The response of a harsh public
Joel Goodwin discusses the effect of destructive criticism on game developers.
THERE WAS this guy I met at a software development conference in Cambridge last year. Long-term memory has smudged his features so I wouldn’t recognise him even if he was standing in front of me right now, but I recall he spoke with a soft Scottish accent and might have been slightly taller than me.
He said he worked for a games developer, Realtime Worlds, on something called APB. This was somewhat more impressive than my job which involves spreadsheets, databases and yawn. I told him I’d read all the buzz about APB on Rock Paper Shotgun, and there had been plenty of buzz, stacks of it. Sounded like a great project to be on.
As if trying to temper my enthusiasm, he said: “I just hope everybody likes it.”
A year on, APB has been ridiculed, Realtime Worlds has gone into administration and the developer who might have been slightly taller than me is likely out of a job. Hostile descriptions of APB like “absolutely retarded beyond belief” litter game forums and blogs. But all I can think of is a softly-spoken Scottish developer reading all this online vitriol, damning years of work. I just hope everybody likes it.
Now it’s no big surprise that on the internet anyone can be a critic. While professional reviews can be brutal and punishing, down at the anonymous, anarchic end of the scale, criticism can mutate into public humiliation and denouncement of not just a game but also its architects. APB is not an isolated case. Zombie Cow’s Privates is a “game for perverts”. Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV is a “faux 8-bit piece of crap.” 2K Marin’s in-development XCOM is “like wanting a puppy for your birthday but getting dogshit.”
But what does this do to the developers on the receiving end?
Every relationship has problems
Arcen Games released AI War in 2009, a critically-acclaimed take on the RTS template which eventually became successful enough to convince founder Chris Park to give up the day job and go full-time with Arcen. Having recently followed up with puzzle game Tidalis, I asked Park whether destructive criticism has an effect on his work, particularly in the wake of AI War’s success.
“Some comments are easier to ignore than others,” he says. “When you are working on something that you know is good and other people think is good, it’s easy to brush off that sort of thing. Destructive comments about AI War rarely bother me these days, and so I thought I’d built up a nice thick skin. It was with some surprise that I discovered that negative comments on Tidalis were once again having an effect on me. When you’ve got dozens of positive reviews already in hand for a game, it’s easy to write these off, but when you have only a growing handful, the insecurity creeps in.”
Dan Marshall of Zombie Cow is upfront. “Negative comments are crushing, soul-destroying and it really affects me. Not every game is going to be to everyone’s tastes – and that’s fine. The trouble is that internet comments are so disposable and easy; people rarely write ‘the gameplay wasn’t quite to my tastes’, they’ll just declare it’s ‘fucking shit’ and move on.”
Zombie Cow is better known for humorous point-and-click adventures such as Ben There, Dan That! But Channel 4 recently funded them to make a sex educational platform shooter called Privates. It has seen both positive and negative reviews. The problem for developers, Marshall explains, is keeping everything in perspective: “I’ve had more lovely e-mails from people, saying how much they enjoyed Privates, than any other game I’ve made. And yet for every dozen comments that say they really enjoyed it, the one that slags it off is the one that sticks out in your mind.”
Think of the children
Park has blogged in length about maintaining a good rapport with players, as fans can provide valuable feedback and inspiration. He fears that some developers, feeling the heat of a vocal minority, might withdraw. “They just shouldn’t have to put up with that in their job,” he says. “It’s not bearable, and so to cut out the unbearable parts of a job they otherwise love, they turn away from players. I think it’s a really unhealthy cycle, and not good for anyone – developers or players.”