On a recent episode of On Board Games, Donald Dennis and I were discussing game companies and some of the flaws in the games they produce. Don said that companies and designers needed to “get out of the echo chamber.” And that is a great statement.
What is an echo chamber in game design? It is when all of your feedback on your design is from people with a vested interest in the success of your design. Now this could be someone who is the designer’s friend, someone in their game group, someone who doesn’t want to jeopardize being a beta tester in the future, etc.
The problem with these people is twofold. One, since they want your game to succeed, they are more willing to overlook issues that a more neutral party would point out. Second, they tend to communicate with each other in some fashion and so they tend to start having similar opinions, a concept known as “groupthink.”
I remember a great example of the echo chamber when I worked at a mall store that sold computer and video games. The prices on their games or systems were typically a few dollars more expensive than you could get it at Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Not a huge amount, but still it was more expensive. One day some management came into the store to see how things were going. This man asked me if I thought that the fact that the prices were a little higher was a big deal? He phrased it in such a way that he clearly thought it didn’t. Now this was just a seasonal job for me so I honestly didn’t care about my “career” there but still I answered that no, it wasn’t a big deal, even though I’d never buy anything there when half a mile down the street I could avoid mall traffic and buy the game a few bucks cheaper. I fell into the groupthink and the manager heard exactly what he wanted to hear.
The big problem is that people in the echo chamber are also the easiest to recruit for help. They are the ones who have seen the game from the beginning and played many iterations of it. They know what you meant in the rule book, even if it doesn’t actually say that. They understand that the fiddly parts of the games are actually a lot less fiddly than they used to be.
Realize that the implications of the echo chamber go farther than just the design of the game. They can extend into other design decisions like token design, rule book layout, graphic design, even things like card quality or box size. I’ve seen quite a few board games that had decisions made on them, like say card thickness, that were clearly the wrong one. I can easily see the designer trying to pick between two different card thicknesses and looking at the cost difference. They really need to go with the cheaper one, but will it make a difference in the satisfaction of the game? The echo chamber says no it will be fine. Go with the cheaper cards. That is what the designer wants to hear, so he follows through. When the game is released the first four posts on Boardgamegeek all deal with how flimsy the cards are and how people are afraid that the cards won’t last more than a few plays.
So how do you exit the chamber? The designer needs degrees of separation from the respondents. Blind play tests by people who have never seen the game before, friends of friends experiencing it for the first time. Even having unassociated people just read the rule book for clarity and layout will bring out issues the designer hadn’t seen in all the time they worked on their product.
The main reason this is so important is that the moment your game is released, the players and reviewers will be solidly outside of the echo chamber and they will point out every flaw in the game. Rather than spending your marketing time telling others how great your new game is, you are spending it in damage control, a place no one wants to be at.
So if you are involved in the design process at any level, be it game, components, collateral, marketing, etc. Be sure that when you solicit opinions that some of those giving the opinions have separation from you and you will avoid the problems of the echo chamber.
Erik Dewey is an author, game reviewer, and co-presenter on the popular podcast On Board Games. One of Erik's driving goals is to see families strengthened and have a sense of identity. He is a big proponent of game play to help in these goals. You can visit his piece of the internet at erikdewey.com.