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Feedback Cycle, Part Two: Taking Criticism

If you’ve ever been involved with an online community where people discuss their creative work, you know that the process of giving and receiving criticism is a minefield. It’s taken as a given that evaluating someone’s work will lead to a rancorous argument, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Feedback Cycle is a two-part essay about how to navigate this process. The first part was focused on giving criticism. The second part is focused on taking criticism.

You Will be Judged

People pay a lot of attention to how developers react to criticism of their work and that means a lot can be riding on how you respond to a tough review. You will be judged by your reaction and if you’re too defensive or angry, you’ll be judged harshly. You might say this is unfair and I agree, it is unfair. In a fair arrangement, everyone would play the game and then look at the reviewer’s assertion and come up with their own conclusions. But that’s not what happens. No matter how justified you may feel in hulking out over a bad review, most people will write you off as someone who can’t take any criticism. You’ve got to tread carefully and I have a few points that will hopefully help. The most important is to remember that you have the power in this situation.

What do I mean by that? You can’t stop a bad review from coming and you can’t stop other people from agreeing, but you still have sole authority on what changes in your game. Sometimes I think people feel like they have to abide by whatever someone suggests that they do, but no criticism is a mandate. Like I said in the first half, you do not have to convince anyone to keep your game the way it is. They must convince you to change it. Not that you need to rub this is anyone’s face or anything, but it helps you keep perspective. You are free to reject any criticism for any reason, although you may not want to rush it, because…

Good Criticism Will Sink In

The time you least want to hear criticism is right after you’ve finished a game. This is unfortunate because that is when you will likely receive the most. You’re still high from the rush of creation and the satisfaction of finishing something that the worst thing is for some know-it-all to come along and spoil the party. We’ve all been there. However, good criticism has a tendency to sink in after some time has passed. Once more time has passed, it’s common to look back on complaints and realize that they actually make a lot of sense, even if you really didn’t want to hear it at the time.

If you’re in this state, don’t respond yet.

That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to respond to a critic right after you’ve read the review. You’re still feeling defensive and that will show. Give yourself a day or two to cool off and think about your reply. It would be nice to wait longer, but eventually it will look like you’re ignoring the feedback and people really can’t stand that. Alternatively, you can start crafting your response immediately to get your feelings out, but don’t make it public until you’ve had time to think about it more. You’ll likely tone down the intensity of your comments once you’ve had time to think things over. When you are ready, here’s some more specific pointers.

  • There is no “playing it wrong.” I’ve seen people fall into this trap many times. A critic has a hard time grasping the mechanics of the game, finds it too difficult, and the developer responds by accusing them of “playing it wrong.” This approach is dead on arrival. If a newcomer to the game can’t figure out an effective way to progress, that’s a serious issue. We know everything about our games and the best strategy but other people haven’t been living in our heads. We need to make sure that enough information is conveyed to the player for them to be able to get through the game.
  • Know the difference between an opinion and an inaccuracy. In one review of an RPG I made a few years ago, the critic said he “hated the battle music.” This was an inaccurate statement. The problem was not that he didn’t like the game’s music, that can’t be helped. The issue was that “battle music,” which is understood as a song used specifically for battles, didn’t exist in my game. I’ve always felt it was more immersive to have the music for whatever location the player was exploring also used for the battles in that area. So there was no real “battle music.” It was a surprising mistake and I still don’t know exactly how it happened. Opinions should be respected, inaccuracies should not. Feel free to correct the record in the case of an objective error (gently, of course).
  • Ask questions. Are you unsure what someone meant? Do you need more details to figure out a problem someone has brought up? Don’t be afraid to ask for more information. People will appreciate that their words are being considered and will likely be happy to elaborate.
  • Don’t use the B-word. Not the B-word you’re thinking of, although that ‘s a bad idea too. I mean “bias” or any other suggestion that the review is lacking in integrity. Even if you suspect this might be true, talk it over with the administrators of whatever site hosts the review rather than make it public. To most people, this looks like you’re just trying to take away from whatever flaws the game has. Also, as a public service grammar announcement, when someone has a bias they are “biased” not just “bias.”
  • Caps Lock. For the love of God, turn it off.

I hope this two-part series has given some insight to both reviewers and developers. We’re all at our best when we’re communicating well with each other. Are they any points I’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!

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