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Read the Game Developer team's GDC 2023 coverage here, including Talk writeups and interviews from the show, as well as our favorite GDC Vault videos covering 2023 Talks.

How to give better feedback in game writing (and beyond)

Narrative designers Alexa Ray Corriea and Lis Moberly want to help you give better feedback to your creative collaborators.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 20, 2023

7 Min Read
A top-down view of a group of people discussing something together.

In an iterative and collaborative field like game development, feedback is a constantly flowing. But while developers publicly champion the need to gather positive and negative feedback as early as possible in development, there's one challenge everyone faces: not all the feedback you receive (or give!) is...good.

In fact, a constant stream of poorly-given feedback can be what drives team members to poorly perform or just quit. Giving strong, actionable feedback takes insight and "brutal honesty" is not always the right approach.

At GDC 2023, narrative designers Alexa Ray Correia and Lis Moberly kicked off a day of narrative sessions with a talk on how to give better feedback to peers and subordinates when iterating on game dialogue. While their examples were about how to navigate feedback in the writing process, almost everything they said seemed useful to artists, programmers, designers, and producers in video games as well.

What are the problems with bad feedback in game development?

Moberly and Correia jumped into their explainer with a crash course in why "bad feedback" can be harmful to a team. It's true in any creative field that to tell the best stories and make the best games, you have to make mistakes and learn from them along the way.

Their presentation was bolstered by a mix of data from researchers who study team dynamics, and feedback from industry peers who responded to an anonymous survey.

But when you aren't given good feedback on those mistakes, there can be cascading consequences. Poor feedback, Moberly explained, can lead to developers being unsure of their status at the company, uncertainity about what goals they should be working toward, a sense that they lack autonomy, a lack of social connection to their coworkers, and a sense that things in the workplace are just unfair.

These factors can contribute directly to burnout, or even conflict. If team leaders feel like their feedback isn't being implemented, they might find themselves resorting to hard mandates or rewrites, and begin to subliminally resent their teammates.

Team staffers may begin to feel like the design goals of the project are a "moving target" or be incentivized to withhold information because it's threatening to share or speak up. Often times team members might form factions and backchannel chats, sharing jokes or frustrations with each other about the project. If those messages get too frequent—you've got problems.

"When the memes come out and the emojis get intense...you know that [it's bad]," Moberly wryly joked.

These are all "warning signs," Correia and Moberly explained. If any of that resonates with you, you should either keep reading or go start talking to your team right now.

A core driver of poor feedback is that leaders and team members often have fundamentally different problems in the workspace. Staffers might struggle with the subjective nature of creative work, be bogged down by a sense of failure, or be unsure what to do when a team lead rewrites their work.

Meanwhile team leaders are forced to look at a bigger picture. They're racing against the clock to meet deadlines, and if staff pushback on their feedback or direction, they're now caught between their subordinates and the needs of stakeholders in other departments.

According to the developers Correia and Moberly surveyed, these contrasting needs influence how each group wants to give and receive feedback. Staffers crave one-on-one time with leads, along with group playthroughs that let team members solve problems together.

Unfortunately, team leads responding to the survey overwhelmingly preferred giving notes via in-line comments. The pair paused here as the audience burst out in laughter that had the energy of "oh no, we've been called out."

What does good game development feedback look like?

Correia and Moberly then pivoted to practices that game writers (and really all developers) can use to improve the feedback they give. Though the recommended steps were anchored in emotional leadership, there were practical upshots as well. Correia in particular noted that better feedback wastes less time, since writers and developers will know what to do after having heard their work could be better.

For anyone hoping to only give feedback through in-line notes, you might need to compromise. Moberly and Correia agreed with staffers that one-on-one feedback sessions and group playthroughs of content (which can also be table reads) really are good solutions. But there are extra steps leaders can take to make these good uses of their time.

A one-on-one can be an intimidating meeting all on its own. If you're being too one-directional in the meeting, you can still give feedback that leaves your staffer feeling confused and uncertain of what to do next.

Moberly suggested that before the meeting, team leads task staffers with writing some quick reflections on what they've worked on—giving them a chance to critically analyze their own work. Then team leads can compare those reflections with their own feedback, and adjust what they communicate in the one-on-one chat to explain exactly what the staffer needs to know.

By using these sessions to help get context, leads can learn how and why their staff made certain decisions. Moberly gave the example of how if a team lead reviews combat lines written by a team member and finds them stale, they can get information about how and why the writer wrote them that way. They might have been given direction like another key stakeholder—a level designer, an audio team member, or other creative lead, for instance—and had done their best to incorporate the feedback as given.

In these sessions, Moberly encouraged leaders to avoid focusing on surface-level symptoms or assigning blame, and embrace giving concise feedback, identifying root causes of why content isn't working, and brainstorming strategies and methods to fix them.

Correia took point on discussing group playthrough sessions. Importantly, she described the need to make sure these aren't "public execution scenarios," where key supervisors play through a section and just trash all of the content.

Good group playthroughs or table reads aren't meant to be about content reviews and saying "yes" or "no," they're meant to bring team members together and let them playfully engage with what everyone's made. Leaders should be trying to let team members have visibility of each other's work and align how everyone is working.

If team members get more time to hear how each of their collaborators is writing the same character, they'll obviously be able to help each other align and ensure the character has a consistent voice.

Oh—and if your team has any contractors who contribute to what you're reviewing, make absolutely sure they're included in these sessions, Correia advised. You don't want to pay someone "buckets of money" only to make them feel like a "second-class citizen" by leaving them out of these key collaborative moments.

There were two tips Correia shared that may seem contradictory to veteran leads, but they were both shared with the goal in mind of protecting team morale. First, it's important to try and not create obvious connections between group playthroughs and higher-level reviews you might be doing with other teams or studio leadership.

If you vanish into such a meeting, then send out a meeting invite on the calendar, it's going to create a negative feedback loop. Putting space between those two events (or just making the playthrough sessions a regular occurance) can create a healthy buffer zone.

Second, plenty of team leads are probably used to the idea of calling on individual team members to invite them to speak up or share their thoughts. If someone's quiet in these meetings, you probably have good-faith reasons to want them to be heard.

But that person may be quiet for a very valid reason. Someone else might have brought up the point they wanted to make, or they just might be formulating their thoughts. Putting team members on the spot can shake their confidence and leave you without the feedback or response you were fishing for.

"Let everyone have the ability to speak or not speak if they don't want to," she said.

Game development feedback is not about asserting dominance

Plenty of incredible games have been made by teams that sharpened each other's work with brutal, perhaps too-honest feedback. But that's not the only (or best) way to make better games.

Taking the temperature of the room and in responses to Moberly and Correia's talk, there seemed to be a desire among leads and staffers alike to find clearer and kinder ways to work together. You could hear chuckles and reactions from the crowd from writers or leads who had been in the negative situations the pair described.

Everyone on a team wants to make the game the best they can be—and if you take time to punch up your own collaborative processes, you might get better, more efficiently made content out of that process. And you and your colleagues will be happier too.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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