When someone has something negative to say about you, how do you react? Do you get upset and argue, or do you ignore them? How about keeping your head down and letting them have a field day? If you’ve been put in this position as a developer, you should know that the right protocol for this is a little different, if not humbling. As it turns out, the best way to handle criticism is to tell people they’re right when they’re right. If they’re not, find a compromise. Otherwise, know when to let go.
But the devil is in the details. Not only is the human ego a complex force that makes you want to defend yourself, it’s also a matter of knowing what to do when. When is it time to cave and give players something they want, and how should one go about it?
Walk the Tightrope
First and foremost, while it might be instinctual to defend your views, opinions, and, yes, your game, there are times when everyone’s opinion is entirely different than yours.
For instance, Hello Games will forever be known as the studio that failed to deliver on their promises. When the accusations of false advertising began flying, things got a little heated for the games studio. Steam received 23 complaints about roughly 10 different features that were promised, but not delivered, based on the ads for No Man’s Sky.
In response, Hello Games defended themselves saying the game was procedurally generated, hence why it didn’t exactly match the ads.
“This computer process embodied algorithms that determined, for example, the probability of a player encountering a creature with a particular physiology, exhibiting a particular behavior or existing in a particular habitat.”
Of course, this was the response to the Advertising Standards Authority, or ASA. Publicly, however, they acknowledged players by stating:
“The discussion around No Man’s Sky since release has been intense and dramatic . . . Positive or negative feedback, you have been heard and that will truly help to make this a better game for everyone.”
Hello Games is the perfect example of what to do. You may not agree with the lawsuit results or stand behind their game, but the team knew how to keep their heads down and take it. They knew they hadn’t delivered, but they still took pride in their work. And that meant both defending their game to the ASA and also letting players know they were heard.
Never Resort to Name-calling, or Worse
Here’s another tip: Never go against your player base. Without them, you are nothing, and you will accomplish nothing. They are the ones who pay your salary, your bills, and even basic household items like Windex and laundry detergent. The only reason why there’s a roof above your head—unless you have a day job—is because people out there love the games you put out.
As an example of what happens when you don’t adhere to this warning, consider Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford. When Aliens: Colonial Marines came out, it was also accused of false advertising, but rather than simply tell players they were being heard, he called them “sadists.”
This set the tone for his public image, so when Gearbox put out Battleborn, right around the time that Blizzard’s fan favorite Overwatch launched, things didn’t go so well. The servers are now a desolate wasteland, and Pitchford has been accused of desperation after having the brilliant idea of linking to a Battleborn NSFW Reddit thread from his official Twitter account.
In other words, never criticize your players, and never link to strange NSFW sites from your official account in the hopes of getting more players for your game. Don’t call people names, because the minute you do, you’ll find yourself desperate for players to replace the ones you just lost.
Listen & Update What You Can
There are many ways to handle criticism, most of which are horrible. For instance, you could talk back, but even worse still is not listening. Why? Because when you talk back, yes it’s awful and don’t do it, but . . . it at least shows you heard the players. You acknowledged them, even. On the other hand, when you don’t say anything on the matter, and you don’t indicate that you’ve listened, players begin to wonder if you even care.
Consider Blizzard for a second. The studio is known for amazing games like the entire Diablo series, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch to name a few. Their game merchandising is great, their marketing is great, and their games are addictive.
For instance, World of Warcraft players who played during Vanilla days were annoyed over gear collections. There was limited bank space, and a set of gear was about 9 slots. To help with the issue, Blizzard added void storage, which didn’t help as much as it seems like it would. Banks were overflowing! If players wanted to transmog anything, they needed to have it in their inventories. Considering they are on season 21 of PVP gear alone, it makes sense why players were so upset.
After years of complaining, Blizzard finally added the option to simply vendor all the gear, and still be able to transmogify.
“It’s exceptionally rare that everyone wants the same thing. And even then, there is a large silent majority that does not post on forums. If there were actual unanimity regarding a certain issue, we would change our design: For example, early on in Warlords, we changed Group Finder loot from Personal back to Need/Greed until we could iterate on Personal loot further, and the community overwhelmingly told us that was a dumb idea. The change was reverted within 2 days.”
And while he made some valid points, the players will always view it as a disregard for their wants and needs, simply because the company cannot appeal to everyone all the time. The game is just too huge. No single portion of the game, aside from the leveling system is for everyone. Raids and PVP aren’t for everyone. Some updates cater to these groups, while others handle entirely different aspects of the game.
In other words, listen to the players as best as you can, and if you still get slack, at least explain why it is you can’t possibly appeal to everyone. There is give and take, especially in a large game.
Learn from Feedback
A long time ago, during The Witcher 2 days, CD Projekt Red took a stance on piracy. They sent out letters threatening legal action unless the individuals suspected ceased.
That’s right, suspected. The letters were sent out to people they believed were guilty of pirating games.
That being said, after being called out for it, the company quickly saw the error of its ways. Studio co-founder Marcin Iwinski famously stated:
“Being part of a community is a give-and-take process. We only succeed because you have faith in us, and we have worked hard over the years to build up that trust. We were sorry to see that many gamers felt that our actions didn’t respect the faith that they have put into CD Projekt RED.”
The studio puts out its games DRM-free and deals with the consequences, since they don’t believe it has any effect on piracy reduction. Instead, they simply ask that players be vigilant on their behalf.
Never Tease or Lead People On
You simply can’t make this point without bringing up Half-Life 3. The Valve team hasn’t made the game, and they claim the won’t make it ever, but hardcore fans still want it. The setup is there, the perfect ending that set the tone for a game that will never see the light of day.
And whether it’s people trolling online for the sake of amusement, reading into things, or something more substantial, there are tons of rumors circulating this seemingly at all times. That there are 2-3 people working on it, that they’ve run into a way, that the project was scrapped, that they can’t find inspiration, etc..
Perhaps it’s just that Valve has led people on a bit. Managing director Gabe Newell stated this in August of 2007:
“We know how the trilogy ends and there’s a bunch of loose ends and narrative arcs that need to come to a conclusion in Episode Three.”
In 2009, he also stated that they were creating it. Then there was a shift. In 2011, he said he had nothing to say on the subject, and in 2013 he stated something completely unimaginable to die-hard fans of the series:
“I don’t know this man at all.”
This of course, refers to himself, back in 2009 – 2011, when he was still open to creating the game.
And this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nicknamed “Gaben” there are now song remixes and mash-ups of his commentary all over YouTube. Countless memes at Newell’s expense fill the internet in waves every month, consistently calling him out on his inability to deliver on his promise.
Much like men and women who mislead potential romantic interests are called terrible, it’s never good news when developers tease players with something that will never be created. Unless you absolutely know for sure, don’t even mention it. This fuels rumors, hurts the fans, makes you look unreliable, and makes everyone wonder “well, why not?” Dealing with the backlash is a lose-lose setup, where the only way out is to actually create the game. Unless you plan on doing that, there’s no realistic way of coming out of a situation like this unscathed. You will be criticized, and nothing you say will save you. It’s a mess that can be perfectly avoided.
Study Your Market’s Demands
Gaming giant Nintendo will forever be a favorite. Older generations of gamers got to experience the beginning of the video game chapter for the company with their NES, Game Boy, and famous VHS tapes, and well, it’s enough to say it’s led to a collection addiction.
Speaking of which, even fan favorites make mistakes. In Nintendo’s case, it’s the repeated under-stock of their items. The latest issue has been with the Amiibo figures, which brought down GameStop’s website. Before that, it was an under-stock on NES Classics, which has now been discontinued. In a statement with Time, Reggie Fils-Aime, President and Chief Operating Officer of Nintendo of America explained that,
“From our perspective, it’s important to recognize where our future is and the key areas that we need to drive. We’ve got a lot going on right now and we don’t have unlimited resources.”
In further announcements, it quickly became clear that the company originally intended to sell it only for the 2016 holiday season, something they didn’t explain until April 2017. The NES Classic, which included 30 NES games for $59.99, launched worldwide in mid-November and instantly sold out. And while they continued production for a few months, it didn’t prove to be lasting.
Nintendo has been under fire over this under-stocking issue for quite some time now. Some players even accuse the company of doing it on purpose so that the eBay demand of their items reaches unparalleled levels.
And while the company does apologize for their shortages each time that it occurs, the truth is nothing changes. The same thing happens next time around, and they’re forced to apologize again.
If there’s anything to learn from this, it’s that you should absolutely study your fan base. The entire market, really. When you create a product, find out what your target audience thinks about it and listen to them. If they love it, make more. If they love everything you do, make more than you think you’ll need. It’s better to be safe, than to have scalpers benefit off of your merchandise. It’s better to meet demand, than to apologize every time you launch something. No repeat offenses!
Don’t Lose Your Own Voice
Say what you will about game developer David Jaffe, best known for his work on the Twisted Metal series, as well as God of War and most recently Drawn to Death. The Alabama native gets a lot of slack for being vocal about his opinions regarding all sorts of industry controversies, but at least he voices his opinions.
This is Jaffe in a nutshell: he’s honest. When he does something wrong, he fully admits to it. When he’s under-performed, he admits he could do better. But when someone, like say Ready at Dawn, the developers behind The Order 1886 are being attacked, he’s the first to play devil’s advocate. Who’s to blame, is it the media for being too harsh, or are they just doing their job?
Jaffe does interviews and has a YouTube channel for his studio, The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, in which he voices more opinions. He also voices them on Twitter, and has yet to understand why on earth anyone follows him, let alone is intrigued by what he has to say. But each time he posts something, or gets featured, he’s honest about everything. He fully admitted he didn’t know the market when his team launched Calling All Cars, and that the game didn’t do as well as they had thought it would.
In other words, David Jaffe has a reputation for being a potty-mouthed, bad boy in development, but… all he does is be himself. When his games don’t so well, he says so. When he talks about other people’s games, he’s honest. But that’s the thing, he doesn’t get angry when people tear him to shreds online, because he’s capable of taking a punch. He’s confident in himself, and he voices his opinions, but he keeps it at that—opinions. While he backs up what he has to say, he never actually imposes it all on people. He simply puts it out there for anyone who might be interested in hearing what he has to say.
For an indie developer, this is a bit extreme still. Don’t be like David Jaffe, but be Jaffe. Take a punch and admit your faults when it’s proven you did poorly. But never lose your ability to keep being you, with your own thoughts and opinions. As long as you don’t enforce them on anyone, having a voice helps you stay true in an industry that is hellbent on breaking creativity.
It’s All About Balance
Being a game developer isn’t just about making games, it’s about managing a public image. The way you react to criticism says a lot about you as a person, and will always be noted. This is why it’s important to keep being authentically you, for the sake of sanity, while aiming for professionalism.
Know when to keep your head down, but keep a sense of pride in your work. Don’t name-call or link to anything eye-brow raising out of desperation. Don’t tease the players with projects that will never see the light of day.
Instead, learn from feedback, update what you can, explain yourself, and study your market. Aim to be the best developer you can be, and maintain an image that is respectful of the players.
This doesn’t mean you have to lose your voice. Keep being authentically you, and keep putting out more games. Balance humility with confidence by never being egotistical.
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