Behind the Mirror


By Norman Beil,

Entertainment Attorney/Game Developer

Perhaps I'm a voyeur. I love hiding on the dark side of a one-way mirror and watching strangers play a new game -- and having a good time.

I am not a fan of using family and friends to test games. I get self-conscious and the feedback is always the same: "Terrific, but you should use a timer." I'll do a dry-run at home just to make sure everything is in working order. No need to pay $1,000 an hour at a testing facility just to discover something is missing or broken.

I don't use a facilitator or written questionnaires. That's more for the market researchers. This is about game design. We put the testing subjects in a room with the game, some snacks and nothing else. Because I design get-together games, the facility we use recruits players who know one another.

This is what I have learned:

1. Play-testing creates a powerful deadline for the creative team. No one wants to be responsible for pulling the plug on a scheduled test session. Attendance is mandatory, but that is never an issue as everyone is eager to see their work taken out for a test drive. Back at the office, design meetings are more productive because there is something tangible to talk about.

2. Be prepared to make changes on the fly. This requires the ability to improvise — perhaps with a quick rule change, perhaps with the scoring system. I bring a suitcase full of interchangeable game pieces to be swapped in or out if necessary.

3. Small changes can have a big impact on player behavior. For example, in a recent session, the group had gone off on a tangent. I realized that the scoring mechanism resembled the one used in another popular game and the group had conflated the play patterns of the two games. Simply by swapping devices (with no explanation to the players), I was able to get them back on track.

4. Don't bother making sure everyone understands the rules. People are not stupid; it's just that they have a lot else on their minds. Fortunately, there is usually one player who grasps the game play quickly and keeps things moving. As long as people are enjoying themselves, the rules are less important. Sometimes, for fun, I provide a financial incentive – a $100 bill – for the winner. It is remarkable how much better people understand the rules with cash at stake.

5. The Messiah. I meet with the group for about 10 or 15 minutes after the session. The group feedback is marginally useful. However, every once in a while, you come across a player who provides truly amazing feedback. Trans-formative feedback. Always be on the alert for that player.

So… enjoy the game testing experience. It’s many things rolled into a couple of hours: a deadline, a product design session in real time, a peephole into how people think. By the time you have tested your game with a dozen groups, the game you end up with – the game on the shelf – will bear little resemblance to your original mockup. But that’s the fun! Enjoy the journey.

———-

Norman Beil is the creator of the Hasbro DVD game series Shout about Movies, Trivial Pursuit Totally on Screen, NameBurst (aka Celebrity) and Vid Grid (released by Geffen Records). With his former partner, Brian Hersch (the legendary game inventor of Taboo), Beil created computer versions of Scattergories, Outburst, a handheld electronic version of Taboo, and many others. His newest creation, currently in development, is Bull Chef - the Bluffing Game for Foodies.

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