Acting on Criticism (or How Taking it Matters Little)

This was a blog post passed onto me through some forums I frequent.  http://www.raphkoster.com/2013/10/14/on-getting-criticism/

Now this is going to probably come across as a “hater”; but I am rather amused that the man who developed Star Wars Galaxies talking about taking criticism when it was trying to implement too much fan feedback that effectively destroyed the game, but that’s beside the point.  Raph Koster really doesn’t tell a creator anything they shouldn’t already know.  The advice falls fairly hollow because it’s pretty much common sense.  You SHOULD listen to all criticism, especially the bad, because just listening to people saying how good something is doesn’t actually teach you anything on how to improve.  You shouldn’t take the negative personally, just as you shouldn’t use the positive as a crutch to ward off the former.

If you’re a serious developer of creative content, and haven’t learned that yet… you’re not a developer.  You’ve already burned out and cursed everything that led you down your prior path (paging Phil Fish… paging Phil Fish… oh, he’s left the building… again).

So no, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Koster’s words of wisdom. “Accepting all criticism” is the creator equivalent of “the customer is always right.”  It’s a wonderful axiom, and it should be applied whenever possible.  But sometimes… the customer isn’t right.  Sometimes, the customer is being completely unreasonable.  The same is true for criticism.  Sometimes what an angry or dissatisfied fan wants isn’t something you’re comfortable giving.  Just because someone doesn’t like what you’ve created is not suitable reason to drop everything to change it for them.

When and how should you act on criticism?  Well… here are some things I suggest be considered:

1) Sometimes, feedback is mutually exclusive

It’s no secret that different people like different things.  It’s also no secret that what one person likes, there’s someone out there that absolutely hates it.  This is why it’s not as simple as rejecting positive feedback and accepting the negative.  Positive feedback is not dangerous, as Koster claims.  What someone thinks you are doing right matters too.  And changing things that people dislike to suit them may very well anger the person that likes what you’ve done.

The question a creator has to ask when they get conflicting feedback is “Which person am I trying to target?”  No matter what… someone is going to leaving this interaction pissed off.  It’s unavoidable.  By identifying who you want receiving your message, you change your design or intent (or not change) accordingly.  It’s okay to tell someone dissatisfied with your work that your work isn’t for them.  You’re not going to please everyone.  Trying will only give you ulcers at the end of the day.

2) Contrary to conventional wisdom; your message does matter.

A very popular belief spouted by readers and creators who want to sound smart is that authorial intent is irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is the audience’s interpretation.  In a sense, that’s true… to the audience.  But interpretation is not a universal thing.  Give a book to ten people, and you’ll get fourteen interpretations of what the author was trying to say.  The “audience” isn’t a single voice speaking to you.  It’s a mess of discordant whispers, that as mentioned earlier, often want different things.

When all is said and done, it’s your story to tell.  Your hand is wrapped around the pen.  It’s all well and good to accommodate your readers when you can.  But if parts of your audience wants something that conflicts with the story you want to tell… you have to ask how important that is to your message.  If it’s not something you can work with and keep the story yours, it’s usually best to tell them “sorry.”  This story is your voice to world… if you wouldn’t accept someone shouting over you in discussion, you shouldn’t let them shout over your literary voice, either.

3) It’s okay to toss all the above out the window, and act on the cold, hard numbers

As much as I value my literary integrity, that’s just me.  For a good many creators, they’re more interested in what will sell; what will keep the most of their fans happy and buying the next game/movie/book/DVD/CD.  And that’s perfectly fine.  For some people (hell, I’d say most people) that paycheck is more important than their message… and hey, I understand that.

And in those cases, what the mob wants is what the mob should get, even it runs completely contrary to your original intent.  The problem is gauging just what your audience wants.  It’s not a matter of who screams the loudest.  It’s not a matter of who has the largest cadre on official forums, or fansites, or whatever.  It’s not about surveys or polls.  This requires actually getting into very detailed interaction with as many people within your audience as you can, finding out the core of the complaints rather than just the complaints themselves… and that is a full time job in and of itself.

Good luck.

4) Finally, for the audience; “not acting” does not equate to “not listening.”

Another big problem I had with Koster’s words of wisdom is that readers can (and will) make a very dangerous conclusion from it.  When you tell people that no one’s feedback is never wrong, even though that’s true, it creates a causation of “well, if my criticism is not wrong, but the creator didn’t change it, then obviously he/she/they is/are not listening.  And if they are going to disrespect me, why should I respect them?”

That is what I believe is at the heart of most flame and vitriol from fans.  Because when people feel ignored, they have a tendency to lash out, becoming more aggressive and vicious the longer it seems that you are not listening to their complaints.  Just like “the customer is always right” has led to some horribly boorish and despicable behavior from customers; so does “your criticism is not wrong” engender a hateful, spiteful response from sections of your audience that feel “shunned” or “betrayed.”

To the audience, I humbly wish to say for the most part that is not true.  Even when creators take the most standoffish reception to your criticism, your voice did not go unheard.  Your dismissal is more likely due to the fact that you are hardly the first to air that particular criticism.  You’re probably not the first to air that criticism that day.  It’s easy to assume the worst.  It’s easy to think you’ve been slapped down.  It’s harder to accept that your complaint has been noted, and that creators aren’t always going to heed it… and that it has nothing to do with you as a person.

Just like creators should never take criticism personally… the audience could stand to be able to take the response the same way.

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