Be Harsh Toward Early-Stage Games, Gracious Toward Late-Stage Games

Written on December 21, 2021

Note: This article is mostly referring to criticism toward indie game designers, whether it be in the form of a post on a third-party review site or direct feedback to the designer.

As I work on Legacy’s Allure, I am always on the lookout for turn-based tactical combat games, whether tabletop or digital. Today I played a digital game that could probably be called a “more serious Summoner Wars”. Unsurprisingly, this game had all of the same design problems that Summoner Wars has, but more importantly, it just didn’t feel like it added anything to the genre. My playtesting group, who is definitely in the target market for the game, panned it and said it will be DOA. They didn’t publicly post a review, but its safe to say that such a review would have been harsh.

I couldn’t get on that bandwagon. I can’t be that harsh to designers that clearly poured their soul into a game. Yes, the game is probably no more than 5/10 for most people in the target market, but if they can improve the UI and add an AI to play against, I would not consider it money wasted and would be happy to have it in my collection. Moreover, I know that every sale means a great deal to an indie team. They’ve already spent countless huge sums of money and years of their life on it. I can’t undo that, and my few dollars toward them isn’t going to “lead them on” into thinking they have a great product, because there would need to be 10,000 of me (literally) for that to happen.

But if they had shared their idea two years ago looking for feedback? I would have it ripped it apart. I would have pontificated for as long as they’d tolerate about the problems with the action system, the objective, the deck requirements, and so on. It’s a clunky design, and at the early stage, they lose absolutely nothing by being told that, even if it ends up crushing their dream. Worst case scenario, their feelings get hurt. Best case scenario, they spend all of that time and money doing something more meaningful (in game design or elsewhere). By the way, if I’m wrong, and their venture succeeds, I will be the first to admit I’m wrong.

The takeaway is this: indie game designers don’t have anything to lose by you being harsh in the early stages, and you don’t have anything to gain by being harsh in the late stages. Some people, even if everyone is going to tell them “NO!” are going to make their game regardless, just because they love it, just because it brings them joy, just because they love to create. When they do, no need to tell them, “I told you so!” They made their choice and they can suffer the market consequences (assuming they even care about commercial success). Sure, mention what you don’t like, but take the time to find some bright spots in their design. No one is going to get hurt.