Friday, January 14, 2011

Actually, Some Developers Should Read Their Forums

Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software wrote a blog post about how creators should not read their forums.  I don't think he's entirely wrong; a lot of creators -- game designers, artists, authors -- will probably never be able to read forums.  But if you care about how your creations are received by actual consumers, you should.

Please understand that I mean that in a sort of "flowing wave" aikido sense, not in the sense that we need to sagely nod our heads and actually accept everything that people say and write.  A lot of critical feedback is noise, a lot of it is only relevant to a small number of people (sometimes it's actually just one person), and a lot of it is misdirected or poorly expressed (i.e. the problem a person expresses is not actually the cause of their frustration).

There are some good reasons to read our forums, even with all of the problems they present.  I don't think I need to explain the benefits of reading fan forums, but I do think it's worth explaining why those who are interested in fan feedback should just Deal With It.

Perception Matters
Sometimes audiences are stupid.  Sometimes, it's us, the dumb creators, who assume idiotic things.  Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who's at fault; the issue is that there is a disconnect.  "Communication" has the same roots as "commune" -- sharing, imparting, all that good stuff.  It's our responsibility to give players the tools they need to play the game.  It's the artist's responsibility to speak to the viewer using a visual language they can interpret.  Not everyone will be up to the challenge -- and not everyone is in the intended audience -- but sometimes we make stupid choices and the viewer, audience, or reader really can't be blamed for not "getting it".  Gauging perception is how we determine the extent to which our intended audience can "step up" and how much we need to "reach down".  But to gauge perception, we need to accept that...

Reality Is Still Out There
This applies both to how you accept fan reactions and how you reconcile those reactions with what you know about the work you did.   A nerd yelling in the forest is still angry, regardless of whether or not you're around to hear it.  Ignoring critical feedback doesn't mean that feedback doesn't exist, and it doesn't mean that the person wasn't upset.  If we have any interest in understanding the things that make people angry, we have to actually consider what they're saying.  You can't separate the wheat from the chaff if you say, "Ugh that chaff is so gross!" and make a dismissive frowny face at the whole pile.

Conversely, what a person perceives, imagines, hypothesizes, and ultimately expresses does not necessarily have any bearing on reality.  You know what you did.  You know how you did it.  You know the hours you put in.  You know what you made and how it works.  Anything a person says to the contrary is ultimately irrelevant unless they're in a position to legitimately defame you.  Being able to step back and stabilize ourselves with the anchor of what "is" allows us to compare that to whatever wild things an individual perceives or claims to perceive.  Keeping reality in mind gives us the mental distance we need to observe the flames without being burned.  But...

If You Can't Take the Heat, GTFO
Many creators make products to sell to people.  It's our job.  Well over a million people just paid around $50-$60 USD for something I helped make.  If it doesn't work right or if they feel the product was misrepresented, it makes sense that they would be upset.  The extent to which their reaction is justifiable or reasonable depends on what's going on, but sometimes, we actually did do something really bad.  Sometimes, we can step back and realize that if we experienced the same problem on our own, we would kick our own (collective) asses.

We have to accept that we make mistakes and we have to understand that it can really ruin someone's day.  What we make is entertainment, but it's entertainment that can just as easily generate crushing lows as euphoric highs.  A while ago, one of my co-workers received an e-mail from a gamer saying that she credits one of our games with saving her life.  It shocked my co-worker.  I've received similar e-mails in the past, going all the way back to to my early days at Black Isle.  It shocks me every time it happens as well.  I make video games, most of which I don't even think are anything to get excited about one way or another.  Sometimes it's hard to accept how much what we make can impact people, positively and negatively, but this goes back to what I wrote above: reality is still out there.  Sometimes we make people really happy.  Sometimes we really upset them.  Most people have no strong feelings about what we make.  They look at it, poke at it, get bored, and move on.  That's life.  It's important to accept and understand these things.

Not To Be Understood, But To Understand
Our message boards aren't really there for us to make ourselves heard.  They're not there for us to defend ourselves (though they can be useful for explaining things or clearing up confusion).  They're there for people to express themselves to each other and to us.  Sometimes, it can be useful for us to serenely participate or make some statements of fact, but often it's best just for us to take in the field, eliminate the noise, and tune in on the ideas and threads that can really help improve how our creations are received.

It doesn't matter if there isn't a consensus.  It doesn't matter if there's noise or confusion or if there are ideas spread across many different threads.  You're the arbiter.  You can do it.  Your job is to use critical thinking and make difficult choices.

And sifting through all of that stuff, you're going to see a lot of harsh words.  Some of it will be at your company, some of it may be right at you.  But after a while, you can take anything.  You don't need to get angry.  You don't need to feel bad.  There's no word, no phrase, no type of insult, no emotion that you can't brush off.  If you're honest with yourself and level with others, you can take whatever's thrown at you.  Accept the helpful, even when it initially stings.  Reject the irrelevant, even when it feels good.  As long as we care about what our audiences think, we've got to be willing to dig through some mud to understand it.  If it helps us refine our techniques, improve what we create, and be more honest with ourselves, it will all be worth it in the end.


Nicholas Lovell said...

I agree with the idea that listing feedback useful. The problem I have with forums is that they tend to be populated by a self-selecting group. This means they are not representative of your entire audience.
Sure it means that they may have valid criticisms. It does not mean that acting on those criticisms will necessarily improve the game across the board.
I'm a big believer in feedback. Forums may be a necessary evil but too many developers believe the forums on the voice of their audience, when they are the voice of a small loud minority

Ausir said...

I'd say that while forums might not be an entirely representative sample of the audience, they're as representative as you're going to get, and most official forums demonstrate a wide enough variety of opinions.

Blinzler said...

Forums only represent the part of your audience willing to engage you.
So what's a developer to do - listen to those people who care enough to share their opinions, thoughts and ideas or *guesstimate* what the silent minority who play, but can't be arsed to engage the developer?
Forums additionally present the ability of "free" sharing of ideas, where you are not limited to an array of questions the developer asks, but where the players can come from unique angles and possible alter the perception of the dev's themselves if they're willing to pay attention.

watchtower said...

I wouldn't put a lot of stock in 'forum feedback' myself.

You know whether you did your best or not.

And seriously, who gives a crap about some forum poster's desire for this or that, what was that quote, oh yeah, "to thine own self be true".

That's just what the game developers need, more armchair critics weighing in with their two cents worth.

I would think that you would have more than enough feedback from the people already working on the project, people with actual knowledge of what it takes to get something off the ground.

If the forum 'experts' don't like it, then let them create their own game...something tells me that they just might reel in their criticisms a tad after that.

Chad H said...

There's got to be a balance I think. Had Paramount have listened to the fans during the development of Star Trek 2, the death of Spock would have been canned (something that the fans writing the hate mail later wrote in to commend), but equally we've seen what happens when fans are ignored and disregarded (Fallout BOS?)

Gareth said...

I agree with you, but I do think it's worth remembering that Jeff's opinion is of someone working alone, or nearly alone. It's gonna be easier to deal with the criticism and hate if you've got other dudes who can validate your designs, or at least your motivations and efforts.

Everyone has bad days, everyone has times when they lose perspective. In a team that effect will be at least partially alleviated by having other people around (hopefully friends) who've got your back.

So I'd say the best thing there is to try generate a strong support-network of fellow devs, people who experience the same struggles. If you're an indie, keep close ties with the indie dev communities, etc.

Alex said...

I agree that the people posting at the forums often represent a vocal minority. Moreover there are other ways for developers to get feedback on their game, for example the number of people who bought the story-heavy dlc versus those who bought the combat-heavy one could be a factor that helps judge what the audience prefers.
What's different and ultimately useful about forums is that posters don't only express wether they like or dislike something but also why. The reasons they give are often personal opinions and as such don't necessarily represent the majority of the people who played the game. However, when someone is deeply involved with a project it is not uncommon to miss some things that are apparent to outsiders and these opinions can sometimes offer the developer a fresh prespective.
So my opinion is that forums are useful as long as whatever is posted isn't taken as an expression of the majority. The developer can use his own judgement to decide witch of the complains and critisism are valid and sometimes, why not, get some new ideas from the people who bother to spend their time to talk about his game.

isildur said...

I support reading forums. It can be useful. I do not support posting in them; it only leads to terrible places where the forum audience believes they have a special, privileged two-way channel to the heart of the studio.

But honestly the best way to handle forums is to hire a really good community manager and make that person deal with them. When you've worked with someone who's able to turn a flaming idiot poster into a valuable member of the community, it's hard to believe anything good will come of letting anyone else talk to the community directly.

L337MA573R said...

I personally love and admire developers who go into their forums and chat with their community members. Just because we complain about stuff just as much as, or even sometimes more than on forums with developers who never venture into the forums, and just because we don't shower you with topics and messages or appraisal doesn't mean that we don't respect you guys more in the long run.

Unknown said...

The fans matter. The fans, the critics, the muse, the editor... All of them, deliciously depicted in Alan Wake, a game which critics have never got to understand. Gotta love 2010, carrying that and F:NV on it's back, both of them weighing very heavily.

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Anonymous said...

whoa, ropekid is like, a real life version of facegen

Unknown said...

My, my. A Dev who not only reads, participates and validates user forums, but has a blog as well. Kudos. You have a stronger constitution and faith in yourself and your art than most—and it shows.

Dismissing forums because they are a self-selecting sample is like saying that representative democracy is invalid because elections are decided only by those who vote.

As a gamer since the early Eighties and an avid member of user forums since Compuserve, I say: Keep blowing away that chaff and husbanding the wheat.

Anonymous said...

Before going on just like to say FO:NV is a very enjoyable game, not perfect, but many more highs than lows.

Great comments - as a long time player of RPG type games (in which category I include Fallout) I often start a new game with a sense of trepidation 'cos you know that no team is going to be able to catch every possible player choice in open world games like FO or Elder Scrolls.

To me as a player what is important is not the bugs on release day, unless they are truly absurd in nature, but the response from the people that made the game. Seeing a speedy response to the problems and knowing that the devs are engaged and keen to fix them is priceless.

Knowing some devs care about their games and their audience enough to sift through the rants for useful information to provide patches takes me to a warm fuzzy place which makes it far more likely I'm going to grab add-on content and the next ting they create.

Cdreid said...

This is the difference between a successful (read: developer who develops memorable and routinely profitable games) and a coding hack.

There are hundreds of millions of programmers on the planet literally. There are easily tens of thousands of very skilled game programmers out there. There are hundreds or thousands of "game companies". There are a couple handfulls of successful game companies producing successful games.

The one true universal amongst successful developers is their desire to communicate with and please their customer base. To snicker at your customers is the sign of a workerdrone. Not the sign of a creator.

The world is full of Shadowbanes and WW2 onlines. There are a handfull of FONV, Oblivion, Minecraft, Wow. The difference is the creators willingness to listen and consider what their customers want. Somehow some in the game industry have forgotten it is the job of any business to fulfill the desires of their customers. Bravo to this post and continued success.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean I can get a refund for fallout new vegas?
That game was a complete mess. I can't believe I paid $60 to help beta test it.

TheDeRider said...

I'm really glad to see that a developer is taking a healthy approach to their work: Yes, what you do is artistic and creative, but it is also interactive. The way they experience that work is important for you, on a technical level and on an artistic level. It is (though I am loathe to use the term because of the way people interpret it) a responsibility you have as a creator to understand not only what people don't like, but what they do like as well, and selectively use that knowledge.

Perspective regarding your own limitations and the limitations of others is paramount in such a situation, and I am truly happy to see you advocating for it. I hope the experiences are positive: You'll get negative feedback, but with luck it will be delivered respectfully.