Superfans and Lead Testers

This post was inspired by this tweet, part of a really interesting thread from Emma Larkins, who rocks and is awesome and you should all follow:

The Superfan is something I try to get very early on in a game. Of course, I design games I love, but as Emma said, I want to make sure I’m not the only one who does so. I talked before about designing pitch-first, to make sure you’re designing towards something appealing. Getting a Superfan is a great way to do make sure that that pitch is attractive to someone else, but also that through your process, you’re staying true to your original vision. Plus, if you’re lucky, they’ll keep you accountable: “hey, how is game X going? looking forward to trying out the newest version!”

On each of my games, I’ve managed to get a Superfan early on, and then, I’ve turned them into what I like to call Lead Testers. If a Superfan is proof that your game can attract someone other than you, a Lead Tester is a tool to make sure it stays this way. A Lead Tester is someone who rides the line between playtester and developer, who through repeated play becomes an expert, and who through repeated discussions about the game has a deep understanding of the game.

If you’re reading this, you hopefully know the oft-repeated advice “don’t just playtest with your friends and family”. Cast a wide net, get 50, 60, 80, 100, 200 people to try it out. You need to get multiple opinions, see if the game can survive multiple different groups, and also, get some people hyped about your game, and maybe even your other designs! But another part of it is also that you need people who haven’t played it before to try and see how well a first play can go. Can people understand the rules? Are there first-level strategies? How approachable is the game? How readable? All those questions can only be answered through testing with new players, and you can’t “pretend you don’t know it”. In this world of games which are only played once, that first impression is key.

That being said, the Lead Tester will also help you with something else: expert-level play. Can the game sustain interest through repeated plays? Can a strategy be exploited? Are all of these factions viable? Sometimes, what you need is not a pair of fresh eyes, but the keen, wise gaze of a veteran, someone who’s been there before, and knows the game as well as you do, without being as close to the content as you are. Sometimes, you need someone to play the game 10 times in a row, so you can try out a few different faction ideas you’ve had. When I first added what would become the Shadow cards to With A Smile & A Gun, my buddy James ordered me to go make some more: “we both have Thursday off, let’s go for coffee and try them all out!”

Of course, a Lead Tester cannot be your only source of testing, but I would still suggest you try and get one for each of your projects. But how? It’s a very simple 4-step process:

  1. Get an awesome pitch;
  2. When somebody responds positively to the pitch, playtest with them;
  3. If they respond positively to the playtest, playtest with them again;
  4. After each test with them, push the discussion a bit deeper.

Some people won’t want to be that involved. Some people won’t need to be pushed. At this point, it’s social skills: try to feel their interest level, and the relationship you have with them; make sure not to push on them roles they don’t want. If you’re lucky, a Lead Tester will take that role with pride, without you having to ask, but most of the time, you’ll either have to gauge it as you go, or, and I would suggest doing it this way, just asking them: “Hey, I think you’re exactly the kind of gamer I’m making this game for. Would you mind being making sure the game stays true to that throughout its development?”

Have you had the chance to get a Lead Tester for one of your designs? Or have you yourself taken that role, whether officially or not, for another designer?

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