The influence of player feedback in Indie games
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
What you'll listen to in this episode:
1. A short intro about Ian, how he got into the industry and what are his favorite games of all times.
2. Ian shared with us what was the feedback process they had for their latest game "Dreamscaper" and how they had a nine-month open development process with feedback and input from their audience:
Minute 8:41 - "First we did things like a pre-alpha with just friends and family to solicit feedback. Then we did an alpha that was public, that people could join our Discord and get a key and we did a Kickstarter demo, and then a beta and then an early access launch in August of 2020, and each step of the way we were soliciting feedback. We're soliciting feedback throughout that whole process as well."
3. Ian discusses how player feedback is extremely important for the games industry, especially due to its user interactivity:
Minute 11:05 - "gaming is different than a lot of other fields, because it has so much user interactivity. So, separate from something like movies or books, you know, television, there's so much more back and forth that's required between the audience and the creator, when you're making a product, especially thinking about it as a business. So, it's really important that audience feedback is taken into account as you're developing."
4. We asked Ian how Indie Studios collect feedback from their games since we know that not having a community makes it extremely hard for Indie designers and developers to have this feedback to optimize their games:
Minute 12:18 - "For a lot of indie Studios, that's very challenging and we made a point of marketing very early on so that we could grow that community and we use them in tandem. So, growing the community to us also meant soliciting feedback. So, it wasn't just getting more exposure for the game. But it also meant getting more feedback so that it was kind of like a flywheel in that sense."
5. Finally, we asked Ian how they balance positive and negative feedback and how does it impact their product decisions, and he shared some valuable insights:
Minute 15:38 - "We try our best to maybe divorce emotion, a little bit from it, and think rationally about basically what is this person really trying to say. Because a lot of times, you'll receive feedback as a game developer, that might run counter to what your goals are, what your intentions are, for the artistic intention of the game, or the mechanics, how you want players to experience things. So, it's always about a synthesis of where they're coming from, why they've given this feedback, and what your intentions are for the game.
Minute 00:05 Natalie, Podcast Host
The influence of player feedback in indie games. Hello and welcome to a new episode of Let's Talk Customer Feedback. Today we have the pleasure of hosting Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios. First, let's say hi, to Ian, how are you doing today?
Minute 01:16 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Hi, Natalie. Thanks for having me on.
Minute 01:18 Natalie, Podcast Host
We're very happy to have you here and before we dive into the main topic today, we would like to hear about you. Can you tell us how you got into the industry and what you do today?
Minute 01:29 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Sure, yeah. I co-founded a studio in 2018, with a few of other friends. So, we've been doing that for four years, we made a game called dreamscaper, which I'm sure we'll talk about. Previously, I had kind of bounced around between a bunch of different creative fields. I have a background in more traditional art fine art, graphic design and I moved out to LA and then San Francisco, where I worked at my first foray into games is at visual concepts. I worked at NBA from 2K, and I was doing UI and UX up there. Then I moved over to a company called Outpost games, where I worked for a few years and where I met my Co-founders, and we worked on kind of a social survival, battle royal title and a platform. So, just kind of a bunch of different things before I finally started this company and took on some of the roles as well.
Minute 02:23 Natalie, Podcast Host
That's so interesting and before we start with the more serious questions, can you tell us what's your favorite game of all time before we start?
Minute 02:32 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Favorite game of all time? That's a tough question. It's probably gonna be like the hardest question of the whole. I'm a huge fan of the new God of war. Really love it. So, I'm very excited for the new one that's coming out. But yeah, I play a lot of like Western RPGs, CRPGs. So, things like Boulders gate and Pathfinder Pillars of Eternity. I play a lot of fighting games and card games like say Aspire, and Roguelikes. So, I'm a little bit all over the place.
Minute 03:04 Natalie, Podcast Host
Yeah, I can see that. But that's fun. We always want to get to know a bit better our guests. So, thank you for that and before we start, we would like to tell all a short story.
Welcome to Tales from the feedback crypt, amusing, exquisite and horrific feedback stories gone, well, wrong. A year after the global Pokémon Go phenomenon in 2017, Niantic decided to bring together 20,000 Pokémon Go trainers from around the world. Held in Chicago, the plan was for a day of events, games, and community buildings, culminating in a challenge to unlock a legendary Pokémon. The ticket prices were as high as $2,000 due to the hype among hardcore stats. You guessed it, of course, if they went wrong, doesn't it always happen? Game crashes, connectivity issues, and an angry crowd making themselves heard in front of Niantic CEO John Hanke all made Pokémon Go fest a disaster. The Pokémon Go community couldn't be more vocal about their situation on the day. They had experienced technical issues beginning from 6AM, which was four hours earlier than when the event was gonna start. That doesn't sound good on that day for Pokémon Go, I guess. Good day for tales of the feedback crypt. Thank you for listening. See you next week.
Minute 04:46 Natalie, Podcast Host
And with that story in mind, we can't wait to hear and insights. So, let's start. Can you introduce us a bit to your role in the company and what does Afterburners Studios do and who did you co-found company that you just mentioned with, the friend you met before, but we would like to hear a bit more about it.
Minute 05:03 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, sure. So, in the summer 2018, the three of us had left our previous company and this is Rob Taylor and Paul Svoboda. Rob handles all of the engineering for the project, which is a huge undertaking and Paul handles all the art, which is, you know, another equally huge undertaking. So, he'll do things like characters, environment props and for me, I kind of pick up some of the pieces in between. So, with my background, I'm able to jump on a few different things. So, Design, Animation, VFX, UI and UX and then I split marketing and business responsibilities with Rob.
Minute 05:39 Natalie, Podcast Host
Well, that's awesome. You do kind of like a bit more, and we do have a question about that next. So, before we dive into that, we know you released Dreamscaper back in August 2021. Can you tell us more about the game and its success?
Minute 05:52 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, so Dreamscaper is an action roguelike with a waking-dreaming gameplay cycle. So, if you've ever played Hades, is very kind of similar structure to it. So, during the night, you play as this young woman Cassidy, who's recently moved from her old hometown to this new town, trying to escape some of her demons in her past and that's been catching up to her in her dreams. So, you're battling through her nightmares and dreams and trying to sort through what's happening with her during the day, as you're meeting people and exploring this new city that she's just moved to. So, it has that waking-dreaming gameplay cycle, which is similar to you know, kind of the run-focused and story-focused elements of Hades.
Minute 06:34 Natalie, Podcast Host
I love that the main character is a woman and so, as you mentioned before, you are responsible for a lot in the company, the design, and the animation, the VFX, UI, UX, along with other responsibilities of marketing and business development. Can you tell us how all of these roles intertwine in the company?
Minute 06:59 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, I think it's just been a kind of a product of one of the things I've done in the past and how they've kind of interlinked as well, where I've had some experience with fine art. But I've also had some experience with more traditional design, and video editing, and, you know, filmmaking, things like that. So, that has helped a lot with this project. So, that, for instance, if I have an idea for something, I can see it through to execution in a lot of ways. You know, Rob will create some tools and let's say there's a new item that I wanted to implement into the game, I could set up the animations for it. I could set up the VFX for it. I could structure it within the project, we work in unreal, and get all of that working and really that allows me to have the most control over what the vision is to what the output of that vision is and that's really important and then, of course, for marketing and business, it also helps that I have some background that's more in the art space, because then I can do things like cut together or trailers, or create marketing assets, and use some of that design background and getting feedback on what things are working and what things aren't working. So, there's a lot of overlap between those disciplines.
Minute 08:13 Natalie, Podcast Host
Actually, sounds very fun that you don't have only one role. It is a really good mix.
Minute 08:20 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, I think it's challenging when I'm at a company that I'm doing just one thing, because I like to be able to kind of bounce around, I think it keeps my mind a little bit more engaged.
Minute 08:31 Natalie, Podcast Host
I can totally connect to that and how do player feedback and player sentiment influence your day-to-day position?
Minute 08:41 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
So, a little background on Dreamscaper answer that, because it's when we started around maybe three months into the project very, very early on, because we really, we had no following. People knew of us in passing, but we didn't have a following as a studio. So, maybe three months into the project kind of announced the game and then put it on, create a Twitter and started trying to put it out there to get some movement behind it and over the course of many, many iterative releases, we eventually grew that community. So, we did things like a pre-alpha with just friends and family to solicit feedback. Then we did an alpha that was public, that people could join our Discord and get a key and we did a Kickstarter demo, and then a beta and then an early access launch in August of 2020, and each step of the way we were soliciting feedback. We're soliciting feedback throughout that whole process as well. So, really, the game was almost in like open development, nine months in where the whole way we were as you're creating things, we were going through kind of a feedback pipeline. We were getting input from an audience.
Minute 09:51 Natalie, Podcast Host
It makes it much more agile that you can like make changes on the go. It makes total sense and as a professional in the games industry for such a long time, do you feel that companies put the players' voices at the center of the organization?
Minute 10:07 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
You know, I think it depends on the company. You know, obviously, for us, it was really important, and I think for a lot of larger AAA studios, you'll see a mixture. So, you'll see some that they have very strong UX divisions and player experience is really important for them. For other ones, they might be a little bit more traditional in how they approach things where they kind of put it a box product week to get feedback, and then implement that feedback in the next product rather than kind of doing it through that the actual cycle of development. But I think that's changing. I think a lot of companies are seeing the value in soliciting player feedback and doing consistent testing throughout the lifecycle.
Minute 10:46 Natalie, Podcast Host
Right! Yeah, we can see also this trend lately, and I agree, and I think that at the end of the day, for any company it is super important because they are the customers, they are the players. So, if you don't listen to what they feel, and why then probably they won't end up retaining those players, right?
Minute 11:05 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, absolutely and it's also, you know, it's one of those things where gaming is different than a lot of other fields, because it has so much user interactivity. So, separate from something like movies or books, you know, television, there's so much more back and forth that's required between the audience and the creator, when you're making a product, especially thinking about it as a business. So, it's really important that audience feedback is taken into account as you're developing.
Minute 11:42 Natalie, Podcast Host
Definitely, and you were telling us all the pre-launch feedback gathering that you had, and we've heard that it's very hard for indie games to gather feedback, because, for instance, with big Game Studios that work we with, they have all these huge communities in Discord, Reddit, Twitter and it's very easy for them to find this feedback and to kind of like analyze it. So, can you tell us a bit of how you gather and analyze your player feedback, and once you gather these insights, how does the company utilize this feedback to optimize the games?
Minute 12:18 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, a bunch of good questions in there, see if I can, like break it down one by one because there's a couple things I want to talk about. One is that I do think it's a big problem and you highlighted it is finding people to give you feedback. For a lot of indie Studios, that's very challenging and we made a point of marketing very early on so that we could grow that community and we use them in tandem. So, growing the community to us also meant soliciting feedback. So, it wasn't just getting more exposure for the game. But it also meant getting more feedback so that it was kind of like a flywheel in that sense, where we would create marketing beats, so things like that alpha, where we went to alpha and beta gamer and we found ways to drive people to a Discord to create a community so that they could give feedback so that that can help market the game, to doing a Kickstarter where the Kickstarter, while it was great to have the revenue that came from the Kickstarter, our primary motivation was to try to get exposure for people to learn more about our studio and our game, and get that momentum behind it.
So, having those milestones allowed us to create marketing beats, that we could push the game out into the world and then that started that kind of flywheel of getting people who were coming in giving us feedback, learning about the game telling other people and then that was slowly kind of growing over time. So, I think, you know, for any indie that is struggling to find people, it's a hard problem. It really is, you know, it's basically the problem of exposure, which is, everyone's trying to solve that problem. How do I get more people to take a look at the thing I'm making, but trying to break it down into manageable steps will help and being consistent with putting things out and responding and growing your community will also help and then I think the other question was, how do we deal with feedback? Is that correct?
Minute 13:59 Natalie, Podcast Host
Yeah, that's correct.
Minute 14:01 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, so we were kind of we don't have an incredibly formalized process, just because we're such a small studio, you know, it's the three of us and our community hasn't grown so large that it's unmanageable, it has it has been challenging from time to time. But basically, what we'll do is we'll kind of every day, especially after large milestones where there's a lot of people coming in and giving us feedback, we will go through each one of us, usually, either me or Rob will go through and kind of catalogue all the feedback. So, we'll have a spreadsheet that has all the feedback, and then as a team, we will go through that feedback and say, okay, what types of things have value to us, you know, what types of things make sense for us to work on and prioritize all of that. So, we have the sentiment feedback, and early on we did some data analysis, but we found it was just kind of cumbersome and unyielding for just how large our community was. We found we were getting a lot of good information just strictly from you know, player sentiment and subjective feedback rather than objective feedback.
Minute 15:03 Natalie, Podcast Host
Yeah, makes sense, and at the end of the day, especially with such a small studio, I think that qualitative data gives you a lot more understanding rather than just numbers.
Minute 15:15 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and then you can kind of discern things from those as well.
Minute 15:19 Natalie, Podcast Host
Yeah, and since you're telling me that you analyze kind of like subjective feedback, how do you balance out the negative and positive feedback? How can you choose kind of like, what are you going to use in the game? How are you going to change the game? How does it impact the game?
Minute 15:38 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Yeah, that's always tough, because for every 10 pieces of positive feedback, you know, you get one negative feedback, and then that's like the thing that you're all of a sudden stuck on. We try our best to maybe divorce emotion, a little bit from it, and think rationally about basically what is this person really trying to say. Because a lot of times, you'll receive feedback as a game developer, that might run counter to what your goals are, what your intentions are, for the artistic intention of the game, or the mechanics, how you want players to experience things. So, it's always about a synthesis of where they're coming from, why they've given this feedback, and what your intentions are for the game. So, there is feedback that is more valuable than other feedback. So, that's a big part of it is, you know, looking through that feedback and saying, this is in line with the kind of game that we want to make, it makes sense and if it's not really trying to drill down to see why they said this, not just what the solution that they're proposing is or, or what they think is the issue, but where they're coming from and once you can understand that, then maybe you can see a line a through line between many pieces of feedback and it's like, oh, it's this thing that's really causing these issues, it has a knock-on effect. So, we try our best to kind of break down feedback that we get, so that it can be reinterpreted in a way that makes sense for us as a team to implement.
Minute 17:05 Natalie, Podcast Host
Definitely, that makes total sense and for the last question, I know this is gonna be a hard one also. If there would be a dream insight you could get from your players, what would it be?
Minute 17:17 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
So, I was thinking about this because this, you're right, this is a challenging question. But one thing I think would be really useful - You know, early on, I said, we had some data analysis stuff and the I think the biggest thing that it gave to us was an understanding of our funnel and for people who don't know, probably everyone who listens to this podcast would know, but the funnel, meaning that drop off points over time of your players creating that kind of, visually creating a funnel. So, for us, as we were looking at that we were saying, okay, after this tutorial, where to how many people drop off after the first level, after the first voss, and into the second level, all these things, these drop off points and that is really useful, because you're seeing that there is this funneling effect, and you're seeing how much people are dropping off at each point but something that players don't really tell you, because they'll move on to something else. You know, they'll be playing it and they'll play the first level, and they'll say, You know what, this is not for me, or it doesn't grab them, and they'll just drop off, and they won't give you any feedback. So, you only have that objective feedback. So, something that would be really useful, and you have to really fish for is that qualitative feedback, rather than the quantitative feedback of why it didn't click with them, or what wasn't working, or what could be done better to improve that player experience, so the funnel widens and that's something you kind of have to intuit, but it's very hard to get direct feedback on that specifically.
Minute 18:44 Natalie, Podcast Host
That's actually so interesting. I think that all companies would probably want to get this insight from their players and I agree, and I think the public will definitely love that, that answer and hopefully we can get a way to do it soon because they think that everybody needs it. But Ian, I want to thank you so so much for taking the time to participate in today's podcast and for sharing your insights on player feedback and the influence of Indie games.
Minute 19:14 Ian Cofino, Co-founder at Afterburner Studios
Great. Thank you, Natalie, I appreciate you having me on.