Before sending your game design to a publisher, you’ll want to get as many different people to try it as possible. One of the best ways of doing this is to bring your game to a local convention. In this guest article by Chip Beauvais talks about the right and wrongs about demoing your designs at a convention.
Pick your ideal best target audience.
By this point in your game’s development, you should know the type of player that the game has been designed for. Have you created a detailed simulation for wargamers, an accessible family-style game that parents can enjoy with their children, or a dramatic world domination game for those that love that stand-up die roll? Select a convention that has a large contingent of players looking for this type of game, even if it’s not the focus of the convention.
For example, I ran demos for Chroma Cubes at TotalCon in 2013 and 2014. Historically, TotalCon has been primarily an RPG convention, with a special emphasis on old-school role playing. A few years ago, TotalCon started inviting Tom and Eric (from the Dice Tower podcast) as guests of honor. As a result, the board gaming scene at TotalCon has really grown, attracting players and other podcasters from the Dice Tower Network. Thus, even though Chroma Cubes is a strategy coloring game (not an RPG), I felt confident bringing it to TotalCon.
Identify people looking for a game.
A good place to look for playtesters is near the convention’s game library. If you see people looking over the list of available games, they may be willing to try something new. Of course, don’t interfere with the operation of the convention, and don’t bother with people who are clearly looking to play a particular game.
Another good tactic is to watch for people who just finished a game. Players are generally happy to talk about their thoughts on the game, and whether they enjoyed it or not. “Hey, Glass Road! How was it? Is it as good as Agricola?” This is a good way to meet people at a convention even if you’re not demonstrating a game.
When to find playtesters is as important as where to look for them. Most conventions have scheduled events. Five minutes before an event begins, there may be a lot of people milling around, but they are likely to be focused on the upcoming event, and not interested in trying your game. Five minutes after an event begins, however, there may be people who didn’t get into the event (or perhaps the event was cancelled) and now they are looking for something to do. You can swoop in and save the day by introducing them to your great game. They may even be happy that their event didn’t happen.
At TotalCon, the first scheduled event started at 8:00 AM. Each morning, I’d get up around 7:30, take a shower, have a leisurely breakfast, and wander into the boardgame room at 8:10. I was refreshed, and anyone in the game room that wasn’t actively playing a game was usually happy to give my game a try.
So, you’ve identified your victims – uh, I mean play testers, but how do you approach them? If you’re shy like me, you’re not used to just striking up a conversation with strangers, even ones that you share a hobby with. The pickup line I use is “Hi! Would you like to learn how to play a new game?” Many players are card-carrying members of the Cult of the New who would like to say, “I played this new hot game before anyone else.” If they have other plans, they can easily say, “No, we’re looking for more players for the Resistance” without any awkwardness.
At this point, you should give your elevator pitch (that is, a pitch that lasts about the length of a ride in an elevator). At TotalCon, I described Chroma Cubes as “a strategy dice game with coloring”. Where possible, use components of your game to draw them in. I would show a few completed puzzles, along with the dice, to give the players a feel for the game.
Don’t compare your games with other popular games. If they don’t know the game, you’ve made them feel bad, and you’ve just detoured your pitch into a dead-end. If they do know the game, they will probably like it better than your game. Comparing your prototype to a published game is like comparing the raw daily rushes of a movie to the final edited and scored version.
I used to compare Chroma Cubes to Roll Through the Ages (by Matt Leacock) which inspired my design. In fact, one of my early playtest names was “Roll through the Coloring Book”. But this comparison wasn’t helping players understand the game, so I stopped using it during the pitch. If the players wanted to know more about how the game was designed, then I’d tell them the story.
Minimum viable product.
If possible, you should have a short version of your game that shows off its best features. Players can always request to play a longer version if they enjoy it. Don’t wait for the players to ask how long the demo takes – offer this information honestly up-front. It shows that you respect their time, and that you’ve run this demo before.
I selected two of the six different puzzles of Chroma Cubes to use for demonstrations. The simple Butterfly puzzle takes about 20 minutes, and the more complex Dice puzzle, which is more appealing to gamers, takes about 45 minutes. One of my favorite stories was pitching the short game to two gamers. They were hesitant about playing a prototype, but were willing to spend 20 minutes on the Butterfly puzzle. However, after I explained the rules, they insisted on playing a longer puzzle. It was great to see their impression of the game change from “this is fluff” to “there’s some depth here”.
Give your play testers an escape clause. You can use this verbatim: “I appreciate your time. Feel free to stop playing at any time for any reason. I won’t be offended.” Also monitor their behavior during the playtest. If they glance at their phone, take note. If they start playing Candy Crush on their phone, you probably want to end the playtest.
After pitching your game, if they decide not to play, let them go. Remember, you want your best target audience. Don’t argue with people about their preferences.
After the demo is complete, ask your play testers if they’d be willing to answer a few questions, and then hand them a short feedback form. All of the questions should fit on half a sheet of paper. Most of your questions should be multiple choice, but leave room for more detailed comments as well. Don’t print questions on both sides, like I did. Even with clear instructions on both sides, about 10% of my playtesters only completed one side.
The questions on this form should be customized for the current phase that your game is in. If this is the first time you’re demoing this game, you’re probably looking for more general feedback (e.g. “Did the game feel too long?”). If you’ve recently changed the game to address a concern (too fiddly, too much downtime, etc.), you should include a question to see if it had the desired effect.
Be sure to ask for the player’s contact information, and explain how it will be used. You can email people clarifications about the rules, updates in your quest to get published, and information about which future conventions you’ll attend. While most people may opt out of being contacted, the ones who take an interest in your game are invaluable.
You can get better feedback by taking notes. This also sends a clear signal to your play testers that you value their input and their time. It may encourage other play testers to speak up as well.
Don’t dismiss feedback you disagree with. This is a great opportunity to dig deeper into their impression of the game. Naturally, you don’t have to implement all the suggested changes, but all play testers should feel that they have been heard. “I’ll take that under consideration.” is one of my favorite phrases.
Show me the money.
I recommend making copies of your prototype to sell. In a sense, buying a copy of your game is the most honest feedback a play tester can offer. If your game is so compelling that a player wants to bring it home to play again, you should make this an option. It’s especially helpful to set up a PayPal account ahead of time, as not all players will have cash on hand. Remember that you want your game to sell itself. If they aren’t interested in buying a copy, don’t push it. You’re testing your game’s appeal, not your used-car salesman skills.
One of the benefits of selling copies of your prototype is improving your pitch to a potential publisher. Now you can say “I’ve shown that there is a market for this game, as I’ve sold N copies already.” Over the past two years, I’ve sold about 2500 dice worth of Chroma Cubes. Not only did it validate my game design, but it also gave me the confidence to continue pitching it to publishers after being rejected.
Finally, regardless of whether someone loves your game, hates your game, or compares it to Apples to Apples (even though it’s a war game), be sure to thank them. Most gamers have had at least one bad experience testing a prototype, and it takes courage and optimism for them to try again. Without play testers, our jobs as game designers would be nearly impossible.
I have two final pieces of advice. First, schedule a “play to win” tournament (as popularized by the Geekway to the West). I ran a tournament with 4 players, offering a basic 3-player set of Chroma Cubes as the prize. The winner paid to upgrade to the 5-player copy, and the each other players each bought a copy as well.
Secondly, schedule a break for yourself during the convention, especially a multi-day convention. I invited a friend of mine to spend Saturday afternoon at TotalCon with me. We went out to lunch and then played a bunch of games with new friends. It was a great break from the routine of the rest of the convention, and I made some great connections during my “time off”.
- Pick your audience
- Practice your approach
- Get to the best part of your game quickly
- Let play testers escape if they want to
- Collect written feedback
- Sell copies
- Run tournaments
- Take a break
Above all, respect your play testers and their time. As long as you keep this in mind, you should have a great time demonstrating your game at your next convention, and you might even learn how to improve your game.
About the author.
Chip Beauvais started designing games in 2006, and hasn’t been able to stop.
He has a masters degree in Mathematics from Tufts University.
His first published game, Chroma Cubes, will be launching on Kickstarter this October.
He lives in Maynard, MA with his wife, daughter and two bunnies.