Kickstarter Lesson #247: How Thick Is Your Skin?

26 March 2018 | 34 Comments

I’m 6 years into the business of designing and publishing board games, with 8 Kickstarter campaigns under my belt, and I’m still learning how to consume unsolicited constructive and negative criticism without experiencing a visceral reaction. On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d say my skin thickness is around a 6 on a good day. On a bad day, maybe 3 or 4. More on that in a minute.

For me, I’ve found that having a thick skin is imperative to being in the board game business (or any creative business, for that matter). I need to be able to hear constructive criticism, even from people who don’t give a damn about me or my company. If I want Stonemaier Games to grow and thrive, I need to put myself in the customer’s shoes, even if those shoes are smelly.

I’m writing this entry today because someone recently told me that they’re thinking about designing and self-publishing a game, but they’ve seen how the vocal minority nitpicks and complains and hates on social media, and they don’t know if their skin is thick enough to handle the onslaught.

I can see why they’re scared, and I admire them for admitting that to themselves (and to me). I’m hoping some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned will help them explore this creative outlook without too much fear, and thicken their skin a little bit along the way.

  1. Don’t take it for granted. It’s pretty cool to have people talking about your creation. This is something for new creators to be excited about (and experienced creators too). Sometimes in the midst of a tough conversation, I find it good to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that it’s pretty cool to even be in a situation where people are talking about my games.
  2. Choose when to consume criticism. I’ve found that if I’m in a good mood, I tend to be more open to hearing and learning from criticism. The opposite is true if I’m in a bad mood. Due to this, I try to be acutely aware of my emotional state when I’m entering new threads (sometime I can detect the overall tone from the subject line). I write more about consuming criticism here.
  3. Give yourself a chance to breathe after reading negativity. Sometimes I find myself jumping too quickly from a hateful comment or conversation to some genuinely constructive criticism. As a result, I can too easily lump the constructive criticism in with the unnecessary hate, which isn’t helpful. So if and when you need to deal with a difficult conversation, take a break from social media for a few minutes/hours.
  4. Differentiate between questions and comments, responding with just the facts. This is a technique I used a lot on Kickstarter. If someone asked me a question, I would answer it, sometimes just with the facts if I didn’t think my opinion would aid the conversation. But if someone simply made a snide comment without a question, I’d often just let it be, as I haven’t been invited into that conversation.
  5. Don’t read/watch/listen to reviews unless you’re okay with them not liking the game. This is tough, because if you’re like me, you’re a fan of many reviewers. I truly want them to like your game, not just because it’s good for the game, but because it feels good to have someone you admire say nice things about your creation. As a result, it can really burn sometimes when they don’t like your game.
  6. If you get caught up in a controversy, try saying, “You’re right.” At some point throughout your entrepreneurial process, there will come a time when a lot of people are angry at you for something. I’ve had it happen several times, and my first instinct is always to be fully transparent. That’s a good start, but in a way, I’m using transparency as a deflector shield against criticism. What really helps in those situations is for me to simply tell people, “You’re right,” and not in a dismissive way. If a lot of people are saying something, there is probably some truth in what they’re saying, and it’s up to you to identify the heart of it, admit that they’re at least partially right, and do something about it.
  7. It’s okay to block people. This is the internet. There are going to be people who are inherently negative, consistently accusatory, and even hateful. It’s okay to block those people on BoardGameGeek, Facebook, Twitter, etc so they don’t drag you down with them.
  8. When you’re attacked, change the environment. Just the other day, someone said some negative things to me on a BoardGameGeek thread. When I replied publicly with a “just the facts”-style answer, they proceeded to message me privately with an attack on my character. I’ve learned that some people act more sensibly when other people are part of the conversation, so instead of replying privately, I replied publicly in the original thread. I’ve also done the opposite–if someone attacks me publicly, I may take the conversation private.
  9. Ignore threats. If someone threatens you, they have invalidated your responsibility as a creator to listen and/or respond. I’m not talking about a backer or customer threatening you personally. Here’s the example I use on this blog post: “The stretch goals are terrible. I’m canceling my pledge if you don’t improve them today.” That’s a threat, and you don’t need to dignify it with a response.
  10. Use your moderating power wisely. I love the control I have in my Facebook groups, and the feedback I get in them helps to build up my confidence. However, these groups can insulate me too much—I can’t just listen to the people who love my games. So while my groups are essentially fan groups, they’re completely open to healthy, constructive criticism, and I try to frequently venture outside of those groups to see what other people are thinking.
  11. Avoid input that doesn’t help you. I’ve talked about this in terms of filtering pledge cancellations, and another example are BoardGameGeek ratings. Does it help you in any way to see that someone has rating your perfectly functional game a 1 (possibly even before you release the game)? Not at all. So don’t spend your limited energy looking at the ratings.

How thick is your skin? How have you learned to thicken it over time but still let the helpful criticism seep through?

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Leave a Comment

34 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #247: How Thick Is Your Skin?

  1. Jamey,
    This is something that I hadn’t given much thought to! When attempting to create something new there will most definitely be negativity. I never would have considered that people would likely attack my idea at some point during the creation process. I especially liked the first point you made about not taking anything for granted; if other people care enough about a project to comment on it in either a negative or positive way – you are clearly making an impact. I also love the way you approach taking the criticism – sometimes when we make things it is hard to make a change when you may love how it is currently working, but outside perspectives can be valuable. Thanks, again for this great post.

  2. I learned about feedback when I studied singing. Thing is, inside your head you can’t hear what others hear outside of your head. So, you need a teacher to help you understand what is good and what is not. Seventeen years of practice (it takes that long to learn to sing opera music) helped me get out of that shame place where my inner voice agrees with whoever is telling me I’m not good enough.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to take voice lessons to master this same lesson. (*smile and wink*) Rather, I want to say: Know and trust who you are and what you know. Listen for the truth in everyone’s feedback. Dismiss what isn’t true. Use what is true to help you to learn, grow and get better.

    In the end it comes down to sorting feedback into piles:
    1. These bits of ugliness have nothing to do with me or my product. Dismiss.
    2. This emotional experience reflects a problem that more than one person experienced. I will try to do something about it.
    3. This is a great idea that will help me and my product get better! Let’s try it.

  3. there are gate keepers in the industry (and especially industry-adjacent) that are incredibly dismissive, especially if they think you stole your game idea or have a boring theme. But sometimes a game I design just isn’t for everyone.

  4. I actually thought this was great for so many occasions. I have a YouTube channel about keeping aquariums (mostly) and I do all kinds of strange stuff on there. So I get a a lot of “unsolicited advice” and the occasional personal attack. Its the hardest part of being a poorly paid public figure. Thanks for your input on this.

  5. Whenever I go through my notifications, messages and so on I always scan through the subjects and pick out the ones which “could be negative” and start with those. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes surprises me (which can cheer me up by itself!), but I find a lot of the time I get it right, and it allows me to start with the bad and end with the good which makes it easier to move on to other work afterwards without feeling negative about things.

    1. That’s an interesting approach, Frank. I think I probably do the opposite, particularly when I wake up to 50 e-mails–I’d rather prime myself with the good before I get to the bad. :)

  6. Great article! I’m bookmarking this so I can refresh my brain when I feel like my epidermal-armor isn’t protecting my emotions. I can’t tell you how many times my skin was worn down to “paper thin” over the last 4-5 months. Thanks!

  7. I definetly agree wholeheartedly with #3. I’m floating around social media all day at work, get home and continue to do the same thing (though usually from my personal not business accounts). During all that time it is hard not to come across negativity and as such I promise myself some ‘disconnect’ time where I’ll spend a few hours (or sometiems days after a particularly bad time) where I wont touch social media or my computer at all.

    It’s amazing how much clearer your thinking is when you come back, and with that clarity of thought you can engage constructively and positively once again instead of being dragged down into the maelstrom of negative emotions.

    Or as my dad used to say “Never argue with idiots, they’ll drag you down to their level then beat you with experience.”

    Jamie in regards to #2 and choosing when to consume critisism, taking your mood into account is important but what if you are running on a tight deadline (say your mid kickstarter campaign and the longer you leave negative comments unanswered the more dissatisfaction will breed?) I know if I’m feeling down it can take a lot of effort to paint that smile back on my face and I wonder how much time you can honestly spare to get into the right frame of mind before having to stand up and face the music on a particularly toxic or virulent thread/comment chain? How long becomes too long? If your avoiding consuming you really can’t be checking constantly to see how bad thigns are getting because you’ll be getting a small portion of that negativity even if your skimming posts to check on what people are saying are not answering.

    Your thoughts would be great as when the time comes for me to get our companies next KS up and running every bit I learn now is one thing I hopefully wont have to learn while juggling fifty other things mid campaign :)

    1. John: That’s a great question. There are many, many times where I need to deal with a tough comment on the spot, regardless of my mood. I like your example, especially when there’s the potential for you to resolve toxicity before it gets out of hand.

      The situations when I have a choice are typically when I’m looking through my BoardGameGeek notifications and I see a subject line I suspect is going to be a rough read. In that case, I check my emotional state before reading it.

  8. Why are those people critical and so mean?

    If they are to personal attack, I agree with the words: if a rabid dog bites you, will you bite back?

    If they have different ideas about the games, and the business, it will be totally ok. I’d like to be open to talk.

    However, nothing can be perfect. I saw many comments that they did not like the games at all even for the most popular games in the world. In the adults world, we live with celebration, but also many things insulted. As long as we know what we want, and what we are doing, and what we can do, those people can not drive us crazy.
    What we make are games, not US dollars. I am sure people said, say and will say:the money is evil. Who cares?

  9. Thank you for your post!

    In a few days we are going to launch our first Kickstarter campaign, after more than 2 years of hard work.

    During this period we have received many positive comments and ecouragement but also many criticism. We learnt how to deal with them, trying to learn when a criticism can be changed into something productive and when instead it can be ignored because really unfounded.
    You are asking how thick is our skin today, but we learnt to make it elastic too, to absorb hits without consequences.

    Did we succed? I think we will discover it in a few days, because one thing is to create an original game and have it tested on around one hundred persons, another thing is to leave it to the judgement of the entire world.

    We will use this article as a guideline, hoping to find suggestments and support in it, just like you do with your Bible when your soul is having a hard time.

    1. Alfonso: I like the idea of “elastic” skin more than “thick” skin–well said! I think you’re wise to have spent 2 years receiving both praise and criticism, and I hope that training process pays off when you launch. :)

  10. Jamey: Seems like you have a sensible approach! For me, I try and differentiate between useful criticism (feedback to improve what I do) and non-useful criticism (“I don’t like what you made”). For the latter, I dismiss and don’t spend any more time dwelling on it — what I did is not for them, and it’s okay they don’t like it.

    1. Jason: That’s a good point, not every product is for everyone. I think sometimes I’ve derived feedback from people saying that they don’t like something specific, especially if more than one person says it. Maybe I won’t act on it, but I can tuck away that information for future projects.

  11. I have a very thin skin. It’s not that I gain my self-esteem from others or validate my worth through others opinions. I desire community and inclusiveness; decension and exclusivity are contrary to my M.O. and hurt my feelings. It also feels like I have a worlview and experience that is very different from most gamers (many people probably feel this way though). When I express my needs or desires or myself or family, the majority of the time I am attacked if they are contrary to the current popular belief.

    For example, I have three typical boys (and one more on the way). We’re a gaming family. My boys don’t want to play female characters. So whenever there is an online debate about female inclusivity, if I contribute any opinion or experience, I am immediately judged as being sexist or misogynistic. For example, I feel there are games that exclude males for no reason or have women as the majority or as the strongest characters more often than not. This creates an unnatural disparity in characters available to play in games. Usually it’s not a problem in most games, but it comes up every once in a while. (An opposing view: Tom Vasel has a majority of females in his household, so his experence is different than mine.)

    If I bring this subject up in a discussion, I’ve have my personal character or parenting ability questioned. I try to be logical and fact based in my thoughts and reasoning, but peoples emotions don’t want that. People want validation for their feelings and if someones feeling contradict another person’s it seems like they take it personally. I’ve been suspended so many times on BGG for losing my cool after personal attacks on me. I don’t want to give up having reasonable and productive discussions, but It’s sometimes best to stay away.

    As a Youtube content creater, people have been negatively critical of my content and performances. It happens to everyone. I generally think people have an desire to demonstrate their knowledge and the easiest way to do that is through disparaging comments. Sometimes, I have responded by saying exactly, “You’re right… I should have practiced more.” It validates their need to feel competent and they stop negative comments.

    1. Jon: From my experience, there are times when I simply decide not to enter a conversation because I know it’s not a good place for me to engage. It sounds like you’ve learned that in terms of sharing your unique experience and opinions in terms of female characters in games.

      As for “you’re right,” my intent behind that advice is not to say it a dismissive or patronizing way. It’s a real admission that the other person has a good point, and it opens up the door for me to learn from others.

  12. I ran a anime couple YouTube channel for a few years that now has 44,000+ subscribers and 24,000,000+ total video views.

    While the anime community can be full of love and awesomeness, there are people who will bite your head off for not agreeing with them.

    I’ve always been fine with trolls and hateful people when they attacked me. I usually left them alone. However when I saw other viewers getting attacked I couldn’t help but intervene. (I can’t stand bullies) This lead to a lot of awesome situations. When people see you stand up to a bully they rally behind you and throw support at the victim like beads at Mardi Gras (but more environmentally friendly).

    However no one ever paid or pledged for my videos and I knew the fault in their attitude was entirely on them, so it was very easy to deflect. In my 4 KS campaigns I have yet to encounter any backer outrage or harsh criticism, but I’m confident I will able to handle it just fine (I also work in food service so I am no stranger to angry customers)

    1. Zack: I really like that you brought up the point about how others can suffer when trolls take over the conversation (even if you have a thick skin about that sort of thing). It’s great that you used your power as a force for good and that people rallied around it.

  13. Not so thick usually.
    I’m an emotional creative artist. So I’m probably a 5 or 6 on a good day, 3 on a bad day; though I have days where I get a blessing of an objective viewpoint or I roll a 20 on my Intuition check and go 10.0 on the person realizing where they’re coming from and helping them out of that pit.
    (Sometimes the worst criticism your receive has nothing to do with you, but the fact their dog died this morning, their car broke down last night, or a tornado tore the roof off their house (#truestory).)

    I’m also not one to take trash talk in a public sphere. I don’t like bullies, and I don’t let them wander aimlessly ruining people’s days. I’m not afraid to tell someone when they’re outright wrong.
    On more than one occasion someone has gone public with mindless personal trash talk and insults over a product that was -late- or -had a missing- part, something small and fixable, and I’ll go all “human” on them and make it very clear that type of behavior simply isn’t acceptable (in the same public forum). The good news is, this has VERY often been met with an apology, and we work it out and shake hands. It’s been pretty cool.

  14. Thank you Jamey. Even before this post, I see what you have to deal with in comments constantly, and it really gets to me, even as someone completely detached from the situation. I think the race to the bottom market in video games, and mobile games especially, has everyone on the internet thinking that nothing has any value anymore, and that creators can just pour months or years of their lives into something and expect nothing in return.

    I’m planning on doing my first Kickstarter some time in the next year or so, so I’ve been obsessively reading your blog for a while now, (just became a Champion) and I can’t thank you enough for all you do for struggling designers. You have enough to do with your games, you really don’t need to do this too, but it’s an incredible resource for someone like me.

    Anyway, I can relate to this situation, because I’ve designed 6 games so far, but only one has been made public, I did it as a free print and play because it was based on a video game IP I knew I had no chance of getting the license for. I released it about 3 years ago, and it’s developed a pretty good little player base over time, but part of me regrets ever doing that. So I always come back to #1, because when I first made that game, it started like all the others, I was just making it for myself, I never expected anyone to actually want to play it, so it always amazes me that anyone gave it a single play, let alone still consistently playing it and excited about it several years later, so that’s really cool.

    The problem is I spent about 8-9 months on the original game, and after the positive reaction, decided to do an expansion, then another, and another, I’m up to 5 now, all for free, taking 2-4 months on each, when I would so much rather be working on other games that I can legally publish than sinking more time and money into something I wanted to be done with 3 years ago, but I get in the mindset of wanting to please everyone. So I do an expansion, I think “Ok, it’s perfect now, it’s done, I’m moving on.” then I get suggestions and complaints and compliments and I have to keep coming back. Because somewhere in my mind I think maybe one day if I do have a real published game, some of these people will remember me and all the effort I put into this, and check my other games out too, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Meanwhile, the other part of me thinks maybe they have a point, and it could be better, so do I want to have my first public game be a broken mess, and have that reflect on anything I do from now on? Will this one guy insulting one tiny little aspect of my game come back to haunt me and tell everyone what a horrible designer I am when I’m trying to run a Kickstarter later? All of that just builds up and leads to a lot of stress, and I keep thinking, if I had never bothered to put this game out for free, I could have so much more done by now, and I wouldn’t be nearly as stressed about it.

    So at some point I’m going to have to just abandon ship and commit 100% of my time to new games, because I’ve had about a dozen ideas partially finished for about 2 years now, sitting on the back burner getting occasional attention while I spin my wheels on this old project that I’m not really all that happy with anymore.

    Sorry for rambling, this one just really hit home for me. Thanks again for everything.

    1. Brandon: You’re awesome for sharing this. I don’t have anything insightful or poignant to add, but I think it’s great that you’ve developed your design skills and grown a base of people who are aware of who you are, as well as your ability to accept feedback. I think all of those attributes will help you if you turn to Kickstarter for your next game.

  15. #6 is huge. And so rare in Customer Service (and Kickstarters.) Of course you need to be able to take action after admitting a mistake was made, but it can immediately defuse a tense situation.

  16. I think you made an excellent point about being in touch with one’s emotional state before delving into the fray, especially since – perhaps counterintuitively – it can be easier to accept negative comments when one is in a good mood (as you’ve found).
    I also like how you don’t let yourself be held hostage to other people’s neuroses. Negative personality disorder is a real thing!

    Anyways, I think you and your creations are awesome. I hope you’re loving life and rolling in the dough! ;)

  17. LOVE THIS. I have grown thicker skin over the years. This blog helps reinforce (as well as challenges) my opinions on the many ways to do business without any party being totally right or wrong has added to the surety with which I engage people. I understand better that people enter into engaging with each other from sometimes totally different worlds and sometimes need to see my perspective as well as my understanding theirs. Today I am still working on bullet #3 some days when I am in a rush. :)

    1. Daniel: #3 is tough when I’m in a rush! I can relate to that. I like what you said about how there’s a mutual benefit when both parties are able to understand each other’s perspective (even if they still disagree).

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