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Ten tips to staying sane as a designer


One of the things that I'm asked about a lot is how to filter feedback, and how to know you are making the right choices. (tip, on the latter point, you won't ever know for sure, where would be the excitement in life if you did?) 

In this day and age we get a lot of feedback, focus testers, our bosses, our colleagues, quality assurance, even our own inner demons ... and then we have the internet ... the internet never shuts up, and it is rarely all that nice about it. However the internet also gets a bad rap sometimes, there are also lots of intelligent, smart people out there, who every now and again manage to craft some constructive dialog amongst all the You Tube comment style static.

Brazil's Independent Games Festival 2014


So how do you stay sane as a designer with all that damned feedback flying around? Here is a list of some of the things that I have found helps, neatly categorized into little bite-sized chunks of feedback on feedback ....

Take responsibility, you can't make everyone happy ...
The things is, it is genuinely not about the internet, or your peers. it's not about other people's opinions it's about you. You, and only you, can govern how helpful feedback is to your process ... but the first thing you must accept is that you shouldn't listen to everyone. You simply can't, everyone can't possibly be right, because this is reality, and everyone won't agree. We haven't reached the point in history when we form a borg style collective consciousness yet, so until then, you have to accept that if you set out to make everyone happy, you will almost undoubtedly destroy whatever idea it is that you are currently crafting into a game. There is a reason that society acknowledges that design by committee is generally a bad idea. In fact I'll wager good money that there will be a committee heavily involved, when we do end up embarking on the process that leads humanity to become a borg style collective ...  

Don't be a dick! 
However the flip side is, and I hate to break it to you, but you won't always be right. Sucks, I know. We might like to think otherwise, but last I checked very few of us were infallible. Don't come across as if you are a divine gift to game design. You almost certainly aren't ... which leads us nicely to ...

Learn from your mistakes ...
We all screw up. We listen to the wrong feedback, or go with our gut when the data was right, or choose the data when our gut had nailed it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Acknowledge when you got it wrong. Don't make excuses, own them, and then file the experience under 'don't do that again'. I have honestly never gotten mad at anyone down the years for a genuine mistake, but I tend to get all kinds of furious when someone repeats a mistake. 

Remember your goals ...
Learn to ignore the compulsion to react to every suggestion and comment, even, on occasion, the good ones! The important thing is to put them in context of your game, your goals, and your objectives. Always do this. Remember the core goals of your project. What are the pillars of the experience? Stick to the concepts that you have agreed are vital to the core concept of the game (coincidentally if you didn't decide what those were before you started, now would be a great time to do so ... they are kind of important).

As long as you keep linking the feedback back to your goals you won't go far wrong. Use that which can improve and build upon those core ideals, and learn to filter out those that wouldn't impact that core experience. If you ever get to the place where that core experience is as good as perfect, then you can widen your scope    

Build your confidence ...
Now, if you are working in games, someone thinks you know something about it, and you are generally where you are for a reason. That means you might even know what you are doing, and being able to trust in your knowledge and experience is a vital part of being a good designer. The key to going from a good designer to a great designer, is often developing the sort of self awareness that allows you to take feedback and know which of it to listen to, and what to ignore. So how do you do that?

Ask yourself why ...
With any feedback you need to learn to differentiate between what is being reported, and why it is being reported. The what, the mechanical issue being discussed, is often a red herring, the more important question to ask yourself is why someone is giving you that feedback. This is because often the what might simply be a side effect of another deeper issue, and may not even be the cause of the complaint. You are the designer, you need to go deeper. Always ask yourself why someone might feel that way. You'll often find it had nothing to do with what they they complained about, and your solution may well lie elsewhere. Fixing, or changing, the proverbial 'what' may just be a band aid covering the problems causing the 'why'

Don't treat development like a popularity contest ...
Ignoring feedback is hard. It is a fairly fundamental human emotion to want to be liked. Most of us have that nasty little insecurity biting away at our heels throughout our lives, regardless of how successful we may otherwise be. The damn critter never goes away. It is a pesky trait, but one that is well worth conquering (or at the very least learning how to lock it away in a reasonably sturdy closet for a while). Don't take things personally, and try to remain as impartial as possible when assessing feedback.

Telling someone what you think they want to hear, rather than what you are actually doing, just because it is what you think they want to hear, is about as poor a foundation for staying credible as I can imagine. Yes, this means some corners of the internet might end up disliking you, they may even use your name, or likeness, in meme related assaults upon your good name. Sticks and stones as they say ...

Be humble about it ...
Seriously, no-one likes a know-it all. Live by this one every day. People will like you, and people work better with people they like and respect. Listen to your team mates, listen to your boss, listen to your players, and hear them out. You don't have to agree just because you listened. Staff, seniors, players, or your customers, will often feel much better if you come across as a nice, approachable, and honest guy / gal.

Yes, this is effectively the inverse of tip number two, mainly because it is worth repeating. 

Acknowledge the process ...
Sometimes people just want to know they were heard. This can be very important within a team structure. Even if you don't end up agreeing with someone, it is often important just to acknowledge that an opinion was considered. Even if you don't feel it was a particularly practical suggestion, idea, or piece of feedback, the simple act of acknowledging it often goes a long way to keeping good communication lines opening, and leads us neatly to the last point .... 

Give feedback in return ...
Acknowledging an idea is one thing. It is even better when you can elaborate, and give feedback on the feedback. Of course this isn't possible with each and every single suggestion, comment, or complaint you will receive, that just isn't possible. (Unless you plan on only doing that for the remainder of your existence!) However on important points, the big ticket questions that come up, never underestimate the importance of explaining why something is being done. Explaining that there was a process, that other options were considered, and why you came to the conclusion you did, will often help people accept it ... 

... some people will accept it that is ... because everyone?

No, you can't make everyone happy ... back to rule number one!

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