Level 14: Playing with Non-Designers

In 2006 at GDC, game designer and academic Jesse Schell said that the most important skill of a designer is to listen:

  • Listen to your playtesters. They may not be professional designers and their suggestions may seem to make no sense. But if they react in a certain way to your game, it’s up to you to figure out why.
  • Listen to your game. Games often seem to take on a life of their own once they reach a certain complexity, and it’s more important to make a great game than to make the game that you originally intended.
  • Listen to yourself. Every time you follow your instincts as a designer, whether you’re right or wrong, your instincts get better. (This is, incidentally, why a 20-year industry veteran is going to be a better game designer than a beginning college freshman, no matter how much “natural talent” either one possesses. There are no shortcuts. This is also why I’m having you make so many games over this summer, to get you to a higher level as fast as possible.)

Today, we cover the first of these: listening to playtesters. Once you are at a certain point in your game, you will want to playtest with some new people – preferably, the people in your target market, the ones who are representative of those you ultimately want to be playing your game.

Playtesting with gamers is very different from playing with other game designers. Done right, the feedback you can get from players in your target audience is even more meaningful than getting feedback from game designers, because you are seeing firsthand how your game will be experienced by the very kinds of people who will eventually be playing the final version. However, it is a very different skill. Non-designer playtesters will give a different kind of feedback, and it takes a bit more effort to find the root cause of problems that are identified. You have to be much more observant.


No readings for today. As with last time, if you know of any relevant readings you have encountered before, post it as comments to this blog post, or on Twitter with the #GDCU tag.

Street Performers

Have you ever seen a street performer? This is a musician, magician, juggler, mime, or other person who is performing for an audience of passers-by. These people rely on donations from observers; they do not get any pay other than what these strangers on the street choose to give them. Because of this, they tend to be very good at pleasing a crowd – if they aren’t, they don’t get to eat.

During the act, the audience is obviously paying attention to the performer. But what is the performer paying attention to? Next time you see one of these people, don’t watch the act, but instead watch the performer. They aren’t concentrating on themselves or their act, the way the audience is (the performer knows their own act inside and out, after all). Instead, they are watching the audience. They are looking for interest and excitement in the crowd. If they see a positive reaction or a negative one, they will adjust their act accordingly, on the fly. Maybe this particular crowd likes magic tricks with coins but not cards, or they seem to like blues more than jazz, or they’re more excited by juggling pins than balls. The performer’s most important skill is being able to read the audience.

Note that they do not ever stop their act to ask whether people are having a good time. They know by observing. They don’t have to ask.

What Does This Have to do with Game Design?

When you are playtesting with non-designers, your role is similar to that of a street performer. Don’t simply ask your playtesters if your game is fun; they may not be able to tell you, and if they do, they may not give you an accurate or precise answer. Instead, watch your testers as they play, and take notes:

  • What is everyone’s body posture? Are they leaning forward with interest? Are they leaning back in boredom? Are they standing up from excitement?
  • Where are everyone’s eyes going? Are they scanning the board constantly? Are the players looking at each other? Are they looking at you? Or are they looking around at the rest of the room, or counting the dots on the ceiling tiles?
  • What kinds of moves are people making? Are they playing aggressively or defensively? Are players cooperating and negotiating, or are they backstabbing each other?
  • Are your testers playing the game by the correct rules, or are they playing the “wrong” way, breaking rules or forgetting restrictions accidentally? Do your testers ever get stuck and need to look something up (or ask a rules question), or are they following the game flow smoothly?
  • How do your observations compare to the design goals of your game? Is your game meeting its goals, or is it falling short?

Note that all of these things may vary during a single play session. You may find that certain parts of your game generate more engagement than others. Your goal during the playtest session is to observe these things.

Preparing for a Playtest Session with Non-Designers

People who are not fellow designers are sometimes (not always) less tolerant of extremely rough prototypes. A typical gamer, when handed a stack of hand-written index cards and instructed to move pennies around on a game board that’s hand-drawn on notebook paper, may be concentrating so much on the poor quality of components that they have trouble thinking about the game mechanics. You may get a lot of comments about missing art or board layout, which are a waste of your time – after all, at this stage you just want to get feedback on the play experience, not the final artwork. We haven’t even started talking about the appearance of the game yet!

If you are lucky enough to have some playtesters lined up who can handle a rough prototype, then you might not need to do anything. For everyone else, it may be worth a little bit of time at this point to create some components that, while not necessarily high-quality, are at least close enough to fake it.

As with your rough prototype, you do not want to put too much time into revising your components here. The more time you put in, the harder it will be for you (emotionally, at least) to make massive changes.

How do you make a prototype that looks better than hand-drawn, without taking too much time? Here are a few quick tips:

  • Google image search is your friend. If you want art for some cards or a game board, type in some relevant search terms. Copy and paste. You can do this in minutes. Steal other people’s artwork liberally.
  • For basic components like pawns or tokens, use game bits from other existing games you might already own (if you do not already have a selection of these). It gives the game a slightly more professional look than using bottle caps or pennies or pieces of lint.
  • For cards, you can create nice-looking ones in a program like Powerpoint or Visio without too much trouble. Standard-size cards are 2 ½ inches wide and 3 ½ inches tall. On a standard 8.5×11 sheet of paper, you can fit eight cards in a 4×2 grid with landscape orientation, or nine cards in a 3×3 grid if you use portrait orientation. Print out on standard paper and just cut with scissors.
  • If you want your cards to be easier to shuffle and hold, use plastic card sleeves (normally sold in game and hobby shops to protect collectible cards like Magic: the Gathering cards). Insert a standard card of some kind (either a Magic card or just cards from a standard Poker deck) so that there are uniform card backs, then add your slip of paper in front.
  • For a game board, printing it out on one or more pieces of paper is sufficient at this stage. You can create a board in Powerpoint or even in something as simple as MS Paint, using basic lines to make squares, the text tool to write text or numbers on the board, and copying/pasting art from other sources where needed or desired.
  • You may find other tools that you like to use. Feel free to post them here!

Running a Playtest Session with Non-Designers

Since you are going to spend so much time taking notes and observing, you will probably find it easiest if you do not actually play the game. You may be able to take the role of a player when testing with other designers, and you’re obviously taking on the role of all players when solo testing, but in the kind of testing we’re talking about today you should avoid playing so that you can focus all of your attention on how your testers are interacting with the game and with each other.

If you didn’t before, you should formally write out a set of rules now. Hand the rules and components to your testers, stand back, and get out of their way. Let them know that you are there merely as an observer, not as a player and not as a resource. Instruct them to pretend you are not there, and to proceed as if the designer of the game were not in the room.

Your playtesters will probably forget this often. They will run into a place in the rules that is unclear, and they’ll have to ask clarification from you. Do not answer immediately. Instead, first answer their question with a question of your own: “If I weren’t here, and you had to make a judgment call on your own, what would you think?” Their answer may be the correct one… or it may be incorrect but enlightening. Either way, it will tell you how players are likely to perceive your game by default. After your players answer you, then you may give them the answer they were seeking. But don’t lose the opportunity to get a valuable bit of information in the process.

Sometimes your playtesters may not ask you, and they’ll simply start playing “wrong.” Maybe each player is supposed to draw two cards on their turn, but they only draw one. Or they skip the first step of every turn. Or they forget to apply the effects of some tiles in play. Resist the temptation to stop them. You will find this excruciating. There are few things as painful as watching people play your game as it was not designed. And yet, this is likely how people would play if you released your game at this moment, and this is something that is important for you to see, so that you can clarify the rules and game components later.

There is one other useful aspect to letting people play the game “incorrectly.” Sometimes you will find, quite by accident, that the way your testers are playing is actually better than your original rules. Most people, even non-designers, have a strong instinct towards play. Sometimes, people will violate the rules of a game because at an instinctive level, they are playing in a way that they believe will be more fun.

Finding Non-Designer Playtesters

Here’s the good news: finding non-designer playtesters is much easier than finding other game designers. There are more of the former than the latter in the general population.

This is where friends, family, and colleagues can become useful. They are often easy to ask for a favor. For many of us, they are local and available. If you somehow know no one in your local area (maybe you just moved), consider this just one more incentive to get out there and meet people – as if you didn’t already want to.

Do keep in mind that the people that know you are far less likely to give strongly negative criticism. They may tell you it is the best game they ever played, even if it isn’t, because there is an interpersonal relationship at stake that is likely more important to them than the outcome of some game project. In other words, expect some of these people to be big stinking liars. This is where observing them closely comes in; it is up to you to figure out what parts of the game are actually fun for these people.


Your homeplay this past Monday was to arrange for a playtest session with other designers. You may have already performed this playtest, or you may have just scheduled it to take place over the weekend, but that playtest session should be concluded before next Monday, August 17, noon GMT.

In addition, over the weekend, you should arrange a playtest session with non-designers, to take place after the designer playtest. This session can take place at any time on or before next Thursday (August 20), but it should be arranged (that is, you should have made plans with specific people) on or before next Monday (August 17).

Time permitting, you may continue to run additional playtest sessions, either with designers or non-designers.


Do you know of any great articles on running playtests? Do you have any favorite tools using a computer to generate quality game components quickly and easily? Post them in the comments on this blog, or on Twitter with the #GDCU tag.


6 Responses to “Level 14: Playing with Non-Designers”

  1. Michael Cook Says:

    In the homeplay you provide some dated deadlines, but I think your dates are wrong.

    You said before next Monday, August 20th. Shouldn’t that be August 17th?

    You say before next Thursday, August 23rd. Shouldn’t that be August 20th?

    The dates do not make sense. Could you please clarify?

    • ai864 Says:

      Michael, you are correct. It should read next Monday, August 17th and next Thursday, August 20th. I’ll correct the post. Thanks for bringing to my attention.

  2. James Honeyfield (SuperSize) Says:

    I’m starting to find it hard to keep up with the pace of the playtesting assignments. I’m still making adjustments to my protype and rules…

  3. Jorge Diaz Says:

    Back when I worked at Vicarious Visions one of our engineers passed this article along. The core of it explains how 5 testers is usually enough to give you concrete data to work with (as opposed to more).

    It is written by Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox who has a web usability column.

    In the time I’ve spent making games I’ve done quite a lot of what we call “kid testing”. One thing that we try to do and works well is to ask your tester a little about what types of games the play before you start the test. In console games this helps us with basic stuff. Perhaps they never have seen a Nintendo DS and thus your testing notes should take that into account. Often you find out they gravitate to one genre (fighting, racing, rpg).

    This also helps you get a feel for how much they may already know about your product. I suspect this applies to any game (sports, board, mind). Ask them if they ever played a game in the style of the one they will play.

    Other things to do:
    * Let them know what they will be playing and only provide the basic information if possible. Avoid giving them game play hints or strategies if you can.

    * Let them know that there is no right or wrong way to play. Some testers are self conscious.

    * Remember to put away distractions (other games, tv’s etc.). You want your guys focused.

    * Try to only intervene if they are stuck or if the game (or your rules) happen to break/crash.

    * Set up a time (don’t let the session go for too long).

    * Discuss the game.
    ** What they liked and why?
    ** What they didn’t like and why?
    ** Ask about specific sections of the game and how they feel about them?
    ** What they would change?

  4. Jorge Diaz Says:

    I was happy to read today about “Avoiding the urge to help the play testers” as used in board games.

    I mostly experienced this with video games and it holds as true. If players try to interact with non-interactive objects don’t stop them. Watch and try to figure out why? Also let them mess around. I would often find testers who are just happy repeating an action that will not advance their progression status. If possible we would try to make more of that.

  5. Szonja Says:

    Thanks, Jorge, this article was very useful.

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