Waiting For Reviews
As you all know, we love demystifying the game development process, and one part we've never talked about is the experience of waiting for reviews. So, we thought it’d be interesting to dive deep into what it’s like to receive reviews for a game and what they mean to us.
What’s up pocket folks?
We have a new game, Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, coming out in less than a week on December 13th (so soon! ahhhh!) In fact, you can preorder it on Steam right now and get Shovel Knight Treasure Trove 60% off. As you all know, we love demystifying the game development process, and one part we've never talked about is the experience of waiting for reviews. So we thought it’d be interesting to dive deep into what it’s like to receive reviews for a game and what they mean to us.
It can be incredibly scary making a game. You spend a few years pouring every ounce of your energy into making something you hope everyone will love, but who knows if they will! You can never be sure, no matter how many playtests or opinions you gather... so many unpredictable factors go into what people actually think of the game you release.
It’s even scarier with professional critics. There’s no way to know how they’ll approach a game. For those that review the game before release, they do it with less information than any player. Reviewers typically have no mechanism for discussing the game with other players. There is no wiki or Youtube longplay to look up how things work. A reviewer's specific taste may not line up with the game. Sometimes, they have to play the game quickly to meet some editorial deadline and don’t have the luxury of time to learn every mechanic thoroughly. Maybe they can’t even finish the game. They might have never played this kind of game before or perhaps already know they don’t enjoy it. Many times, they'll have to play a game as homework, instead of as something they chose to engage with for fun. Reviewers are experts in their craft, but they consume games in a way far outside the norm of the average experience. Knowing they are experts can amplify every criticism!
So as developers, we wait- sitting on our hands, hoping for the best.
All that said… you might be thinking…. do we hate game reviewers? Actually, no- believe it or not, we truly appreciate them! Every moment, we worry they won’t like some part of our game. But they make us better developers. They help set up and explain our games in a way that makes it easier for our fans to fall in love with them. Let’s dig in:
A bit of history
You may know us as the makers of the critically acclaimed Shovel Knight series. That hasn’t always been the case. The core team at Yacht Club started at WayForward. Some of the games we worked on there were met with, to put it delicately, a mixed response! We wanted to step through two game releases that were particularly informative to us, in terms of how we receive and understand reviews. They changed the way we developed games!
BloodRayne Betrayal got a 2/10 on Destructoid, a 9/10 on IGN.
Double Dragon Neon got a 3/10 on IGN, a 9/10 on Destructoid.
Off the bat, it’s pretty bizarre, right? Nearly the best and nearly the worst impressions of 2 games, opposite ends of the spectrum, reversed for the same outlets. What are the lessons here?
Reviewers have taste
Much like how you may like anchovies or not... same with games. Every game has a unique flavor, and all players will respond to it differently. What you can see clearly in those BloodRayne and Double Dragon Neon reviews, is that those games had a strong, particular taste to them.
People often say in relation to art- nothing will be universally appreciated. It’s true, to a certain degree. Of course there are some things, like pizza, almost everyone loves. That’s a tough target to reach! We learned instead, our goal should be to strive for something that everyone can recommend. You may not like Shovel Knight, but hopefully it’s hard for someone to argue it wasn’t given care and attention. It's worth your time... if it matches your taste!
All Feedback is Valuable
Your first instinct as a developer might be to get defensive and argue about the quality of those reviews! Maybe they’re poorly written, incomplete, miss mechanics in the game, misunderstand the product, are rude, etc. What we learned is... none of that’s really important. What is important is that we are receiving feedback- an honest sense of how those people felt when they had to provide their thoughts on our work. Arguing over the quality of the review doesn’t change a thing; that is how the person felt playing the game. Our goal is to make it so players can feel the quality of the game is so strong, they can't help but recommend it (if it matches your taste). In that regard, we have an obligation to glean as much information as we can to help improve us as developers.
Players need to be taught well
It’s clear that the reviewers giving the games good scores had the game mechanics click for them. In the bad reviews, it's apparent that the game is not clicking in the slightest. Watching footage of the Double Dragon Neon review, you can see that the reviewer never uses the game’s most important mechanics, like dodging. Of course he had a bad time!
(Oof, this still hurts a little!)
Typically players will complain about these kinds of reviews, saying the critic is the problem. But this is our fault! We didn’t teach the mechanics properly in game if someone didn’t use them. We should have done a better job making sure the players in our game grasped what was going to be necessary to make the game fun to play!
We could also have done more to market the game to the public, explaining what it was. For example, Double Dragon Neon is a deliberate combat game. It focuses on close range encounters that keep you in the fight with a just-in-time dodge mechanic. If players don’t understand that before heading in… they’re going to have a bad time! It’s like going to see a movie you expect to be a comedy that turns out to be a drama. It’s hard to enjoy something when entering with the wrong expectations. It’s our responsibility to prepare reviewers in this fashion.
You may be surprised sometimes to see games sell extremely well even if the reviewers or players negatively review the product. That’s often because expectations were set up so perfectly, that players and/or reviewers were already in love with the product before release.
With each game in Shovel Knight, we spend a lot of time explaining mechanics in trailers, bringing the game to PAX, sending the games to media for early previews, writing articles outlining what’s interesting about the mechanics, creating instruction manuals, and more to help address the expectation concern.
How Reviewers Have Helped Us
Most people know that you can learn from a reviewer's critique of a piece of art. Everyone knows feedback, good and bad, helps people improve their craft. For us, there’s more than that to a pre-release review though. Reviewers have provided a huge service to us for players at large, one that isn’t talked about enough:
Defending the New
One of the most esteemed labels that can be given to a game is how inventive or innovative it is. The trick here is people typically find comfort in things they already know and understand. Critics can help bridge this gap, providing context to how an inventive idea can be palatable, and why you should give it your time.
A scene in Pixar’s Ratatouille famously describes this fact:
A reviewer’s ability to help players accept what is new grows the game's medium. It makes games more likely to succeed and be loved. This is something that’s hard to do solely as a developer. Openly welcoming new ideas like our checkpoint design, did wonders in allowing players to accept and understand Shovel Knight’s difficulty curve.
We might go one step further and say defending what’s “Different” is crucial too. Games can be very similar, with small discrepancies in their behavior that can make or break an experience for players. The Shovel Drop doesn’t work exactly like Ducktales’ pogo or Zelda 2’s downthrust. Reviewers can do wonders breaking these discrepancies down, and explaining why the changes benefit the game at hand.
Being so bold as to say… even a puzzle game can get a 9/10 or 10/10 just like a AAA game… that allows players to see the game in a new, accepting light.
An important part of defending what’s new or different, is entering a game giving it the benefit of the doubt. Critics can prepare players to be open to how experiences are imperfect or not what they’re comfortable with. They can display empathy towards the team and the product, helping players be more accepting of quirks, faults, or slight taste differences they find disagreeable.
When someone gushes about a game, it gets everyone excited too! A reviewer can set the tone for what parts of a game are fun to talk about. Things like...mentioning how Propeller Rats show the quirky, unique flavor of Shovel Knight’s world, helps others grasp onto the excitement of a game’s release in a tangible way.
As discussed earlier, game developers can help set expectations through marketing. On the flip side, reviewers can help developers understand how players see their game. Developers aren’t always aware of what's important for players to know ahead of time. As devs, we're so close to the game, we often forget the basics. Reviewers can point out to their audience what to look out for... this can come in all sorts of forms:
Reviewers can explain a mechanic you might not understand (maybe like trading damage on enemy interaction in a puzzle game. How weird!)
Reviewers can soften a traditionally off putting mechanic (Always losing health on every enemy interaction. But how do I play without getting hit!... don’t worry, you’ll get used to it quickly!)
Reviewers can warn you of a section that may cause you trouble (Lich Yard is a difficulty hump... just stick with it and the game will open up to you!)
Reviewers can point out a bug, so you know what to overlook (hopefully none from us, heh!).
Reviewers can prepare you for a slate of DLC or what to expect financially (3 DLC packs coming soon!)
Reviewers can prepare you for the difficulty of a game and how to best mitigate it (watch out, a really tough puzzle game is coming!)
Reviewers can prepare you for how a game might be different from previous entries (this one’s a puzzle game spinoff...sure is different from its platforming mainline series.)
Reviewers can prepare you for the length/breadth of content to expect (Pocket Dungeon can surprisingly take dozens of hours to beat.)
Reviewers can set up how this game might match along with your previous tastes (A puzzle game? Wait... this is totally gonna be up your alley!)
Reviewers can make you aware how a game is different than you expect (Pocket Dungeon? Is that a mobile game like Candy Crush? Not really!)
Expectations greatly impact your understanding of a product. Few people are good at going into an experience completely cold. Reviewers are more practiced in this than anyone and can prepare you to enjoy the game as much as possible.
In setting expectations, critics can spend more time detailing when and why a game is worth your time. This preparation of their audience is so important to fans getting the best experience possible.
Cutting through "Baggage"
Alongside settings expectations, games can come with baggage. We specialize in games with baggage at Yacht Club. We make games that aren’t the cutting edge. They look old! Maybe they look like something you’ve seen before. They look like something you’ve played before. Maybe you think they look like a mobile game, flash game, take little effort or are cheap, are too impossible to beat, etc. You may feel like you know how our game plays already because it feels familiar. There’s a lot of baggage that players may bring when looking at a new game.
Reviewers can help cut through that. They can help explain why this one is different. We have deeply relied on reviewers to set the record straight, and clarify how what we’re doing isn’t commonplace. We couldn’t be more grateful how reviewers have helped us with this in the past!
Reviewers document the games as they are. It’s so helpful to be able to go back to reviews from the 90s and see how games were received then versus now.
(Woah, reviews sure have changed for Dr Mario! That’s sick!)
Seeing how games were discussed through the ages helps us as developers know what to look out for, what to be prepared for, and what to learn from. Especially as a team here that’s obsessed with drawing out greatness and learning from the past.
Some games never get reviewed! Reviews provide an entry point for players to know about a product. In fact, they can be critical in selling a game (that’s free or not!). There’s a reason that many AAA companies have tied bonus payments for a game to Metacritic scores.
A great review can help amplify the messaging around a game. It can provide comfort to gamers who were skeptical about what to expect from a product. Especially in bringing something new to the public (or that has baggage) like Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon, a review can be what convinces you to give a game a fair shake… even if you were going to play it anyway!
At the heart of it, critics make us better developers. Reviewers are a necessary part of our process at Yacht Club. Although scary, we welcome seeing how they discuss our games. We hope reviewers will take a look at something as unique and bizarre as Pocket Dungeon and make it understandable for players to enjoy and take a chance on (even if it's not normally their type of game!). All we ask is players give our games a chance, and reviewers are essential for helping convey that request.
For more articles related to feedback, we recommend reading Derek Yu’s post which greatly details his framework for receiving feedback from all types of sources.
In review, we love what critics do!