Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why I'm Reluctant To Critique... Whatever You Created

How many here were raised under the rule from Bambi, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?"  I know I was.  And hence an immediate conundrum when you're out to critique a game that someone else has created.  It's especially challenging when an aspiring indie asks me to "take a look at their game and let me know what I think," or similar.

Let me back up for a moment.  In his post about his Critter Code of Ethics (an important read for anyone thinking about giving or receiving criticism), my friend Stephen Parrish writes:

There are three kinds of writers: those who aren't interested in criticism; those who, when they ask for criticism, are really seeking validation; and those who incorporate criticism and improve their work.

This is a fundamental truth that a lot of folks don't stop to consider.  I know that I was personally in that second group for most of my younger life -- I'd ask for criticism, expect praise, and then sulk if I got actual criticism.  This helped no one, least of all me, and wasted the time of the person who was giving me critiques. 

Taking Criticism Effectively Is Hard
Even back in college, when my wife would give me perfectly valid (and quite insightful) commentary on my own fiction writing, I was known for having an overstrong emotional reaction.  Part of the problem was this: when we were younger, and I was a worse writer, she pretty much just gave me praise, oohing and ahing over what was good and ignoring the rest.  Then as we both grew older and wiser, she started actually trying to give me better feedback; she'd stayed in the field of literature, which I'd partly abandoned for computers, and she'd picked up a lot of stuff I had not.  However, in that same span I had also grown as a writer as most people do with time, and so my experience was that I had gotten better and she was suddenly critical.

Of course, that wasn't what was happening at all.  It was merely that she was more sure of herself and of me, and that I was far enough along the path of my abortive literary career that I should have been ready to hear her criticism.  There was some undeserved static from me in the meantime, but eventually we worked through that, I managed to mostly put my emotional reactions on hold, and we both managed to learn a lot together from the process of editing my novels.

However, Taking Criticism Effectively Is Worthwhile
So, happy story, right?  Put your emotions on hold, suck it up and delve into the criticism that will make your work better.  It's certainly a big theme at Arcen, where everyone on the team tries to put their egos on hold as much as possible and there's a more-or-less free flow of constructive criticism between the members of the team.  That's largely something we conduct in private for reasons of decorum, but what's quite public is the suggestions forum for AI War, which is one of the favorite sections of our forum system: it's seen over ten thousand posts in the last year, and we've completed more than 1,400 individual items during that time.

What makes this work?  I would say that one major factor in both cases is the sense of trust.  When AI War was new, and the player community was only partially formed, I had a much harder time emotionally dealing with all of the suggestions.  It's like sticking your head into a fire hydrant of "you should have done this, why didn't you do that?"  It can feel very negative, very draining, and like the people who are your supposed "fans" aren't actually liking your work much at all.  Amongst staff members, it can feel like professional rivalry or worse.

That's when there is not a sense of trust.  I think I did a pretty good job of swallowing my feelings despite myself in those early days of AI War, and I don't think I publicly let on overmuch how I was really feeling.  But I was miserable, I was stressed, and I was worried that nobody really liked my game all that much.  In short, I was having huge bouts of insecurity, which is natural for anyone who has taken great pains to create something, and then has thrust it out in front of the world for criticism.

And that's around the time when that magical missing ingredient showed up: trust.  As last summer wore on, and the popularity of my game grew, the volume of suggestions grew high enough that I couldn't hope to address them all.  That might make it sound like AI War isn't very good, but actually players are just bursting over with suggestions and ideas for pretty much every game ever created.  In most cases they simply don't have an outlet for those suggestions, so they just gripe on forums.  But in the case of AI War, they did have an outlet.  And that's where the trust came from.  There were too many suggestions for me to do them all, everyone could see that, but they could also see that I was listening, and trying.  They could trust that they had a voice, and I'd do my best to make everyone happy. 

Similarly, I began to see that these actually were fans of the game, as true of fans as you could possibly ask for.  Not only did they enjoy the game, but they spent enough time thinking about the game and playing it that they were willing to write up ideas for me to consider.  Once I could no longer keep up with the flood of ideas, I soon learned that it wasn't the actual implementation of any specific idea that would keep players happy, but rather that I'd at least consider all the ideas, and take them into account as I improved the game.  Sure, everyone prefers it when their own actual idea is used, but people are pretty reasonable about the circumstances when there are thousands of them and one or two of us.

So, long story short, an environment of trust happened to form, and the feedback cycle of suggestions and improvements became a daily or weekly routine rather than an unexpected and emotional event.  As more staff were added to Arcen, they came into this environment and that attitude of trust formed amongst our small team as we worked together, cautiously testing the waters with one another with constructive criticism, notes, and ideas outside our direct areas of expertise.

In short: there are a lot of benefits to having these sorts of sources of criticism, but the environment has to be suitably safe.  And that doesn't happen overnight.

So Why Don't I Like Critiquing What Others Create?
Well, as anyone on my staff can tell you, I'm certainly full of critiques.  If something is so much as one pixel off, I'll comment on it.  Not in a mean way, but I value precision and correctness, and I think everyone else on the team agrees.  They comment on things I've done quite a lot, too.  This is a two-way street.

So when I say I don't like critiquing the work of others, I'm referring to people that I don't have that level of relationship with.  My inclination is to absolutely pick apart whatever someone shows me, not to be mean, but to make it better.  However, in almost all cases if the other party has not had that intensity of criticism before, they're going to get overwhelmed and probably will have a negative reaction to it.  And I'll have wasted my time.

It happens to the best of us.  Stephen Parrish, the author of the Critter Code of Ethics above, sent out an email asking for comments on an event-specific website he had created a while back.  Knowing his views on literary criticism, and having a long history of web design, I really let loose on the site he was working on.  I thought a lot of aspects were good, and overall I very much liked his site, but that didn't stop me from writing over five thousand words of criticism about a 7-page site.  He and I have always been on great terms, but that particular endeavor of mine was a waste of several hours of my time, suffice it to say. 

I had another critique partner years ago where the result wasn't as happy.  We'd talked online for a few months and had similar outlooks on writing, and we decided to swap manuscripts.  We'd both had some near misses with agents, and felt like we were on the verge of picking up representation (as it turned out, she was but I was not).  I diligently critiqued the first 8 chapters of her manuscript, and by the end of that process I had written as many words in red as she had originally had in the chapters to begin with.  This was very poorly received.  She handed back my first chapter with notes that she felt the protagonist was arrogant and unlikeable, and little else.  It was written in the first person, in my voice.  Go figure.  We didn't really speak much after that.

Suffice it to say, my track record is not overly great with individual critique partners.  To me, it's a minor miracle that the Arcen staff and community works together so smoothly, and I'm not entirely certain how that came about.  Call it blind luck, divine providence, or whatever, but I can't tell you how to recreate it.  I guess it's just having the right mix of personalities.

Critiquing Versus Evaluating
I'm making up some terminology here, but I'm going to make a distinction between "critiquing" something and "evaluating" that same thing. 

Personally, when I critique something, I rip it apart.  The slightest flaws are mentioned and explored, possible alternatives are suggested for every last non-perfect facet, and red ink is thick on the ground.  You can hand me my very favorite games ever, what I consider masterpieces, and the effect of this would be extraordinarily diminished but not erased.  There is no game or literary work that is above all reproach.

Normal games, anything not at the absolute pinnacle of its genre, don't stand a chance under that kind of scrutiny.  In all seriousness, my process for tearing apart games is very much the same as that in Zero Punctuation.  I only discovered ZP in the last few months, but I've watched almost all the videos and I'd say I agree with about 70% of what he says.

Except what he's doing is evaluating a game, to use my newly-minted terminology.  I presume that he, like most people, fires up a game and starts playing it, intending to enjoy it.  Then every time something jumps out at him as being sub-par or wrong, he makes a mental note of it.  In the games he likes, very little jumps out at him.  In the games he rips into on his reviews, things were jumping out at him left and right.

In the case of a critique, there's a different process I go through: I'm not playing this to enjoy it.  I don't even care if I enjoy it.  I'm here to find every last flaw I can, to make the work stronger.  I've worked with a couple of professional editors in the last decade or so, and their approach was much the same: they were here not to destroy, but to break down to help me to rebuild.  As one put it (to paraphrase), "I quite enjoyed your book, but you'll notice that just about every page is covered in red.  Take this for what it is: a mark of respect.  In the book industry, editors only give so much feedback for authors whom they feel would actually benefit from that much effort.  If I didn't think that all this feedback would help you in making this the best possible book you can make it, I wouldn't have spent the time."

That editor forever changed my perception of criticism.  I wasn't being nit-picky all those years, I was just doing what she was doing.  Which is, admittedly, picking nits.  But assumedly you want a nit-free game or novel, which is why you asked someone to critique it... right?

All too often, the answer is no.  Most of the time, people are just looking for validation of their work, and that's it.  They approach professional authors with hopes of either getting some validation from someone who already made it into the business or even in hopes that the author will think the work is so amazing that he will recommend it immediately to his agent and editors. 

That almost never happens, because generally manuscripts that are that amazing have already found an agent or editor without going to those lengths.  Most manuscripts that haven't are in need of a good nit-picking before they're really ready, and the best you can hope for from a professional author is that they'll rip into your stuff.  And that's generally devastating enough for you that it's a waste of their time.

Critiquing Is Critical Thinking
Why critique?  It's because you want to make something better.  If we never saw the flaws in anything, nothing would ever improve, right?  And thankfully almost nothing in our world is perfect -- if there was too much perfection, there would be nothing left to do, no more room in which to grow, and that would be the most depressing thing I can think of.  Fortunately, there's room for improvement all around us, in everything we have made and do.  Fifty years from now, everything in your house will seem cheap and outdated, if current trends hold.

Part of critical thinking also involves recognizing what has been done right.  Unlike Stephen Parrish, I also believe very strongly that it's important to tell people what they have done right.  He thinks that's useless as a general rule, but I think the utility lies in the fact that often people just do things instinctively, and don't consciously know what others react to well, or why they react to it well.  I get a lot of positive commentary on AI War as well, and quite a lot of it has also been instructive to me.  And when it comes to the staff, I give out at least as much positive commentary as I do negative.

Simple, honest -- and hard to swallow, if you were just looking for effusive praise.

So, What Was "Evaluating" Again?
I never really explained that, did I?  Critiquing is actively looking for flaws, whereas evaluating is not.  Normally when I play games for recreation, I'm just in evaluation mode.  I play to enjoy, and I note things that I particularly enjoy, or that particularly impede my enjoyment.  Small flaws or things that I would do differently slip right under the radar, because I'm not actively trying to find them.  Heck, I'm here to enjoy the game, after all!

But at the same time, any author should be evaluating every book they read, and any game designer should be doing the same with every game they play.  And authors should read, just as game designers should play games.  It's the only way to grow, as it's the only way to spark ideas that don't come solely from within yourself.  Working in isolation is not a very conductive path to growth.

So anyway, most of the time I try to stay in evaluation mode just to see the forest instead of the trees, to use a different analogy.  Then if I spot something specifically of note (for good or ill), I might delve into the critique mode for just a bit.  When someone does something strikingly well or poorly, it can be very useful to think about it more actively to really understand why it worked as it did.

Hopefully my reasons are now clear for avoiding requests to critique the games of others.  Personally, I've had very little luck with that, and often wind up spending a lot of well-intentioned effort crafting a critique that is of no use to the other party, demoralizes them, and gets them mad at me.  Because all too often I misinterpret what the person was really asking for, and they don't understand quite what they'd be getting into with me.

And for the record, if you're looking to break into the business you're far better off going directly to the distributors and press with a suitably awesome game.  Other indie developers that have already had some level of success are rarely in the position to open any doors into the industry for you.

Lest this post spark even more requests for critiques than I normally get, I should also note that time is particularly thin on the ground for me.  I love answering questions and try to make blog posts to help out other indies with ways for them to improve their work or to help them break into the business, but there is rarely the time for me to do full critiques these days.  I'm going to be a new dad within the next six weeks, and I'm already finding it really hard to balance all of the various jobs I have.  I don't mean any offense to anyone, but I have to tend to my family first, then my own job, and at the moment there is very little left after those two things.

The best source for critiques isn't other developers or even reviewers, anyway.  It's players.  It's the would-be fans of the games you create who just couldn't get into it for whatever reason; the genre experts on the genres you wish to inhabit; and the actual fans of your game, who even so will have ideas on ways to make it better.  If you want the best possible feedback for making your game everything you want it to be, seek out those people and get their opinions.  Having a designer friend or two to toss ideas around with doesn't hurt, but it's the players that are collectively more expert than all of us in terms of knowing what they want and what they like and don't like.  Just listen to them.

This Blog Now Featured On GameDevBlogs

Pretty cool!
In 2009 Christopher founded Arcen Games, an indie company who have already made a handful of PC and Mac games. As such, his articles on achieving success as an indie developer, and working with the press as an indie both have a lot of weight.

Very recommended reading for anyone interested in that side of the games industry.

That's not to say that Christopher is just about the business side of things. There are also lengthy articles on game design topics that are well worth reading.

So just what is GameDevBlogs?  Well, it's new, but here's their spiel about themselves:
GameDevBlogs' mission is to become the best resource for finding new blogs written by video game developers. Whether famous or unheard of, student or experienced, a developer's writing will be listed here. If you are interested in finding something new to read, select a blog category, pick a site at random, and enjoy.

Or, as they described it to me in an email, "a site dedicated to listing the blogs of game developers, so inquiring minds can find good reading material more easily."  That seems like a very worthy goal to me, and it's always great to see new resources (especially meta-resources like this) appear for new and aspiring indie developers.  There are a lot of developer blogs out there, so I imagine they'll have their hands full archiving all of them, heh.  Good stuff!

On Writing: Frequent Offenders In The Manuscript Analyzer

I recently got the following note via email, which I thought asked a great question:
I had recently discovered your Manuscript Analyzer program, which I've been using for a better understanding of the editing process.  But, what I don't understand is why the word "were" is a frequent offender?  When properly used with a verb, especially with one ending in -ing, the word "were" is perfectly acceptable.  Would I have to use my own discretion, or is there another explanation?

That's a really great question.  Here's my response:

With any of the frequent offenders, bear in mind that you have to use your own discretion and judgment -- the tool tries to give you a good overall idea of areas you might need to check, but these are at best red flags, not definitive notices of error. In most cases, anyway -- in the case of some of the frequent offenders, you've got words that are always wrong, like irregardless.

In the specific case of were, it's not even that the word itself is too much of a problem, but that if it is too prevalent it can be indicative of sentence structure that isn't varied or creative enough.

For example: "They were eating lunch.  The horses were in the pasture.  They could see the clouds were passing by overhead."  This is pretty unimaginative, and is something that tends to pop up in the first drafts of a lot of manuscripts. 

Much better construction might be something like: "They ate lunch on the terrace.  Horses grazed in the pasture below, with clouds drifting lazily by overhead."

Again, there's nothing wrong with saying "they were eating lunch."  You'll find sentences like that in any manuscript, and peppered throughout published books.  Sometimes that's the exact right thing to say, for reasons of pacing, tone, or simply because it sounds right.

On the other hand, you often read a lot of amateur manuscripts, or rough first drafts even of professionals, where the sentence construction reads almost like a monotone because of all those "was/were x-ing" constructions.  It's always up to the individual writer or editor to make their own judgments, and certainly in a rough draft it's better to just get the thoughts down on paper without worrying about the flow of the language, but when it comes time for revision this is one of the areas where a lot of writers spend a ton of their time.  I know I do!