Whenever you share something you created with a public audience, that “something” will be judged by other people. This is a universal truth for just about anything: video games, books, music, paintings, and even smaller compositions such as a post on your favorite forums.
Sometimes, you’ll receive positive judgment for your work: appreciation for your effort, a quick note about how it improved someone’s day (or week, or life), or if you’re especially lucky, you might even receive some constructive criticism that you can apply to your next creation.
Other times, you’ll receive negative judgment for your work: destructive criticism (“these graphics suck” or “I could have shat on my kitchen floor and ended up with something better than that”), bouts of entitlement on how you should change your creation to match that person’s exact expectations, and even much darker responses such as personal insults and threats.
After only five short years of working as an independent game developer, I’ve seen countless examples of everything I just mentioned – and then some. As you might expect, positive judgment is what fuels my passion to improve my games and create new ones. I hungrily accept constructive criticism because I know it will make for a better game in the long run, even if it does take a bit of extra work to make it all happen. And who wouldn’t love to hear a sincere note of appreciation every once in a while? But let’s not forget about the other side of the coin: negative judgment, otherwise known as “negativity”.
Negativity is like a black hole that will inevitably suck every last ounce of motivation and passion from your mind. It leads to aspiring game developers (both independent and AAA alike) quitting their jobs just to avoid feeling so poorly about themselves, and that’s all thanks to the obnoxiously-vocal minority of people who just can’t seem to be nice. Negativity is painful because, in order to create something that’s actually good (games, music, etc.), you need to be passionate about it. And when you become passionate, you also become protective. Your creation becomes a very important part of your life, and it feels terrible to hear someone talk down on it.
Early on, I took to heart every negative review, comment, and tweet about my games. Even in a sea of positive feedback, one snide remark was enough to spin me into a short-term depression in which I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything for the rest of the day. At one point (especially when I published Siralim for PlayStation), these comments bothered me so badly that I self-medicated with alcohol just to avoid dwelling on this mindless prattle that ultimately served no one other than some nameless keyboard warrior’s ego. But soon after, I realized that I was letting these people take away the thrill of what should otherwise be a fun and rewarding job.
Something had to change for me, and I’m relieved to say that it most certainly did. I want to share what I learned about dealing with negativity to help other creators who will inevitably find themselves in this same situation. Pardon the long introduction, but this is a topic that I’m extremely passionate about.
Before we begin…
I want to start by reminding you that there is a difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Even if a player doesn’t particularly enjoy your game, they’ll often provide useful feedback about what you could change about it to better suit their wants and needs. That type of feedback is extremely valuable, and I am not advocating that you ignore feedback from your players. Your game isn’t perfect, and it never will be, because there’s no such thing as a perfect game.
This post is about dealing with internet toxicity – the kind of stuff that serves no purpose other than to bring other people down.
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
Be careful about what you choose to read online.
If your game becomes popular enough, you’ll be able to find comments about it everywhere: in reviews, forums, social media, YouTube comments, and more. Back in the day, I used to intentionally seek out as many of these comments as I could find. After all, I wanted to know what people thought about my game!
The majority of the feedback I found was positive, which motivated me to work harder and to release more free content updates for my games. I don’t care how humble you think you are; when someone praises your hard work, it’s impossible not to feel good about it.
Unfortunately, I also came across a few really nasty comments about my games as well. Even after reading hundreds of nice things about Siralim, all it took was one bad review or one personal attack to erase everything those nice people said about my game. This sapped my motivation and ultimately caused me to produce less content over time. You can’t be motivated to work when you have things like that weighing down on your mind.
I know there are some people out there right now who are rolling their eyes and saying “Ha! Really? You get to make video games for a living. If I were in your position, I wouldn’t let a few negative comments get to me!” But until you’ve been in that position, you can’t possibly understand. Before I started making games, I said the same thing, and I now realize just how wrong I was.
The solution to this issue is a simple one: don’t read these comments at all. You might assume that it’s useful, for example, to read the negative Steam reviews about your game to obtain feedback. In most cases, however, you’re not going to get anything valuable from these reviews. Usually, if someone genuinely wants your game to succeed and they have something useful to say, they’ll get in contact with you and let you know. They won’t slam you with a negative review without talking to you first. Sometimes that does happen, but not very often.
Of course, there are some instances where you need to read these comments. For example, I welcome suggestions and bug reports on my forums, so of course, I need to read my own forums. But my forums are where I’m in control, and the trolls know it. They’re probably not going to waste their time telling me how much I suck at life when they know I will just delete their post and ban them. This is a valuable takeaway: in general, focus on reading comments only on the platforms you control. You’re far more likely to find useful feedback on these platforms and far less likely to find harmful comments. And, if you manage these platforms correctly, you’ll slowly grow a helpful and mature community of players who you look forward to interacting with every day.
On the other hand, I stay away from platforms that I can’t control. For example, I often find posts on the /r/iOSgaming subreddit about Siralim. Most of the time, people are recommending the game to players who are looking for an RPG with certain criteria. That’s awesome. But I don’t read the responses to those recommendations, because I know there’s always going to be that one person who couldn’t manage to get the game running on their iPod Touch from 2002 and they somehow believe that’s my problem.
When in doubt, ask yourself, “If I read this comment, will I be better off for it?”. If the answer is “no”, and most of the time that will be the case, just ignore it and move on with your day.
Don’t try to change other people. Change your outlook on them.
No matter how hard you try to avoid negativity, however, you’re going to stumble upon it eventually. It’s inevitable, and you need to be prepared for it.
Unfortunately, as much as we might want to, we can’t jump out of someone else’s computer screen and strangle them with their own headphone cords. In fact, we can’t do much of anything about what other people say about us. Critics have the luxury of hiding behind anonymity, and that is a fact that will never change.
So, if we can’t change other people, we need to change ourselves. Or, more specifically, we need to change our outlook on the matter.
Even now, whenever I read something that I don’t like, I still feel my blood pressure rise a little. But soon after, I remind myself that I know just as little about this person as they know about me. For all I know, they just got fired from their job, or maybe they recently found out that a family member has a terminal illness. Maybe they had to euthanize their dog last week. It’s even possible that they have a mental illness that causes an otherwise friendly person to say terrible things sometimes. I have no idea, but I do know that most people aren’t complete assholes for no good reason. That person is likely dealing with something bad in their life, and talking down on me or my game is how they’re choosing to cope with it. That doesn’t mean what they’re saying is justified, but it does help me to understand that their negativity is a problem on their end, not mine.
With that in mind, we can start to fight back a bit – but not in the way you might expect. No, we’re going to learn how to lovingly hug these trolls and turn them into our greatest advocates.
Give them a hug.
It’s a lot easier to shrug off negative criticism when you realize that these comments aren’t your problem. Maybe you’ll even become sympathetic to someone’s situation, even if you don’t know what that situation is.
If you’re brave enough to respond to someone who seems angry, violent, or all-around nasty, do it in the kindest way you can. More often than not, they’ll take a step back and realize that they were in the wrong and apologize. Some people will even feel so badly about what they said that they’ll change a negative review to a positive one, or even buy an extra copy of your game for a friend. Other times, you’ll gain the respect of onlookers who see how you handle even the most obnoxious of critics. In other words, use this negativity to your advantage.
Here’s a YouTube video someone made about Siralim 3. I’m still not entirely sure if they truly hated the game or if they were just employing an unbelievable amount of satire in their video (which they’re well-known for), but I invite you to watch the video and then take a look at the top comment, as well as the responses to it and the number of likes that comment received. It would have been very easy to respond to the criticism in the video (they barely finished the 5-minute tutorial and had several key facts about the game all wrong), but that wouldn’t have helped anyone at all. Instead, I gave them a hug and was immediately embraced by their viewers.
Whatever you do, don’t respond to negative comments with more negativity of your own. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and speak your mind. “How dare they talk down on my creation? I’ll show them just how wrong they really are.” But that will only make the situation worse.
When I get really annoyed with someone (which, fortunately, has lessened over time as I’ve adjusted to it), I’ll write a response to them in Notepad, and then save it to my desktop. The next day, if I open it up and still want to send it to that person, I will. But I almost never move forward with sending it, and when I do, it’s heavily edited and a lot more professional than when I first wrote it. This has saved me from a countless number of PR issues in the past. After all, no one will remember the obnoxious 11-year-old kid with pink Kool-Aid stains around his mouth who said I suck at making games, but plenty of people will remember whatever I said to him in response.
Remain focused on the bigger picture.
I’m pretty sure that no one has ever made a game that every single person hates. At worst, no one cares enough about your game to comment about it at all. In most cases, however, you’re undoubtedly going to interact with some great people who play your game. They’re passionate about what you do, and they want you to succeed – after all, if you’re successful, you’ll be able to create even more games for them to play.
Embrace these people. Listen to their feedback, thank them for taking the time to talk to you, and even befriend them if you want. Make your games for these people. They’re the only ones who matter, and they’re the ones who you’ll want to keep around for the long term.
Exalt the good, discard the bad, and you’ll grow something amazing together.
Thanks for reading! Despite what I wrote about not reading comments, I want you to know that I will most certainly read any comments about this post. Your feedback is always welcome!
If you want to read more about this topic, I highly recommend Jeff Vogel’s take on this subject. Jeff is the owner of Spiderweb Software. You might know him as the creator of the Avadon, Avernum, and Geneforge series. His post was instrumental to help me understand the motivation behind people’s negative behavior and how he deals with it. And, if nothing else, it’s great to know that you’re not the only one who deals with these issues on a daily basis. Misery loves company.