Development vs Playtesting

I got some really interesting feedback from a playtester recently. I’ll protect the name of the innocent, but it really made me think, and I wanted to share my thoughts.

“The more I think about it, and what I have read on the forums, the more I am convinced that this game isn’t ready for play testing. It’s still in development.”

No question: Gaslands is currently in development. It will not be completed for another 16 months. What is interesting in the comment above is the assumed mutual exclusion between development and playtesting.

I have admitted elsewhere that I work for a software start-up, and the principles of lean development pretty much infuse everything I do these days. It is my experience over the last few years that products that are sense-checked with users early in the development process make fewer bogus assumptions and have a higher chance of success. I strongly believe this based on the evidence of my own experiences and those of the companies I have worked for.

The reason for this is simple. If I assume that customers (players) want a certain thing from my game when my game is only 8 pages long, and I fail to validate that assumption, I may write 100 pages, release the game, and only THEN discover that my assumption was false, players don’t want that thing, and the game fails. Osprey is unhappy, and I don’t get to make a second game.

If, instead, I use the hastily thrown together 8-page-long prototype game to validate some fundamental assumptions, and find them to be false, I have only 5000 words to chuck in the bin, and 16 months left to correct my course.


The idea that I somehow “know best” what players will want from this game is arrogant. I should pose my best hypothetical answer to the question: “what do players want from a post-apocalyptic car game”; then find the cheapest possible way to TEST that assumption. The alternative, in which I am not sure what players will want, and yet spend 12 months in my ivory tower writing a complete and polished game in order to THEN find out feels to me to be a very bad plan.

As this is to be my first published game, I have no “real world” experience to draw on. As a freelance author, not part of a design studio, I do not have more experience colleagues around me to draw on. As this is not my full time job, I don’t have the luxury of working on this all day.

However, am I taking liberties? Am I asking a lot from others, who’s hobby time (and I’m sure theirs is as precious and hard-won as mine is) I am demanding in exchange for making MY game better? Do I owe the playtesters something better than an early prototype? This is a tough question.

More emotively, the same playtester also comments:

“Either you’re holding back a lot; this is intended to be a *very* simple game; or you and Osprey are getting playtesters to write the game for you, with Mike as chief shot-caller/editor.”

Yikes. I wonder is this is a view held by much of the silent majority of the folks who have signed up to be playtesters? Signed up, downloaded, read, disappointed that it feels half-baked and incomplete? If this player equates “prototype” with “waste of my time”, do others too?

My expectation is that playtesters can offer comments and reactions to the mechanics, at all stages of development, from inception to completion. They can offer perspectives that I could never hope to consider, and so shine light on to problems that I would never have identified. Asking people to ignore the “unfinished” and “prototype” nature of the rules might be a big ask, but I would also hope that a certain type of player might be excited and inspired by this opportunity to be part of a process that will definitely conclude in a real and published game that they helped make great.

My intention is to provide an open, collaborative and transparent design process, with the shared goal of finishing up with the best game that I can make for the people that then buy it. I write the game. I am not asking anyone else to write it for me, but in order to make the game the best that it can be, I take seriously the input of these representatives of the players that will eventually buy and play the game.


I am not angry or upset at this feedback. On the contrary, this sort of open and honest expression of opinion is the MOST VALUABLE kind of feedback, and I would urge others to behave in the same way. There is literally no value to me, or to the game, in hearing “it’s good”, or “I like it”, other than massaging my ego. I want to know what’s BAD, BROKEN or plain NOT FUN about the game, so it can be the best it can be.

Thank you to my unnamed playtester for a piece of robust feedback that forced me to reflect on my process.

A full revision of the Gaslands playtesting rules has just been released.  If you are interested in being involved in the playtesting process go: here.