Giving & Taking Critiques For Game Developers

[In this article, 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun offers some some tips on giving and receiving criticism when working in game development.]

Obviously, we all want to get along with those we work with. Video game development can be such a grueling, long, complicated and ever-changing process, that the last thing we need while developing one is for anybody to feel unhappy about their role in that process. Even if everyone’s having a blast and feeling great, it’s rough, we need to make sure not to step on toes and allow personal problems to be a major obstacle. In some cases, personal relations can break down so much that a project can be delayed or canceled.

So we don’t want to step on each other’s toes. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. However, as game developers who are working with a team of peers, we’re almost constantly in a position where we need to give our opinions about something. Game designers have to tell programmers, “No, the jump physics still aren’t right, even though it was your fourth try.” Art directors have to tell other artists working under them that a 3D model’s proportions aren’t consistent with the art style, or even that it’s simply not up to snuff. Everyone in the team, regardless of role, has to be able to give his or her opinion about how the project is going. And most of the time, when one person is giving this opinion, they end up rejecting someone else’s work.

The answer is certainly not to avoid giving those opinions — “if you see something, say something,” as the subway anti-terrorism motto goes. Obviously, if we don’t speak up when we see a problem, that problem very well may get shipped and affect the game’s quality, reception, and legacy. Opinions are of great importance — we just have to learn how to give them, and how to take them, to become a stronger team.

First off, know that giving and taking criticism is a skill that must be developed. Besides being an independent game developer for many years, I also went to music school for composition. A large part of the program was bringing in music I had composed, and having people simply tear it apart. After a few years of this kind of criticism, you get used to it, and realize that it’s not the end of the world if someone dislikes, or even hates your work. For all of us, it will get easier the more we do it.

There’s almost no situation in which a dissenting opinion does not lead to a discussion (although it’s a great idea to challenge someone when they agree with you. Play devil’s advocate!), and if you’ve studied debate at all, many of the techniques you learned will be of great use when exchanging opinions.

Below are a few tips for giving opinions well.

– Explain your opinions well. Do not be vague; it helps no one to simply say, “I just don’t like it, I can’t say why.” Give specific examples, compare the work in question to other works, and discuss how this work would fit into the larger picture. There are some times when you might have a negative reaction to something, but you’re simply unable to voice it. In those cases, I’ve found it’s best to just delay the reaction. Say something like “I’m not sure what I think of this yet. Let me get back to you,” and then make an effort to figure out what it is you’re feeling. Remember that you owe your project and your team your honest, clear opinions.
– Be wary of dishonest argument practices, or logical fallacies in your discussions. One example would be simply appealing to your expertise to settle a disagreement — something akin to, “Look, I went to art school, and I’m saying this is better.” There’s such a thing as expert opinion, and it should generally have a kind of weight over uninformed opinion, but at the end of the day the quality of the argument is what should win an argument.
– A game isn’t built to show off any particular person’s prowess; a game is built to be the best it can be. Allow ideas from people with fewer qualifications than yourself to have a chance. Try to judge all ideas equally, whether they come from yourself or someone else. Give credit where credit’s due. Remember that we’re all fallible.

In order to be honest and move quickly in development, you have to trust your fellow developers. Trust that they will be able to handle your critique in a positive and effective way. Taking opinions well is just as important as giving them well.

– The number one rule is to not take critiques personally. If someone is attacking or dismissing your piece, remember that they’re attacking and dismissing the piece, not you.
– Trust the person giving the critique. For the sake of progress, you have to have good faith that they are giving you their honest opinion, and not being competitive.
– At the end of the day, you may not be able to agree, even after hours and hours of debate. That’s why most teams have a person who is in charge of a particular department, and can make a final call just for the sake of time and progress. Later on, if it’s still an issue, you can revisit the discussion, although it may not be in the budget to go back to it.

So why do we make all these mistakes in the first place? Part of it is that, just like anything else, critiques take practice. However, a huge hurdle is simple human insecurity. If I’m insecure already about my musical ability, and my boss rejects a piece of mine, I am not likely to take it well. “Alpha-male” (or female) competitive egos can also be a major vehicle for destructive discussions and time-wasters.

Whatever you do, you should never allow yourself to live in a sort of “fear of opinions” — a state where you’re afraid to give opinions and afraid to get them. We should all welcome opinions from all angles, for they in and of themselves can never hurt us. The skill of cleanly harnessing the power of external opinions might be the single most valuable skill a game developer can ever learn.

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