Sunday, February 13, 2011

How NOT to deal with criticism

Indie game developer Jeff Vogel is pretty good at writing controversial blog posts. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to personally controvert one of his recent dispatches, titled Three Reasons Creators Should Never Read Their Forums. The actual post is more tempered than its title, but I still found plenty to disagree with (even though I realize I don't have the fabled "15 years of indie game development experience"). Here's a taste of his argument:
When I read the forums for, say, World of Warcraft or xkcd, I'm always amazed at how nasty things get. It makes me think, "If you hate it so much, why are you there?" But that's just the way it is, and excess exposure to insults can really get under your skin, make you doubt yourself, and interfere with your work. It's very sad, but you sometimes need to just protect yourself by staying away. Keep your brain clean.
I think this paints an accurate picture of what it feels like to receive criticism. Player feedback can be either affirming or demoralizing, but the latter variety often has a much bigger impact. I think this is especially true in modding, where you aren't charging or being paid for your creation. While making the mod is often fun, finishing it is often work, and the positive feedback you get from players is a small compensation for the long hours you put in fixing bugs, tweaking combat balance, and performing all the other tedious finishing touches. Therefore, when the mod is finally released and you get a negative comment - particularly if roughly delivered - it can easily get under your skin.

However, disengaging your audience is not the answer. It may be good for your psyche, but it will also embolden your critics to know that the person they're slamming isn't around to defend themselves. You don't need years of game development experience to understand this. You just need life experience.

There's a reason Bioware has an army of fan-boys and -girls ready to pounce on anyone who posts a negative comment on their forums: People like David Gaider show up. And not just to accept praise, but often to respond directly to complaints. They essentially say, if you're going to criticize me, you're going to do it to my face. This discourages harsh criticism and promotes an atmosphere of (at times sickening) admiration.

But even if you don't aspire to have your own online sycophants, listening to criticism is worthwhile. Not all negative feedback is abusive, and the thoughtful critiques of your work can make you a better designer. Heck, even the not-so-thoughtful remarks can spark revelations, especially if the same point keeps coming up.

Vogel argues that he gets feedback from a hand-picked group whose opinions he respects. The problem with this is that - whether we realize it or not - we tend to respect the opinions of those who agree with us. Feedback from like-minded people can be very valuable, and it's always encouraging when they recognize the smaller design decisions that go unnoticed by others. However, assuming you aren't making your games for only that small group of like-minded people, you need feedback from actual players as well.

The thing about criticism is that you're free to do whatever you want with it. Most of it - perhaps the vast majority you get from players - you can simply discard as not being valid. Some other complaints may not seem valid, but the effort to "fix" the issue is so minimal that you do it anyway. And then there's the small-but-important amount of feedback that changes your thinking.

In my experience, which is admittedly limited, it's not often that players convince me I'm wrong about a design decision. There's not a sudden realization that my logic was bad, and that I should have been doing something differently all along. Instead, it's more the case that I keep my own opinions and perspective, but also gain an understanding of how someone else experiences things. In other words, it's about empathizing with the player. Something you can't do if you're not listening.


  1. I think its easier to take criticism from someone you have a relationship with and isn't just a random person on the internet.

    Plus some people on the internet are just chaotic jerks. They ruin it for everybody.

  2. Yeah, it's unfortunate, but if you put yourself out there, you're going to encounter a jerk or two. I still think you can cut down on bad behavior by being present, however. A lot of those people are cowards who don't like being challenged (then again, there are others who like the attention, I suppose).

    Of course, if you're a modder who makes games purely for your own enjoyment and you don't want to put up with drive-by internet criticism, then that's your prerogative. My post really applies to professionals, aspiring professionals, and people who just want to improve their games.

  3. The people I'm talking about love to be challenged. Its provocation not criticism. Probably isn't what you are talking about really. Its just something on message boards too.

    What do you think about metrics? I remember bioware getting them from Mass Effect. They sound like they would be easier to get information from then message boards.

  4. I think metrics provide hard data on player behavior, which is obviously better than random opinions collected from internet forums (which may not be representative at all). So where you have access to metrics - which obviously doesn't apply to modders - yeah, go with that info.

    Still not a complete substitute, though, because metrics will only reveal so much (and of course, they do nothing for the PR side of it). Also, I would imagine the informal feedback from forums could direct you in which metrics to capture. For example, if people are complaining about potions being ineffective, you could start tracking potion usage. On the other hand, if you already know that potions aren't being used (due to your metrics), the informal feedback could provide clues as to why.

    If I were a pro game designer, I would love to have the information from metrics. However, the thing that worries me is that they will fall into the wrong hands and/or be misinterpreted. They could be used to dictate design decisions from higher-up, especially in such a risk-averse business. I fear some gung-ho development manager saying "Hey, no one used potions in our last game, so we're not going to waste time implementing them this time." It reminds me of the test-screening they do for movies, which results in happy-crappy endings for every Hollywood movie.