Dealing with Criticism

I’m in a pretty interesting situation right now.  in April I was getting resounding praise for a project I lead.

Today I’m reading through resounding complaints about the follow-up that came out a couple weeks ago.  

I’ve already covered a lot of the problems with the release in my last blog.  (That SHOULD have been set to private.  Now I’ve learned to just keep private blogs on my hard drive.  Thanks for that lesson, Blogspot!)  And this blog isn’t really about this specific release and it’s problems, but more generally how I try to approach criticism of all kinds in my life.  I’ll start by dividing criticism into two groups.  There’s the kind that simply isn’t true, and the kind that is.  For instance, a lot of feedback was accusing me of purposefully making the content too hard to sell an item that helps players.  Since I am absolutely certain that this was not the case, that criticism doesn't sting at all.  I’m comfortable enough in my own skin that I don’t care if some random people mistakenly think that I’m a hack who cares more about money than my art.  

It’s the other kind of criticism that I’m concerning myself with here. At the most fundamental level, my approach to dealing with criticism is to ask myself this: "Do I want to grow?" My experience has taught me that growth only comes through difficulty. Training, straining, pushing boundaries and limits and finding what happens when they break. And listening to criticism.  I’m going to pick the one thing out of those critiques to highlight a true thing that’s a weaknesses of mine and that I think is important for me to address as an artist and individual.  This one DOES sting.  In fact, I was in a pretty melancholy mood until I decided to write this all out, which is my way of actively addressing a problem rather than wallowing in it.  That always makes me happier.  

This issue crops up again and again in my work:

I make too much stuff. (Or I don't cut enough stuff... same difference)

“they took it too seriously and made it way too long. If it was short and sweet I would have liked it”

“Zone 2 and Zone 3 are just "let me get this over with"”

When I proposed to my wife I could have taken her out and given her a ring.  Instead I MADE a ring (first time I’d ever made real jewelry) and wrote/designed/illustrated a book with pop up pages about WHY I wanted to marry her.

Then I built a life-sized silver tree for our wedding.  The point is that when I engage in a project I really pour myself into it,  I want to WOW people.  And one of the subconscious rules I operate under is “more is more”.  I consciously realize this is not a good design or art standard.  In fact, I can point to art that embraces that maxim such as baroque architecture and the end of The Return of the King and say “Look, that’s bad”.  On the other hand, I truly enjoy epic things.  Looong movies, Loooong songs, Loooong books, etc. So it makes sense that I want to try to make what I like.  What I’m learning is that I’m a minority in this.  But my love of epicness is probably why I fall into the ‘more is more’ trap all the time.  Just look at 95% of my blogs for more evidence.  So while ‘more is more’ is passable in some visual art projects, and at least goofy-romantic in a marriage, (assuming you’re not the easily-smothered type) it’s TERRIBLE in design.  Mostly.  I think about games like Skyrim and wonder what it would be like with fewer systems and I don’t think it would improve the game, but I could be wrong.  

Anyway, hearing this critique over and over on my last project was easily the most painful out of all of it.  I feel bad when I hear people say they had a bad time playing my game.  I feel bad when I hear people say my ideas are stupid and my implementation sucks. Of course.  I’m human.  But when I first saw people saying that there was TOO MUCH stuff in the game I couldn’t even fathom where they were coming from.  (Until I got further into discussion on the forums.)  I was SO emotionally invested and positively excited that I had put in double hours almost the whole project so I could cram in all our ideas.  Then being told I went overboard… the comparison that comes to mind is like a pathetic guy who has a crush on a girl who barely knows him, so he buys her a thousand roses, sends her a 20 foot tall teddy bear, get’s her face tattooed on his arm and shows up on her doorstep with a boombox in the rain professing undying love.  And she’s like:  “Uh… Not really that into you.  Sorry.”  I kinda feel like that guy.  Like a fool who sacrificed time, money (all the time I was working overtime I could have been making money doing art on the side or developing my own little games.) and energy on something so big... that nobody asked for, and actually annoys them.  That’s a crummy feeling.  So how do I turn that into a positive growth lesson instead of just feeling like a loser?  

I think there are (as usual) several parts to how I would answer that.  This is the first time I’ve attempted to deconstruct this process, so it’s mostly me thinking out loud.  Well, that’s what the whole blog is, so…  I’ve deconstructed a lot scarier things, (religion, philosophy, epistemology, motivation) so this ought to be simple. ;)
The first and most fundamental part of the equation is that I don’t take myself too seriously.  I truly try very hard not to have pretensions.  I’m know I’m not a genius.  I’m not a great artist, I’m not a great designer.  I’m not a great writer.  These are all just things I enjoy doing.  And if that enjoyment causes collateral enjoyment, all the better!  This means I don’t have to have my ego tied into the criticism.  I have nothing to defend on a personal level.  I never made any untrue or exaggerated claims about my work, so I can’t be ‘caught red handed’ as it were.  (Incidentally, that’s exactly how I handle criticism of my beliefs, religion, and philosophy, and why I don’t get upset when challenged.)

On the other hand, when I’m getting paid to create enjoyment I need to take that seriously.  That’s why I strive to improve myself.  Without both sides of that coin, I don’t see how I could use criticism in a positive way. And that’s why I sincerely LIKE reading criticism, even when it’s painful.  If I’m being paid for a service, in order to be the most honest person I can be, I need to provide it to the best of my ability.  To that end, sinking into a depression because I failed to provide the best possible experience is not useful.  And neither would blithely continuing along, ignoring valuable feedback because I know “I’ll never be the best artist/designer, so why bother trying?”.

So now I’ve listened to a critique of my work, I’ve identified it as valid and out of line with my conscious artistic values.  I’ve described how I digest that emotionally.  Now how do I ACT on it?  I think the answer is simply a matter of discipline.  How much do I care about maturing as an artist?  That’s what will determine how hard I work to find a way to systematically build procedures into my workflow in order to catch my subconscious in the act, so that I can bring it in line with my conscious desire to adhere to a counter-intuitive aesthetic standard.  In other words I nee to remind myself to stop being ‘that guy’.   

Now for some practice.  I started writing a second part dealing with another criticism and blah blah blah.  But instead I’m going to cut it off here! EPIC WIN!!!



Guy Vestal said…
you took this blog post too seriously and made it way too long. If it was short and sweet I would have liked it
Crazylegsmurphy said…

I am currently living in Berlin. To get here, I had to take a very long flight from Canada. Strangely, despite really enjoying flying, I hated it.

Was it because I was sitting beside some super fat guy, drooling on my shoulder, or because the food was bad?

Nope, the only reason was because there is nothing to do for the entire flight but sit there and wait. Sure, I had things to keep me entertained, but after a while I just wanted the flight to be over.

This is kinda like the SAB. The problem isn't that it is too long, or that there is too much stuff...the problem is that GW2 doesn't allow you to walk away from it.

That is really it. You built in ways of getting through the content faster (shortcuts), you've designed the levels so you can take alternate routes, and you've kept it fresh and interesting.

It's just that not all of us can sit there for hours doing achievements or exploring the entire world. As well, disconnections are something that ANet just refuses to address. The longer you're in SAB, the more tense you get because any second it could DC and you'll find yourself at square one.

My unsolicited advice is try to look at this situation more critically. Try and gather all the evidence before concluding that what you're being told is the way it is.

There are a lot of variables here. The trick is to be able to determine what combination of them has lead to you feeling this way, instead of simply jumping to the conclusion that people don't like the SAB cause it has too much stuff.

Some variable I see:

1. Time vs. Reward
2. Life outside of Guild Wars 2 (School, family)
3. Disconnects
4. No save points
5. Difficulty spikes due to bugs (addressed)
6. Players burnt out on "Living Story"
7. Achievements that must be done all at once
8. Other in-game priorities (Bad release timing)
9. Lag/Latency (making it unplayable for some)
10. Not enough time to complete all tasks (Temporary content)
Lenitas said…
Pretty much this.

Save points inside the levels itself would have solved 90% of the problems people have/had or think they have/had.

Difficulty spikes? If you can always restart from the last checkpoint (rather than zone), you can practice without time pressure.

Level feels too long? Only if you have to do it in one sitting.

Achievements feel harsh? I am thinking of collecting baubles, killing assassins etc; if you were able to start where you left off, this wouldn't feel like a problem.


Little story from my life: a thick novel or a fantasy spetology can be daunting and you might not even want to start reading it because it feels like a huge time committment. But what usually happens to me when I read a novel - pretty much ANY novel, no matter how long - is that at the end I just wish there was more! Suddenly I want them to be long and longer and longer. Of course I can read in my own time, at my own speed, and I don't have to finish a book in one sitting.

So, no, the levels are not too long, they FEEL too long, but this is not because of your level design, which is still awesome. If the game remembered checkpoints, bauble counts and such, I'm sure nobody would feel that way - people would be asking for more content instead.
Galen said…
Thing with Criticism is its hard to give it objectively most of the time. As such as a person receiving it at times you might need to read between the lines rather then what is being said literally.

I cannot speak for anyone else but I can speak for myself. I absolutely loved SAB when it came out. Part 2? I absolutely love it as well. Is it perfect? no, nothing ever is. The too long issue does exist but like others have pointed it its not that there was too much stuff, like you assumed thats a really good thing, the problem there is there was a lot to do at a single stretch. That can be tiring and you always worry real life might have you stop at a moments notice which in itself will contribute to more stress. The zones where beautiful, they were deadly (challenge is a good thing) and they had amazing artistry (the expressions on the angry cloud, wow.. I love that mob!).

If it were me I would just change 1 thing. Every single zone in World 2 I would split into 2. 6 zones instead of 3, thats all.

I think you are selling yourself a bit short though. I mean I dont know what exactly makes a designer a great designer but I know I love a lot of your work and each of it makes Gw2 a much richer game. The mad king's Clock tower? Beautiful artistry and I enjoyed every second in trying to master it. SAB? great in both design and execution. I dont know which other jumping puzzles you worked on but considering they're some of my favorite content in game its safe to say you're art is very much appreciated here.

Ryan Carroll said…

I've been (mostly) silent on the whole SAB topic, but after reading this, I felt like I should present my take on it.

I've agreed with others on the point that World 2 feels too long. But I think the reason WHY it feels long is important. You were going for epic, grand, and (dare I say it? yes, I dare) SUPER levels, and the ambiance of these new levels NAILED that.

Anyone who complains that these levels are a waste of time is, in my opinion, short-sighted and entirely too focused on their gold-per-hour, which I think is pretty dumb. I guarantee you that many of the people who have vocally decried this SAB update are the same people who dislike the fact that you can no longer spend Bauble Bubbles on non-SAB stuff like Obsidian Shards. To which I say: So what? If all that matters to you is how fast a piece of content can get you the raw mats for your legendary, then go farm your champions in Frostgorge and stop telling me that I'm wasting my time doing something I enjoy.

But I digress. Yes, World 2 feels extra long. That may be partly because most everybody is comparing it to World 1. Even as a newer player who didn't see SAB the first time around, that sets a certain expectation, and World 2 perhaps "overdelivered" in that sense.

Do I think World 2 is bad? Hell no. (At least, after the fixes that went in. I was RAGING until that happened, to be honest.) I love it. And knowing that the relatively lukewarm reaction to it is giving you second thoughts makes me disappointed in my fellow players.

I have plenty of ideas on how to "fix" your project, but that's just it: it's YOUR project. If your bosses continue to give you opportunities to build and improve on it, then you go TAKE those opportunities, and I'll support you and your vision. It's not my place to tell you how to design game levels, just like your job isn't to tell me how to work in a pharmacy.

I feel like the Living World schedule is kind of screwing over your project now, given that everyone's trying to kill Taquito or whatever that dragon's called, but I'm probably going to do some scavenger hunting and then get right back to World 1 Trib mode (which I swore I'd never touch when it was first announced), because I've got some green weapons calling my name...

The tl;dr from this? You're awesome, go and continue to be so.
Ary said…

Your method of taking criticism as a learning experience is a very high perspective. Few people are able to set aside their ego and transmute their emotions into action to improve oneself.

I echo most people's sentiment here that ALL of SAB is enjoyable. Is World 2 long? Sure. Did I enjoy it all and want it to keep going? Sure! But as you said, when you're being paid to provide an experience to a certain audience, then you have to make concessions when it comes to what you (and those like you) desire, and what is appropriate for your market.

Take a look at how long World 1 zones are and aim for that. They are a "sweet spot" in this market, and they were perfect in terms of challenge/length for the general user-base.

Find an editor or be an editor who is willing to say "This is too much, cut it." (funfact: I cut about 60% of this comment out after reviewing it several times)

I've enjoyed everything you put in GW2, and the stuff you make is byfar my favourite content in the game, even if it's not the main focus of it. I believe you CAN deliver on what the market needs AND pour into it that uniqueness which makes it "yours."
Mynthe said…
Josh, I just wanted to say that, I absolutely love your Super Adventure Box and will hate to see it go away for whatever period of time.

That having been said, I wanted to offer some criticism (since you did somewhat say that it helps in this post :P) regarding the most current iteration of SAB.

The first is concerning something that you mentioned in the blog itself. That is the length of the zones in world 2. I think part of the frustration comes from the fact that it is limited-time content. So people feel rushed to finish, and then when the world is long/difficult (especially the first run-through!) they get angry or frustrated. They think "I get 1 month/2 weeks to finish this? The devs are such dicks" etc etc.

Now I can say from personal experience this time around that yes, it was difficult for me to play and it definitely took me a lot longer to fall in love with world 2 than it did for world 1. And the only reason I think I like world 2 so much is because of how long I've spent playing it. You start noticing the little details and special care that's put into the zones.

A quick story at this point. I was trying to complete Master of Baubles yesterday and at the very end of the zone there's that area that you need to climb up to (before the bridge to the Yeti boss). I kept falling and falling and seriously, I was busy yelling obscenities at the screen and saying things like "Oh Josh thinks he's sooo funny putting in something like this *grumble grumble*" but when I got up there, I was like "Wow. There's a whole different area up here, only accessible by making this series of difficult jumps. THAT WAS WORTH IT." Now noted there's nothing up there other than a few bananas (whom I hate with passion) and the bauble that I needed. But still...That attention to detail was quite apparent.

I think I'm mixing praise with criticism... which can't be good xD

You mentioned you like the epic, long, lengthy things. More is better. In the past I might have been inclined to agree with you but recently with changes in my life, it's been harder and harder to set down a consistent amount of time to play for large chunks of time. I feel that this is also somewhat the case for many of the other players. Real life things happen and then sometimes you don't have the time to play. So one thing that really annoyed me personally went something like "I want to play SAB. I love playing SAB. But I only have 1 hour to play. Well dangit, I guess I don't have enough time to complete a zone in world 2. *annoyed*"
Mynthe said…
To speak to my own situation, I must confess I did something that I would never recommend to anyone else. I was in the middle of studying for graduate school entrance exams (this being Asia, we have such things...) and you know, kind of my career hangs on the fact of whether or not I can do well enough on the tests to get in...

Well. SAB came out and I immediately set aside some time in the midst of my studies to play it. World 2-1 was okay. It was longer than the first time we saw it and I liked what I saw. (Those water spouts man, brutal but genius. I'm kind of sorry you took them out haha) Then world 2-2 hit. I got sucked in. I played like crazy. I finally finished, looked up and went "crap". Why? Because I had spent 4 hours getting through it. Now, this is just plain bad time-management on my part but my main point is this: I didn't feel like I could play SAB anymore. I was like "Man, when am I ever going to have 4 hours to just sit down and play?" So I delayed my playing world 2-3 for several days.

Then I tried world 2-3. It took me near 3 hours to get through on normal mode. Right as I was reaching the Yeti boss (which I did not know at the time, but sensed I was approaching the end) the game client had a critical error and crashed.

I was so pissed. All that time spent...and I had nothing to show for it. Not to mention that I didn't know if I would ever have such an amount of time to spend on the game for the rest of the time the SAB was out. (Thankfully I was...)

So that's what happened and I don't know if this is possible or even viable; I'm actually sure you guys have considered or discussed this but: A way to save somehow for long zones please? :x I think the amount of rage I had at the game at that time would have been substantially been reduced if I knew there was a way to go back to it. I do also know that it's the way of old-school games, however. So that is kind of difficult, plus that's just all that much more work for you guys to code in such a feature.
However, it would definitely be appreciated ;) Now, I've shored up my times and I don't have to spend THAT long getting through the zones. But I still do somewhat groan whenever I consider running through 2-2, mainly due to it's length. Especially when I'm going for an amazing shiny yellow weapon in Tribulation Mode.

Again, I'm sure I haven't said anything you haven't seen or heard or considered, but I thought I'd just add my two cents. Sorry that this turned out to be so long.

I'll just end this here...but as a current resident of Japan that was born and raised in Bellevue, thank you for all your hard work! I do truly hope that you wouldn't be so down on yourself (also referring to your previous blog post) and learn from whatever "mistakes" you may have or perceive you have made and go above and beyond next time to make the most amazing Super Adventure Box we have ever seen.
Adam Armstrong said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Armstrong said…
I was pointed to this blog during SAB, but I am glad I bookmarked it.

Josh you seem like a real level headed guy, and I'm glad you're taking criticism the way you are. I loved SAB this time around, and if I could change one thing about it you guessed it, would be the length. I prefer it just how it is, but for the overall health of the game (and the mass enjoyment of SAB) I can understand the need for it to be shorter. I agree with a previous poster here that people are too concerned with gold per hour, but that's kind of a symptom of the game itself. A shorter SAB doesn't fix that, it just bows down to it. A longer SAB receives less attention because it goes against it. Unfortunately not much we can do about it, MMO players, carrot on a stick, and all that.

If there aren't restrictions placed on output from your supervisors, maybe you could put that extra work and drive you have into finishing the rest of SAB for the next release? So we would get the last two worlds, and all that goes with them. You've probably thought of this, but it could be a way for you to go crazy on the project you love while making the user experience more management. I understand this would be problematic if only available for a month, but hey maybe it could be out for 2 living story cycles or even permanent.

I really look forward to the next thing you work on (and even more to the next installment of SAB).
Anonymous said…
I like you and I like your work and I do think you're a truly great artist.
There's no point in you denying that. If you weren't, you wouldn't be where you are now.
Your statues are wonderful, I totally love the ones you have made from the original Zelda. They are your own take on it, but they are of great quality and they still look like they do in the game and can easilly be recognized.

I must admit that I agree with people that say that the maps you made were too long. It is, as others have said, hard to do them in one sitting.
However, and this is important, I absolutely don't think it was too much content.
I do think that you should value your health and well-being a bit more, but I did love that there was so much to do in SAB this time.
The thing I would personally have changed would be to split it up into more levels.
I do realize that the plan is to make 3 levels per world, but I don't think anyone would mind if you went "Haha! I lied! There will be more levels for this world!". Personally I would love that because I'm like you. If I like something I want more.
So more levels but with roughly the same length as world 1 would be very nice.
But again, do value your own health and wallet. Without you, we can't get SAB. At least not a SAB worth mentioning.

So what I think you should take from this is that if you want to work extra on it because you think it's fun, go ahead, absolutely.
But make it possible to do it in more sittings. Perhaps with more levels instead of longer ones.
The Den of Sin said…

I just ran across your blog for the first time. Real neat stuff.
I don't know if you'll ever read this, but I played SAB and SAB2. I was one of those guys who loved SAB but never even finished SAB 2.

But, I'm an older gamer and have different experiences. Perhaps because of the fact I am older, I can better articulate why I was disenchanted with SAB2.

For guys like me, and I think guys like you, SAB is nostalgia.

SAB was the essence of nostalgia. SAB2 contained parts of those old-school games I'd rather forget.

Watch this video:

As you tackle SAB3, please think of it as an homage to your favorite memories of gaming as a child: the best parts, the fun bosses, the memorable mechanics.

You're creating nostalgia. Like said in the video, "It's delicate, but potent."

It's 3 minutes long, and it's a great scene.

Thanks for the link, Den of Sin. That's a great scene. I agree that for nostalgia to work, it can't require great effort.

I thought I was making something MORE than nostalgia. But for many, that really was THE hook. And those are the ones we lost with SAB2.
The Den of Sin said…
I wouldn't relegate nostalgia as just a hook. At least, in my eyes, it's much more than that. It's about happiness.
Ultimately you're trying to create something that brings great joy to many people.
*Nostalgia is powerful*. How powerful?
I can say, without question, the original SAB was the single most enjoyable piece of gaming I've ever experienced in an MMO (going all the way back to UO). I was grinning ear-to-ear the entire time playing, which is something I rarely do. It struck a chord with my inner 10-year-old.

I understand you were trying to do something greater - trying to 'WOW' people with a sprawling world. It was a great effort and I appreciate the hard work you put in. But to me (thiry....something old guy), I'd take nostalgia every day of the week.

On the side, I read that you did the Mad King's Clock Tower as well. I absolutely loved that event. I literally ran that event over and over after completing it, just because of how much fun that was to do.

You've got a knack for making some really good content. Good stuff!
Lorenzo Angeli said…
Dear Josh,

Thanks for sharing your design thoughts and feelings, this was really insightful!

I think as well that the SAB is a very good piece of content, both for world 1 and for world 2.
Surely there were some problems but we make mistakes, reflect upon them and, why not, build upon them.
As it is said in designerspeak, "Fail Faster".

Now now now... It's 2014/04/01. We're waiting for you. Show them how it's done, sir!

A designer-in-training.
Anonymous said…
You want some criticism? You're a obnoxious guyliner wearing, exclusionary asshole.

You talk a lot about criticism, and how great it is, while working for a company that censors it at every turn.

Then you turn around and include an "infantile mode" to get back at all the mean old critics who told you your shit stinks.

Go fuck yourself.

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