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How to Deal with Negative Feedback

September 5, 2023
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In the world of gaming, there are a few things that every game developer and publisher brace themselves for upon releasing a new title; negative feedback. An inevitability of the trade, no game is safe from the opinions of players and pundits alike. Negative feedback can destroy a company's reputation and game sales, from indie games to AAA titles. With a myriad of ways negative feedback can surface, it’s good to have a heads up on the different ways it surfaces and strategies to get ahead of it preemptively. 

This post covers sources of negative feedback, strategies for dealing with it effectively, and offers examples of how other gaming companies have weathered the storm both successfully and unsuccessfully. So whether you're a game developer just starting out or a publisher looking to improve your game's reputation, read on for tips on handling negative feedback like a pro.

‍Why Are My Players Upset? Sources of Negative Feedback

Negative feedback: While we could definitely all live without it, it's not going anywhere. Players are no longer just consumers but active participants at all stages of the game, before and after release. And boy, do they have opinions. Understanding how negative feedback can arise is the first step in quelling potential discontent. From a lack of transparency to the sometimes louder-than-life vocalizations from a small population of your fans, let's dive into the different ways negativity can rear its ugly head.  A Lack of Transparency and Unfulfilled Promises When thinking about negative feedback, two common mistakes are not providing appropriate transparency and breaking promises. Players are more invested in games from development to release than ever before. They expect game companies to keep promises to their audience and be transparent when things don't go according to plan. By not regularly communicating with your players, you risk upsetting your community in the event of delays or setbacks and tarnishing your credibility if a promise goes unfulfilled without explaining to your players why. 

Players understand there are limits to what game companies can share, so being judicious in framing the game development timeline or when to expect early access is crucial. The Kickstarter campaign for Star Citizen learned this lesson the hard way. Delays and a lack of communication between fans and developers resulted in a wave of negative comments on the campaign page. As of last year, the game still has yet to launch, leaving lawsuits and disgruntled fans in its wake.
xsolla-blog-negative-feedback-01-870x489.jpg A Lack of Prompt Feedback Loops Leads to Negative Reviews It's human nature to want to shy away from negativity, but when a game company fails to respond to players, the result often leads to an increase in bad reviews and even worse press. Failure to promptly respond to public reviews in spaces like Steam, Google, or Discord can impact sales and lead to your community losing trust in your entire company and brand. While every review may not have merit, if most players feel like you are not addressing their concerns, their discontent can snowball into major publications also taking note. There's no better fodder than a company ignoring fans, removing reviews, and poorly apologizing for a game journalist. 

Let's look at some controversy that sparked in 2020 before The Last of Us Part II was released. After footage of the game leaked and revealed a major character's death and a change in playable characters, fans were distraught and felt misled by previous trailers released by the game's developer, Naughty Dog, that alluded to a very different storyline. The misstep led to a backlash, citing claims of false advertising from game outlets and fans, review bombing, some justified and some toxic about other aspects of the game.
A Loud, but Vocal, Few Sometimes, a small contingent of players can cause an outsized amount of grief. Trolls, hackers, and all-around bad apples can show up in message boards and reviews to wreak havoc at your company's expense. A wave of critical commentary can lead to toxicity within your player community, terrorizing true fans and company employees, and outright lies impacting your game's credibility. It's important to remember that this small faction is often a small percentage of your players, and being reactive can sometimes exacerbate the problem even more.

Bungie, the developer of Destiny 2, is one of many companies that have dealt with small minorities of players who have taken their online opinions to extreme levels. As a result of threats of violence, the company scaled back communication and began to work on strategies to deal with threats. The company even went as far as to take legal action against a streamer who threatened to burn down the studio.
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FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE: BUILD A STRONG GAMING COMMUNITY

While navigating negative feedback can be a challenge, there are proactive solutions at your disposal that your company can implement to make the task less insurmountable. The best place to start is by building a strong gaming community. It's no secret that gaming communities are the foundation of any successful game, and the earlier you begin to nurture yours, the higher the chance of creating loyal connections with your players.

Gaming communities are a fairly simple concept: A group of people who love video games. From development to launch, and especially after launch, take note of the players interested in your type of game and interact with them. Using gaming forums, social media platforms, influencers, and rewards programs is a great way to gain insight into who your players are and what matters most to them. The group interaction creates a valuable feedback loop and provides players with a space to have a voice. More importantly, it helps developers anticipate potential areas of contention in advance and devise plans to tackle problem spots before they occur. Remember that building and growing a gaming community takes time. Take advantage of the alpha and beta stages to start laying the groundwork for your community. Be mindful of staying transparent and realistic about the information or teasers you decide to share publicly.

SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE: GAME OPTIMIZATION

As you cultivate your gaming community and build a loyal player base, use the feedback you receive from them to optimize your game. Bugs and localization errors happen, but giving your QA team a hand means you'll put out a game with a lower chance of issues while simultaneously building and making your players feel like contributing team members.

But because bugs are sneaky, the likelihood of a glitch making it through to launch still exists. Emotions can run hot when game issues result in players losing items, playtime, money, or confusion due to poor translations. It's crucial to consider in advance platform functionality, hardware specs, and accounting for the regional language in areas in which you plan to distribute your game.
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THIRD LINE OF DEFENSE: THE ROLE OF A COMMUNITY MANAGER

The all-mighty community manager is your third and most important line of defense. They are the link between developers and players, helping develop your audience and getting to know your fans better than anyone else. They're your eyes on the outside, creating and maintaining an ongoing feedback loop. Typical duties involve,
  • collecting relevant feedback
  • fostering trust and recognizing growth opportunities with fans
  • creating marketing strategies
  • releasing approved communications
  • interacting with your players
  • tracking content performance
  • industry networking
  • and generating analytics reports of successes and failures.
The Community Manager of Kitfox Games, Victoria Tran, understands this best. “Games aren't just a product anymore... they're now communities,” and they rely heavily on the ability to finesse both marketing and public relations work. Trained to deal with every issue under the sun, community managers have the skillset to react to problems on the fly. With excellent interpersonal skills and an understanding of the nuances of game development and its communities, your manager will set the tone for your community by establishing moderation policies, monitoring activity, and creating a welcoming space for positive interactions. Community Management in Action The release of Ooblets is a prime example of community managers' importance in dealing with negative feedback. After taking an Epic Games Store exclusivity deal, fans became angry when developers broke their promise of a Steam release. Indie game creators Rebecca Cordingley and Ben Wasser handled the backlash by calling gamers "entitled" and demeaning their fans. Their reaction turned a relatively minor issue into a mountain of negative feedback, resulting in their social media channels facing daily criticism for months after the incident.

The common theme that the primary sources of negative feedback have is a need for proper communication. Whether it’s a lack of transparency, responding appropriately to harsh reviews, or protecting fans and developers from vocal minorities, the community manager is the key to fielding the potential minefield of negativity.
xsolla-blog-negative-feedback-04-870x489.jpg Dealing with negativity requires empathy, active listening, and transparency. All are skills an honest community manager and studio can provide. It's easy to forget that even angry players want to see your game succeed, and often, the root cause of their anger is fixed by listening to what they have to say.

Be honest in your marketing, address issues sooner rather than later, and foster a safe and open community for your players. This way, when things go wrong, you're prepared to deal with them. Players will notice this and can even become lifelong advocates of your game or studio if you listen and talk with them, not at them.
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