The Perils and Treasures of Early Feedback

The Heart. Papers. Border. prototype is OUT and we had our first round of feedback.

IT HURTS.

But this is crucial. I am so grateful that there are people out there who dare tell us their honest impressions. If we will ever have any sort of success with Heart. Papers. Border., it will be thanks to them.

Why feedback is dangerous

I think games are art. And a lot of games don’t get done because, until recently, no one really thought of games as valuable art: the kind of medium that can preserve history, tell stories, warn, enlight, change the world. Like books did. Or music. Or movies.

However, if games are art, the value is in the eyes of the beholder. And because games weren’t art for so long, and because I craved so desperately for games that ARE art, I tend to dismiss traditional design feedback, even more so if it comes from traditional game developers.

heartpapersborder5_indieprize_7
Heart. Papers. Border. Country Info menu aka the No Mans Sky test

The truth is, I am in complete awe of what we could accomplish in just a few months, from ZERO. Where ZERO stands for ZERO coding knowledge, ZERO art knowledge, ZERO design knowledge, not to mention no established, proven team, ZERO work in this configuration, and also ZERO full timers. We did have 10000, and that’s no knowledge, but SEK, which all went to Pontus for making the game as pretty as it is now. Pontus rulz. And we did have the Retro Brothers who for some reason are crazy enough to create amazing music for us for another ZERO. I love you, guys!

But while this is an amazing accomplishment FOR US, its not much for a player. A player does not know us, not does or should care about us at all. We talk to him, or her, through Heart. Papers. Border. And this communication will be initiated by him or her through money. So, this is a business deal. No empathy, no humanity, just numbers that go from one account to another.

Heart. Papers. Border. - Payment Dongle, that's how they validate you.
Heart. Papers. Border. – Payment Dongle, that’s how they validate you.

Our mission is to tell that player a story. To provoke some thoughts and feelings that I think are very important now. And I had hoped we would highlight an ounce of this story through this prototype, an AHA moment that would make the player think about freedom, yearn to travel and also, of course, be eager for the final Heart. Papers. Border. game. But – as it was expected- we didn’t. And this hurts.

Heart. Papers. Border. - Anti Feedback Glasses
Heart. Papers. Border. – Anti Feedback Glasses

It hurts because I got too attached and became blind. This happens almost always, even to the most experienced devs. I saw it first hand, in small teams and big, in AAA and small budget. It’s a passion driven industry and the games we make are like our children. In our eyes, they’re always special and we think this should be so obvious to the entire world. It’s one of the biggest reasons for the crunch culture, bad management, feature creep and layoffs.

So if this happens even to the best of us, how delusional can I be, to think that a brand new team with ZERO skills could convey the very essence of our first game through the first prototype we ever done?

Early feedback hurts because it cannot be good. If it IS good, and by that I mean valuable, truly helpful feedback, it can only be critical, and this is very discouraging. That is why many gamedevs choose to hide their work as long as possible.

But that’s even more dangerous, regardless of experience. Or rather, it’s dangerous if you also intent to build a business, where you need to validate your idea quickly.

Finally, feedback should always be assimilated objectively. Never personal. Always critical. You need to understand the reason behind the critique, especially if this makes you sad. You need to understand what the player meant, what he expected and why. But as a creator, especially one that did not encounter this before, all you hear is, you failed. And it is So Easy to get so discouraged, that you either follow all advice blindly (and that’s bad, because most of that advice is wrong or at least wrongly conveyed and understood), or abandon your game as well as all your hopes.

 

Why feedback is crucial

If it hurts so much then why ask for feedback? Why not wait longer, at least, until you get more more features, more art, more game in? A lot of developers choose that route and it can be good for some. But it is also the route that often leads to massive delays, fundamental refactoring, bugs, complete lack of marketing and many other scary things.

If you ask for feedback early, besides understanding how to best tell your story through the game you make, you also teach yourself how to react to feedback and perhaps even build a community in the process. If you worry that people will think badly of your young creation, remember that being new, doing something for the first time has some enormous benefits that we all almost always forget: no one knows you. So you can make mistakes. Lots of them. No one will know. The worst that can happen is that someone will learn from your mistakes, too.

Imagine working for one entire year at a game and getting critical feedback only after your are done. Its one thing to be called a turd for a little bit of work then for an entire year, especially if your stakes are high. It is also so much easier to understand the turdness of your features and fix it, if it is the case. My point is, early feedback  hurts less and it teaches you to react un-emotionally, preparing you for the “real feedback” – the one you get on Steam, or on reddit, the one unfiltered, or, worst of all, the one you don’t get at all. The one that makes your store page look like a soul shattering, carcass protecting desert.

Heart. Papers. Border. - The lonely desert of No Feedback
The lonely desert of No Feedback

Then there the question of how you see your players. Are they your allies or your enemies? If they are your allies, there is no reason not to make the first trustful step. Your first builds are also the ones that make you the most vulnerable, but its OK to be vulnerable in front of your friends, right? They will HELP you, and you can trust that. Take a deep breath and jump, now while the distance is not so big.

Heart. Papers. Border. - JUMP
Heart. Papers. Border. – JUMP! When the waters are warm and the distance, decent

 

To Summarise

Early stage feedback can help you

  • validate your ideas early and stay on the right track
  • familiarise your self with critique early and prepare yourself to respond in a way that’s good for everyone
  • avoid refactoring, feature creep and crunch when its late and hard to change something
  • build a community
  • help someone else, who can learn from your experience
  • keep you humble

Early stage feedback can also:

  • lead you astray
  • demotivate you
  • make you very, very sad

To get early stage feedback in the best way possible, you need to:

  • think of your players as allies
  • offer and receive trust
  • keep a clear mind and understand the reasoning behind feedback; never act blindly
  • ask questions
  • conquer you fear of rejection

***

Oh and if you want to give us some BRUTAL FEEDBACK and MAKE ME CRY, you can just ask us for the prototype or subscribe to www.heartpapersborder.com <3