INDIE GAME DEV: GETTING FEEDBACK
During the course of making and releasing a game, you'll receive feedback from various sources and it's not always clear what to do with that information. In this article, I'll offer a framework for thinking about feedback and some suggestions on what to do with it.
Getting feedback is useful in any artform, but you could maybe argue that it's extra important in video games because of their interactivity. Someone may not understand the meaning behind a painting, book, or movie, but it’s pretty hard to soft-lock them! Interactivity also adds so many more possibilities... in a game, each individual player could have a wildly different experience.
When I first started on this article about feedback, I didn’t think it was going to be that long, but the more I wrote, the more came to mind. It’s a surprisingly tricky and expansive topic, that not only touches on marketing (a whole can of worms in and of itself), but also the complicated relationships between artist and audience, games and "fun", etc. Everyone brings their own unique experiences and expectations about games when they give feedback and it can often be contradictory. Who should you listen to?
As with anything else, there isn’t one right way to handle feedback about your game. What I will try to do here is provide a framework for thinking about feedback, based on my experiences and what I’ve seen of others over the years.
WHAT IS FEEDBACK FOR?
1. Improving the Game
The most obvious reason to get feedback is to see how players feel about the game and make adjustments to improve the experience for them. But how you prioritize such feedback should depend a lot on the source of the feedback, as well as the quantity of it. We’ll discuss this more below because it’s such an important point.
2. Helping You View the Game From Different Perspectives
Game development requires very detailed, focused work to solve various problems, but at regular intervals you’ll want to step back, look at the game as a whole, and reprioritize. It’s easier said than done, however, especially if you haven't finished many games before. Setting aside some time for feedback is a good way to force yourself to think about your project from a zoomed out perspective, since people outside your team will be experiencing it, possibly for the first time.
For example, releasing a trailer will force you to clean up a few areas of the game to show off. Or if you plan a playtesting session, it may require you to implement working menus and fix that one bug that you know how to avoid but new players won’t. Whatever part of the game you’ve been ignoring will have to be worked on until it reaches a baseline level of functionality.
Motivation is a resource that gets easily depleted, especially in the middle of a project, when the initial excitement has worn off and it feels like progress has slowed down (I call this "the Swamp"). You may start to lose sense of your game’s overall vision and direction. In this situation, it’s helpful to "break the seal" and let the outside world into the project a little bit. Positive feedback obviously feels good and is motivating for that reason, but sometimes negative feedback can be, too, because it can give you some specific goals to work towards.
At some point, you may have to rescope your project. Usually, this involves making the project smaller, since it’s easier to be overambitious than under-ambitious when it comes to game development. Feedback can help you make these decisions. Depending on how your game is received, you may want to scale down and try to release earlier.
SYMPATHETIC AND UNSYMPATHETIC FEEDBACK
The way you evaluate feedback depends a lot on where the feedback comes from. I’ve found it helpful over the years to split feedback into sympathetic and unsympathetic categories. Both are useful, but in different ways.
Sympathetic feedback comes from friends, family, other creators, and most face-to-face interactions (like people playing your game at a convention). The more someone is personally connected to you and your game, the more sympathetic the feedback tends to be. Talking to someone in person is usually more sympathetic than an email, which is more sympathetic than a random comment under an article about your game. Sympathetic feedback is especially good for motivation.
Unsympathetic feedback comes from sources that are removed from you personally. It’s the comments under the article, or the YouTube trailer, or in discussions that you're not a part of... the further away it is from you, the more unsympathetic it will be. This type of feedback is unfiltered and better represents the general public that will receive your game once it's released. Unsympathetic feedback is what you should be looking at pre-release to estimate how large your potential audience is and make decisions involving your business (like whether to rescope your project).
One of the main differences between the two types of feedback is that sympathetic feedback assumes your game will be a success at some baseline level - it merely seeks to help you improve on that success. So while it's motivating and may offer useful criticism, it’s generally not the best indicator of how well your game will eventually do sales-wise. In other words, sympathetic feedback won't really tell you if it thinks your game is going to be too niche to sustain a living.
THE CON EFFECT
The UFO 50 booth at PAX West 2018.
I’d like to point out one type of sympathetic feedback specifically, and that’s feedback from people who play your game at a convention. For one thing, it might not be obvious that this feedback is sympathetic, since it comes from strangers. Face-to-face feedback is generally sympathetic, though - it’s not easy to tell someone directly to their face that you don’t like their game (at least, I hope it's not)!
Also, convention attendees are very much primed to have a good time previewing games. It’s a positive, social environment that’s very different from the one that your actual audience will be in when they’re deciding whether or not they want to buy your game. For example, local multiplayer games are often the most popular games at conventions, but they can struggle with players at home who are looking for online options and longer-form single-player experiences.
Showing your game at a convention can certainly be worth it, but not for the obvious reasons. In my opinion, they’re only so-so for marketing and finding an audience - you can reach a lot more people for less time and money by releasing a nice trailer. Where I think conventions shine are in networking (with media, fans, and other developers) and motivation (there’s nothing like getting together with your team and seeing happy groups of friends and family playing your game in person). Preparing your game for a convention is also a great way to force yourself to look at the game from a zoomed out view.
WHEN TO ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Any time you put out something public-facing for your game, you’ll get feedback. So there’s some "built-in" feedback during the natural process of developing a game. When you announce your game or put out a gameplay trailer, you will hear from potential players leaving comments, discussing the game with each other, and possibly reaching out to you with their thoughts.
Another good time to get feedback is when you’re feeling demotivated or just plain lost about the direction of your game. It often happens when you’ve been focusing on something for a while and lose sight of the bigger picture. A small playtesting session can help you zoom out and figure out what your next steps should be. But again, be mindful that the feedback you get will be sympathetic and not necessarily indicative of your eventual sales. It’s also easy to get stuck in a loop of doing a little work, getting a small rush from some positive feedback, doing a little more work, getting more feedback, etc. At some point, you game needs to metaphorically leave the house and get released (even if it's scary, which it is!).
In between, you’ll probably (but not necessarily) want to solicit feedback directly. A good time is before you show off your game to the public - get some feedback from people around you to see what you could improve. Keep in mind that that feedback will be sympathetic and may not line up with feedback from random internet users. Still, it will get you out of your own head and give you some things to work on!
As you gain more experience as a game developer, you may feel more confident to go longer stretches without feedback, trusting in your intuition. This can make your game feel personal and unique in a way that is difficult to achieve if your game is directed too much by outside feedback.
With Early Access, you can put an unfinished, alpha version of your game on sale. It’s a way to get funding, feedback, and motivation before a game is finished and I think it works best for games that require an especially long development cycle and have a lot of fiddly, hard-to-balance components. These types of games not only benefit most from player feedback, but they're also more likely to attract a big audience during the Early Access period. Genre examples include roguelikes, RPGs, simulations, and strategy games. Games that are focused around multiplayer competition, especially online, are also good candidates for EA.
You should expect to get a lot of feedback during Early Access, since you'll have paying customers. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, since it adds quite a bit of extra work replying, updating, and laying out roadmaps. And unlike a private beta, it’s not easy to "turn off" once it’s started. It can also feel creatively restrictive, since there's added pressure to "listen to the players" before the game is finished, and they may not necessarily share your vision for it.
That said, there are plenty of success stories among games that fit the criteria for EA well. You’ll have to decide if, for your project and personality, the pros outweigh the cons. Even if you release your game normally, you will still get feedback and be expected to patch your game to a lesser degree.
LOOK AT FEEDBACK FOR SIMILAR GAMES
Feedback for already released games that are in the same genres can be really helpful, too. In particular, I think Steam reviews have improved a lot over the years and now you can easily find detailed reviews from players that have put in hundreds of hours into the games they're reviewing. You can get a sense for what players of the genre are looking for and what could be improved, as well as how popular the genre is overall. Also pay attention to aesthetics (art and music) and how those resonate with reviewers.
Official reviews from professional critics are also important, but keep in mind that, like game developers, they approach games in a unique way and their tastes can differ (sometimes drastically) from your average player. Despite their influence, game developers and journalists make up only a small portion of your potential audience - there are plenty of examples of games that are critically-acclaimed but sell poorly. On the flip side, there are plenty of games that are quietly doing numbers, without much recognition from press or other game developers. So as with any of these groups, you’ll want to evaluate professional feedback as part of a larger overall picture.
EVALUATING FEEDBACK FROM MARKETING
Feedback from marketing is generally unsympathetic and you want to be looking at the volume of the feedback as well as the content. In my opinion, a LOW VOLUME of positive feedback is worse (from a financial perspective) than a HIGH VOLUME of mixed feedback. Low volume indicates nicheness: there is something fundamental about your game that is making it hard to capture the general audience’s attention. On the other hand, negative comments mean "I’m interested, but I don’t like XYZ". XYZ is easier to evaluate and make changes to than fundamental nicheness.
When faced with low volume of feedback, a lot of developers instinctively feel like they need to spend longer on development, but I think it makes more sense to scale down and try to release sooner. Issues with the fundamental aesthetic or core game systems are very hard to fix and the time is better spent elsewhere. On the chance that your game has a larger audience than the feedback indicated, you can expand the game post-release or even begin work on a sequel.
If you get a high volume of feedback, great! I wouldn’t necessarily suggest scaling up, but it’s a good indicator that added features, polish, and marketing will make more of a difference on your sales, because they’ll be multiplied across a larger audience.
EVALUATING FEEDBACK FROM PLAYTESTING
1. Think about the source of the feedback.
How literate is this playtester in the genre you're working in or in video games period? Are they in the audience you're targeting? Categorizing your playtesters may help you come to conclusions like, "Players who are unfamiliar with the genre are having trouble getting out of the starting area".
2. How much of this feedback are you getting?
Every player has their own personality, playstyle, skill level, and reason for playing video games, so it’s impossible to satisfy everyone! But if your goal is to make a popular game, then it’s helpful to consider the volume of feedback. If a large number of players are complaining about the same thing, you may want to prioritize making a change related to that part of the game. Not necessarily the change that players are suggesting, but some sort of change.
3. Diagnose the feedback.
Players will know HOW they feel about your game, but they may not necessarily know WHY they feel that way. As I wrote in the Spelunky book:
Another way to think about interpreting a player’s feedback is as a doctor diagnosing a patient. A player brings his or her symptoms to the doctor ("My stomach hurts!") and may even offer a solution ("I think it could be the flu!"). In that scenario, it’d be a bad idea for the doctor to either dismiss the validity of the patient’s symptoms or to blindly accept that they have what they say they have. Like patients, players are often most in tune with how they feel about the problem rather than what is causing it.
As the game developer, you have to figure out what the actual cause of their feelings are. For example, do players hate the Skull Sewers because the Sludge Bears have too much health or because they don't realize that Sludge Bears have poor eyesight and you can sneak right past them?
4. Come up with potential solutions to the problem.
Players will suggest ways to fix a problem for them and these solutions are often blunt and address the issue very directly. Sometimes these are good ideas! But they can also be too severe or have ramifications to other parts of the game that are hard to see for a non-dev. A lot of times, an issue is best resolved with smaller, more nuanced fixes.
5. Decide if solving the "problem" is in line with your vision.
A truly great game tries to accomplish something more than "have as many people like my game as possible". When you start your project, you’ll have things you want to say through the artwork, narrative, and game mechanics you plan on building. Some of those things you won’t want to compromise on. On the other hand, there may be parts of the game that are softer and squishier, which you wouldn’t mind changing if it meant more players could enjoy your game. As the designer, you’ll have to figure out where you draw these lines.
6. Decide if it’s actually worth your time… now, later, or never.
Prioritize your list of to-dos based on how much it improves your game (according to your vision), how much it increases your audience (which is sometimes in opposition to improvement), and how much effort it takes. Obviously, the first changes you’ll want to tackle are the ones that do the most for the least amount of effort. By the time you finish your game, there will be some loose ends, guaranteed... if you prioritize well, those loose ends will feel very minor in the long run. They may even become beloved quirks that define the "character" of your game.
THE CHALLENGES OF GETTING AND RESPONDING TO FEEDBACK
Players are inclined to think that their solutions are easy to implement, especially since they did the "hard part" of coming up with them. "Why don’t you just do that? It’s so obvious it's imbalanced!" It’s hard to see from the outside that the fix might not be so simple, that it might affect other parts of the game, that it might destabilize the game, that it’s not part of your vision, that it’s one of hundreds of things that need work, etc. The lack of understanding and empathy can definitely feel bad and it’s natural to focus on the negative feedback and mean, dismissive comments, even if they're outweighed by the positive 100-to-1.
I could tell you to "grow a thicker skin" and not take things so personally, but the creation of art involves sensitivity and vulnerability. No matter how small or silly your game is, the fact that you’re creating it means that you’re putting yourself into it... and that’s what makes art so compelling in the first place. So how do we stay sensitive for the sake of ourselves and our art while also analyzing faceless feedback that is unsympathetic or even, as is often the case, callous?
It helps to be confident in yourself and your work… I think that comes with time and experience. At the very least, you can be confident in your knowledge of the process: even if it’s the first game you’ve ever made, that’s one more game you’ve made than the vast majority of people who play them. It may also help to set aside very specific times to read comments and go into "Feedback Reading Mode". During Feedback Reading Mode, you can divert some of your creative energy into being analytical, the way a spaceship captain might divert energy from the engines to the shields during battle. Find tools that work for you.
If, during Feedback Reading Mode, you come across feedback that you feel requires a response, I think it’s best to be direct and explain soberly why you’re making the decisions you’re making. I can’t recall any instances where lashing out at harsh feedback was particularly effective compared to giving a clear, direct reply... or simply extracting the data and then moving on silently. Also, sometimes you will have to make unpopular decisions that are best for you, your game, and your business, and I see indie developers try to preemptively diffuse the situation with "Hey, it’s just a game! Lighten up!" style humor. It's easy to misconstrue those types of messages negatively and it can have the opposite of the intended effect.
It’s up to you, though! Since dealing with feedback can be such an emotional rollercoaster, I think the important thing is to have some sort of consistent framework in place so that you’re not just reacting blindly to it. Or if you want to react blindly to feedback as it comes, at least check that it's a conscious decision you’re making for yourself.
I want to be clear that I don't think unsympathetic feedback is better than sympathetic feedback just because it's unfiltered. Honestly, when it comes to giving feedback, I wouldn't worry about whether you're being sympathetic or unsympathetic - focus instead on being truly constructive. What that means depends a lot on your relationship with the developer and what you think they're looking for. It's up to them to evaluate what you say... and hopefully they're clear up front about the kind of feedback they'd like to receive from you. You could be completely blunt about their game and while that may be "useful data", it won't be constructive if it also demotivates.
That said, I think it's always possible to be direct without being "brutal" and if you equate the two, your feedback is probably not going to be that helpful, since the recipient will focus more on your tone than your message (it might mean that you're focusing too much on your tone, as well). Remember that the point of feedback is simply to uncover the risks involved going one way or the other and help inform decision-making.
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