Helping others Find their Voice from a Game Design Perspective
Ideate → Iterate → Test
This is the cycle every game developer should know by heart. It relies on the belief that good games are not born in a moment of inspiration but instead are forged through a rapid cycle of trial and error. By rule of thumb, the more times you repeat the cycle, the better the end result will be.
Game designers are involved in every step of the process to an extent. However, the one I will be focusing on is the final step: testing ideas and getting the most out of the feedback you receive.
What a lot of designers find most problematic is dealing with negative feedback. Being criticised for your work is never pleasant. After all, we all want to believe we are good at what we do, so having people actively question that directly attacks our own sense of professional mastery. It’s a cursed cycle, you need people to tell you that your work is bad so that you can improve it, but you also want to believe you can do good work.
So here is my solution: lean into failure. If you can find out everything you did wrong during the testing phase, and I mean absolutely everything, then you can drastically shorten your journey to excellence.
While working on a rework of an event for our game, I first came face to face with the power of active listening.
During play sessions, we would let players play the experience without any explanation or suggestions. We would provide an intro as to what they are playing and how to activate the event. Other than that, we would not volunteer any additional information.
This part is hard. Not bragging about your design decisions requires willful effort. I even had to stop my colleagues from doing the same.
What we did instead was focus on listening, writing down everything everyone said or did. Someone laughed—write it down. Someone got bummed out—write it down. Someone made a comment and others agreed—Write. It. Down.
If someone asks a question… write it down of course, then only answer it if it’s relevant to their gameplay experience (like they are stuck somewhere and can’t progress).
If it’s not relevant, then watch out. You don’t want to start a discussion but you do want to find an answer. So ask them for the answer. You will be surprised by how much their answer can cut down your own workload. They provide one answer, then someone else weighs in with another, and then another. Suddenly you got three answers for a question someone posed. Again, try not to let the play session turn into a brainstorming session. Get what value you can and then focus on them finding other problems. The more problems you make them find for you, the easier it is for you to find a comprehensive solution.
After they are done playing, then you start asking questions yourself. Address anything and everything you think could be problematic, no matter how minor. You want to get the player thinking about these things. They might forget about something minor, or get caught up in the moment, so it’s up to you to bring those experiences up and get their opinions.
You want to squeeze every last bit of constructive feedback, both good and bad. That way you can get an idea of what part of the design is rock solid and what part needs extra work. You might even end up removing a big chunk of the experience.
That’s what we did. Enough people said something was hard to understand, so we decided to scrap 80% of the prototype but the remaining 20% was solid gold. We know because over the course of four play sessions that part was getting strictly positive feedback.
In the end, we ended up with one of the top performing events in the game and it wouldn’t have been that way had we gone with the first idea that popped into my head.
While communicating your ideas in a clear and understandable manner is a very important skill for any game designer, it is the ability to efficiently listen that takes you to the next level.
It’s not the duty of everyone else to tell you how to do your job best. You are responsible for getting that information out of people.
To sum up. Ask questions, shut up, listen and write it down. Rinse and repeat until the complaints stop.
“Those who ask for directions, spend less time searching for their destination.”– Serbian proverb