Getting testers to your table at public events

Last weekend, I went to a local gaming event to playtest With A Smile & A Gun, and hopefully get a few mailing list subscribers. This article is meant to give a few tips and tricks to those of you who are looking to do something like this. I’m far from an expert on approaching potential testers, and maybe you disagree with some of these: let me know in the comments in that case.

Before I go into the tips, a quick presentation of the event: I went to the Bissextile Ludique (Bissextile is French for leap year, because it was February 29th, and Ludique means fun), organized by Longueuil Ludo, which organizes weekly game nights at a community center, and bigger events a few times a year. There were about 70 people, there were two merchant booths, a flea market, raffles and tournaments, and a Prototype zone for 3 designers—actually, it was just three adjacent tables in the main gaming area. That last part is important: it means that we had more traffic than if we were in a separate room, but it also means that we often had to explain why we were showing off this crappy game that looks like it was printed on our home HP (hint: it was!). In an event this small, a separate room would most likely have meant no traffic.

I’ll also assume your game is ready to be playtested with strangers. Don’t take your first drafts to strangers: you’ll burn their goodwill, it’s harder to get them to try it, and a buddy’s feedback would have been just as helpful. By the time you go to those events, your game’s core should work, and you want to have new perspectives on it. Your game should also look presentable: it doesn’t have to be full of art, but the graphic design should be clear and understandable. It should not look like homework, and you should have an intriguing pitch to hook them in.

Tip 1: Be approachable.

Please smile. Please don’t look like people are disturbing you. Please talk to those around you. Testing or demoing for someone is a lot easier if you know them, even a little bit.

In an event this small, there were times where I was without any testers, and everyone was sitting down in a game. Then, I’d get out my phone, or go for a quick browse of the flea market. But if there were people moving around, get up and invite people over. Even if they’re fascinated by your prototype, most people won’t disturb you if you look busy.

Tip 2: Build social capital.

Even if you’re approachable, that’s still not enough. At an event like this, people will have a choice between a game they actually know and love, learning a new game they’ve been yearning to get to the table, or this prototype you brought. Some people love helping out, love trying games in development and having some input on final products, but for most people, that’s not the case. Whether they’ve never tested a prototype before, or been burned too many times, or just don’t enjoy it, you’re often fighting an uphill battle.

The best way to turn it on its head is to make a connection with people, so that when you ask them for a playtest, they want to help you. If you have down time, play a game with them. Walk around and look at other people’s games: I spent a good 20 minutes observing a game of Marvel Champions last Saturday, which was both awesome, because that game rules, but also allowed me to connect with those players. I participated in a Just One tournament (well, actually, won a Just One tournament, thank you very much) with another 6 people. Later on, when all those folks came back from dinner, I could call them by their name and invite them over to play.

Of course, respecting people’s boundaries, adapting your approach to their particularities, reading the room, and other social guidelines very much apply here.

Tip 3: Be respectful of their time.

Once you get a tester to sit down and play your game, you’re not done: word of mouth is still a thing. If a tester gets up from your table and tells others your game was a waste of time, you might as well pack up for the rest of the day. On the other hand, if someone gets up and tells their buddies to come and try it out, they’re doing your job for you—and are probably much more efficient than you are.

This is not about delivering a good game experience, but it’s being respectful and grateful for their time. Set the game up before players sit down. Have your explanation prepared and rehearsed. Listen to their feedback. But also, if a tester wants to drop out before the game’s end, that’s fine: just sit in for them. If multiples do, don’t pressure them to stay. Actually, after the first round, you should ask everyone if they want to go through the rest of the game. That’s the difference between answering “it wasn’t for me” when asked, and actively telling everyone around them “I just wasted half an hour of my life”. You won’t get good feedback from frustrated people anyway.

Also related is “Know the crowd”: look up the event. When I saw on the Facebook group the kind of games people were playing on pictures, I went with my 20-30 minute dice game, not my 90-min engine building, area control Euro game.

Tip 4: Raffles are… meh?

So I thought about the “Give before you ask” mantra, and decided I’d raffle a game amongst those who tested my prototype and left me their email for the mailing list. I thought about raffling a pledge for the game, but decided maybe a prize that you’d get a year after you won it wouldn’t be that enticing. I therefore bought a copy of Jixia Academy, the newest edition of Hanamikoji, which is another 2-player majority game, thinking if they’d like one they’d like the other. Price wise, the FLGS copy of Jixia was about the same as the landed cost + shipping of my game. Tomato-tomato (wow does that not translate well to written text), I don’t feel strongly either way. If I were closer to the KS, I’d probably go for a pledge. Maybe they’ll be interested in adding more copies, since I’d already cover shipping?

I had the box on my table, next to my display of the game’s cover image and basic instruction. People were confused, so I added a sticker on it that said “Try my prototype for a chance to win this DIFFERENT, yet AWESOME game”. Which made people a bit less confused, but still… pretty confused. The pledge would probably have been a better option on that end.

And even if that were clear, of the 19 emails I got, 19 said they would have given me their emails even if it weren’t for the raffle. And no one was attracted to the table because of the raffle. At the end, I still drew the name and gave them the prize, and they couldn’t. care. less.

I’m still happy I did it, but I probably wouldn’t do a raffle again. I might organize a play-to-win tournament, where the winner gets a copy of the game, and maybe others get a coupon. However, I’d only do so with physical copies of the game after fulfillment, or by offering a pledge during the Kickstarter (or possibly, in the weeks right before it).

Where I’d do a raffle is for a Gleam campaign, “subscribe to my social media for a chance to win”, where that chance at a prize is the only thing you’re offering. In this case, I think at best it didn’t matter, and at worst is might have even taken away from the genuine “I want to go when this comes out” value of giving your email address.

So that’s that. Have you ever gone to such an event to playtest or demo your game? How did you get people to your table?  

Getting Feedback on your Pitch

Note: This is less essay, more diary, than what I usually do. It’s a very spur of the moment thing and is somehow even less structured than my usual writing.

I submitted With A Smile & A Gun to the Cardboard Edison Awards. It’s a yearly contest where you submit a rulebook and a video overview of a pitch-stage game, and get feedback on it. I LOVE that contest, because you get high-level feedback on your pitch, and can have a better idea of the first impression your game idea has on people. Usually, by then, you know what works mechanically, and its just a question of what to emphasize and what to tune down a bit, whether it’s to pitch to publishers, or to customers when you get to self-publishing.

That kind of feedback is very valuable for me. I can walk away from a playtest without asking questions and still get a pretty good feel for how the systems worked, what mechanisms need to be dug into, and which part people struggled to understand. However, I have more trouble figuring out those first impressions, how much of a tester sitting down is interest in the game idea, in playtesting in general, or just politeness.

I had a LOT of feedback about it at ProtoTO, where there is a presentation of your prototypes, and you set up your game and spend an hour-ish telling people why they should spend their limited con-time testing YOUR game. But that is a very limited thing, it’s pretty hard to reproduce: at design nights, we usually all get a turn, you don’t have to convince anyone. If you bring a new prototype to your regular game night, it’s more about social aspects than your pitch itself–your friends probably want to help you, they know about your other projects, they know who you are and the kind of games you like.

I could probably find a way to ask playtesters about that pitch, but I never do. To truly grasp their first impression, it would probably have to happen before the actual playtest, and I’d worry about what it would do to the session’s pace–hook them, then feedback, then teach, then game, then feedback again? Or just do the pitch, feedback on pitch, and then thank you? Catch-and-release?

I wrote about thinking about your pitch earlier in the process in another article. I still think that is a crucial part of serious game design, and that you should test how excited people get about your concept before you start working on it. That being said, it goes against all of the “get it to the table ASAP” advice that we hear from the greats. Problem is, I haven’t yet mastered how to get feedback on my pitch during the game’s development, and so I either do it all at the end (which is VERY hard), or before (which delays the mechanisms from being tested).

So yeah. As I said, more diary than essay, and probably not that helpful to many of you. I’m hoping maybe we can get a discussion going about it? Do you work on your pitch during the game’s design? If so, how?

Designing “pitch-first”

I am a member of the Game Artisans of Canada, a guild of Canadian game designers, publishers, and artists. My first meeting with other Artisans, one of them said “These days, I don’t work on something I couldn’t pitch.” That, to me, was a sellout attitude: only in it for the money! What about the art? But I was wrong: “something I could pitch” means “a game which can grab people’s attention”, and those could be publishers, but also playtesters, potential customers, other designers. And these days, I also make sure an idea can grab people’s attention before I start working on it.

But I didn’t always: Art Traders, my first solo design, was designed mechanism-first -I wanted to make a mid-weight Euro with the Yatzhee scoring, which I thought was a great, unused tool in modern games-, and so the first pitch went like this:

“Art Traders is a 60-min long Euro about running an art gallery. You alternate between two phases: acquisitions, which is one-way worker placement, where you always have to place further than the last worker you placed; and Exhibition, where you choose one of four criteria by which to evaluate your collection, but you have to choose each criteria once and only once.”

As a mechanism guy, that is very interesting to me, but it has a very niche appeal: it’s very mechanical, and it reads like a “this is A and B mashed together”. A pitch is not to meant explain the game, but to grab people’s attention, whether a potential publisher, a playtester, a customer.

Now, compare this to the pitch I had for SuPR at ProtoTO a few months ago:

“SuPR is a coop game where you play as a PR firm who just signed a superhero for a client. You’ll have to balance the crime fighting and the TV appearances, and fill up the Love-o-meter before the baddies manage to destroy the city. You’d think saving lives would be enough, right? And of course, you want the best for the city, but… the worse the situation gets, the better it looks when you swoop in and save the day. But if you let stuff get too bad…”

The game is still early in its development, but my pitch is already ready, and honestly, probably my best one in my opinion. It contains multiple hooks: ways to grab people’s attention. There is:

  • The theme: Superhero, but we’re just the PR firm. I usually get a chuckle, and people do a double take;
  • Balance crime-fighting and TV appearances: mechanically, it’s the exact same as curing cubes and amassing cards in Pandemic, but the words sound new. By now very few people are uninterested.
  • Catchphrase: “You’d think saving lives would be enough” will probably be the game’s subtitle. It suggests exactly what I want the game to be about: just saving the world would be easy, and just getting liked would be easy. It’s trying to do both that makes it hard. Again, new words to express a pretty standard feeling in coops.
  • “The worse the situation gets…”: That part is where the game becomes different. In standard coop, you usually avoid “on the brink” situations as much as possible: in this one, you actually manipulate them into being. This is what makes this game different.

I’m not saying I’m a master pitcher: holy molly am I not. But I think the main difference is nowadays, the pitch is the first thing I think about. I use the #IsThisSomething to share on Twitter ideas I have for games, and if I can’t write what’s interesting in 280 characters, it’s not refined enough. If I get no traction, it’s not interesting enough. Sometimes I go back and work on it, sometimes I just forget about the idea: I have enough game ideas to forget about most of them and still not have enough time to work on the ones that are left.

Writing that pitch also gives me something to design towards, a vision statement of sorts. SuPR was first a roll-and-write game, but when I realized “coop roll and write” was interesting, but not pitch-worthy, I threw it out. When we ran into trouble with earlier versions of Cybertopia, it was much easier to see what we should focus on. With Art Traders, changing from the Puerto Rico lead-and-follow to the one-way track felt like a much bigger change, because it changed The Pitch.

To be completely transparent, I make it look like I do this purposely and in an organized fashion. In reality, it’s more that I let a game marinate for a bit before I work on it. I post about it on Twitter, I talk about it with friends, and through that, I find the kernel that is interesting to me, and that others respond to. Then, eventually, I put it all down on paper.

How early, and how much, do you consider your pitch in your design process?