Distinguishing between good and bad feedback for your game

As I continue to demo the prototype of my tactical combat card game, Legacy’s Allure, to a variety of people, I’ve become better and distinguishing between good and bad feedback. No, I am not using “good” and “bad” as synonyms for “positive” and “negative” but rather “helpful” and “unhelpful”.

Good feedback is feedback that indicates whether you are successfully delivering the core experience you want your players to have. Bad feedback is feedback that does not indicate this. Again, this feedback can be positive or negative. Sometimes the best feedback is negative feedback. What we want to avoid is making design decisions based on bad feedback:

  • Bad, negative feedback can dishearten you unnecessarily or cause you to pursue someone else’s inferior vision for your game.
  • Bad, positive feedback can give you a false confidence or cause you to resist good negative feedback.

Part of recognizing whether feedback is good or bad is understanding the person giving you feedback so that you can understand any biases that might go into their feedback. For starters, when you show your game to someone, you should know whether they are:

  1. A consumer — someone who is going to spend their hard-earned money on your product in hoping of get some enjoyment in return.
  2. A store employee / owner — someone who is going to sell your game to end consumers.
  3. A game reviewer — someone who helps end consumers determine whether they should buy your game.
  4. A game designer — someone who designs games of their own or wants to get involved in game design.

I have intentionally sought out feedback from all four types of individuals. I am not going to claim that some of these groups are more useful than others, but I will claim that their biases are different. For example:

  1. End consumers tend to be positive toward even mediocre games, because they have little to lose. Until you have a finished product, what they say means very little if they don’t proceed to get out their wallet and buy your game.
  2. Store employees and owners have more to lose by giving you bad feedback, since their livelihood is dependent on whether they correctly identify quality products that consumers will buy. This is why I highly value the feedback of this group, probably more than any other group.
  3. Game reviewers also have little to lose by giving bad feedback. (And I’m not even talking about reviewers that might have been incentivized to give feedback in the first place!) With the exception of Tom Vasel, who I think has little to prove with his reviews since he’s already so established, I am typically skeptical of game reviewers because I know that they always have the ulterior motive of wanting to grow their channel. That means they are susceptible to hype and also to contrarianism. Obviously, watching other reviews by that reviewer is important to recognizing any biases they might have.
  4. Game designers are a group that in theory should give stellar feedback, but in reality might be the most biased group of all because they are actually your competitor. Jealousy and ego abounds in the extremely competitive game design space, and I have seen that firsthand on many occasions, even in this forum. I have also seen it in myself. My tendency when seeing another combat game is to immediately identify the ways in which it is inferior to mine. I don’t mean it out of malice, of course, but its unavoidable given my competitive nature. At the end of the day, we all know that there are only so many stores and so many consumers out there, and we want our game to be the apple of their eye and not someone else’s.

All that being said, let’s move on to some examples of what I consider GOOD and BAD feedback of my game over the past six months, and how I responded to it. All quotes are paraphrases of actual feedback I received.

  • Good, positive feedback:
    • “I love the size of the map. It makes the game feel so dramatic, like you’re actually on the battlefield.” Why this was good feedback: For a long time I was concerned about the size of the map used in my game, which is 34.5″ x 30″. This means it takes up a good chunk of real estate on a table. But then I thought, why is this bad? Why can’t this serve to make players feel like they’re actually immersed in a battle, undistracted by player mats found in other games? That’s the experience I set out to create, and several players, including this one (a store owner, in fact) affirmed that for me.
    • “The lack of randomness is really refreshing in a card game.” Why this was good feedback: one of the core features of my game is that it has no randomness aside from determining who plays first. This has been almost universally praised, or at least I have not heard anyone specifically criticize it, which tells me that a game without randomness might be a welcome change in card game and skirmish game market.
  • Good, negative feedback:
    • “Heroes should have three, not five, levels associated with them. The game currently demands too much of my time to experience all of a hero’s levels.” Why this was good feedback: I am designing my game to played competitively. In a tournament, each game is played at a different level. Since each game takes an hour, five levels means a five-hour tournament to experience all five levels. That’s overwhelming and unrealistic. Deep down I knew this change needed to be made, and looking back I shudder at the thought of having so many levels, but it was this particular playtester that convinced me to make the change, though I bristled at their feedback at the time.
    • “This didn’t feel like playing a MOBA.” Why this was good feedback: I had told a player before we started playing that my game drew inspiration from Dota 2, amongst other games. They interpreted this to mean that the game was trying to be something like tabletop MOBA, which is not correct at all. But that was my fault for distracting them with unnecessary information during the teach. I now have taken a strong “shutup and let them play” stance during demos, in which I avoid the urge to describe the experience I’ve trying to create that I drew from other games. (For example, the level system in my game is intended to mimic how the early, mid, and late game in a MOBA feels like three separate games.)
    • “I keep forgetting I have a hero on the battlefield; I’m not excited to use my hero.” Why this was good feedback: Heroes were too weak, and I needed to change that. Imagine if the queen in chess felt just slightly more powerful than the rook — would chess feel the same? I needed to make the queen-equivalent in my game actually feel like a queen. This feedback was also interesting because it reminded me that playtesters are great at articulating that they’re unsatisfied, but they’re often-times not great at articulating why they are unsatisfied. It is my job as the designer to determine the actual problem underlying their dissatisfaction and create the proper solution for it. Playtesters are not game designers!
  • Bad, positive feedback:
    • I don’t have a specific example here, other than to say that I’ve received encouragement from certain friends and family at the early stages who then showed no interest in playtesting at the later stages. Its just a reminder that there are people in your life who will support you out of obligation and not because they actually enjoy your game. This isn’t wrong of them, but it is dangerous for you if this is the main positive feedback you’re receiving. This is why you should never playtest your Minimum Viable Product with only your group of friends instead of outsiders. Do what I did: go to a game store, sit down with your game out on the table and a sign that says, “Test my prototype!”, and get feedback from total strangers.
  • Bad, negative feedback:
    • “You should get rid of the map.” Why this was bad feedback: This is so far outside of the objectives of this game that I can only take this to mean that the player doesn’t want the basic experience I’m trying to provide. Sure, I could create another Magic clone, which is a tried-and-true formula, but the world doesn’t need another Magic clone. What this person is really saying is that this game is not for them, but in lieu of such a bland observation they decide to manufacture useless suggestions instead.
    • “Your game doesn’t appeal to <type of player>.” Why this was bad feedback: This criticism can be levied against any game and is therefore worthless. Better criticisms would be, “Your game doesn’t have a clear appeal to your target audience” or even “Your game doesn’t have a clear target audience.” But neither of these criticisms apply to my game; I am well aware of my target audience. Whether that target audience is large enough to sustain a business is question is the real question for me, since I am trying to start a profitable business.

Another piece of feedback I’ve received that is a bit more difficult to classify is the originality of my high-fantasy theme. On the one hand, if someone simply doesn’t like high-fantasy, then this feedback isn’t useful. I do like high-fantasy and I believe that my mechanics work best in a high-fantasy setting. On the other hand, this feedback might be suggesting that the player is unable to distinguish my game from other high-fantasy games. In that case, this feedback is useful in that it tells me that I might not be emphasizing the uniqueness of my game enough. Of course, this is more of a marketing concern than a game design concern.

In conclusion, its not enough to seek out feedback your game. You must know whether that feedback is good or bad. Not all feedback is created equal.

Addendum: My cousin, Samuel Lefevre Cousteau, designer of the renowned mobile-only roguelite Risk: Exploding Kittens Against Humanity, correctly noted that feedback ought to be recorded and categorized in order to discover which feedback is common versus what is an outlier.