THE AUDIENCE! Indies love the audience. They give us vital bug reports, they validate us creatively, and of course they ultimately pay our wages. But, THE AUDIENCE! They fill the comments section with snark, they send in needlessly grumpy support mails, and sometimes they dare to not love the game in which we invested our blood.
It's hard to survive as an indie dev without engaging with your audience. I've been doing it for coming up on eight years. I'm thin-skinned by nature, and some of the very best and the very worst of the experience has come from direct content with fans. These days my prevailing emotional response has settled down to 'gratitude, and armour-plated cheerfulness.' I want to talk about how to get to that point, and still be able to take advantage of the genuinely useful feedback which your players give you constantly for free.
This is not advice about how to survive a troll onslaught or a stalker. It's also not advice about how to be a female game dev, which as far as I can tell is the Internet in Hard Mode, because I'm a man and my personal experience of that is limited to second hand. But I hope it will help people to keep an even emotional keel while communicating with players, and get the best out of their community. I've gone against several of these guidelines in the past, and I've regretted it every time.
"Believe your players when they say they're not enjoying your game. Don't believe them when they tell you how to fix it"
Believe your players when they say they're not enjoying your game. Don't believe them when they tell you how to fix it. This is the most valuable thing on this list, so I put it at the top. When a player is unhappy, they rarely have any clue what changes would fix their unhappiness - otherwise, they'd be the game dev. When they do know, their solution might not be practical within your other constraints. And when it is, it might run counter to your creative intentions.
But they're always right when they tell you they're unhappy. Maybe they're in a minority, maybe they're having a bad day, but they're the expert on one thing: whether they're enjoying your game.
Listen to how they feel, and why. This is not hippy bullshit - this is intensely practical advice. Why are they unhappy? Do they feel trapped, stressed, bored, disappointed? What were their expectations? I started asking players to describe their emotions in feedback, and not only did the reports get suddenly more specific and useful, it often short-circuited their desire to tell me what I should be changing.
Seriously consider whether you're wrong. When you keep hearing the same criticism, even when it's obvious bullshit, take a breath and think about what would actually happen if you addressed it. Occasionally it won't turn out to be bullshit after all. Even when it is still bullshit, you might pick up an unexpected insight.
When you're wrong, come out and admit it. Man, this can be difficult. LET THEM WIN? Humble pie tastes like crow. It can be tempting to hold off a change until you can let people assume you had changed it of your own accord. But that's a waste of time and mental energy, it's dishonest, and you might be surprised by how positive the reaction is.
But when there's an eruption, wait for the magma to cool before you react. When you make a controversial change, there'll be an explosion on the forums. Your more hot-headed community members will confidently announce THE END OF THE WORLD. Because you're an open-minded dev who's read this article, you'll wonder if they're right. Give it some time to settle. Don't let your team panic. You might find that a week or two later, the angry people are in the minority, or even that they've calmed down and come round. If you overreact, you'll overcorrect, and you'll probably end up overcorrecting back the following month.
"Be courteous, be good-humoured, even if the person you're talking to seems irredeemable"
Speak to the silent majority. Remember that most of the people reading your comment will be well-disposed to you. You often feel like you're responding to one person, but orders of magnitude more will read your comment, now and later. Be courteous, be good-humoured, even if the person you're talking to seems irredeemable. If you can keep the high ground, you'll win with the crowd even when it feels like a stalemate.
And you never know when someone you thought was irredeemable will be won round. The people who've got angriest about my work are people who nearly loved it. They won't say that, but when you do change something down the line and they suddenly become an advocate for your game, you'll be glad you didn't lay down the snark.
Never respond in the heat of the moment. Back in my early Failbetter days, when we were a company of four people, there was a time when I used to wake up, roll over in bed, grab my phone and check the forums. More than once this meant that in a fit of early-morning dazed grump, I said something regrettable. If I'd waited until I got into work, I'd have been - well, okay, still pretty grumpy, but maybe less dazed.
Comments can usually wait an hour. By then you'll have calmed down, and you might not feel the need to reply at all.
Don't go looking for trouble. Your Facebook page, your Steam forum, your blog - you don't want those overrun with weeds. But if you have something like Google Alerts tracking mentions of your game, you'll find it being discussed in private corners of the Internet. Often your players will say things you might object to - or they'll just get the wrong end of the stick - and you might want to go in there and correct them.
This is very nearly always the wrong thing to do. It's their space, not yours. Some players will be delighted you dropped by, but others will feel monitored or invaded. And even if the conversation goes well and everyone feels good about it, you'll have lost a useful way of learning about unfiltered player reactions.
"You never know when someone you thought was irredeemable will be won round. The people who've got angriest about my work are people who nearly loved it"
The Internet's a complicated place, and it's not always clear what's private and what's public. A good rule of thumb: if you come across a thread in the course of your daily browsing, and not because you've gone looking, it's probably public enough to drop some friendly, courteous truth.
Don't rubbish your players on social media. No, I know you're not using their name, I know you're not an idiot. I mean even anonymously. Even when it's a good story. "Can you believe what this bozo just -" "Can you believe how stupid - " No. Even if the person you're rubbishing never sees you do it, some of your players will, and they'll wonder what you might say about them or your friends. Even when it's a relatively discreet space, you never know when that link might surface, years later.
Limit internal bitching sessions. Sometimes, you will need to let off steam in private, and so will your team. Complain, vent, let other people vent, then find a way to change the subject. No-one benefits from your team getting worked up. Don't care about idiots more than they care about you.
Your house, your banhammer. If someone's being a dick, give them one warning before you ban them. If they're a dick in response to your warning, ban them straight away. By all means make it temporary, but don't mess about, don't give multiple warnings, don't waste time on arguing the point. Your house, your rules. You're not exiling criminals beyond the Wall, you're just withdrawing access to a tiny corner of the Internet, and reasonable players understand that.
Don't argue detail... Every troublemaker or enthusiast in your community has more time than you. If you try to answer every detail of every argument, you will get Gish Galloped into the mud - overwhelmed by a torrent of trivialities which most of the audience won't follow or care about.
...but do educate your community. If you keep hearing the same question, do one big post, as detailed as you need, and link back to it. The more helpful members of your community - or mods, if you use them - can link back to it too.
'it's just flawed / deeply flawed / bad / just plain bad game design.' Remember, these phrases mean 'I AM UNHAPPY and this is a subjective opinion but I want to sound like it's not.' Listen to the UNHAPPY part, don't take the rest personally. They're just having an emotion.
Remember that they love you. If players are putting their time or their money into your game, even when they sound profoundly negative, it means that they've responded to something. Maybe you just chose a good piece of preview art, maybe it's their friend who recommended it... but if they played your game, there's something they reacted to, and if they bothered to comment, something engaged them emotionally. They're people, and they care about your game: you always have at least those two things in common.
Alexis Kennedy founded Failbetter Games, and made Fallen London and Sunless Sea. He now does guest-writing gigs for clients like BioWare and Paradox, and makes his own games at WeatherFactory.