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May 14, 2015

What I mean by "be kind"

My "crunch crash" article went on Kotaku, republished in full (and I also put it up on GamaSutra, because maybe the audiences are a little distinct). I read the comments¹, or at least a few of them. And I realize maybe I should clarify what I meant about "being kind."

As I mention in the article, I'm most definitely not saying, "Don't serve your audience." If you're a reviewer, your responsibility is to do that. But John Updike gave some great rules of thumb for criticism that could easily be adapted for games, especially in today's primarily web-based critical environment².

Beyond that, I also meant the sort of online environment we find amongst our fans. One of the first comments on that Kotaku article was about, "What, are we supposed to ignore bugs and stuff just because the developers crunched?"

Of course not. Because although there are places where crunch is mandated and terrible, in some cases it's employee-driven³: we do it because we love what we're making and we're just plain driven to do as much as we can to make that thing the best it can be before it goes out the door. It's part of our gift to the people who will be playing it -- games are the product of our creativity, and therefore our art4. What I mean is, we sometimes put in a lot of extra time just because we're really trying to make that game the best we can under the constraints we have.

What I'm looking for is just a bit of kindness, and I'll give you an analogy in a moment. Because we're there at the end of the project, we're exhausted and raw and we've thrown everything we had into it. One can be both honest and kind.

I happened to speak to a developer friend about this, and he pointed out how important it is to us actually to get the feedback. We want to know if there are obscure crashes, or weird issues, especially showstoppers. We live in an era where games are significantly more complicated, technically, and fewer and fewer studios have an in-house QA department that they can count on5. This developer friend pointed out that the tone of the reports is what really wears you down. You're trying to help; you're trying to find out what the issues are, and meanwhile someone is shouting angrily at you.

I get that it's frustrating to encounter an issue with a game you've been wanting to play; totally get it. I also play games, and I have had those experiences. But Hulking out at the developer in some Internet forum somewhere isn't going to help you or them! You will forget it five minutes after you write that angry comment, and somewhere else in the world, someone will be totally bummed out for the rest of the day.

Here's that analogy: I'd like for us to imagine, if one would, being in a restaurant. One orders the soup of the day, and when the waiter or waitress brings it out, one discovers its cold. At this point, does one:

a) Irately debase this person, using as inventive names and cursing as you can muster, calling into question his or her abilities and parentage, and demanding a refund immediately while at the same time shrilly announcing to all and sundry that you'll never eat here again, OR

b) Politely explain the problem you're having with the meal and work together to understand and resolve it.

I humbly suggest that (b) is a better option, because I've seen (a) and it's never pretty. With (b), you'll almost certainly get an apology and if it's possible, an earnest effort to solve your problem, whether it's soup or an issue with your game. After a team pouring all this effort into your experience, we really do want it to be the best experience it can be for you.

Besides, wouldn't it be embarrassing after all that to learn that the soup of the day was gazpacho?

¹I know, I know. Actually Kotaku seems to police theirs, which is great, and as a result they were fine.

²This was pointed out to me by a friend; thanks, friend!

³Not in all cases. But in some. I don't want to diminish those that aren't. But I will say that if you're part of a team that crunches because you work well together and you just want the best thing you can get out there, that's an intrinisic motivator, and anecdotally speaking, that has different effects on your productivity than the extrinsically motivated forced crunch modes. It's possible to be productive in crunch; not after months of it, but sure, for brief bursts. Anyway.

4This is shorthand from Lewis Hyde's The Gift, totally worthwhile reading if you can find a copy.

5I've always been lucky enough to have really good QA departments working in the same building with me, but this isn't the case for a lot of studios. Often you have a publisher's QA department looking it over, nowhere near where you're located, and therefore you don't develop the personal relationship with them that helps ensure that you're really working towards the same goals. You may literally not have seen some of the bugs that your community finds, sadly. And yes, again, that needs to be brought up in reviews, etc. But everything is patchable these days, so hopefully we can fix it!

Posted by Brett Douville at May 14, 2015 05:09 PM