Somebody slap me in the face

How does one treat a new game developer? I’m not strictly talking about the greenest of the green: the term “new” is very subjective, and may even incorporate those who have been attempting the craft for years. But whatever your understanding of the term may be, the question still stands: how do you react to their work? How do you treat their offerings, as paltry as they may be?

Dev.Mag’s own dominating message is one of continuous encouragement: it serves as that helping hand which is so incredibly important for people intimidated by the development industry (oh how great their numbers are, dear reader!) and those who are disillusioned with the prospect of ever getting anywhere with their work.

I find this to be particularly vital for a development environment such as South Africa, where the industry is still young, small and rather untapped. Struggling developers need to be yanked out of a pit of seemingly inherent negativity and presented with a ‘small fry’ development model that works. They need to see success stories, they need to socialise with similar developers and they need to hear that their work is worth something – that it’ll ultimately lead on to something better.

Unfortunately, the over-enthusiastic application of kind words and enthusiastic responses to humble projects can lead to what I call of a community of back-patters: a bunch of developers who, through some means or another, have fallen into that trap of glorifying poor work and encouraging even the most misguided of development paths.

Are we, through the best of intentions, inadvertently breeding mediocrity? Can we trust our good words and praise to be put to use properly, or will most developers just end up sitting on their laurels, soaking up their precious few moments of glory?

I look at the standard feedback process with a critical eye because I spent a good eight years of my life making games without ever exchanging words with a single fellow developer. I introduced myself to programming at an early age, grabbed a few tutorials from the Internet and went full steam ahead without the benefits that a well-developed community would typically offer.

My greatest critic was always my brother. And he was damn harsh. A project which I’d been slaving away at for weeks usually earned nothing more than a raised eyebrow, a second or two on the computer and a profound declaration of, “This game sucks.” He wasn’t a fellow developer. He wasn’t a friend. He was just a mainstream gamer who liked good graphics and triple-A gameplay. He was quite possibly the most unforgiving audience that could ever be inflicted upon an enthusiast, and to this day he’s never spent more than a few minutes playing any of my games. The highest praise that I’ve ever received from him is a grudging confession that a given project is technically or graphically superior to the previous one, but it’s usually left at that.

When I finally signed up with the Game.Dev group a few years back and presented my very first community project to them – a top-down hack-and-slash dungeon crawl that I tentatively named “Glyph Hunter” – I was already able to impress some members with the sophistication and development of what appeared to be my very first project. And for the first time ever, I received unambiguously high praise for my work. The feedback was overwhelming, and I was persuaded to continue.

In the back of my mind, however, remained the suspicion that this was not the best I could do – the amount of praise which I received was still somehow unrealistic to me. Every subsequent project had me refining my work, improving my system and setting new development goals that my previous efforts had failed to aspire to. And while I still consider myself to be far from a genius of game development, I can at least say that I’ve improved considerably in the time that I’ve been working at it.

I’m not suggesting that as a critic you should invariably lambast the work of others if you want them to improve. Not everybody has the determination to pick themselves up after extremely poor feedback – especially if they’re new to the craft. If a complete neophyte approaches you with their first ever Game Maker project, then give them a pat on the back and welcome them into the fold, even if their product is just two crappy triangles shooting dots at each other for a couple of seconds. You have to be realistic about people’s capabilities, after all.

But assessing a person’s development is a two-way street. It may be difficult to be the bad cop, but if you know that somebody is holding back on their capabilities – or you’re absolutely certain that they can take the criticism – then let them have it and don’t hold back. I always judge people the most harshly when I believe that their capabilities are up to scratch – I’ve surprised a few associates in the past with a sudden bout of interrogation and criticisms that didn’t exist before, and that’s not just for game development. It’s a sign of genuine faith in a person’s work, and if they reciprocate properly, then you may end up bolstering their capabilities far more than simple ego-pandering would ever achieve.

To those who are in a position to provide feedback: be realistic. Be respectful. And be constructive. Assess the work and the psychology of the individual and try to engage them on a level which would best propel them forward. Unreservedly pandering to the ego may not be the ideal option in all cases.

And to those of you who end up on the receiving end of less-than-generous criticism: react in whatever way you deem necessary. Ignore it, rail against it, or make a hasty retreat back to your game development fortress. Your actions are entirely up to you. But whatever you do, make sure that your next project becomes a step towards proving your detractors wrong. Don’t ever let your game development spirit break completely, and don’t ever give up if you want to be great one day.

After all, it sometimes takes a little trial by fire to bring out what’s best in all of us. A little criticism can never truly hurt you – and if you take it the right way, it may just make you a whole lot better.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]