Lately I have been working on multiple new games. And whenever you are working on games, of course, you get people to try them, and a lot of them don’t like what they see.
I’ve gotten a lot of criticism over the years, and I haven’t always taken it the right way. These days, criticism comes from all directions, and work is often shared before it’s really done. It can be hard to know what to listen to and when to stick to your guns.
Ultima Online is a Hall of Fame game. It averaged 6/10 in reviews. Star Wars Galaxies got a famously mixed reception, and closed down a while back; I still get fan mail.
So here’s my takeaways from all those years of being told that my work sucks:
Everyone who dislikes your work is right.
This is the hardest pill to swallow. I’ve never gotten a piece of feedback that was wrong. You see, you can’t deny a player their unique experience.
Whatever they felt, was true. For them. And something in your work triggered it.
It is useless, and worse, actually self-defeating, to attempt to deny the critique. Sure, there are sometimes reviews that seem spiteful, unfair, and the rest. But the vast majority of the time, people are giving their honest reaction.
And the bottom line is, you put the game out there in order to get reactions. If it were not for reactions, you could have just kept the game in your drawer and gotten everything you needed out of it.
The criticism that is useful is that which helps you do it better.
People make games for different reasons. Some do it just because it is fun. Some do it as a form of personal expression. Some have a message to get across, and some are out to make money to put food on the table.
Whatever your goal is, doing it better is held in common. That sense of craftsmanship is the common ground that unites us all. Do what you do better, serve the work better, and you get to do it again.
That means there are two aspects of your work that you want to hear about the most. What you did right, and what you did wrong.
All our babies seem perfect until that first player touches them. We have to learn they are not. Nothing is. People who point out flaws are just pointing out reality. If you can’t see the flaws in your own work, you probably need to get some distance. You can’t do your best work if you cannot get that distance, because you will learn to gloss over problems. It is amazing how they will vanish into a blind spot.
In my case, I often have to leave stuff sit for a long time. A year, or more. The fastest way to short-circuit this process is to stand behind someone who tries to play my game, and shut up and say nothing. It’s awesome: suddenly everything in it sucks! Then I furiously take notes.
The fact is that to do creative work is to know that most of what you do is shit. And we feel that way because we know we can do better. Honestly, if you aren’t pushing the boundaries of what you can do, you’re probably not working hard enough. And working at the edge means a lot of screw-ups.
You often have to choose between your ideals and your message.
One of the commonest pieces of feedback I get is that I am choosing some philosophical ideal over the player’s experience. It might be getting wedded to an aesthetic or visual I love that is just confusing the issue. It might be sticking with PvP for too long in order to serve an ideal of virtual citizenship, not paying attention to how many players are being chased out of the game.
The irony here, of course, is that if I can’t make the player’s experience positive enough, my ideal is failing to reach them anyway. And what good is it then?
It doesn’t mean I have to give up on the philosophical ideal. But it does mean that there are many many ways to compromise, and not all of them leave you compromised. In fact, being uncompromising may be the least successful way to achieve your artistic goal.
You have to dig to get the gold.
Most feedback you get isn’t going to be from fellow practitioners. Even when it is, they are not going to know as much about the specific ways in which you did things, the tools you used, the practices you follow, to be able to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong without a pretty deep dive.
This means that usually, when someone tells you that something is wrong or broken, it’s going to be wrong. But wrong in the sense that it will be imprecise. You need to find out what the problem is underlying the problem. In other words, the symptoms described will almost always be right, and the diagnosis will often be wrong.
Don’t discard the feedback because of this. Look at it as a door you need to push on. Dig deeper and find out what the real issue is.
Good feedback is detailed.
Sometimes you get a piece of feedback that is highly specific. It offers alternate word choices. It tells you the basics like you’re an idiot. It offers suggestions that are likely things you considered and discarded. It rewrites the plot for you. It feels like a rug burn: condescending, a checklist of everything wrong. You walk away feeling like this is the worst feedback ever.
It isn’t, though. It’s the best.
Look past what may feel like condescension. This sort of detail is impossible for someone who has not engaged fully with your work. The sign of a critic who does not care is brevity, not detail. It’s dismissal.
Now, all the other caveats about whether or not this feedback is right still apply. It can be detailed and not right. But never dismiss serious thought.
People who tell you you’re awesome are useless. No, dangerous.
They are worse than useless because you want to believe them. They will defend you against critiques that are valid. They will seduce you into believing you are done learning, or into thinking that your work is better than it actually is. Especially watch out for the ones who tell you that nobody understands your genius.
Honestly, this is going to sound horrible, but self-doubt is one of your most powerful tools for craftsmanship. None of the designers you admire feel self-confident about their work in that way. None of them think that they are awesome. They all suffer from impostor complexes the size of the Titanic.
I am not saying that you need to lack confidence in yourself. (Heck, you’ll never put anything out if that’s the case! You need to have the arrogance to assume anyone will care in the first place). I am saying that nobody is ever done learning, and people who tell you you have arrived will give you a sense of complacency. You should never be complacent about your art.
Someone asked for feedback will always find something wrong.
This is super simple. When someone is asked to critique something, they will feel like they have failed if they don’t find something wrong. So everyone will always find something, even if there’s nothing major to fix.
That doesn’t mean that the thing they mention is wrong. If the only feedback you get from multiple people is the same minor thing, you should feel pretty good!
Good work may not have an audience.
This is a sad truth. There is no correlation between quality and popularity. You may make something that is sophisticated, subtle, expressive, brilliant, and lose out to what is shallow and facile and brash. Oh well. And that really is the right attitude to have about it, too: oh well.
Getting bitter about it is pointless.
That said, don’t underestimate the skill required in being simple, polished, and accessible. Dense and rich is easy. Simple is hard. You denigrate “pop” at your peril.
Any feedback that comes with suggestions for improvement is awesome.
That’s because it means the person offering the criticism actually thought about your goals. So either you get avenues to explore that assist you in your artistic goal, or you get told that your goal is invisible to an audience! Both are highly valuable information.
If you agree with the criticism, say “thank you.” If you disagree, say “fair enough,” and “thank you."
Complaining about a critique, or about a bad review, is utterly pointless. You can’t deny the subjective experience of the reviewer. You also have to be thankful that they paid enough attention to actually say anything at all. The fact is that indifference is the enemy, not engagement, even if that engagement doesn’t get the results you want.
You’re going to face way more indifference in your career than anything else. There are a lot of people out there working really hard, and they all want the audience attention that you do. Always be grateful for the attention. Someone takes the time to let you know what they thought? That’s already one in a thousand. They cared.
You are not your work.
Above all, don’t forget this. Oh, be personally invested, of course. Your art will be poorer if you are not. But every little ship we launch is just our imperfect crafting of the moment. And we move on. We create again, and again. Each can only ever express a fragment, a tiny fraction of ourselves. And if you are trying to always improve in your craft and your art, then every old fragment, everything out there in the world already, that’s old news. You are on the next thing. Your next work, that’s who you are. Not the work that exists, but the work that does not yet.
So if someone savages it, who cares? That was yesterday. It’s not who you are now.
Hold on to that, because a lot of people can’t separate the work from the artist. Including a lot of artists.
That’s all I’ve got.
And really, this post is as much for myself as it is for anyone else. Because we all need reminding.