For many of us the mystery of what goes on behind the gilded doors of GW are filled with rumor and conjecture. I have always been surprised by how few Interviews and discussions are conducted by members of GW design teams. It leaves the public with so many unanswered questions on how GW goes about designing their games. Luckly GW does use play-testers that lay outside their corporate structure. One such play-tester is Mike Major a tournament organizer for Astronomi-con he has been gracious enough to pull back a bit of the veil that shrouds GW thought process when designing our favorite games. You can find his name on many projects the latest of which was the Battle Mission book. Let us see what he has to say!

Apparently there is a lot of rumor, mystery and shadow about Games Workshop’s playtesting of their products.

This, I simply cannot understand. Some days I swear the amount of conspiracy theory stuff just gets downright silly. I mean a generic ‘playtest’ army? Why would GW bother with such silliness? All it would get you is results which reflect battles against an army that doesn’t exist. They’d be worthless.

So, let me speak to you from some experience. There will be no dark secrets here. No violation of the non-disclosure agreement I signed. Nothing like that. This isn’t about GW’s up and coming products this is about the experience of playtest and what it was like from when I first started with it around ten years ago to the recent past.

I’m sorry to pop your bubble, but it wasn’t/isn’t particularly mysterious.

GW playtest started off as a huge secret and originally it was only for Fantasy. By the time I came along they’d branched into 40k some but we were still a bit ‘less’ in some ways than the WFB crowd. Still there were things to test and test we did.

In those early, secret days we ‘Techpriests’ would go to a website, download the latest version of a playtest codex, make some lists and play them against ‘regular’ armies of various sorts. It was in many ways fairly informal. We’d test what we wanted to test and then write up reports and sometimes make recommendations (this unit really needs to be cheaper, or more expensive, this unit needs to be better or no one will take it etc.) Sometimes the designers would listen to us. Sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes, in all honesty, it was a good thing that they didn’t. Sometimes it was a very bad thing that they didn’t.

Later, once GW published all our names in the back of Chapter Approved, things were much less secretive. We were, as a group, all very careful to never release information that was covered under our NDAs, such as what armies we were playtesting etc. My own personal response to queries on what we were working on tended to be, “Something pretty cool. You’re going to really like it. If I told you any more I’d have to kill you.” Once in awhile it would be more like, “Something pretty cool, but it still needs some polish. We’re working on it.”

We were all volunteers. We were selected for our experience in 40k and for our ability to try and be as balanced in our critique as we could. It was very much an ‘old boys’ crowd – selected in many ways because of who we knew as much as anything else but no one got in who wasn’t qualified that I saw. All in all it mostly functioned pretty well although we did have some folks who didn’t work out. One fellow was (and is) a very very smart bug player but in playtesting he could never get out of the ‘how will this work with my bug army’ approach. That made his critiques of very limited usefulness and eventually he got let go.

GW didn’t pay us. We might, sometimes, get the occasional perk, such as a copy of a ‘dex we worked on signed by the guys who wrote it, however such things were infrequent. By and large it was a fair bit of work for very little reward other than the satisfaction of making the hobby better. As such we tried. REALLY tried to make sure things were as good as they could be. Remember, though, GW didn’t always listen. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t for good reasons. Sometimes they didn’t for bad reasons. Sometimes they didn’t and it wound up being very much for the best. We ourselves often didn’t see or test the very final products. Sometimes when a ‘dex would finally come out we’d find things changed a bit. Point costs lowered, some wargear altered a bit, that kind of thing. In every single specific case I can remember this wound up making the Codex better.

One thing I will make ABSOLUTELY clear. Almost all our 40k testing was done at 1500 points. Let me say this plain (for this was never any kind of mystery) that is the point value that Warhammer 40,000 is built on and balanced for. Period. That’s how the designers look at it. That’s how the rules are written. That’s how the playtest group tests it. It’s the standard as far as the studio is concerned. This is not opinion, this is what we were told time and again. WFB is 2000.

Also, and just as important, let me be clear that the studio does NOT design for tight tournament play. They barely even consider it. That’s just not the old school British wargaming culture. It’s also why GW doesn’t write super tight rules. They’ve been told they should but just don’t feel it critical. It’s not how they look at the game and most of them wish the rest of the world would come around and enjoy the hobby rather than trying to boil down the exact implications of a single word in a sentence. Folks these people don’t WRITE the rules that tightly for, what is to them, a good reason. I don’t personally agree with that stance, but then no one asked me did they?

There were always elements of GW (almost all of them NOT in the design studio I should mention) who didn’t really like outside playtesting. It’s one reason that GW was always so tense over data leaks – even though virtually all of the leaks were eventually traced to their own employees. There was always a fear that such a leak could kill the program or severely hamper it. Eventually a combination of things altered the program enough that my own involvement was greatly reduced. In many ways this is a good thing for me as I don’t have the time I once did for such things.

So playtest was really very simple and in general fairly effective during the time that the Techpriests were really active. Grab the newest playtest version of the ‘dex, make some lists, go play some games, write some reports. Nothing fancy. Nothing tin-foil hat. Nothing kooky. No strange ‘playtest’ army. Just grab one of your usual forces and try it against the new list someone put up. Write up how the game went and send it in. Sometimes these games would result in changes, sometimes they didn’t and, in fairness, sometimes they couldn’t.

Nowadays, while I hear there is still some playtesting done, it seems a fair bit less formal again. It also doesn’t seem to be as vigorous (Doom of Malantai anyone?) that or GW isn’t listening to its playtesters when they do offer critique. I know that on the couple of projects I have been contacted on in the ‘recent’ past (recent being in the last year or so) the feedback and commentary has been extremely informal. I can’t speak for others and their experiences but I can say that most of the products I’ve seen in playtest have been much better when released. This won’t solely by the folks doing playtest as GW does its own thing internally too. However, as I’ve mentioned, there are times that GW quite simply doesn’t listen – no matter how many times playtesters give them feedback sometimes they simply take the position of ‘This is our job, and you’re just a volunteer and we’re doing it.’ That last can be very disheartening particularly when you KNOW that what GW is going to do isn’t going to be a good thing for the hobby – but they go and do it anyway.

In fairness to GW, this isn’t always because the design team WANTS it that way. GW is a publicly traded company and it is run by suits who have sometimes said and done utterly moronic things. I don’t KNOW how much impact that has on the studio – they were always professional and fairly close-mouthed about such matters but there was this ‘feeling’ you’d get. Little things. Hints, turns of phrase, that would lead you to believe that this or that particular bit of foolishness had come down from on high and those in the studio were being told to shut up and soldier. I work in a corporate environment and the signs were all there.

Remember that GW’s goal is very much to create a good hobby experience. This is, after all, what puts food on their tables and pays their mortgages but, just as important, it’s also a hobby and universe that they themselves love as much as we do. You just don’t write the kind of quality background and fiction we see without their being real passion in the mix. This isn’t just and solely a job for them. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have some yutz suit come down from on – high and create a disaster, but it’s not the goal. The goal is to write cool, fun ‘dexes that everyone can enjoy.

So hopefully that takes a little bit of the mystery out of GW’s playtesting. Keep in mind my experiences are a bit out of date and things may have changed yet again of late – I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that while it occasionally felt a bit Machiavellian, it was never terribly mysterious.