Please click here if you do not see a Nav Frame at left

#65:

How To Ask Good Questions

Written December, 2006. Latest update: December, 2009

Wisdom is not in knowing all the answers, but in knowing the right questions.
- The great Chinese philosopher, Kong Few Shun
(quoted in Shanghai: Dynasty,
the awesomely excellent computer game)

Foreword

This article is based on "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way," by Eric S. Raymond & Rick Moen, at http://catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html#intro. Their article is very long and is targeted mainly at the hacker community. I perceived a need for a shorter one, targeted mainly at the gamer community (mainly those who seek advice on how to get into or succeed in the video game business).

The advice given herein applies to asking pretty much anything, pretty much anywhere, but as I was writing this, I had my usual online forums in mind (see list below).

Introduction

Understand that we, the people who answer questions on forums, are genuinely interested in being helpful. But if you approach us in a way that appears that you're asking without first having done anything to educate yourself on the subject, we can reply rudely (I certainly have). We're a rough bunch, but you can earn our respect by simply asking intelligent questions in the right way.

Asking a question should involve work by two parties, not just one - the asker must work to ask a good question, so that the answerer doesn't have to work harder at answering than the asker did at asking.

An asker who's too lazy to ask a good question is probably too lazy to read a good answer - and the answerer knows this intuitively. An asker who asks frivolous questions out of mere idle curiosity or who can't be bothered to read an FAQ is seen as a time-waster (someone who's deserving of rude treatment).

Before You Ask

Before asking a question, try to find an answer yourself, by searching the archives of the forum where you're posting, or by searching the Web, or by reading a book or an FAQ.

Then, when you ask your question, make it clear that you have done this research, and prove it by what you say. Show that you're not a lazy asker.

But don't ask your question right away after finding the forum. You need to "lurk," reading other posts and getting a feel for the tenor of the group, before you speak up. It's smart to lurk for a couple of weeks before posting. So you need an answer like right now, or at least before dinnertime today? Too bad - you won't get one that fast anyway, especially if you post the question without first having done your homework.

Choose Your Forum Carefully

Don't post questions where they are off-topic. Try very hard to find a forum where your specific question fits neatly with the topic for which the forum was created. The main forums where I answer game biz advice questions are:

There are surely other such forums as well. Including some whose focus is different from mine.

Don't cross-post to multiple forums on one website. GameDev and IGDA both, for instance, have many varied forums - choose the right one for your question. Focus your effort on one forum at a time. The "shotgun approach" will get people mad at you.

Use Meaningful, Specific Subject Headers

The question you actually ask in the body of your post should be in line with the subject line of your post. It's tantamount to "false advertising" to switch topics from what the subject line says the post is about.

And don't hijack an unrelated thread by tacking your question onto it. Start a new thread, with a meaningful, specific header related to your question.

A Real Name Makes It Easy To Reply

When signing up to post on Internet forums, you often have to register, giving a screen name. Try to choose a screen name not too dissimilar to your real name, or at least one that's not a nightmare for someone else to type. If you choose a screen name like "YDQK94206#asdfg!%hjk," for example, people can only call you "YDQ," or "YD," or just "Y." Or maybe "poster," or "the OP" ("the original poster").

Personally, I think it's a good idea to sign posts with your real name. It makes people look at you as a real person, not some unknown entity at some unknown location on the planet.

And please, when writing to me, address me by my real name. Don't call me "tsloper" or "tomster" or "sloperama," don't call me "To whom it may concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam." My name is Tom, goddammit! Treat me like a person and I'll do the same in return.

Write In Clear, Grammatical, Correctly-Spelled Language

Yes, we're in the cool, hip, fun world of making video games. And yes, when you're chatting in a game you can use all lower case, and shorthand abbreviations and smileys and incomplete sentences... But we are professionals in a highly competitive business of making entertainment. Look at our instruction manuals - we use complete sentences, with the first letter of a sentence capitalized.

Nobody respects sloppy writing (even the hacker community). Show your readers some respect, help them understand you. Write to us the proper way. Use the Shift key appropriately. Use punctuation. Use good grammar. Break up your writing into short paragraphs, with each one focusing on a discreet thought. Ask direct questions so we can discern what it is that you want to know. If you respect us this way, we won't treat you like an uneducated moron.

Sloppy writing could be the sign of a sloppy mind. It's a waste of time to try to answer questions from someone who can't be bothered to formulate the question properly.

Sometimes folks don't use English as their native tongue. We can usually tell when that's the case, and we usually cut them slack for that. What's really bad is when someone's sign-up profile indicates that they're from North America or Australia or the U.K. and he sounds like a third-worlder. And that happens a lot more than you want to know!

Be Precise, Explicit, And Informative About Your Question

Leave out extraneous information. Don't bother telling us how you've been wanting to work in games all your life. We hear that ten times a day, and it's already old. Just get straight to your question.

Ask clear questions. Just saying "I've heard that people in the game biz work long hours?" isn't a question - it's a statement, with a question mark tacked on the end. A typical comeback would be, "Yes, apparently you have heard that."

Ask good questions. "Does anybody know the difference between Quality Assurance and Focus Testing?" will just get you the answer, "Yes, somebody does." If you want to know the difference, ask, "What's the difference between Quality Assurance and Focus Testing?"

Don't ask an "any advice" question. Ask a narrowly-focused question. Bad question: "I'd welcome any advice you can give a student who's interested in working in games." Typical answer: "Learn how to ask smarter questions."

Provide just enough background information to enable the advisors to understand where the question is coming from. If asking about getting into the video game industry, you should make it clear early on how old you are, how much schooling you've had, and what your current occupation is.

Sometimes a question is based on erroneous assumptions. Try not to let that happen. But it can help put the question into proper perspective if you help people understand where your question is coming from.

Keep It Short And Sweet

Yes, I said to provide background. But keep it down to comic book size, not Encyclopedia Britannica size, OK? We're doing you a favor reading your question, try to respect our time.

Don't Grovel

Yeah, we're all hard-working pros who make the games you love. But we still put our pants on two legs at a time, we still scrub our own toilets, we still brew our own toast and burn our own coffee. You don't earn our respect by coming at us with your forehead on the floor. Walk right up with an extended hand, and ask us your question.

On the flip side, don't be arrogant. You wouldn't believe how often we get posts that start with "Games today all suck, but I've got the next great idea that'll turn the market around." Hey - we're the guys who made those games that suck. Now that you've rubbed our noses in it, we should be nice to you?

Don't Ask Us To Do Your Homework For You

If you have an assignment to design a board game for your history class, don't come to us and ask us for game ideas. It's your job to do that. If you have to research some game biz topic, do it by reading articles and FAQs and forums, not by asking us to teach you everything.

Pointless Queries And Bad Questions

Don't ask us stuff out of idle curiosity, OK? We can offer you help when you need it, but if you just want to pass the time chit-chatting, go to a chit-chat forum or something. We're here to be helpful, not to just pass the time yakking in leetspeak with noobdoods.

Bad questions: "Can somebody help?" "Is there an answer?" "Is this possible?" "Am I wasting my time?" It's a waste of our time to try to respond to questions like those.

Don't ask us to teach you everything about a topic. Do your research first.

Don't tell us it's all so confusing. We know that! Don't ask us "what's the secret?" There is no secret. That's the secret. The universe is one big gray area.

Don't assume that everything is either black or white. There are myriad shades of gray, and colors, and even non-visible spectra! There are more than two possible answers to every question. Most black-and-white, A-or-B questions can be quickly answered: "It depends." "Neither of the above." "Both of the above." "C."

Don't assume there is one best way to do a thing. "What's the best way to achieve X" will get you as many answers as there are people who answer. Don't assume there is some universally-acknowledged and eternally unchanging Top Five list of best games, best schools, best companies to work for, best cities to live in. Everyone has their own opinions. Their opinions change over time. The world is a moving target.

And I hate "reassurance" questions. "I'm just hoping somebody will tell me if I'm on the right path." Or, "is my online portfolio any good?" You have to be good, and you have to be able to tell that you're good - otherwise you're not. And if you're following your own passions, that is the right path... for you. You shouldn't be trying to live a life other people tell you you ought to live.

Courtesy Never Hurts, And Sometimes Helps

One of my pet peeves is guys who come into a forum wearing a mask. They show a screen name like "gangsta man," and ask stuff like we owe them an answer, and never sign their real names to their posts. These guys don't get a lotta help from me!

If somebody walks into my friendly neighborhood advice shop wearing a mask and starts asking me gruffly, "tell me how much this doohicky costs," or "what the heck is that thingamabob for?" then I get nervous. I keep one hand near the silent alarm, and another near the hidden baseball bat. But if the same guy would come in without the mask, look me in the eye, smile, and ask me, "hi, I'm kinda new at this - I've seen thingamabobs like this one before and always wondered what it is, and how much it costs," then he'll get a lot more friendly service from me - and I'm not itching to grab the bat and press the alarm. Make sense?

Don't Ask For A Private Email Reply

That's not what forums are for. It's a body of shared knowledge. What good is an Internet if you just use it like two tin cans at both ends of a taut string? The advice that's given to you publicly stays there (presumably forever) to benefit others in a similar situation to yours. Private advice given to some dummy is wasted advice.

Follow Up Soon Afterwards

Return to the forum where you asked the question within 24 hours. See what answers you've gotten. It's a conversation - that requires both parties to participate. And some time later, maybe the advice you got has proven helpful. Would it kill you to come back and say thanks, and tell us how things are going?

Learn How To Catch Fish

A lot of times the answer to your question will be a link to another discussion thread where a similar question was already asked and answered. Or a link to an FAQ. And sometimes people won't be so kind as to hand you that link, telling you instead to go find it. They do this for two reasons: (1) it's easy to find, and (2) you grow and become a stronger person when you find it yourself rather than have it handed to you on a silver platter.

The Chinese have a saying: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." Don't be upset if you get pointed to another thread or an FAQ (or are told to go find it) - you're being taught how to catch your own fish.

We're Not Lawyers

If you have a tricky legal question, hire a lawyer. You're in the swamp, and you need a guide. Those guides aren't free, but the free guidance we are able to give you is nowhere near what you need to ensure that you survive your journey through the swamp. Read my FAQs 39, 58, and 61 - that's the best advice I (who remain "not a lawyer") can give you about the most frequently asked legal topics related to the game biz.

It costs money to make money. Making games is a business, and you have to treat the endeavor in a businesslike manner. Even if you're just making a portfolio piece in collaboration with others, the endeavor has to be approached like a business. A lot of ugly breakups result from mismatched expectations, and result in loss of work and sometimes in a lawsuit. Tom Buscaglia, "the game attorney," has a saying: "pay me a little now, or pay me a lot more later." Read my November 2007 IGDA column. Lawyers are important.

When You Get An Answer

Several possible things can happen:

So let's talk about those.

When the Answer Seems To Be About a Different Question

You asked the wrong question. Apologize and try again to ask the right question, following the guidelines herein.

When the Answer is Unbelievable

Don't accuse the answerer of lying. Saying "really?" or "are you sure?" is pretty much saying the answerer is a liar, so don't say that. The more polite way is to say "I find that hard to believe," and then explain why. Just saying "but I thought..." is not particularly useful. WHY did you think that?

When You Don't Like the Answer You Get

You probably got the correct answer.

Don't bother whining that you don't like the answer -- it's not going to help a darned thing, it won't change the answer, and "venting" (AKA whining) won't even make you feel better.

Don't argue against the answer you got, either. That'll probably just start an ugly argument. Why even bother asking a question, if you're not willing to accept the truth? You have to be able to handle the truth, if you're going to ask a question. The reason for asking a question is to learn something. Don't fight the learning.

Do reconsider your plan based on the new information, and post a nice thank-you.

When You Don't Understand the Answer

If the answer you get doesn't give you an instant epiphany, don't immediately snap off a request for further explanation. Thimk! At least stew on the answer overnight. You shouldn't abuse the goodwill of those who are making an effort to help you. You owe it to them to make an effort to understand what they said. You might have to go do supplemental reading or Googling to try to figure it out. Make an effort, and show that you made an effort, and they'll be more willing to make an effort to help you understand.

When You Get Multiple Conflicting Answers

You will get different (often contradictory) answers to your questions. Don't just come back and say "now I'm confused, somebody give me the real answer," because you'll just get more different (often contradictory) answers. Especially when you're trying to choose a college or get advice. The reason for this is simple - everybody has different opinions.

A lot of young people distrust scientific polls, yet they think they can get good answers by taking a "mini-poll" among their peers. Wrong. A scientific poll queried a large base of people, and as long as the poll asked the right question, it probably got reliable results. But when you take a mini-poll, either among your friends or among the posters on a forum, you could well word the question wrong, and even if you don't, you're bound to get conflicting responses. Never forget that the real world is not black and white, it's not cut and dried. There are multiple squishy mushed-together shades of gray in the real world.

That said, I don't necessarily recommend asking questions here on my own bulletin board. It seemed like a good idea to create my own bulletin board (mainly as a forum where I could post answers when people emailed me their questions). But even I think this isn't the greatest place to get answers. Why? Because usually you'll get answers from only one person here. If you want to get a variety of conflicting opinions so you can get really confused (and who wouldn't want that?), you ought to avail yourself of those other forums, not just one - and certainly not just this one. See the list of forums I mentioned in "Choose Your Forum," above.

Dealing With Rudeness

You might think you were treated rudely by people who responded to your question. Maybe, in the eyes of the other readers of the forum, you weren't. Don't fly off the handle. Keep cool. Sleep on it. React with style.

I had a guy come to me seeking advice on becoming a game designer (a position that requires excellence in written communication). His query was chock full of typos and incomplete sentences and missing punctuation. And he was from the U.K., the mother land of the English language (so he had no excuse). I answered his questions, and I also corrected his writing (and I was not rude about it, either). Wow, you should have seen his reaction to that. He fired off a cease-and-desist letter citing modern Internet law and libel law, demanding I apologize, demanding I delete the post from my bulletin board (I didn't, it just dropped off the bottom after a while) - he threatened to hire an attorney to sue me for "verbally abusing" him and insulting him. That guy never even cared that I'd answered his questions and given him good advice. He just focused in on the fact that I corrected his writing errors. He reacted like a real loser, and I sure hope nobody ever gives him a job in the game industry.

If You Don't Get An Answer

Sometimes a question doesn't get an answer, usually because the regulars didn't know the answer and didn't know where to get one. Feel free to follow up: "I guess nobody knows the answer, or where to find one. Thanks for reading my post. I'll see if I can find the answer through other means."

Be prepared for the process of gaining knowledge to take some time. Nothing is instant. Even the first few answers you get may not tell you everything you're trying to find out. The quest for knowledge is a journey, not a single step.

Further Resources

I also wrote about asking good/bad questions in FAQs 3, 26, 30, 31, 36, 39, 43, 47, 49, 50, 51, 52, 55, and 57 here on this site (use nav frame at left).
And I also highly recommend you read the full article this FAQ was based on - http://catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html#intro.
And this page at Microsoft looks kind of similar too: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/555375.


Got a question or comment about this article? Email your comments to - you'll get a response on the Sloperama Game Design bulletin board.

Click here to go to the previous article.

Click here to proceed to the next one.

Click here to return to the School-A-Rama main page.

Updates to these articles are logged at log.html.

© 2006-2009 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.