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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Demo Night Lessons: Criticism

The Boston Indies meetup happened yesterday, and it was demo night, so Andrew and I brought a couple of laptops and a couple of burritos and set into full BostonFIG-style "Play our game!" mode, and it was totally awesome.

One of the best things about the Boston Indies is that it's full of indie game developers, many of whom do what I do, except they do it for a living, and it's intimidating as hell to put our game in front of them, and next to their games. But we did, and I wanted to talk just briefly about what we learned and what it makes me think of.

We put this game in front of a lot of people last night and got a ton of really useful feedback. Nobody had only negative things to say, at least to our faces. Even the people with criticisms phrased them in a helpful way, and included positive things on either side, compliment sandwich-style, and generally went way far out of their way to be kinder than they had to be. That said: the negative comments did hurt a bit, and they're the parts that I've been mulling over constantly since I heard them.

The most frequent or most troublesome feedback we got was:

-Not enough of a sense of progress through the level
-Not enough narrative/driving force
-Jumping feels "floaty"/platforming elements feel imprecise in general
-Animation is obviously rough, esp. in contrast with more refined features
-Some puzzles seem more like guesswork than like solving

And, the strangest thing I heard,

-Characters are unusually tall and slender for a platformer

Some of these criticisms don't really hurt (I don't mind that the animation is bad, it's a stand-in and I made it myself with no animation experience), some are frustrating truths but things I already knew (jumping is floaty despite hours of messing around with it, but we know it needs to be fixed), and some are things I feared and was saddened to have confirmed (a "puzzle" I spent a long time on isn't really that puzzley or fun). All of them were useful because they indicated what stood out to experienced players and developers, and told us what we need to sharpen.

In any creative medium, criticism is an incredibly tricky thing to deal with. It takes a lot of energy to pour hours of your life into a project you care about deeply. It takes even more energy to share that meaningful project with others, flaws and all. And it can be pretty tough to stand there while those flaws are listed out and to see it not as a tear-down of what you've so carefully sculpted but as advice on where to chisel next. So, yeah, unfortunately it can be kind of painful to have your project dissected and have people pointing out everything wrong with it, but it's also probably the single most important part of revising your piece into something worthwhile. If you're making your art for anybody but yourself - to share, to give, to sell, to show - you'll want to refine it not just against your own preferences, but those of as many people as you can convince to look at it.

So, with that in mind, this is a cycle I've found to be helpful in accruing feedback:

-Pick something to work on. If you're making a game, this might be as simple as a mechanic or as big as a level; it might be a paragraph of a story or a chapter, a sketch or a painting. Decide what it is you want to do, and set your scale small enough that you don't mind revising or redoing a lot of it.
-Come up with an idea of what you want it to be. This is in general just an important step of design - figure out what it should be before you start messing with it. Sometimes art arrived at organically without much forethought is great - it's not the norm, though. Planning will save you a lot of time in revision and help give you a clearer idea when you're done of what to improve. Include others in brainstorming if it's helpful.
-Work on it until you get stuck, or until you think it can't be improved. If you get to a place where you think what you've made is perfect, you're wrong; this is one of the best times to seek outside input because you'll be getting help for problems you weren't aware existed. That said, don't spend forever honing something to "perfection" before getting an outside view; show it to people along the way, especially when you see a need for improvement but aren't sure how to go about it.
-Find someone (or a group of someones) who will give you precise, honest criticism of the piece. It's definitely nice getting praise, but for this step you need someone who isn't afraid to hurt your feelings. Boston FIG was great for us because we got a lot of praise, which told us that Candlelight was worth making; at the same time, it didn't really inform the creative process much. You want somebody who cares about what you're doing enough that they'll wound your pride, badly if necessary, to make your piece into the best it can be.
-Listen carefully and do not talk. Don't offer defenses, excuses, or apologies; don't tell people you knew about the issue they're describing; don't do anything but take earnest notes on what they've noticed. Even if you think you know it already, write it down -  it matters that the flaw is big enough to be seen both by someone as close to the project as you, and someone as far from it as your critic. I am very bad at anything requiring me not to talk, and this is no exception. At this stage you need to separate yourself from the work; it doesn't matter how it got to the state it's in or why you let it get there, what matters is how it's going to improve from where it is.
-Identify problems. I mentioned earlier that someone said my characters were the wrong shape for a platformer. I took note of this, but didn't bother to ask why they're the wrong shape - that is, what problem their shape creates, and how changing it would solve that problem. This phase is very, very important. If someone tells you "Oh, you should do X" and you do it blindly, you might not solve the problem they're trying to address, or create new problems, or simply compromise your vision of the project. Find a clear way to actually state the problem underlying their criticism or advice - this is what you need to address.
-Repeat. Great! You've found things that need improving! Go improve them, then bring them back up for inspection. You won't solve every problem this way, and you won't please everyone, but neither is the goal. The goal is to create the best product you can within the limits of your abilities, resources, and vision - all of which will be expanded by this revision process.

Throughout this process, it is important to seek out positive feedback as well. Unless you're unnaturally gratified by getting your work criticized, the whole process can start to wear on you. It helps, a lot, to have people reassure you that you're producing something good, that the block of stone you're sculpting still has a masterpiece somewhere in it and you've managed to identify some of those contours. The more of your mistakes you can identify, the more you can learn to correct them, and the better your art will be for it.

I'm going to go try to find a way to make sure my characters don't keep smacking their heads on ceilings when they jump. Wish me luck.

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