On Feedback

As I’ve been working on a new game, I’ve arrived at probably my least favorite part of the process. The major mechanical work is done, everything’s written up, and I’ve even started playtesting. Which means, alas, that it’s time to ask for feedback.

As I’m going through this process, I thought it might be helpful to share some observations that might make the process less miserable for those who come after me.

Consider Who You Ask

The way you ask for feedback (and the kind of feedback you ask for) should vary depending on the context you’re asking for it. The way I ask my game design friends for feedback is different from the kind of feedback I ask for from my players. Still, an entirely other animal is the feedback I ask for from the great, gelatinous internet hate machine.

In my experience, the more you know a person, and the closer they are to the subject material, the more open-ended you can be. I can ask my game design friends to consider my work as a whole and to provide any feedback that occurs to them. However, when I ask my players about things, I focus on individual sessions or moment-to-moment experiences.

Ask What You Need

I try to be clear about what I’m asking for. I ask, specifically, for “comments and criticism.” I want people to be honest with me, not to hold back for fear of “not being constructive” or hurting my feelings. I know everyone’s tolerance for this sort of thing varies, but in the long run, the honest, thorough (and brutal) critique is more useful than one that keeps the kid gloves on.

I try to focus my feedback requests as much as possible. I break my work down, into individual mechanical systems, chapters, or other bits of easily-digestible writing. It helps “focus” the feedback, and prevents your potential critic from being overwhelmed by the scope of what they’re being asked to consider. It’s easier to answer the question “does this magic system work?” rather than the question “is this a good game?”

The caveat to this is providing context. It’s a tricky line to walk; sometimes I’ll get feedback asking for more context about a given system, and I’ll reconsider just throwing the whole shebang out for review at once. But, on consideration, I realize this a good sign. It indicates that your mechanic is interesting enough that people are interested in learning more about what surrounds it. I’ll answer questions, providing more context when necessary, just so long as I avoid critiquing the critique.

Don’t Critique the Critique

This can be the hardest thing to learn, and I’ll admit it’s a trap I often fall into, especially when discussing a game with fellow game designers. We’re a contentious lot and like to argue, that much is true. But, when soliciting feedback, you get a lot more utility if you sit back, thank people for their feedback, and resist the urge to tell them how wrong they are.

What I will allow myself to do is ask questions, asking for clarification or for people to expand on their criticisms. The important thing is to not try to argue the point back at your critic but to instead ask them to clarify what they think. After all, if someone is misinterpreting something, you want to get at the source of their confusion, rather than instantly shutting them down by disabusing them of mistaken notions. You can’t explain, in person, what you meant to everyone who reads your work, so you’re better off considering the criticism than trying to “answer” it in the moment.

Oh, and be polite. Realize that when people critique your work – especially unfinished, unpolished work – they’re doing you a favor. Say thank you, and mean it. Be enthusiastic, and let them know what they’re doing is helping make your game better.

Consider the Problem, Not the Solution

When soliciting feedback, you’re probably going to get a good amount of suggestions on how to make your game better. It’s important that you take these with a grain of salt, and certainly don’t solicit them directly. Nothing feels more obnoxious than being asked: “well, how would YOU fix it?!” You’re the designer. They’re the critic. Fix your own game.

Suggestions can be good, but before anything else, put them off to the side. First, consider the problems that your critics raise. Consider whether or not they even are problems for your game, and where you’d prioritize fixing them. It can be tempting to rush in and try to ‘fix’ every little thing, but this is a recipe for losing focus or muddling the intent of your game. A game that “works” for everyone can sometimes wind up to be a very bland and unappealing game.

If you do find problems that you want to fix (which, after all, was the whole point of this exercise), consider your own solutions. Only you know how the pieces of your game fit together, and you’re the most-qualified person to fix any problems with the individual parts. Value the criticism that your critics give you, more than the solutions they suggest.

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