Posted On: 2019-08-12
I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the role of external opinions in my work. I use the term "opinions" here to describe not only feedback (such as one might solicit from playtesters) but also to encompass emotional support and value judgments. While I haven't come to any particular conclusion about it, the steps in the process itself strike me as being potentially interesting, so I will document what is going through my mind.
Note: this may be a bit unstructured - without a conclusion it's difficult to choose what makes sense to include.
Over the past week I participated in the judging phase of the GMTK 2019 game jam. The judging phase was, for me, much harder than actually making the game. Over 2600 participants submitted entries into the jam, far more than any one person could play in a week (let alone provide valuable feedback on.) Unfortunately, this conflicted with the success criteria I had defined for myself for the jam: I wanted participants who were interested in weird/experimental takes on the theme to play it, but the odds of getting such a person to even see my game seemed slim. I had no plan for how to achieve that and, regrettably, didn't have the self-awareness to realize that was my issue*. I struggled to juggle playing others' entries (to give ratings and feedback,) promoting my own entry, and getting my non-jam work done. By the end of the judging I had completely checked out from the jam - I couldn't even look at the itch.io site without feeling like a failure (this was without knowing what my game's ratings even were.)
Moving beyond value judgments, the detailed feedback I received for my jam entry made it clear that there were issues with the game that I had missed due to how little playtesting I had done. This is consistent with what I have been able to observe when gathering playtest data on all my other projects as well: playtesting catches flaws that people close to the project no longer notice. Having only one playtester across all the builds for the jam meant that necessities (like clearly teaching the controls) went overlooked in favor of other things (like polishing how objects' positions in space were telegraphed.)**
* Unfortunately, I instead focused on "if I say nothing then no-one will see my game" - which is both generally incorrect and interfered with building the kind of meaningful discourse that might connect me with people who share my interest in weird ideas.
** In fairness, on the final day I briefly considered slapping some "how to play" message in the game, but I disregarded it as any in-game text would violate the "only one pixel" rule. Of course, I still could have used level design as a means of tutorializing, but without playtesters I was oblivious about how (in)effective my current implementation was.
While pondering the role of others' opinions, I have also been looking at examples from my previous works as well. Leading up to the release of the Magic Training Prototype I was starved for external opinions on the project, desperate for both feedback and emotional support*. Fortunately, as I showed it around to friends and family, I got plenty of both, which helped me to reach the right mindset to be able to solicit feedback from strangers- which, in turn, provided some of the most useful feedback I have received across all my projects (so far.)
For the Notebook Prototype, playtester feedback was an integral part of judging its effectiveness as a sustainable mechanic. Interestingly, very little of the feedback that I gathered ended up actually influencing it. The game has some significant systemic issues** and by the time I was able to identify them clearly, I was already blazing ahead with my next prototype. One thing that is worth noting, however, is that the emotional support aspect was very important for the Notebook Prototype. At the time, I was quite uncertain about my voice as a writer, so having friends and family reassure me that they liked the writing was an important confidence booster.
* This has been mentioned before, in my six-month retrospective, where it featured as the second "not as planned" item.
** The game's core mechanics make it so that getting stuck leaves the player playing "guess the designer's intent" - which is seldom fun. Additionally, the game's multiple endings are implemented as a midnight staircase, but the whole thing is telegraphed so poorly that players usually see a particular ending because they gave up rather than as a choice.
In my day-to-day work on my larger project, I find myself worrying quite a lot about the quality of the game. This is certainly an understandable consequence of caring about my work, but there are also some external pressures that contribute to this as well. When I adjusted my life so that I could be a game dev full-time, I had to leave my previous job to do so. While everyone was very supportive and understanding, it seems that I have internalized the experience as a sense of obligation to make the game great - as though creating an inferior game would betray my (former) colleagues.
Ambition to do something great can be a powerful motivating force in its own right, but it can also be a demotivating force whenever it manifests as perfectionism or anxiety. Looking more broadly, it seems that when I receive words of encouragement about how the game will be, I sometimes have a similar reaction - which manifests as anxiety about whether the game I create will earn those words. Interestingly, words of encouragement about how things currently are (such as praise for an existing prototype) have not (yet) added any such sense of obligation - instead it seems to improve my mood by boost my confidence in both present and future projects. I am guessing this is because being so close to the project often leaves me oblivious both to its weaknesses and strengths, so having someone outside the project who can speak to both of these provides a perspective I simply cannot get on my own.
As mentioned in the opening, I don't quite know how to wrap this up into one succinct interpretation. External sources of feedback are clearly valuable - that much I have seen in every project. External emotional support, however, seems to be a bit less clear: in some instances it breathes new life into the project, while in others it can create pressure to deserve the support received. External value judgments are perhaps the most unclear - they can definitely be a source of stress, but they can also serve as valuable tools for dispelling mistaken internal value judgments.
Hopefully this journey through my thoughts about the role of external opinions in my work. As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know*.
* Despite how much I need to insert a self-aware joke right here - I can't seem to come up with one. My apologies for wasting this ripe opportunity.