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Many groups of gamers will eventually attract potential game designers. I love testing games or playing with mechanics and enjoy play testing or theory crafting. But a good boardgamer does not a designer make and I find that most ideas are terrible or have already been done a few times.

This also encompasses most of the fan variants and expansions for games. People, generally speaking, have no idea how to make a game. Unfortunately, I have problems being too direct or speaking in wild absolutes. This tends to make these potential designers (who are often friends I would like to keep) offended or defensive.

This question boils down into two parts:

  • How can I explain my objections or concerns clearly without being too direct or aggressive?
  • What are these potential designers actually expecting from me? Am I putting myself on too high a pedestal in thinking they want me to respond as I have been?
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4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

My tips:

  • Understand the expectations. Is your friend asking you to playtest, debug, and improve the game with critical feedback? Or does he think it's great already, and just wants to play it with you? Ask him what he wants from you before playing, even!

  • State your criticisms as opinions where possible. Instead of "this is a bad mechanic" try to go for "I don't personally like this mechanic because of X". Even if you think that EVERY right-thinking gamer will share your opinion of the mechanic it's ultimately your view of the situation, and stating it that way instead of as an absolute is a less confrontational path.

  • Instead of just criticizing elements you don't like, dig down into them. Ask questions and try to find out why your buddy used that element in the first place. What was the goal of that element of the design? What "feel" is it supposed to evoke? Heck, sometimes this kind of digging will reveal to them that they don't HAVE an answer for these questions, making the element's weakness clear.

Upon re-reading I see that my tips are largely things you already acknowledge as the problems (knowing the expectations, avoiding wild absolutes) but perhaps this will help to some degree regardless.

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As for the howto. Consider the volume of materials on the web about how to give constructive criticism. For example: wisegeek.com/what-is-constructive-criticism.htm –  Neal Tibrewala Sep 16 '11 at 5:18
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As a game designer, I know I want the truth from people I show the game to.

I also know that most people just don't give critical feedback. By "critical," I mean a skilled judgment or analysis, as in "critical thinking." I've been involved in enough creative endeavors to know that most think only as far as, "I liked that," or, "That sucked." I've shown short films to an audience, watched them laugh uproariously, and then say, "It was OK," when asked if they liked it. So I've learned to take feedback for what it is, and not to hang too much of my own self-worth on it. I don't know if your game designers have grown the requisite thick skin or not.

But this combination of factors makes me able to give you advice about giving feedback - good or bad. I know it seems easier to say, "That was fun!" but both kinds of feedback should follow the same rules.

When someone asks you to test a game, if you don't want to put the effort in to provide decent feedback, just politely decline.

If you decide to accept, you now have a responsibility to think about the game and what you like and don't like about it. Instead of just a blanket, "This rocks!" or, "That was awful," you owe the designer the courtesy of considering the question, "Why?" And then you can give the designer the answer to that question.

For instance, I have an RPG in playtest right now, and something like, "I felt like it was too hard to succeed - even things my character was good at seemed out of reach," is good feedback. It gives me something to look at, or even questions to ask the playtester. And I would rather have critical negative feedback than thoughtless positive feedback.

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+1 especially for the last sentence. Constructive criticism is the reason for playtesting/editing. –  VolcanoLotus Feb 10 '12 at 2:26
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Include a list of things you do and don't like about the design, rather than just the bad.

Put it in writing; edit it, and reread it after writing it but before delivering it.

Be prepared to explain in more detail, but don't be over-detailed in your initial list.

Don't be confrontational; it just makes life harder.

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I would tell people WHY something is bad without telling them that it's bad. E.g.:

Mechanic X takes up a lot of time.

Mechanic Y causes people to focus on the mechanic, and lose focus on the game.

Then let the designers decide for themselves whether "takes up a lot of time" or "causes a loss of focus" is good or bad.

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