Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dealing with Criticism

I’m in a pretty interesting situation right now.  in April I was getting resounding praise for a project I lead.  http://www.joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2013/04/super-adventure-box.html

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.  http://scrybe.deviantart.com/gallery/45890071

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!!!


Saturday, September 07, 2013

Epic Weekend

Wow… I am worn out.  My team’s big project at work is live now, and we just released a big patch to fix some terrible difficulty spikes.  The last time we released Super Adventure Box: World 1 it got pretty universal praise.  (Which I put up here back in April)  Since then our founder/president has used it (Along with the Mad King Clock Tower I designed and built back in October 2012) as examples of content we release that raises retention rate, and therefore revenue.  So expectations were high for this World 2 release which came out on Tuesday.  The day after Labor Day and the Penny Arcade Expo.    

Saturday (3 days before SAB World 2 launched) my company held a party at a hotel near PAX for fans, and my project, Super Adventure Box was the main feature.  We were running speed run competitions all night where players tried to be the first to get to the end of the new zones.  I ended up MCing the whole night.  I guess there’s a first time for everything.  Seems like people had a really good time.  I had about a dozen people run up to me and shake my hand and thank me for SAB and/or the Mad King Jumping Puzzle.  When things were winding down our founder/president came to talk to me, but there were a couple fans who were going on and on about how much they love SAB, how they got their friends to play Guild Wars 2 because of it, etc. while he just stood there listening.  It was like a perfect testimonial right in front of the man in charge.  After I signed their shirts and stuff he told me that our new release was being very well-received and generated a lot of excitement.  

So it seemed like everything was turning up roses, except….   several of the contestants playing the game ran into a disturbing mysterious bug where they were falling through the floor of the map and got trapped down there.  This is a very serious problem because we have a super difficult mode that some players could have spent hours and hours earning the continue coins necessary then another couple hours progressing through a level and if they got trapped underneath they would lose all of that.  So after tearing down after the party I came home at 2am and fired off an email to a lot of the company leads saying we had a serious emergency.  Fortunately we came up with a way to fix it the next day, but it’s risky changing anything that late in the process.  So we narrowly averted a disaster we never would have found if we hadn't shown at the party.  Apparently the computers at the show had their fans off and were overheating which caused the blah blah blah technical.

Speaking of last minute, here’s the stuff that became a perfect storm.  Boy have I learned a lot this week.

1. We “fixed” a problem we had with an animated prop.  We had these water spouts that would go up and down to provide timing platforms, but if you stop and stand still when the water drops you would just float there, so that totally breaks the point of them.  Our “fix” was to give the players a little knock down when the spout goes away.  And that happened a day or two before we went pencils down.  And I guess because there were so many elements all coming together at the last minute we didn't get to test them enough.  

2. During our testing we did not run into the amount of issues related to lag (that’s a problem with online games where your computer has to constantly communicate with the server which can be next door or on the other side of the planet.) that we ended up seeing when we went live.  This was especially problematic around the rapids that sweep you downstream if you fall into them… which is also where the fixed broken water spouts are.

3. We drastically reduced how often players could gather the stuff they need to get the prizes that they got during the first release.

4. We put a new item you can buy for real money from our store that gives you unlimited continues.

5. We introduced a new mode called Tribulation Mode that is purposefully designed for people who are super good at the game and have a ton of extra lives and continue coins.  But it’s certainly faster to do if you buy the Infinite Continue Coin.

6. World 1 was basically a canyon with only 3 or 4 bottomless pits scattered around so it felt very easy going, and relaxing.  I wanted World 2 to be a little bit more challenging, but I underestimated how psychologically impactful it is to have bottomless pits all around as is the case in much of World 2.  I think this ratcheted up the perceived hostility of the world.  So a lot of people who are more casual players who loved World 1 are finding World 2 to be like a slap in the face.  (A favorite phrase thrown around the forums constantly, as if we developers loathe the players and want them to suffer.)  Our team and alpha testers are very experienced with the game and quirks of the engine, so I guess like construction workers walking around on scaffolding we just don’t notice the difficulty like most of our player base does.  So we made it too hard compared to World 1.  

All of these things came together, and the idea that we purposefully made World 2 ridiculously difficult just we could sell our Infinite Continue Coin soon caught on in our community, which means they are now interpreting everything with that confirmation bias.  Every time they fall off a cliff or get glitched off a water spout into the rapids they get angrier and angrier that we are screwing them and trying to trick them into spending money on our subscription-free game.  This is resulting in much lower numbers for this release so far.  I’ve spent the last couple of days finding ways to chop down the difficulty spikes, and we just released the results of that today.  But I’m really worried that we lost a good chunk of our fans forever because of my mistakes.

The other thing I’ve been doing is interacting heavily on the forums attempting to ascertain how much of the complaints are legitimate and how much angry hyperbole.  I’ve been trying to articulate our team’s intentions and be up front with the mistakes we made and how we plan on addressing them. 

Now, I’ve been reprimanded a couple times over the last couple of years for my forum posting.  I’m not diplomatic enough, mention things I shouldn’t, make specific comments that could be interpreted as promises by the community, set precedent for forum interaction that my co-workers shouldn’t feel the need to have to meet, etc.  I took the forum posting class our Community Team gives in order to be cleared to post on our official forums twice.  I’ve listened carefully to the Community manager and our studio producer who pointed out specific things I’d said wrong.  I’ve been pulled aside by my boss to be told that other departments were unhappy with things I’ve said.  Every time this happens I sincerely apologize and try to make sure I re-adjust my attitude towards my communication style.  

I thought I was getting better at this skill but I got another one of those talks this morning.  I can’t go into any details except to say that I am not getting good enough at this skill. I was hoping that I could find a way to follow the rules (Which I agree exist for good reasons) while still maintaining my personality when posting.  I guess I cannot.  I think my basic personality is simply incompatible with the diplomacy necessary to protect my company and co-workers.  So even though I’m getting responses like these:
Josh, you and your posts are quickly becoming my favorite dev interaction on the forums! SAB was already one of the most fun pieces of content I experienced with my friends in this game — hours of almost non-stop teasing, jokes, frustration, and laughter. And the details and passion you share with us in your posts is fantastic. Thanks for being so awesome...

Before I get into some of my thoughts on SAB 2.0, I would like to take a moment to remind you (and everyone), that you are by far the most amazing designer ANet has. No other dev stands by their work, or interacts with the players like you, and I think this is reflected in the popularity of the SAB.

This kind of back and forth over the forums, and quickly, is really encouraging and makes me glad I play GW2. You’ve caught a lot of flak in this thread, some even from me, so I wanted to point out how grateful I am that you’ve been taking the time to listen to the players so intently and respond genuinely rather than with generic diplomatic answers.
Thanks, Josh.

I just wanted to say thanks so much for interacting as much as you have with the community. It’s gotta be hard reading some of this. So often in some other MMOs, when things take a negative turn, the devs and community managers go into hiding which actually make the situation worse. So what you’re doing is awesome.

One of the most upfront honest dev answers I have seen in my life. Kudos to Josh.

It is not giving in to forum whining. Yes, there's a lot of whining on the forum, but Josh Foreman explained both his design philosophy and the reasons for his fixes very clearly.

I have a lot of personal gripes about ANet's design philosophy and response to criticism, but Josh Foreman is pretty much the only designer whom I have no issues with. He has always been very straightforward and honest about his vision and goals and is willing to weigh criticism.

Josh, I just want to thank you for the way you continue to interact with us. I can understand how rough it must be to hear criticism of something you are clearly very passionate about and put so much of yourself into. You’ve taken it well, and it says a lot about you. Hopefully you’re not too bummed
Anyway, I hope ArenaNet appreciates what an asset you are; it’s employees like you that create loyal customers.

Gotta say, props to Josh Foreman. I've been reading this thread occasionally, and he's been very polite and humble in taking criticism. I mean, it's gotta be seriously hard taking it all in after working insanely hard on something you thought was awesome (which is still awesome by the way, just a little flawed!). He's admitting his mistakes, taking in feedback and in general just being an awesome dude.
It just makes me happy to see someone from the dev team discuss issues with the community in such a way. You can tell he's a passionate guy, and it makes me more excited to see whats to come. World 2's flawed, yeah, but it's got some great ideas, level design and interesting mechanics. Maybe I'm just a bit of a nostalgia-fag but I adore SAB.

Josh Foreman is a straight up genuine guy giving honest responses - has definitely earned my respect. I like that he is so straightforward, doesn't play verbal sparring games, admits to the limitations of what he is working with, open to suggestions and works his tail off to ensure that players are having fun.
Big thumbs up to this guy.
Very classy replies from Josh, especially considering the onslaught of rude comments. I bought an ICC 'cause I love SAB, despite being quite sore about the latency issues.
What's with people, though? I'm shocked by how rude some of those forum posts were towards the dev. Saying that the dev is "brilliant" in a scheming, manipulative way like that is so incredibly offensive. That's not criticism anymore, it is just insulting someone who worked hard. I feel really bad for the dev that has to read all that condescending, fingerpointing crap, and I don't even like SAB, I suck at it.
What a scumbag cesspool that place is.
Actually, while there was a lot of nonconstructive bile early on, they seemed to mostly taper off in the later pages leaving people who were genuinely constructive and appreciative of the work Josh has been doing.
Who knows man. Some people are just downright assholes and there aint much we can do about that. People will be people.
Have to admire his patience though. The amount of vitriol fueled comments spewed into that thread is enough to make anyone flip.

I agree with your thoughts about Mr. Foreman. He's a class act and even though I agree with a lot of the criticisms, being able to not fly off the chain at some of the people who post on those forums (or any other, for that matter) takes some serious mental fortitude.
Well done, man.

...I have to shut up.  It’s really hard for me to collect the valuable feedback offered on forums without response or questioning.  Especially when it’s evident that the community likes it so much.  Oh well.  If the company that pays my paycheck and lets me work on my own crazy pet projects like SAB tells me to resist a difficult urge to interact with players because I’m jeopardizing the company so be it.  I’m told I can still post, but much much less, and I need to get my posts approved first.  So it’s not really a total shut-up.  But I know I’d have to come off as a different person if I go through this procedure, which pretty effectively kills the urge.  

So that was frustrating.  Later in the day I casually asked the founder/president if we had any analytics about how many people were playing.  Well collecting that kind of data seems to be really fun for him as far as I can tell, so we ended up working together to gather that information for a while. That was nice, except for finding out what I suspected based on my forum experience: the numbers are pretty dismal (Compared to the exceptional numbers of the first SAB) right now.  I really hope that this patch will bring people back, but without the old reward schedule I don’t think it will happen.  So I’m pretty bummed and feel like I let down the whole company and especially my team because I made some poor judgement calls as coordinator.  

Later, just before heading home the Guild Wars 2 Design Lead came and talked to me about things.  He’s such a great, positive guy, I really like him.  I found out today that he’s also a truly empathetic person.  After discussing that list of perfect storm parts I listed above, and ideas for World 3 and the logistics of development he pushed further asking, “But how are YOU doing?”  So I told him how I’m feeling.  How I think I screwed up and let people down.  He was only supportive and encouraging.  He said this sort of thing happens all the time to everyone.  And this is a great learning process.  

So this has been a really challenging time for me, but I have to say that I feel really blessed to work at a company with really great people who allow me to flex my creativity and are understanding that when mistakes are made they are learning opportunities.  They saw promise in me and my ideas and put me in a position to implement them.  That says a lot, and it’s why I don’t feel the need to go anywhere even when I’ve been at the same company for a decade this October.  That’s an eternity in the game development industry.  The last stat I read is that the average is 2 years.  Probably because it’s rare to find a company that is as supportive and adventurous as ArenaNet.