condition which represents a valid (though not yet balanced!) strategy. In any one game there are ten available, each time you play half of those change (and in fact for my playtesters, they pretty much all change every time they play as the game evolves).

People are finding it hard to take in the options and judge which ones are strongest for the given combination of available decks. It's bewildering. I understand all the scoring conditions, but then I wrote all the cards and think about them incessantly. My chief playtester Dave has got it (he recently royally owned me in a game!) but he's played it more than ten times. No one else has really.

I guess I had seen this in action most times I've tried the game out, but I'd chalked it up to learning games and beginners confusion without really paying any particular attention to it. Getting these written answers to the questionnaires has really brought it into focus and flagged it up. If you are too overwhelmed the first time you play a game, then there's not much likelihood of you playing it a second time and any hope of a hit game and good sales have gone straight out of the window.

But the concrete feedback has given me something to latch onto, and last week I had an idea in the shower. I going to try only five scoring conditions, one per standard deck. They'll be the same every game, and because there's only five of them, they can be simpler and easier to grok. The advanced decks will still exist, but they'll be there to help you in one or more of the standard scoring conditions.

Thinking about it, this simplification might help with a few other things:

  • forcing players to diversify their decks since the standard scoring conditions are all quite different from each other
  • it should make it easier to balance the game as I only need to consider those five scoring conditions
  • it should also make the multi-player game a bit quicker, since you would play to fewer conditions

Time to try it out and see if it behaves like I expect. I've a playtest session on Monday lunchtime with a couple of mates from work.

Another advantage of coming up with it at this point is that I hope to get copies to my friends in York and Bedford in the next week or so. I can give them both versions (before and after this simplification) and get them to compare and contrast.

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