I’m not entirely sure if this is controversial or not, but as intense as playtesting is, I don’t think it’s half as hard as pitching. And sometimes there’s a fine line between those two.
If you’re sitting down with your friends, and you’ve let them know you’re trying out some weird new idea, you’re fully in playtesting land. If you’ve got a primed piece of prototype you’re running under the nose of a publisher, you have full citizenship in pitching-world. But when you’re sitting in a hall at a convention trying to pull people over to your table, it’s a much fuzzier line.
You may still be working out your mechanics, but you have to get people to actually stop and try your game. Opening with the line, “this is miserably out of balance, and I have no idea what effect this new rule is going to have,” that doesn’t exactly get most people excited enough to pull out a chair at your table, so you have to sell a bit. Maybe you’re just running out your elevator pitch, or trying to lure them in with a twist, but one way or another you have to put on a little show to get people to give the thing a swing. And that takes work.
Beyond even that, there’s more ego on the line. Most of the time I walk into a playtest, I have zero expectations. I’ve slapped together an idea from scrap and I want to see if it runs at all. If it fails, that’s totally awesome! Let’s see how it fails, because that’s probably super helpful. When you have enough confidence to really pitch your game, you really really really want to see it run, and run well. And when it doesn’t…that stings.
I’d been working on The Last Summit for a few years before I got to UnPub at PAX in 2021. I’d been trying to balance a group win with an individual win, and leave it open for players to decide which one they’re going for. My first attempts all ended with individual wins. Then I corrected and made a game everyone only ever wanted to play together. At that point, I’d been messing with systems to tempt people to be the bad guy, and I thought I’d made headway.
And for two days, over eight hours a day, I’d been pitching. I had new ideas I wanted to try, but I had to earn my playtesters. Throughout Friday and Saturday, I’d been desperate to draw a crowd just to get some testers in. I was in full sales mode, throwing out one liners and smiles, hoping someone would sit down and give my game a shot.
By Sunday, I was exhausted. I had a table at UnPub, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really pushing The Last Summit any more. I was burned out, and poking lazily with a new prototype, while my partner showed off the games she’d finally picked up from the floor. I still wanted to get in a few more tests, but at that point, emotionally, I wish I’d slept in. I half considered taking a nap at my table.
Then they came by.
This particular group of playtesters wandering the UnPub hall were not to be trifled with. Taking a look over these prototypes wasn’t a giddy peek behind the curtain; they took these tests seriously. They’d seen so many different dynamics, and they wanted something new, exciting, and fully functional. They were unconcerned with could-bes, and might-bes, and wanted to see something keeping its promises.
They sat down at my table, and I promised them a game with two balanced win conditions that maintained tension throughout.
I did not keep my promises. And they let me know. It was brutal.
To be fair, there wasn’t much I didn’t already know. I knew about the issues they brought up, but I’d pretended they were minor. I told myself they just needed tweaking, or they weren’t central to the experience.
Nope. They were key. They were lacking. And it was evident in only a couple rounds.
Every ugly aspect that needed fixing, every gremlin I’d tried to ignore, they all crawled to the surface and squealed, no longer something that needed polish, but a glaring screeching defect.
Most of my playtesters would let me know when they had a dip in interest, or tell me what they felt wasn’t quite working. This crew was on point enough to zero in on every flaw in the design, tease them out, autopsy them in front of me, and leave the gaping carcass of my mechanics splayed in the middle of the table.
Honestly, this probably wasn’t that dramatic, but man…I was really tired, and it felt like I watching a live vivisection.
After a complete detailing of my game’s flaws they gave me their business card, and please believe me when I tell you, I meant to keep it. I tucked into my design notebook, and I’d intended on writing them with an update after I’d at least taken a swing at fixing the swarm of issues they’d pointed out. But somewhere in my slog away from that table, feeling unbelievably defeated, the card slipped away, and I don’t remember their name. I never got to reply. If you’re reading this, thank you for the much needed kick in the pants.
I was on my seventh version of the game, so finding out I had termites in the beams of my foundation wasn’t new. Scrapping my game down to the bones and rebuilding was already a process I was pretty familiar with, but I slumped out of the hall that day.
Going into that convention, I had really thought I was almost there. I thought the game was far enough along that I absolutely should be pitching instead of playtesting. I thought I was just tightening the screws on a game that was finally, after years, coming together.
Falling from that vantage point, from overseeing all of my imagined progress down into the dirt; it was a long enough fall to take the wind out of me.
We went straight from the convention to the train station. It was a two hour ride back home, and I spent most of it with my eyes out the window with a pen hovering over a page marked “8.0”. For a long while on that ride from Philly back to New York, I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to bother writing anything there. But I kept the notebook open.
The suburbs of Pennsylvania rushed past me as I just sat there, forehead on the glass, and my hand stubbornly gripping a pen over the page. I had podcasts to listen to, books to read, new games to play. There were tons of options in the messenger bag in front of me, but I stuck with the open notebook.
Eventually, I got bored, and started writing. I’d love to say inspiration hit me like a Mack Truck, and I started running around my train car screaming Eureka, but instead, I just started writing out truly terrible ideas. I was bored enough to play a game with myself. And that game was, what are the worst possible fixes I could come up with. And I do mean absolutely the worst. I actually wrote down, “Players lick cards to claim them.” This was mid-pandemic.
I giggled to myself, and filled three pages.
The next week, I sat down a bunch of my friends at the table,
“Alright, look. We’re going to try some weird stuff…”
I didn’t make them lick any cards. But we did try a few of the weird ideas I came up with.
Sorry to say that most of them didn’t make it into the game, but tucked in there, I did find a few fixes. More importantly, I don’t think I’d have found the energy to start playtesting or pitching again if I hadn’t written out the words “Any player that flicks a card into another player’s forehead, draws two more cards. Well done.”
I just needed to remember the fun.
Take a look at our new game, The Last Summit.