The Joys and Sorrows of Playtesting

If you’ve been reading my posts, you may notice that I comment about playtesting from time to time, and may have realized that it is a rather time consuming process. Since a few people have asked me what playtesting entails, I thought I’d lay it out for you all, for anyone who is curious about this behind-the-scenes part of RPG design.

==What is Playtesting?==

Playtesting is a step of RPG production in which developers/designers need input about how the game actually plays. While there are tests “in house” with their own teams (i.e. employees), it is often good to get opinions from outside, as the general populace is often much better at finding ways to misconstrue, twist, or even break a rule.

In my experience, some of the best games I’ve played had an extensive “out of house” playtest period to allow for this very thing to happen, while some of the games I have major issues with tend to be created in a vacuum.

==When Does it Happen?==

Most of my playesting experience has occurred around a “beta” release, but sometimes I’ve been part of an “alpha.” Normally, the tests with non-employee groups seem to happen after the rules are in a coherent draft and other peripheral materials (cards, dice, maps, apps, etc) have been at least designed to be able to be replicated and/or used by testers within their own homes (for example, the custom d6s for Star Wars Adventures are easily replicated with a normal d6).

==How Did You Get Started?===

Oddly enough, for me, it was a total fluke. My first official playtest happened shortly after I got into playing Edge of the Empire. The core rulebook of the game had very few starfighters (TIE fighter, Y-Wing, and the Z-95 headhunter to be precise), so I spent hours poring through materials from previous games (I put my experience and collection to work, to say the least) and Wookieepedia to stat up starfighters and shared them on the forums run by Fantasy Flight Games. The thread got a ton of traffic, and enough interest to start another thread on freighters, so I repeated the same process all over again.

I put the collection to use as books arrived.

That apparently got the attention of the QA department, and I was invited in to test out “Fly Casual,” the smuggler book for Edge of the Empire.

Since then, I’ve been asked to test a number of other products for that game line and others, and have branched out to other playtest projects elsewhere due to contacts, being at the right place at the right time, or simply just asking politely when a test was going on.

==What Is The Process?==

After being brought into the fold (whether via e-mail or by the open announcement/briefing), the process begins with an outline of the project and the product, including a timeline and expectations from playtesters (some are more detailed than others), and sending out some files.

Some playtests also require all participants sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), while others do not require one at all. If an NDA is required, it is usually done around the time of the invitation (and depending on the situations, you might not even know the name of the product you are working on until that paperwork is done).

Once the files are in hand, the game begins, often literally. We are expected to read, review, play with the materials, and then give feedback in the designated way. Some playtests involve specific forms that are to be filled out in detail, some have writing prompts for reports, while others are just open-ended “Tell us all about it” in a forum setting.

==Why an NDA?==

An NDA serves to protect the creator of the game, simple as that. Every NDA I’ve seen boils down to promising to not take the work you are testing and claiming it as your own, not sharing it with anyone who did not sign the NDA, and that you will not use it for your own profit. Basically, “don’t steal or sell our stuff.”

Avoiding bootlegs and other issues is usually a good business practice.It’s also there as another layer of protection that you cannot claim anything you offer is your own. For example, if I offered a complete rewrite of a mechanic for a playtest, I do not get any additional credit, nor can I claim plagiarism due to signing the contract stating they can use whatever I hand them. It’s a rather interesting position to be in, and it’s one that many creative types tend to avoid.

As for me, I often love the games in question enough to take the risk, as I’d rather see them succeed than flounder.

Each NDA is different, so your mileage may vary if you get into this.

That said, as previously mentioned, part of the NDA states you cannot talk about the product with someone that has not signed an NDA. In my case, when I start a playtest that requires an NDA, I need all of my players together to sign the form so we can talk about it, and the only people I can speak to are that group and, if provided, anyone on the official (and locked) forums/mailing lists.

While many are active, sometimes the waiting for replies can be a bore.

==How Long Does It Take?==

Again, that depends on the playtest. I’ve had a few playtests that went from invite to completion in under a month, while others that had a long “invitation” period and a moderately long playtest timeline spanning multiple months.

Many of these tests require multiple sessions to meet up, doubly so as changes to the rules are being made. I’ve had some playtests in which I’ve seen new rules almost every week over the course of the test (and sometimes multiple changes within a week), meaning there was ALWAYS something new for my group to do, while I’ve had others in which we met twice as a group and just talked about the rest of the rules afterward with minor things via e-mail.

==So…What Do You Get For It?==

Depending on the playtest, I’ve gotten nothing at all (the case with many “Open” playtests and early releases), my name in a book as a playtester (a common reward), and/or a copy of the material in question (based on the company in question).

The usual reward: your name in a book. This is the playtester list for my first official playtest, “Fly Casual.”

From the times I have received anything as compensation, I was required to order it like anyone else would from the company’s store, which can lead to quite the hassle (I’m still waiting for the ability to order the starter decks for Star Wars: Destiny after playtesting them). There’s no early copy, day-of-release assurance, or anything like that. Again, that’s if compensation is given.

And this was the credit my group and I got for playtesting Star Trek Adventures. Only my name appeared, and only once, for the two “ships” I ran from January through June. I had to order and pay for my books (and shipping from the UK, ouch) just like the rest of you.

==That’s it?==

Yeah, that’s it. Playtesting is not a very glorious thing, and you don’t get much for it, but it’s got it’s own rewards.

Think about it: how often can you pick up an officially licensed product and say “I helped with this” or “See that rule? I caused them to rewrite that TEN TIMES!”? No, I am not exaggerating here; some of my experiences have had me going toe-to-toe with the devs, arguing about how certain rules were broken and reasons they needed to be changed (as well as what they should/would be changed to), which has lead to some…interesting situations, to say the least, many of which have lead me to wonder if I’d ever get another invitation again.

Yet here I am, still getting invites, sometimes from the same devs, sometimes inviting myself to open sessions just to throw my name into things and seeing if I can make a change.

==Will You Keep Doing It?==

While I am looking at taking a bit of a hiatus due to my full schedule of trying to keep up with posts here at Sticky Bunton, working a standard full time job, and fixing up the house/shop getting in the way, I always try to keep a foot in the door and an ear out just in case a fun or interesting playtest crops up that I can MAKE the time for, like Star Trek Adventures this year (any others that are worth it that I finished/am in the middle of, I can’t tell you about yet, so you’ll just have to wait and see there).

It is a rather exhausting process at times with some of the reports, the tight timelines, and the level of detail needed with the overall work, but even if all I get is a nod, it’s nice to know that I was able to at least offer some insight that might change one or two small parts of the game.

Sometimes, that’s enough for me.

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