Dare to be Digital – How Not to Give Feedback

Dare to be Digital is an annual competition held at Abertay University, Dundee, in which fifteen teams of between five and eight students work together to produce a working video game prototype over the summer. It began in 2000 and has since grown from there, accepting a wider range of participants including international teams, and has become the sole route for the “Ones to Watch” video game BAFTA. It is open to undergraduates and those who have graduated since the previous competition, but only people with less than 6 months’ experience in industry can enter.

Over the nine weeks of the competition, teams are provided with support from key industry figures – this yeah, the competition boasts big names such as Sega and Ubisoft’s Reflections studio. Teams then present their entries at the Dare ProtoPlay event, and the top three teams are nominated for the BAFTA and receive £2500 for each member, with extra prizes often distributed by sponsors. Naturally, many budding teams of developers, artists and designers leap at the chance and start hammering away at a concept or prototype to send to the judges, hoping for a chance to work with the industry’s elite. But that’s where the “mister nice guy” part of Dare ends. As a disclaimer, the views in this blog post are that of myself and not of my team, Something Afoot.

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The only student game design competition with a BAFTA at the end of the tunnel.

Our team comprises of seven members of our university’s Game Design society. As part of a group that has made countless games of all sizes and genres, we believe we have our fair share of experience. Since many of us had upcoming exams, we opted to polish the concept of our game and forego a prototype – nowhere in the terms and conditions or application advice does it require one. Since the pitch video requires us to talk about the concept, as well as relevant experience, that’s exactly what we talked about – our experience, our game’s concept, the research we did into our target audience and into the mechanics, as well as Japanese ukiyo-e art, which our game was poised to focus on. Here’s our pitch video right here:

As we didn’t have a prototype, and assumed many other teams would, we had accepted the possibility of not being accepted from the start. We apply, they don’t pick us, we take their helpful feedback and move on, all is okay. Except that’s not what happened at all. Instead, we find ourselves waiting longer and longer to find out our fate, the application process was plagued by submission errors and the terms and conditions changed more times than I changed clothes. One area of frustration amongst entrants was the initial step – the feedback form – that reportedly broke and didn’t let people submit their entries. I can forgive this, as it’s a large competition, so things are likely to go wrong a bit, but I still found it surprising from a competition that has been running this long. Luckily our team avoided this error.

During the application process, our team believed we would receive a weekly stipend of about £75 each and be provided with free accommodation at Abertay University for the entire 9-week period, as stated by the terms and conditions midway through the application process. Evidently they had left last year’s T+Cs up, as our team was left disappointed when they abruptly changed to no weekly stipend and only 10 days’ accommodation. We (and many other teams) would have found it far more productive to house the entire development team under one roof, rather than being spread across the country. While this was annoying, and a clear lack of communication due to the silent nature of the change (no-one was informed, they just sorta… changed), the competition was still enticing to us, despite now having no promise of monetary support had we secured a place.

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Dare ProtoPlay, where the 15 finished products are showcased.

Personally, my concerns over the competency of the organisers started after we had applied. The interview stage was scheduled to run at the end of May, but we had to wait until June 5th to learn our fate. I can’t help but notice that June is not in May. Running up to the end of May, the competition felt disorganised and, frankly, not up to scratch for the biggest student game design competition in the UK. But I can live with all the above – all competitions, large and small, have sticking points that, while annoying, are easily outweighed by the benefits of entering. All the above points may seem like I’m nitpicking, and mostly I am, but that’s not the most unprofessional part of the process.

Then came the feedback.

These guys utterly failed on this front and it’s the reason I won’t ever be applying for any Dare to be Digital competition again, at least not before they clean up their disgusting act. I make no apology for commenting that whoever the heck decided the following ‘feedback’ was worthy of being shoved down our throats shouldn’t hold any position as a judge of anything, especially when handling such a diverse industry for which people from across the globe should be free to creatively express themselves without being completely lambasted like this. Brace yourselves.

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Now comes the fun bit – deconstructing this monstrosity and picking out the key points that proves these judges (I’m unsure at this point whether it’s two or three people commenting) are clearly unable to write feedback for small indie student teams who are supposed to have little experience.

We’ll kick off with the first paragraph, keeping in mind the sentence I just said in bold. It’s worth noting that a prerequisite – yes, an actual requirement – of the competition, is that all participants must have less than 6 months experience in the industry, that is, they must be inherently inexperienced (note the spelling), as I’ve mentioned before. So when the first judge calls our team “unexperienced” (aha really? This is hilarious), all logic goes out the window. Of course we are, we’re students. We’re expected to not have made a commercial game before or to have worked in industry. But contrary to that point anyway, each member in our team introduced themselves and listed all their previous accomplishments, in order to prove exactly the opposite. *sigh*.

This judge opens up the feedback with the line “They didn’t really explain what they were doing”. Now I’m not sure whose pitch video they watched, but we spent literally half the video talking about what we were doing. Already I’ve lost faith in humanity. This ‘judge’ then wraps things up nicely with the snide comment that “to get onto Dare, you need to put more than 2 hour’s work in”.

What the fuck kind of underhand bullshit am I reading?

I’m sorry, I lost my cool when I read this line initially. This is supposed to be a friendly student competition and a gentle leap into the industry. Why the heck did this person feel it necessary to degrade me and the rest of my team like this? Luckily we’re thick-skinned enough to disregard this kind of comment as illegitimate tosh, but my worry is that many other teams could be irreparably damaged by this kind of comment. They appear instead to have some five-year-old’s mentality of slinging shit for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, it’s my favourite sentence in the the whole feedback document, because it’s so hilariously misguided and it amazes me how stupid people can be and still be trusted by others to judge something.

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Two of the judges are clearly Simon Cowell wannabes.

Now for paragraph numero dos. I can only assume this is a separate person’s comments, because it wouldn’t make sense attached to either the first or last paragraph. However, you could probably forgive me for thinking it’s supposed to be part of another paragraph, since it’s only one fucking line. Jeez, they took more than a week longer than advertised with writing this feedback, could they not have pulled some other rubbish out of the air? Anyway, it simply reads “Without a prototype, I think no.” Um, thanks for your in-depth, all-knowing feedback on the CONCEPT we pitched to you. The terms and conditions did not require a prototype, so this sentence just does not make sense at all. You’ve been in industry for a long while apparently, so your ideas on our CONCEPT would have been nice.

I firmly believe the first two (or one) judges’ (or judge’s) attempt at what they call ‘feedback’ is some of the laziest and rushed writing I’ve ever seen. You can find more insightful words in a Nickleback song.nickelback-4de8dc6b3304d

I have the lyrics to their next song right here in a handy email.

The third judge is the only one with anything insightful to say. He unfortunately then voids it all. But he starts off saying he’s sensitive to the need not discourage students from this industry, given some of the baggage that comes with it. This is fair, as jobs in the game industry are often riddled with long work hours and little job security when projects fail to sell, as he mentions. Clearly it’s not a sentiment all the judges share though. He congratulates our team on the effort we put into researching the marketability of our game, praising the ‘long hours’ we’ve sunk into our concept. There we are, some sanity! This completely contradicts and writes off what the first judge said, but these are fair comments – I see a lot of teams these days that blindly make games without keeping the end user in mind at all stages of development.

Towards the end of his feedback, he says our game is a “fairly standard take on the genre” and that our game isn’t really anything new. Unfortunately, I do agree with him here. Our game, despite the research we’d put into the marketability, was essentially the same as many other things you can already find on mobile. So he gives some insightful comments into our pitfalls and strengths, two things neither of the other judges really did well (or at all – I’m looking at you, number two).

One of my problems, then, with the third judge’s feedback is that it doesn’t really give any direction to improve on. Sure, he gave a lot of useful insight into our pitch and I appreciate it’s difficult to come up with ways to improve for every entrant to the competition, but a little more would have been welcome, even if I’m nitpicking a bit here. But my main problem is the middle of the paragraph. “Do you, the designers, feel your game is respectful toward Japanese culture?” This is a tough one, since there’s always the risk of misrepresenting another people. However, it’s extremely difficult to tell from the video which way this will go, and I’m sure the industry help provided by the competition would assist us in making our game as tasteful as possible.

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Okami, one of the sources of art inspiration for our game.

That said, in our video we did talk a lot about our inspirations, for example Okami, which are representative of the cultures we are targeting as the base for our game. This suggests that the judge was just finding lazy reasons to reject our idea, as bringing up the cultural argument then providing no evidence to suggest we’d unfaithfully represent such a different culture doesn’t really give any insight at all, it’s just open speculation. So to give this as a reason to not put us through to the interview stage is void and lazy.

The other comment from the third judge is pure gold. “Furthermore – and I must be direct here – do all of you have legs?”. Our game is based on a hero with no legs – indeed, it is called Legless Sorcerer – but this comment and the words that follow seem like the judge is trying to call us disrespectful to people with disabilities or paralysis. This is not the case. Nowadays, almost every game I see is biased towards straight, white males with no obvious health problems (usually in a terrible first-person shooter environment), particularly AAA titles. These kinds of game often do the opposite – they depict the protagonist as some kind of super-being, with skills above that of the average person, which makes sense as it panders to people’s desire to have all kinds of powers and skills.

What we were going for was an approach where we could have someone who had a disability without affecting gameplay, and without having to be asked questions. People of all minority groups are tired of being treated as ‘different’ – that’s a fact – and by having a game that doesn’t place heavy stereotype on one of those groups, we believe we could silently demonstrate how more games ought to tear down barriers in traditional games that cause grossly unrepresentative characters. But nope, the judges instead seem to want more of the same, which is highly ironic given them criticising our “standard take” on the genre.

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Judge number one.

The main thing I take from this is that Dare to be Digital, while marketed towards small student teams and with a supposed aim to seek out innovation and marketable ideas for games, seem to actively discourage people from the industry. Our team wasn’t the only one who was rejected with poor feedback (I’ve seen even worse, but I won’t post it here) and my concern is that legitimately talented people will be completely discouraged and decide not to make games at all. Games are a wonderful fabric that tie together people in some of the most fantastic ways, and I firmly believe any person should have the chance to become part of this amazing industry.

It’s fine to criticise a bad idea – I’ll honestly admit our idea had tons of holes which we had intended to look closely at during development – but to provide nothing but derogatory comments about the ability of the team and empty reasons in place of genuine concerns and places to improve is not something anyone should have to face from a student competition. I’m not angry at the fact we were rejected from the interview stage, because our game was quite generic in places and of course there are many talented developers entering these kinds of competitions – we took a chance, and failed. It’s life. However, had they just analysed our ideas and suggested ways to improve, I’d be happy. Unfortunately they took the easier route and wrote something they wrongfully label as ‘feedback’. Our team hasn’t been discouraged from the industry – I plan to make as many games as I can possibly manage over the Summer – but I’m terrified that genuine talent has been lost forever at the hands of these monsters.

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