Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 June, 2011

Criticism, criticizing, and complaining
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:12 AM

Yeah, I know. Three posts in rapid succession previously, then nothing for a few weeks. Had some family issues to deal with and the “day job” has been heating up… in a good way. Expect to hear more about what I’m working on within the next few months.

This time around, let’s take a look at three seemingly related topics that actually have a lot of subtlety: Criticism, criticizing, and complaining. Specifically, let’s see how these relate to game development.

Criticism

Let’s start with the thorny one first. Note that this is the one that is capitalized, meaning it’s something a bit more special. This issue was brought to the forefront by Dan “Danc” Cook on his wondeful blog Lost Garden, where he lamented the state of what he calls “game criticism”. He was particularly hard on “shallow” criticism which he mostly wrote off as largely “fluffy gamer opinion” for the most part. His solution was that critics should become better versed, even experienced, in the ways of game design and development to have a deeper appreciation. He felt the best writing that was most useful to him was the content written by fellow game developers.

The problem is that he didn’t quite appreciate what Criticism is. He calls for more “Game Analysis” and lists a bunch of articles that he considers to be great example of criticism; however, the bulk of these articles are actually informative or instructive articles on game development.

As I wrote in a comment, “The best critique, however, is one that touches on the meaning and influence of a work.” This distinction is important for all the reasons I’ve covered when discussing the legitimacy of the game industry on this blog and other venues. Once people start to appreciate the meaning and influence of a work, then people start taking the medium more seriously than as a pastime intended for children. (And, given the fact that the average age of a gamer is 37, it’s becoming a more important issue for more people.)

So, the question become: what qualifies a critic to write Criticism? To be useful, it needs to be something more than someone with an opinion and a means to publish that opinion. But, I hesitate to say that all critics need to be well-versed in game development. Ultimately, it’s a question of quality, and an insightful critic writing great Criticism is great no matter what the background they come from. Someone posting their uninformed opinion or attempting to play armchair game designer in a public forum isn’t necessarily useful.

Criticizing

Unfortunately, the word “criticizing” has a negative connotation. When I talk about criticizing, I mean it in the context like “constructive criticism”. Something between grand Criticism and mere complaining.

Another word for this might be punditry, which Eric at Elder Game has said eventually wears on the pundit. As a pundit, at some point you tend to recognize that you’re posting variations of the same few topics again and again, and still nobody able to change things is listening to you. Even if you have an extensive background in game development. Of course, as Eric points out there’s enough “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” that everyone thinks that they understand things better than they probably do. Why bother with one person’s brilliant ideas when, obviously, you’re just as smart and capable of evaluating the industry and can explain why WoW either succeeded or failed no matter what happened to it.

Just as Danc complained with Criticism, there is certainly no shortage of bad punditry. When everyone is a pundit, then nobody really knows anything. It’s also easy to write off some pundits, even if they are providing insight. After all, what big games has Eric worked on that he’s solely responsible for the success of? This attitude for MMOs conveniently ignoring the fact that these games are built by (usually large) teams, and many moving parts means that a single person’s contributions are unlikely to really determine the success or failure of a game. And ignores the effort that even a “small” game requires. I can just as easily point that finger back at myself, of course; if I’m so smart, why have I only worked on Meridian 59? Well, I have worked on several other projects, but the nature of the industry is that the really interesting projects are often the most tenuous when it comes to financial backing, and therefore the most likely to end unsuccessfully. But, is that a legitimate reason, or more trying to explain things away? Uh oh, see how far down this rabbit hole goes?

Still, I think constructive criticism is useful. Sometimes people aren’t in a position to jump in and work on things they’d like to. For developers, it’s that old conflict between art and commerce again. For fans and enthusiasts, it’s not having the experience to implement their crazy ideas. So, sometimes talking about something is simply a good way to plant a seed to get others thinking about it, too. Or, a way to get the voices in your head that constantly chatter about some brilliant idea to subside for a bit. ;)

At any rate, I look forward to Eric posting more about his own work. Although I do still wish Sandra would post more!

Complaining

We now come to the final part of the list: complaining! Think I’m going to pick on players? Not this time! Time to point out a developer.

An ArenaNet developer posted an article Why You Shouldn’t Be Making an MMO, with the subtitle of “Get some unsolicited advice from a guy working on a real MMORPG.” Note the term “real MMORPG”. This is an article simply complaining about the uninformed amateur game developers who want to try to make an MMORPG for one of their first projects.

He goes on to give a litany of reasons why an amateur game developer shouldn’t even attempt an MMO. MMORPGs are complex beasts that a simpleton like you can’t possible understand! MMOs require a hundred or more developers, it says so right in the credits of your favorite MMO! If you’re a programmer, you need to know about northbridges and southbridges and stuff or your technology is gonna suck. Just give up!

But, the real problem here is defining a “real MMO”. Not every MMO needs to be just like WoW (or Guild Wars 2), obviously. Here’s an MMO written by one person. Here’s the beginnings of another by the same person. Sure, neither game will compete directly with Guild Wars 2 anytime soon, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Indies cannot and should not try to do the same thing the big companies are doing. So, instead of coming across as a bit of a self-important jerk, the author of the article could have told people to really think about what they’re trying to accomplish and attempt a more modest game. Yes, most people are still going to fail, but let them fail and hopefully learn from the experience. I know that Dave has learned a lot from working on his own projects, and has certainly grown as a developer. As I’ve pointed out to him, his first project was a crazy one. But, he did it and he stands out from the crowd, even if I’m pretty sure he’s never had to know what a northbridge or a southbridge is (and neither have I).

What’s it all mean?

So, what do you think? Do you agree there’s not enough Criticism? Do you think we need less punditry? Is complaining out of hand? Or is there some other subtlety here?

(Special thanks to Sara Pickell for discussing this topic and inspiring this post.)







11 Comments »

  1. It’s a tiny point in just one of your links, but it surprises me that ArenaNet guy says “If you don’t have a great looking game, don’t expect to attract too many players. The MMO space more than any other genre is dominated by players who are into aesthetics and first impressions.

    I’ve always found the opposite to be true. Every other genre I can think of, the players are more into visual aesthetics than MMO gamers.

    Comment by Carson — 19 June, 2011 @ 10:28 PM

  2. This “ArenaNet developer” – I don’t know him. He does not even seem to have a name on the board and I don’t know the face of “ApochPiQ”. I tried to figure out which of the GW2 devs he is, but well, it actually doesn’t matter. :)

    At first I thought you and he were talking about Jeff Strain’s Games Convention speech (before it became GamesCom) years ago. ApochPiQ very much arguments in the same line of thinking. They are not taking a small scale / Indie perspective but that of the super expensive projects that nowadays often claim the “Triple A/AAA” level for themselves, whatever that exactly means.

    He is also more discussing technical/financial/feasibility things of MMO design than the virtual world or game. No armchair designer is going to argue with a programmer about things they don’t know anything about. But everyone can state his wishes and dreams. That is the things you mentioned that mostly get ignored.

    Constructive criticism… in a way Dan “Danc” Cook demands and expects intelligent criticism by informed people that helps to improve the product.

    I can’t help but to whom are developers actually listening these days? Apparently everyone to whatever he or she prefers to listen to. Eric Heimburg for instance says a lot of smart things but also realized as you wrote “still nobody able to change things is listening to you”.

    Comment by Longasc — 20 June, 2011 @ 2:41 AM

  3. Yeah, I do Punditry

    [...] Criticism, criticizing, and complaing by Brian “Psychochild” Green [...]

    Pingback by Procrastination Amplification — 20 June, 2011 @ 2:55 AM

  4. Not discussing things in hindsight isn’t a solution, either …

    Comment by Nils — 20 June, 2011 @ 3:16 AM

  5. While I’ll readily agree that we tend to cover the same ground, couldn’t it be said that the devs of said self-professed AAA titles do the same thing? Seems to me that both are talking past each other at best, totally ignorant of each other in most cases.

    And yet the games sell and retain subscribers. Interesting. Maybe player-based criticism isn’t worth listening to in the first place.

    To answer your closing questions, I do think we need more informed criticism, but what we have isn’t apparently helping, so I’m not sure that quality is the problem. I think there’s a failure to truly communicate, and a lack of will to compromise. I do lay the blame for this largely on devs and those holding the pursestrings. AAA MMOs are still big business; high risk beasties that can’t afford to wander too far from the proven design rut, even if a vocal few (who tend to invoke the silent majority) want them to break out into new paths.

    Oh, and there’s also that “Love” MMO done by a solo dev. It’s possible, they are just different sorts of games. That’s a healthy thing.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 June, 2011 @ 10:01 AM

  6. In reading Danc’s post, I have to agree with (at least) one of his commenters that it depends on the purpose of the game commentary. If a game dev is looking for informed commentary regarding the development of his game, then obviously comments from a non-dev gamer are almost certainly not going to be helpful.

    But if a gave dev is looking for feedback on his game from a playability vantage, I can’t imagine a better person to give that feedback than a gamer.

    As one commenter pointed out, while devs may be gamers their POV is skewed by understanding a game from a development standpoint. Gamers who are not devs are the target audience for a game and therefore understanding how a game was developed is not only unnecessary but could be a hindrance. Of course intelligent commentary is more constructive than “I love this game!” or “This game sucks!”

    As for academic critics, I’ve never understood the need for them.

    Comment by Djinn — 20 June, 2011 @ 11:53 AM

  7. I read a book once called Boiling the IT Frog. It had a line in it that sticks with me now. Technology that crosses the line into magic leads to unreasonable trust, illogical thinking, and inappropriate wizardry. This of course is familiar to the Arthur C. Clarke quote Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic..

    Game design/development/creation is in the same boat. To anyone without a little bit of knowledge into the process/inner workings of game development, the video game they play is magic and when it doesn’t work its not a question of engine, technology or current environment, but one of faith in the game. Criticism from this point of view can only be as if from a zealot.

    Constructive criticism on the level Danc is looking for would be amazing for the industry, but I fear it would be quickly misconstrued by news/review sites as testimony and used wrongly. Honestly I would like to see a critic that can approach a game from the perspective of both developer and player, but the chances of one rising up to actually catch the attention of both developer and gamer alike is pretty slim. The game industry needs a “Ebert” to call our own for anything like what Danc is looking for to actually make an impact.

    Comment by Haversack — 21 June, 2011 @ 11:26 AM

  8. I found his article rather pompous. If you’re going to say “hey everybody. Most of you should just shut up and let the smart people talk.” you have to be pretty amazing. Bartle or Garriott or Meyer perhaps have the clout. But this guy? He was some drone at Microsoft who quit the day job to try something a bit riskier. And his company is aimed at a gap in the market, some platform that by some collective oversight no one was doing interesting games for. He didn’t dive on to the PC to take WOW and Civ on on their own turfs.

    Regarding Criticism, yes absolutely we need it but Kostikan wrote that 3 years ago in a much better way.

    What Criticism isn’t is the ability to do. Ask any art critic for a look at their painting or try to buy a ticket for an Ebert film. As you observe he’s missed this rather fundamental semantic point. If you plan to tell everyone their doing X wrong you really should find out what X means first.

    Academic criticism is concerned with the overarching culture and the place of the work within it. Instead of saying this game was great and the graphics were cool you say this is a post-Garriott RPG the visuals of which have been highly influenced by Populous. Doing it well requires a profound understanding of the culture and the way designers are influenced and inspired by each other.

    That’s why it tends to be done by academics who spend their whole lives exploring the culture rather than people with day jobs. And if you’re a professional game designer you perhaps know a great deal about your game, a fair amount about your rivals but you may lack the breadth of gaming experience to be in the best position to perform this function.

    It’s interesting that Bartle refers to playing WOW and Rift sometimes as “maintaining my credentials”.

    Comment by Stabs — 22 June, 2011 @ 11:22 PM

  9. Do What You Want

    [...] of the games themselves, why do players offer critique, punditry or backseat driving without seeking to understand before demanding to be understood?  I [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 23 June, 2011 @ 6:16 AM

  10. Stabs wrote:

    Bartle or Garriott or Meyer perhaps have the clout. But this guy? He was some drone at Microsoft who quit the day job to try something a bit riskier.

    Isn’t it better to judge the quality of criticism on the strength of the argument rather than the history of the arguer? Dan Cook makes many good points in his posts and that should be plain to see no matter what his job is or was.

    That is, however, partly why I disagree with his original point: I don’t think game criticism from game developers is intrinsically any more worthwhile than when it comes from any other source. In fact I would argue that developers are often a poor choice to judge such works, as there can be a tendency to close ranks and make excuses for others based on the rigours of the industry that we’re familiar with. It’s also common for developers to be impressed by some technological advancement that may well further the art of game development but does nothing for the art of games themselves. For these reasons, if we do need expert opinion, I would argue that we need it to come from expert game players, not expert game makers.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 26 June, 2011 @ 10:20 AM

  11. Isn’t it better to judge the quality of criticism on the strength of the argument rather than the history of the arguer?

    This is precisely what Danc is arguing against. His argument can be summed up as people who don’t have a history of making quality games should stop talking about game development and that criticism equals game development advice. Ironic, eh?

    Comment by Stabs — 27 June, 2011 @ 10:46 PM

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