Taking Criticism as a Game Developer

Grab a piece of paper and pencil, and sketch out a portrait of someone you know from memory. Unless you’ve already been practicing for a dozen years, chances are that portrait is not going to look like the subject you intended it to look like. But does that make the portrait a bad one?

Well, that’s going to depend on who you ask, since criticism* is based on two things: fact, and opinion. People generally aren’t going to be able to differentiate their comments for you up front, so it’s up to you to determine whether you need to take what their saying and put it in your toolbox or not. This ability is developed slowly over time, requiring many lost-in-translation moments of people giving you their opinions and you mistaking them for a factual error that you have made in your work. Don’t worry — it just takes time.

It also means you need to practice sharing your work with people. Artists in any form are always encouraged to have close confidants to share their drafts with, if not for healthy criticism early on then at least for some nice encouragement. “I really like how you did this,” a good friend might say, or, “My favorite part about what you’re showing me is this right here.” As indie developers, we’re often not afforded a close circle of people to share our work with, since some days it’s stuff we made in Photoshop, other days it’s just lines and lines of code that only another game developer can appreciate. Spend two days straight trying to get some stupid thing to do a thing? Good luck explaining that frustration with anyone other than another developer!

This is why most of my friends are people I’ve met online. Unfortunately, while forums and other places to chat and connect are great ways to feel less alone, the anonymity of internet socialization means people are less likely to be empathetic. Criticism, then, is going to cut deep — and you probably already know this if you’ve ever shared your works in progress online.

Just because the feedback is awful doesn’t mean we can’t grow, though. All feedback is good feedback as long as you remember that there are facts and there are opinions in feedback. Once you understand this you can start to improve when you hear factual feedback, and just smile and say thank you when you hear opinionated feedback.

Empty Praise
The flip side of the random “that looks stupid” and “I don’t like it” comments are the “Looks great!” and “cool!” comments. These really don’t give you anything other than someone’s opinion, and you have to train yourself to look past them. Yes, they’re going to feel good, but the reason you feel a hollow emptiness inside after a few minutes of reading empty praise like that is because they never actually addressed your art. That is, there was no factual criticism, so you have no ability to learn or grow.

A good example of this is a review I got early on for my science fiction book Burrow. It was from a beta-reader who wrote to me, “I really don’t like Zori’s attitude in this scene. She’s kind of a brat.” (Zori is the name of one of the main characters). This type of feedback is an opinion and not very helpful to me as a writer. Yes, I have a scene where Zori is being very rude, but that’s her character. If I had heard that before I developed some thick criticism skin, I might have changed the scene up entirely!

If you’re having troubles with negative criticism, try to remind yourself:

  • It’s easier to criticize than it is to create. You’re the one creating something from nothing; YOU are the one with the courage and fortitude to put yourself out there. Nothing in life is harder than exposing your art to the world — NOTHING. Things might be more painful, hurtful, sorrowful, or dramatic, but nothing can slice through to your core quite like the vulnerability of sharing something that really came from your heart.
  • You must be your harshest critic — BUT you must also learn how to criticize effectively. Chances are you already hate everything you do; you have grown since you started (whether you know it or not) so you naturally see the flaws of naivety and inexperience, the possibilities of what it could be and the distance between where you are and where you want to be. This is all very natural, and actually helpful in your quest for feedback. If you have already salted your wounds over and over again, no one offering their own little grains of poorly-worded opinions are going to have so much of an emotional impact that you can’t separate the fact from the opinion.
  • Facts are non-negotiable; opinions can be ignored. If someone tells you, “I like how you have done this,” you need to analyze what they’re saying immediately. Are they saying that they like that you’ve conformed to a genre expectation — or, on the flip-side of that coin, are they saying that they like how you’ve taken the expectation of conformity to a genre and turned it around? Or are they just saying that they like the way you’ve done your lighting, or like the blood spatters, or like the puzzle? This is all very difficult to analyze sometimes, but I promise it gets easier with time. You’ll always feel a little sting when people share negative opinions, but over time you will develop a numbness to it, a familiarity with it that makes you smile because nothing negative they say could ever come close to your own ability to self-criticize and tear apart your work.

In closing, I’d like to share that a lot of the ways I have learned to take criticism effectively has been by studying how artists (the drawing kind, not the writing kind) take criticism effectively. For a good example of what I’m talking about, head over to this article.

Taking criticism effectively is not easy, and it’s something that you will constantly work on. Though it might not seem that way, it does get easier — and you do get better.

You do.

Jesse is a writer, composer, and game developer.