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Don't read the comments, or: How we went insane but made our game better

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"Don't read the comments, man."

The first time I heard that was from Rasmus Wedin at Boston Airport when we were preparing ourselves to get back to Valencia, Spain, after PAX East. We were reading what the press said about Gods Will Be Watching and found some unpleasant commenters on an article. It's one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever got in gamedev, and heard it again and again after that day. There's even a Twitter account that reminds you periodically to not read the comments.

But I did.

I've been reading every single comment about our work, and I can confirm that doing so is a guaranteed source of madness. I will never forget the day we released Gods Will Be Watching on Steam. Keeping track of Twitter, web reviews, Steam forums...

After several hours of reading wild and astonishingly creative insults, I just got out of my home and spent until 2 a.m. sitting under a streetlight watching people and traffic, just trying to figure out how to overcome that. The next day was even better: When I woke up I had 140 mails in my inbox. Half of them were bugs; the other half were insults and complaints. Figure out what a nice week it was, dealing with bugs in the game while getting your morale smashed and shattered by awesome comments like, "Congratulations, you just did a game that is the opposite of fun," or even better: "Was this game made by child with brain paralysis?"

I can tell you this is going to leave scars on me for the rest of my life.

But then the good vibes came. What we couldn't figure out at that time is that the people who were enjoying the game were simply playing it, not raging on the internet. So, after a week, a lot of positive feedback came telling us what an amazing experience Gods Will Be Watching was, how it made them feel, it was like something they never played before, and you could start to see a lot of positive reviews on Steam that held between 10 to 40 hours of play, instead of the 0.1 to 0.5 hours of play the negative reviews had. It was healing. But still, I wanted to understand why a lot of people didn't enjoy the game and why they were insulting us.

comment post

A lovely comment on Steam

We've all been there

I've sinned. And you probably did too. I can't remember how many times I've said "this music is pure shit" or "what a horrible movie, a complete waste of my time." But we would never say that directly to its authors. That's because we feel distant to those worlds, we don't see movies as someone's creation but just as something that simply exists. Shit, I don't even feel like Michael Bay exists.

I'm sure there's a lot of people who feel the same way about games. Before I started making games I could happily insult something I disliked, but now I'm really careful with my opinions because now I know there are human beings after every single creation.

This is going to leave scars on me for the rest of my life

What's the point of all this? Well, it never gets easier being insulted or simply reading harsh feedback, but I found it really useful to do so. If you learn how to read through the rage, and ask yourself, "Why did this person say that?" — even if a part of the reason is being an asshole — there's an opportunity to grow as a game developer. It's a useful exercise even with positive feedback: "Why did she like this?" "Why did he praise this exact thing?" And the most important question: Is there anything I can do to appeal to the players who are insulting me, and also make my games even more enjoyable to the ones who liked them?

Don't get angry at them. It's not worth your time and your health. For example, it made me really angry every time I read Gods Will Be Watching was not fair. That's simply not true. But only I know that for sure, because I designed it, and I know that even with the random factors there's always a winning strategy. There's even this great fan who did a couple of speedruns of the game in just 90 minutes just to prove this point. Thanks, mardi!

But the lesson here is that the truth is not relevant, at least not in video games; it's all about perception. If a lot of players feel that the game is unfair, it's because you (in this case, me), as a game designer, need to improve your communication skills. The player is never wrong, so the right answers are always within you — how can you avoid them "perceiving it wrong" next time?

The Mercy Update

A week after the release of the game, I couldn't just let things as they were. So I immediately started working on new game modes for Gods Will Be Watching that could meet the expectations of the players who felt mistreated by the game: Puzzle mode, which removed all the elements of chance from the game, and Narrative Mode, which basically was a extra-easy version for the ones who just wanted to experience the story.

The response was great over social networks and it got a lot of press coverage; some users even started to change their Steam reviews into positive ones! There's some insight on the Mercy Update in this great DICE talk from our friends at Devolver Digital.

Should I read the comments, then?

No.

Jordi de Paco is a designer at indie developer Deconstructeam, currently working on Gods Will Be Watching.