Recently, I got feedback from a publisher I’m working with for a new game. The publisher was suggesting some pretty big changes in the design. Most of these changes were things we had previously discussed, or things I was considering, myself. It’s easy to tell designers that they need to be ready for a publisher to change their game. And–as a designer–I can tell you that advice is easy to mentally grasp, but it’s an entirely different story when you have to deal with that feedback the first time. But I learned a big lesson through this experience. It can be emotionally difficult to hear a publisher tell you to change your baby. And I’m pretty sure I went through the 5 stages of grief. I hope that sharing this experience will be valuable to other designers dealing with this for the first (or tenth) time.
My first reaction was denial. They were completely wrong. I’ve been working on this for a year, and they’ve only played it for a few months. Never mind the fact that since there’s a whole team playing, they’ve probably put in almost as much play time as I have, if not more.
Next, anger. I started to think, I made such a big mistake, somebody else would have taken my idea and used it as is. Sometimes you get lucky and you have a design that doesn’t need much development. But for this game (as is the case for most games) I wanted a publisher who would help develop and balance it. I really can’t be mad for the publisher doing exactly what I wanted them to do.
So I sent off an email, and offered a few counter-suggestions, and got some very thoughtful responses. I started to wonder if maybe I could only partially implement the changes, or if there were some compromises to be made. What I didn’t do was sit down and try to actually work with the suggestions, to see how well they would be implemented, leaving me to worry about those changes.
That left depression. And for about a day, I just kind of moped around, trying to avoid looking at the design I didn’t want to change. This was all made worse by the fact that I had just had a successful weekend of playtesting, and I was really proud of what I had accomplished with the game. I sat complaining that I didn’t want to make any changes.
But then I actually sat down and looked at the design, and started reworking it. And a lot of the problems I was worried about suddenly disappeared. It turns out it didn’t hurt to make most of the changes. And while I always knew in my head that the changes would benefit the game, I really began to see the improvements. And while I had to get rid of some parts, I also found a few new avenues that hadn’t been open to me before.
But it doesn’t stop there. The changes also helped shed some light on some other designs I’ve been working on that have some shared elements. The suggestions didn’t just fix a problem, they provided me a solution that I could use in other places. The moral of this story is, of course, that publishers don’t want to destroy your game. When they give you feedback, they really do want to make it the best game they can, and it’s worth your while to pause and really understand what they are telling you. Sometimes the hardest feedback to hear can be the most important. And as a designer, it’s all about how you cope with that feedback and move on to what’s next.