This Week In Indie: Criticism And Communication Is Key To Indie Success
This year in the world of indie has shown us the power of mis-communication and bad social media choices by a number of indie devs, most prominently Phil Fish (one of the minds behind Fez) having a social media meltdown on Twitter and finally declaring that Fez 2 was no longer in development. This all happened after Fish had been attacked by gaming journalist Marcus Beer on his show, on GameTrailers. This has been one of the worst PR nightmares for Polytron who are no strangers to controversy on behalf of Phil Fish. In this case, both Fish and Beer were both in the wrong, but problems and issues such as this are becoming commonplace in the industry.
This year has further demonstrated that the relationship between the press and indie game devs is one ripe with mis-communication and a lack of understanding about how PR works. The press be it online journalists or Let’s Players offer to promote the games of indie devs, for free in most instances. Although Indie Game Magazine seems to think charging for reviews and videos should be a standard practice, and shows how really out-of-touch their editor is with reality and the indie dev community at large. But in most situations, the press are providing free PR for indie devs who want exposure, free press and effective promotion of their games. However, another controversy this year has shown that when an indie game receives criticism, the relationship between a member of the press and an indie dev can turn toxic.
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PC game critic and YouTube personality John “TotalBiscuit” Bain uploaded a video of the indie game Day One: Garry’s Incident, and shortly following its release was taken down due to “copyright infrigement”. When in actuality, Stephane Woods studio chief of Wild Games Studio, the developers of the game, couldn’t tolerate the criticism leveled at Day One: Garry’s Incident in TotalBiscuit’s video. Instead Woods argued that his studio didn’t condone the monetization of Let’s Plays, which is common practice and a factor that all indie devs acknowledge as a standard when it comes to promoting their games. This nearly lead to legal issues between TotalBiscuit and Wild Games Studio, until the issue and dispute was resolved.
This controversy highlights nicely enough the tension that criticism can cause. I think a great deal of the time there is a perception that gaming journalists and the press at large are glorified press releases available to devs to espouse PR talk and promote their games, without criticism. Sadly we are not. Some journalists may want to go that route as they have friendships and personal relationships with devs. But I feel that this dilutes the purpose of a gaming journalist, and criticism of indie games should be vital to the growth and expansion of the industry.
This is an issue which I spoke at length about with devs from games like Toxic Bunny, Pixel Boy, Wang Commander and Broforce. It’s great that we can praise an indie game and dev for what they have accomplished. But talking about what you don’t like about a game is just as important. Specifically I remember talking to Nick Hall, the chair person of Make Games SA, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting indie developers in South Africa, about PR and the place of criticism in the development of the industry and indie games. Hall told me about the practices of indie devs from Make Games SA and that the open development cycle had become a standard practice for many South African indie devs. This “open development” cycle was something that Danny Day, one of the developers behind Desktop Dungeons, described as such:
1. Make a prototype
2. Put prototype online; make it accessible
3. Listen and evaluate feedback
5. Invest in a good idea – based on what your feedback tells you
Although devs may have such a development cycle in use, criticism will still be leveled at devs regardless. Where criticism has been misinterpreted as “negative press” can be seen quite clearly in the TotalBiscuit saga with Day One: Garry’s Incident. This is still free press and PR nonetheless, and the game is receiving a form of promotion. It is not TotalBiscuit’s fault that Wild Game Studios released a broken buggy product to the market. Indie games by their very nature are personal projects which devs dedicate much of their lives and time to, with many devs taking the solo route with a game or working in very small teams to produce one game over a number of years. For some indie devs, criticism can be taken in many cases negatively and as a personal attack.
The perception that gaming journalists are free PR machines needs to subside. The press will criticise a game be it from a AAA developer or an indie developer. If a dev is unhappy with criticisms of their game, why not email the reviewer, open up a discussion and find out why that member of the press wrote said criticisms. This is more conducive to making positive progression, than resorting to Twitter meltdowns and ragefests, and YouTube video take-downs. Inevitably, if we all take the time to effectively communicate with one another, the result will be better games.