Feedback

In some sense, this is about game design. In some sense, it's about how you live your life. One of the most difficult things to do when making a game, and this applies to WAY more than just making a game, is retaining some sort of perspective. You know what you're building inside and out, but you can't really know if it's *working*, because as you continue to develop, the more you know about it, the more your experience with the thing you're building diverges from the people you're making it *for*.

It's not just that it's difficult to retain perspective. It's that it's impossible.

The difference between the people who can get past this problem and the people who can't is that some people understand that it's impossible, and some don't.

As a creator, you simply cannot experience your creation in the same way that someone who's coming to it fresh will. The only thing you can do is get feedback from other people.

One of the biggest changes to our process over the last five years has been that we get feedback much, much earlier than we used to.

In "traditional" game development, you build something, relying on the foresight and judgment of talented game designers whose job it is to "look into the future" and design something that doesn't exist that players will want in 2-3 years when it's done. For the most part, you'd develop to whatever the design spec was, making complex systems, tons of art, and hoping it all turned into something that worked, in the end.

The difference between a good game and a bad one came down to how well those mechanics worked, how well you could introduce them to players, how clearly the levels were designed, how well-tuned the difficulty curve was, how compelling the fiction was, etc., etc., etc. For a game to be great, almost everything had to be right.

It's difficult to really describe how hard that is to pull off. Put ever-increasing amounts of money on the line, and the problem just becomes ridiculous. Every game is a $30-100 million dollar bet against a team's judgment being right on fifty to ten thousand things being correct. And if you're making bets that big, if you're wrong once, kiss hundreds of jobs and your future goodbye.

User testing? Sure - a month before you release, when there's no time to change anything but the barest tuning values & maybe a color in the UI here or there.

If you wait to get feedback until the end, you lose on a whole lot of different levels.

  • You create too much "inertia" around your preconceived notions. You're not willing to change because you've invested too much into what you now believe.
  • You don't have time to change anything significant because it's too risky, and can impact all the other work you've done, because you've done all this other work.

The solution?

Get feedback much, much, much earlier.

The thing that this enables is that you have much less resistance to change. You're willing to throw out work because you didn't DO that much work. You're willing to change directions because you didn't have to dig your heels in and fight through a bunch of stuff to set the direction you're going.

The downsides are that getting feedback early is terrifying. You are putting an idea out into the world long, long before it's done. Before you're proud of it. Before it's representative of the craft and love you want to invest in it. You're going to show someone an incomplete, often not-fully-formed thing, and that's often really embarrassing. Try showing someone a half-finished game, and it's shocking, unless you've seen a half-finished game before, how different it is from something that's had a significant amount of polish and optimization. It's terrifying to release a new game into the world when it's done. Try releasing one that isn't even anywhere close to done, with placeholder art, with lousy framerates, with whiteboxed levels and mechanics that only work in certain circumstances and completely fail in others.

Now try doing that with almost everything in your life.

Because here's the thing - the more you can get feedback about what you're doing early, the more input and instruction you can get, the less time you waste doing stupid stuff wrong. Instead of being embarrassed about how badly you're doing something, you have to realize that EVERYONE starts out bad at EVERYTHING, and anyone who's developed some level of expertise in a field was once terrible themselves.

We've been developing a pitch for our studio. I've been working on it since AUGUST of last year, and I've iterated on it at this point hundreds of times. And every time I show it to someone, it changes. I started writing a thing to explain what we're doing to potential investors in a very different way, and I was venturing out into unknown territory. I showed an early draft to a friend and he tore it to pieces. But he tore it to pieces in a respectful, thoughtful, but very honest way. And the result is that today, I have a draft that's a massive improvement on it. A draft that is 100% different, and it's better because I was able to throw the first draft out without worrying about all the time I spent on it.

The same friend actually told me a story many years ago. He had a newsletter to write, and needed to get people to write things for it. He poked and prodded folks, and nothing got done. Until one day he just wrote the thing himself, and immediately people started "pushing back". No, you should do things differently. That thing isn't write. Let me do it. Sometimes you need something to push off of to move forward. Getting that first draft down is important, but the faster you can get feedback from people whose opinions you value, the harder you can push off of that into the future.