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Punchbag Artists

Punchbag Artists

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.”

Continues…

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13 Comments

    that article was shit… I’m kidding of course. As a serial commenter myself i try to take a pragmatic view of my fellow commenters. Everyone is entitled to their say, opinions are like arseholes, etc. But the current trend I’ve noticed is commenting on comments, slagging off commenters. “I think the game is shit” “I disagree, so therefore it is you who are shit”. I wish i could pat every developer on the back and say there there. It sounds twee, But i guess they have to develop their own thick rhino hides and realise that destructive comments are just the opinions of a small minority. A bored minority, who probably spend more time on forums criticising than they do playing, appreciating and forming rounded opinions.

  • The hate I can tolerate.

    But the stupidity?

    Oh the stupidity.

    *shakes head*

    Seriously, it is not the hate that upsets me. It is the level of stupidity contained within it that makes me despair.

  • If the APB developer who I met at Cambridge Dev Days last October is reading this, please get in touch. My name beside this comment should link you over to my web site.

  • I know that sort of situation since i lived it. When working on a free and opensource game called Mtp Target, on the worst time, a player sued me because I banned (after lot of talk, warning, temporal suspend, …) him for insulting and bothering all other players.
    I was so fed up by these sorts of negative feedback that I closed the forum and the in game chat and stop working on this game. I was very disappointed to have put some money time and work on this game and having to do that but at the time, i just couldn’t afford the price a of a lawsuit.

  • This is an amazing insight into how the vocal minority can really damage developers. It’s such a shame to see hard work slandered so easily.

  • Really fantastic piece, Joel.

  • This article seems to wilfully ignore the fact that some games deserve harsh, even “destructive”, criticism or at least have parts that are.

    Any article that defends APB or Derek Smart from the very deserved criticism they received simply cannot be taken seriously. Derek Smart is a serial troll and developer of a multitude of objectively terrible games. APB was an unmitigated disaster which sucked up $100 million of investment funding and caused an entire studio to collapse.

    These are the kind of things that need to be eradicated from the industry (or in Smart’s case, existence) for the good of the rest of us. “Destructive” criticism is sometimes warranted.

  • @Paul – It’s the difference between constructive criticism and just insulting something. If a game has awful mechanics, a bad plot and is full of bugs, then it isn’t unreasonable to point that out. But do you really need to insult whoever made it at the same time? Couldn’t people try a commiserating tone at least? “I’m sorry, I’ve tried the game and I don’t think so and so works, and I thought the plot was derivative and dull” will still hurt, but it’s nicer than “It played like crap, the story must have been written by a five year old and I hope the developer dies so he never makes any more crappy games”.

    Even if the games deserve harsh criticism, that doesn’t necessarily mean the people behind them also do.

  • On Newell’s hypothesis about turning up the volume to 11 to get past the filter, I think that’s close but slightly off. I suspect a lot of critics would prefer not to get past the filter–they aren’t expecting and don’t want the creator of the game to be part of the conversation of what’s wrong with the game. Imagine if you could click a link at the bottom of every movie or book review to get the director’s response to the review. That would be really annoying–it’s considered in bad taste for creators to respond to critics quite so directly. For good reason–because 99% of the responses would just be “this critic is just jealous that he’s a critic instead of a director like me”.

  • This is a fantastic article. I would have missed it had it not been for RPS’s “Sunday Papers” column.

    The sad truth is – and I think that this applies to just about any creative industry – if you’re going to stick your neck out and actually make something, there will always be some coward on the Internet ready and waiting to verbally abuse you and your work.

  • On the other hand, I think that if you don’t get upset about something like the new XCOM game, then you’re part of the problem.

  • perhaps just an incorrect generalization from my own experience, but I can’t help thinking that the kind of discussions that occur on blog comments and forums really do resemble the kinds of things that people say in real life. when you’re with your friends, the people who you feel most comfortable with, and you’re in a venting mood, don’t you fall into the use of absurd hyperbole? if there is an issue, I don’t think it’s internet anonymity but rather our own discomfort with the way that the internet shines a magnifying glass on the various personae that people use. because the internet is sticky, the things that would otherwise be forgotten 15 seconds later are recorded. It could be that the internet makes it easy for a person to find a substitute for a friend willing to tolerate their venting, thus encouraging greater and more frequent fits of venting.

  • Wow, didn’t know/wasn’t aware Privates (a game my lappy couldn’t play smoothly, but maybe now that I’ve circumvented Toshiba’s lack of OED vid card updates…) was made by the Ben/Dan/Time/Gents guys, nor that Super Meat Boy was made by the Gish guy/team (a game I started up, didn’t get a hang of the controls for, and, erm, haven’t booted it back up (not for hate, but I have a huge backlog and poor attention/dedication).

    This article makes me think on if I’ve been too much of a whiner. Most lately, it’s been the wonkiness of Blade Kitten’s presence in the Steam Store. A Steam-exclusive bonus phrased to be a pre-purchase exclusive (Space Captain Steve has expressed they always saw it as the former, so that’s what I get for not lurking hard enough), marketing the full game for the first episode’s price (assuming Episode 2 will also have a charge with it), and then an apparent price drop less than a month after release (though the dev’s/devs’ wording on Facebook is “sale”, so…). *sigh* That all needs to get sorted out. I hope I haven’t discouraged them with my whines about that matter (though, in the world of scoping Steam sales, especially on cheap-as-lunch indies, five bucks can take you far). Otherwise, there’s been the game’s sluggish performance on my computer; last I’ve ventured, I’m running with the capped framerate suggestion (a necessary evil of the physics engine, according to SCS), which makes the game hard to go through, no matter how good it is/might be. There’s also some hiccups in the physics (I’ve slide down horizontal ceilings a couple/few times, to no real big detriment, but I did end up, apparently, in the wall, popping out the other side eventually; only realized something was amiss when I couldn’t get out of the little area I popped into, since otherwise it may’ve been an invisible path…y’know, despite no visual cutaway *sheepish*).

    tl;dr For Blade Kitten, at least, I’ve had more mind-boggling with the Steam Store than the developers (probably), though Blade Kitten still has kinks to be worked out on the keyboarded machines (and, hopefully, optimizations, lest I’d need to get *gulp* a /gaming/ laptop).

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