How to defeat negative self-talk 3

We all know that good old stereotype: the one which dictates that all computer-bound people are highly introverted and extremely antisocial individuals who wouldn’t know how to start a conversation even if they were slapped in the face with their grandmother’s knickers.

I can cite quite a few examples of why this is incredibly untrue, but at the same time I’m going to lend that statement some small credence and say this: I know that a lot of way-too-shy developers are out there. I’ve met loads of them personally. As the well-worn marketing slogan goes, for every dev that steps up and soaks up some limelight, there’s a good thousand or so hiding in the shadows, busy suffering from plagues of anxiety.

Unfortunately, fear isn’t going to get you anywhere. You can try every marketing trick in the book, but if you’re going to cave in to negative feedback, crumple when trying to fire off a press e-mail, or hesitate when ready to click on the “reply” button in any context, you’re ultimately going to lose the war against obscurity.

To this end, we’re not going to have a session telling you how to promote your work. We’re not going to explain how to maximise your gain from criticisms and feedback. We’re going to identify, analyse and overcome that bane of every game developer’s existence: negative self-talk. Because if there’s one thing that will ruin your chances at marketing, it’s your own doubts, fears and insecurities.

My game isn

Something which I often lament is the tendency of places like to pick up something that I consider half-complete and parade it in front of their readers. It’s kinda like being a spotty, insecure teenager and having somebody decide that grabbing and sharing your personal porn collection with all of your classmates – including that secret crush of yours — is a perfectly sane and rational idea.

The funny thing? This “unwanted exposure” has, in every case, benefitted me. Most recently, a Minesweeper variant I made called Onslaught of the Electric Zombies was put onto IndieGames while it was still a work in progress. “Oh crap,” I thought, “This is too soon. Everybody’s going to find out, play it, see the bugs, complain about lack of polish and HATE ME FOREVER!”

It turned out to be not all that bad. As a result of the game’s exposure, I gained not only several valuable playtesters, but enough encouragement and positive feedback to continue working on the game and, ultimately, complete it. As an added bonus, I enjoyed an updated review on IndieGames a few weeks later … and this time, I was very happy indeed to see it up there!

Moral of the story: if you send your game off to a reviewer, or post it on a forum, or get your little brother to play it, don’t worry about whether or not it’s “quite good enough”. Even if a particular source hates it and absolutely refuses to play it ever again ever ever (which isn’t really a guarantee in itself), there’s always going to be plenty of other fish in the sea. If Forum 1 isn’t impressed by your product, you can use it as a springboard to improve your game and get it seen by Forums 2 through 187223487. [That is not a small number. That is a big number! – Ed]

First impressions count less than you’d think. If somebody catches a review of your game, they’ll very rarely be mindful of your previous products unless you’ve already secured them as a fan. The Internet is, after all, too big to care. That means that until you get your first really popular game out, you can consider your career as a blank slate which constantly resets itself until you do something right. Heck, it’s like a quick-save in real life! And with that in mind, what have you got to lose?


This relates to point number 1 quite closely, but addresses a more immediate fear: when we open up that feedback thread for the first time and see a dozen initial responses to our game, we’re secretly praying that we don’t receive a hate-filled ragespout of spittle and derision aimed at us, our product and our dog. A bout of truly serious negative feedback is jarring for anyone, and may even skew your self-confidence enough to halt development, regardless of any positive feedback received elsewhere.

I hate to break it to you, but you’re inevitably going to get this sort of feedback at some point or another. Heck, it just becomes more likely as you become more popular. To this day, my own brother still hates every single one of the games that I produce — but that doesn’t mean that everyone else feels the same way.

As any sort of game developer, you need to grow a thicker skin and mentally assert yourself. When some jackass decides to slag off one of Edmund McMillen’s games, for example, the gent doesn’t just crumple and give up on game creation altogether. Heck, he recently released the awesome Time Fcukand is showing no signs of a slowdown, despite the fact that he, Adam Saltsman, Kyle Gabler and all of the other successful devs out there have probably received criticisms that would make your eyes bleed just from reading them.

If you’re worried about approval, you’re in the same boat as the best of the best. In an interview with Dev.Mag about Spelunky, Derek Yu remarked how he was constantly surprised at the positive feedback his games were receiving. That’s right folks, a show of insecurity from Derek freaking Yu at a point in his career when, if anything, one may imagine him suffering from swollen head syndrome instead. Just like every other dev out there, he’s concerned about how his games will fare. He just doesn’t let those concerns cripple him.

I repeat: there’s no easy way around this. You will be criticised: sometimes really, really unfairly and nastily. Steel yourself and remember that you must avoid the temptation to focus on these comments more than the positive feedback. It’s a cognitive bias that we all have, and it needs to be fought against.

I mustn

How many of us have ever made ourselves out to be skilled / knowledgeable / great in bed only to be laid low by somebody better / smarter / sexier? Chances are that we’ve all been forced to eat humble pie at some point or another, and a well-balanced individual will take this into account when engaging in future interactions.

There are, however, two unhealthy ways of approaching this problem. One is to retreat into denial and favour overwhelming arrogance over self-discovery. The other extreme is to lower one’s confidence to the point where valid assertion isn’t possible: fear of being the aforementioned “arrogant asshole” drives a person into a shell that doesn’t permit self-promotion. And in the marketing world, that’s really pretty bad.

No matter what the quality of your game may be, you should always ask yourself: did I put work into this? Was there considerable time and effort invested in this product? Did I give up my spare afternoon/week/month to work on the damn bugger when I could have been doing something else?

Don’t compare yourself to other people. Don’t get hung up on whether or not you can match that Flash game you played online last week. Just consider whether or not you’ve poured your heart into your work. If you’ve had the blood, sweat and tears thing going for even just a moment, you’ve earned the right to trumpet your game. People are allowed to dislike your title, sure, but if anybody sends a snarky reply to your press release telling you to not bother with your promotion, fire an e-mail straight back telling them to do indecent things to animals. Sprinkle a little arrogance here and there. Call your game “the newest and bestest of its genre”. Pat your own damn back and stop worrying for a moment. All you have to do is follow three golden rules:

  1. don’t tell an outright lie,
  2. don’t go hideously over the top (unless for humour, which often works) and
  3. don’t slag off other people’s games.

These actions will identify you as an asshole — see below section on “really really screwing up” for more details.

What if I screw up?

We’ve all had that horrible dream before. You know what I’m talking about: the one where you’re due to give this big, fancy presentation to a whole bunch of people, then halfway through the speech somebody points at you, giggling, and holy crap, you’re not wearing any pants!

This isn’t really the case with marketing platforms like the Internet: in fact, nobody really cares if you do your surfing naked as long as, you know, they’re not actually in the same room with you. And even then, you could probably get away with it in the long run.

The thing is, part of being human is screwing up in various ways. In a sense: it will happen. It’s just a matter of when. Resign yourself to this, do your best, and accept that when a mistake occurs, it’ll be forgotten quickly and nobody will think any less of you for it.

The only people who regularly fall victim to screw-up mockery are, well, already celebrities, and chances are that unless you screw up really, really badly, you’re not going to warrant any lasting attention for your mistakes. As mentioned earlier: the Internet is too big to care.

What if I screw up really, really badly?

Oh boy, a lot to say here.

What would you consider an exceptional screw-up? Posting naked pictures of yourself on every gaming forum in existence? Murdering a reviewer’s kitten? Before we try stepping through any more over-the-top scenarios, let’s just make one thing clear: there are some ways in which you can screw up rather fantastically and still get away with it. Heck, when Tim Schafer first applied for a game development job with LucasArts, he inadvertently told them that he’d pirated one of their games. You don’t get much more faux pas than that.

We all make rather cringe-worthy mistakes in our lives — particularly when we’re promoting ourselves — but they’ll rarely come back to haunt us unless we have some dickish friends who want to embarrass us at a party. In a professional sense, you can do a lot of things massively wrong and still come out unscathed.

During my first tentative months as a freelance journalist, I had the awesome opportunity of conducting an in-person interview with Jimmy Wales, the big guy behind Wikipedia. Needless to say, I was very excited and decided that I absolutely had to make a good impression by asking really intelligent-sounding questions to come across as far more experienced than I actually was.

It was a complete disaster. First of all, I had to be incredibly rude and cancelled our original face-to-face interview in favour of e-mail correspondence because I’d forgotten about some prior university commitments. Then, in the interview itself, I passed a rather derogatory comment about “unfunny, blatant rip-offs” of Wikipedia such as Uncyclopedia. Jimmy carefully explained that he actually quite liked Uncyclopedia, and that Wikia Inc. now owned it.

Already reeling from my own short-sightedness, I decided that a last-ditch smarty pants question was in order: I asked Jimmy if he thought that open-source ever ran the risk of becoming proprietary itself due to rampant commercialism. Anybody familiar with, well, the basics of open-source would know that this is the most eye-bleedingly stupid question that anyone could ever ask – never mind somebody who was supposed to be a professional journalist. I could feel the palpable hesitation in his reply as he slowly — and clearly — explained open source to me and why this problem would not come to pass.

I left the question — and his answer — out of the final interview transcript.

Did I lose my job? Did I earn the ire of computer geeks everywhere? Was I forbidden from ever using Wikipedia again? No, no and no: in fact, good ol’ Jimmy has probably forgotten about me by now, which means that unless I, say, write an article outlining the mistakes I made with that interview and subsequently publish it online, nobody will ever, ever know about it.

On a more serious note, though: people tend to forgive stupids, but not assholes. Tim Langdell is treated as an unambiguous villain in the indie community nowadays due to his “trademark trolling” and litigation attempts against developers such as Mobigame, and it’s not likely that he’ll be able to shake off his newly-acquired reputation any time soon.

And if you want an (admittedly humorous) example of why you SHOULDN’T hurl rampant abuse at an entire community, ragequit and then crawl back a few months later without any hint of an apology to promote your shareware game, look no further than this old Game.Dev forum thread (strong language warning).

If you make a mistake, no matter how big, then so be it. You can learn and move on. Just don’t be a dick.

And finally:


Another tough answer, but it has to be delivered: marketing is difficult. It’s a lot like that eponymous situation in film noir when the grizzled senior detective stumbles upon yet another murder case. “This job never gets any easier,” they mutter, just before lighting up another cigarette and getting on with it anyway.

The truth is that marketing is a difficult and harrowing ego gamble for everyone. Your skill, your experience, your established fan base … all of these mean about as much as a mouse fart in a supernova when it comes to suppressing that all-too-familar feeling of butterflies. A worthy parallel in this case is public speaking: it’s a common mistake to assume that good orators never feel nervous, that their skill is somehow derived from a mysterious “what-me-worry” attitude that’s been hard-coded into their psyche. The reality is that even the best speakers are vulnerable to the sensation of cold feet: they’ve just become really good at fighting it off.

Ultimately, every single one of the above self-doubting questions has been asked by every good developer at some point or another in their careers — usually multiple times. Anyone who says otherwise is probably lying to you. What separates the wheat from the chaff in this case is not the presence of some “natural confidence” — such a concept is complete bunk and serves only as a harmful and discouraging idea for everyone who is struggling.

No, the people who assert themselves best and succeed at promoting their games are the ones who can wrestle down their inner demons and do the job despite their fears. In this case, that silly old saying about courage holds true: bravery (and in this case success) stems not from a complete lack of fear, but from the conquest of said fear.

You’ll worry, you’ll fret, you’ll hesitate. But you’ll ultimately be fine.

In a nutshell: panic less and market more. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.

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]

3 thoughts on “How to defeat negative self-talk

  • Kyle

    There does seem to be a lot of needless worry in all aspects of life. I’ll admit, I feel like I’m not worth my salt a lot of the time. Really, there is no reason to feel like that. And like you’ve said, the internet is huge and forgiving (forgetting). Unless you’re a total dick on forums 😀

    • Nandrew

      Oh, yeah, definitely! Confidence and good self-promotion is a life skill, and this sort of advice can really be applied to just about anything. Or at least, it works for me in day-to-dayness.

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