#31: Perception (Set in Stone)

With the launch of my first ever Kickstarter campaign looming (Febuary 1st), I figured now would be a good time to start listing all the crazy things I’ve learned in this mad race (because the amount of planning, preparation, and work needed is really starting to feel like a dash to the finish).  To that end, I think my first lesson will be a more universal one.

To date, Hot Pursuit is the closest I have come to taking a game from concept to final, published product. Although I’ve printed “real” on-demand copies of other games and even spent money on art, this is the first time I’ve gotten my game into the hands of other people and sought out 3rd party reviews. Therefore, this particular game has seen many different “coverings” or art styles, a few different methods of play, quite a few different boxes, and has even been to 2 conventions and a 1 day event.

Through all of those different appearances and various players, I think my most surprising lesson has been that perception matters.

Now, this has little to do with the fact that a cohesive story or setting makes the game easier to teach or that you’ll get more people to try prototypes with some kind of art (instead of hand-writing on index cards). Neither does this have to do with getting testers or future customers to take you seriously. While I completely advocate doing everything in your power to respect the precious time given to you by testers, these aren’t the topics I’m talking about, today.

What I discovered, quite by accident, is that the kind of feedback you receive and how people talk about your game depends a lot on how players perceive your game. While the rest of the post operates on a generalization, understand that I am working on the premise of mostly unsolicited feedback from NEW players. Here are the 3 main ways that players see the games they are trying out:

1 – Early prototype (Proof of Concept)
2 – Working prototype
3 – “Finished” product

This list is based purely on how people react to playing my game and the way they talk about it afterwards. But what does it mean?

Well, when the game is clearly an early prototype, new players tend to treat the game as an experiment – “will this thing work?” As such, without specific prompting, they tend to talk mostly about whether or not it worked. Sometimes, they will even feel strongly enough to tell you what specifically did or did not work. This step is pretty awful on testers. They aren’t getting much out of it and have plenty of other things they could be having fun with. So, try not to abuse testers by spending a lot of time with that hot mess in front of them.

Finished” product means that you have commissioned most, if not all, of the art and have a great prototype for people to play.  It may not actually be the FINAL product, but it should look like it and be discussed as if it is. My absolute favorite experience in this step was at this past year’s Christmas and New Year’s parties. At both parties I and/or my wife told the testers that this was “my” game. Well, most of us arrived with several games because the majority of the day was being spent playing games (also known as heaven). Apparently, they didn’t get our point. At both parties, we played multiple games. Each party surprised me with the people who “got it” and ran the table. It was great! Each session ended with a quick – “That was neat. Where’d you get it?” It’s MY game – I made it 😀 (it’s tough not to follow those words with that face). “Oh!” Yeah, I’ll be seeking funding for an actual print run in February. “Wow. I’d totally buy that!”

See how the communication was about the fun had and buying the game? Yup, that’s what I needed to hear – if they liked it and whether they would buy it (even with the current art and graphic design).

Working prototype. In some ways, I really hate this step, and it all comes down to how players perceive which step you are at. You see, “working prototype” is when your game mostly works. Mostly. Therefore, you are obviously seeking to make it better. Right? God, I hope so because the only feedback you are going to get will be things to add to make it awesome. Don’t ever think you are just going to test out this one idea. Early in development, this is fantastic. 3 of my favorite games in development wouldn’t really be a game if not for testers throwing ideas at me. A word of warning – I am getting pretty good at just saying “Sure!” instead of explaining ANY of what is actually going through my mind.

“How can you hate that?” you are probably asking yourself. Well, let me give you another story from the New Year’s party. I took Into a New World with me. I commissioned gorgeous art for the tiles and mocked up a pretty box. This WAS going to be Lagniappe’s first game until Willis and I came up with Hot Pursuit. I had the opportunity to play it with a couple of guys who didn’t quite have enough time to play chess. The first game was a learning experience. The second game was awesome. One of the guys was looking over my box trying to figure out who on earth made it. “Is this from a Japanese designer?” he asked. He seemed to be really enjoying working through strategies and probabilities. We had some pretty exciting discussions about the gameplay, components, etc. 😀 Unfortunately, after he discovered it was MY design, the conversation quickly turned. The next 20 minutes was him giving me his thoughts on box size / construction, component sourcing, and finding manufacturers via his favorite websites.

He only spent all that time giving me advice because he was interested and wanted to help. Which is great! Immensely appreciated. However, I have already spent over a year researching and planning all of that. The moment people discover that the game they just tried out is a prototype, they immediately back up to the concept of a working prototype – something which can and probably should be “fixed”. Surprisingly, it is often more difficult for me to accept those “fixes” on a “finished” game than when it’s brutally honest feedback on a broken game. Ugh.

Please, keep in mind that this is an observation – not a complaint. Hopefully, I can save you from some of the stress I’ve experienced with these unexpected reactions. That being said, there are steps you can take to ensure that the table talk doesn’t veer off point. Obviously, you can try controlling the conversation by asking pointed questions and using feedback forms. If you are like me and you prefer a more natural, organic conversation, then you’ll need to control their perception. Use a professional, finished looking prototype, be candid about the tremendous amount of work and research you’ve already put in, and be careful with your words – talk about how excited you are to finally publish, instead of how excited you are to finish. If you can give the impression that your design is set in stone, then new players are more inclined to talk about how much they enjoyed the game, if they would buy it, and how much they think it’s worth.

What do you think? How do you like to carry the conversation with new players?

Let me know what you think