Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

The Tools & The Will

Posted by Nathan P. on August 22, 2006

This is large part response to Clinton’s comment on this Forge thread. That thread is Important, by the way, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet. But this post, though stemming from Clinton’s words, is also something that I’ve been rolling around in my head, and that I’ve talked to a number of people about over the last month or so, I think. Anyway, Clinton said:

d) That (a) about playtesting? Do it more, and make a complete, well written, edited game that you’re excited about. Note I didn’t say “professionally laid out,” or “full of art,” or anything else about presentation. Make “untitled,” or “kill puppies for satan,” or “Burning Empires,” or “Death’s Door.” Make whatever you like presentationally. But don’t make a broken, incomplete game. It is sticking a poisoned dagger into the sides of the people who helped you get there.

We have the tools. The future is now, what with lulu.com, the array of small-run digital printers, the acessability of the community, Indie Press Revolution, and the culture of progress, mentorship, contents and feedback that is extremely easy to tap in to, if thats your bag. Anyone with half a brain and a little time on their hands can bring their game to market.

I’m going to be talking a lot about will here, so here’s a note on what I mean by will – will is both the wish or desire to do, and the capability to do. You can want to do something and never do it. That’s not will. The will to do something means that you want it, and you do it as a fullfillment of that want. (This definition is a statement, not something I want to argue about, by the way).

So. We have a number of levels of self-selection kicking in, right. Here’s what I think they are, from most basic to most advanced.

  • Do you have the will to design a game? Designing is different from writing, or authoring, or the production process. You can play a complete game with a designer from the notes in their head, even if they never make it on paper. So, the first step, is people that have the will to design a game. This is the foundation.
  • Do you have the will to author the game? This is the first cut, and it’s pretty much internal. Plenty of people have notes (including established designers – not everything I make notes about turns into something written, let alone published). Can you turn them into something written for others to consume? This is necessary.
  • Do you have the will to get feedback on your game? This is the first public cut. This is much more than just posting a PDF and going “hey, what do you think?” It involves developing pointed queston, doing some self-analysis, and soliciting and engendering useful feedback. This is a hard, hard step. This can be and is skipped.
  • Do you have the will to playtest? This is the second private cut. It’s either really easy or really hard. Some people don’t have the capability to do their own playtests (though, with IRC and forum play, you can approximate it, I think). This has the potential to be skipped, but I think rarely is.
  • Do you have the will to get outside playtests? This is the second public cut, and it is a savage, savage beast, with fangs and dripping poison and fear and swarming flies of death. Unfortunately, it is absolutely critical to the craft of design. Double unfortunately, this is skipped incredibly often.
  • Do you have the will to produce the game as an artifact and get it into peoples hands? Again, this step is incredibly easy these days, and it’s not really what I want to talk about in this post. This is becoming more and more necessary (in the sense that you need to have something else happening for your free PDF from your website to be played out in the wild).

Now, the issue that I’m seeing (again, as hilighted by Clinton’s post) is that it is really easy to go from public feedback, or from sheer authorship, directly to production without going through the other steps. Even private playtesting is losing value as the bar is raised by those with the will, time and status to get outside playtests of their games. When it was hard or expensive to get your game in print, I think the process selected against those without the will and drive to go all the way through the levels.

Yes, even traditional RPGs have been hamstrung by lack of playtesting before production over the history of the hobby. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how, when you couldn’t easily produce, you could write all you want, but going through the playtest process indicated that you had the will to go all the way. Now, you only need the will to write and produce, because those are the easy things. You can do those yourself. You don’t need anyone else to do those. The path of least resistance now follows the “design->write->produce” track, not the “design->write->get playtests->get people excited->create a market->produce” track.

Not that I’m saying that games these days are crap, or any such nonsense. What I am saying is that, maybe we (and I use we consciously and meaningfully – this applies to me, personally, in a huge way) need to concentrate on playtesting as the BIG THING. Pushing the edge of game design was the BIG THING. Right now, physical production is the BIG THING (and I’m totally on board with that, as well). But getting critical feedback and a community of playtest needs to become a BIG THING, or we will continue coming home from Gen Con with broken games.


9 Responses to “The Tools & The Will”

  1. Guy Shalev said

    “Continue coming home from GenCon with broken games.”
    What broken games did you get?

    I think pushing the envelope should always be a BIG THING.

    Also, playtesting is too dependant on others, as you said, “If you have the status to get external playtests”, somewhat paraphrased.
    It’s too much a crap shot.

  2. Guy,

    Your point about playtesting is, I think, telling. I know you’ve had trouble getting people to playtest Cranium Rats, and that’s probably coloring your thinking, but I think it should tell you something: Something’s wrong at some level.

    How did TonyLB get people to playtest Capes? I for one volunteered because I was excited about the game. Same reason I’ve playtested Jonathan Walton’s Waiting/Tea and KKKKK.

    The fact that you can’t find enough people excited about your own game should be telling you something. Not necessarily that your game sucks, either. My guess is that what it should be telling you is that you keep presenting it to the wrong audience.

    Anyway, back to Nathan’s post: he calles external playtesting the ‘second external cut’, and rightly so. If you can’t get external playtesting, then your game isn’t making that cut. And that’s important.


  3. Word, Nathan.

    What I’d really like to see is a more robust playtesting network getting developed. My weekly group is organized — explicitly — to playtest, and to play other stuff only when we don’t have something that needs playtesting. I’d say we playtest 80% of the time, and hit up TSOY or Puerto Rico the other 20%. The Durham 3 do a lot of playtesting, too. What would be really neat is if playtesting circles started networking together and passing shit around. We’ve got 20% of our time being ‘wasted’ in playing published games. 😉

  4. Guy Shalev said

    Just a couple of points, since I’m actually agreeing with you, on some of the parts, Thomas.

    I talked to a bunch of people regarding playtesting, it’s not only my experience or experience regarding CR. I took a look at new games’ development by Names and by Non-Names, and it really tells at the playtesting stage.

    It’s not only the boolean question of playtest, but also that of volume.

  5. Guy: The “broken games” thing was a pull from Clinton’s post, where he sez

    a) Playtest. Wait – rephrase: be playtested. Playtesting with your home group, or even with you in the game, is not playtesting. Playtest a lot. I brought home games from GenCon with busted-up rules. This applies to me, of course. I am not singling anyone out or judging anyone.

    Joshua: Hell’s yeh. I’m taking a stab at that as well. The point about the BIG THING is that people get organized about it. The Forge was organized around cutting edge game design. With the re-organization of the Forums, I would argue that the focus shifted to actual play and publishing – it moved to the cuts up the ladder, as it were. Playtesting needs organization.

    Anyway. Getting external playtesting right now is hugely hard unless you’re, like, Vincent. But you’ll notice that Vincent writes games that get people really excited. I’m not gonna lie – I make an effort to playtest games that get me excited. If the game pitch, or the draft of the rules I read, leave me cold then the chances of me actually playing it are pretty slim – cuz I got lots of stuff I want to play, man!

  6. Paul Czege said

    Hey Nathan,

    Damn if I didn’t just rant to Ron about this exact issue by phone on Monday evening. The thing I think we need to recognize is that “production values” are a commodity, and that they most certainly aren’t the value proposition of a game (any game, indie or otherwise). They’re a commodity that any publisher can attach to a game, independent of the actual mechanical design excellence or playability of the game. The value proposition that has driven the success of the creator-owned-and-self-published roleplaying games community is mechanical design excellence and artistry in the social architecture of play. This value proposition is the one asset that sets our community of creator ownership and self-publishing apart from traditional publishers in the eyes of our customers. And so it is our most valueable asset. And at the Forge booth it is a jointly held asset. Our GenCon customers come to the Forge booth trusting our history of delivering on this value proposition. The mainstream of the hobby has spent more than a decade abusing the trust of its customers, plowing little more than kewlness and production values into its products while neglecting artistry in the architecture of gameplay, and is now reaping the consequences. Trust is a fragile thing, and most gamers nowadays are once bitten, twice shy. If we sell them too many games that haven’t been properly baked, then increasingly we’re not a part of the solution, we’re very quickly just another cluelessly enthusiastic vendor of a quite abundant commodity.


    p.s. And dammit, how did I fail to get an Embassy Suites game of Carry or Timestream from you?

  7. Guy Shalev said

    You chose to quote it Nathan, do all games you have strike you as “Functional”?

  8. Paul speaks truth. And…uh….I don’t know. We did play some Mountain Witch! Next time, Paul. I would like to play carry with you.

    Guy – I have games that I’m not sure are fully baked, yes. I have yet to play all the games I own, however.

  9. […] After GenCon 2006, a similar discussion has begun in the indie RPG community, while traditional RPGs have always suffered from the same problem. Cynics have always accused companies of deliberately releasing flawed RPGs in order to have an excuse for a Second (and Third, etc.) Edition cash grab. I suspect that playtesting an old school, complex RPG like Shadowrun or D&D 3.x enough to ensure absolute balance would bankrupt a company, though. […]

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