Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

On Ego Trips and Publishing Pace

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 17, 2015

Since I’m now doing double-duty as both a writer and a game developer (gee, anything else I should acquire as a major hobby / side occupation? Maybe get a law degree?), it’s been interesting having a foot in both camps and watching the parallels. Both have enjoyed an indie revolution, which has caused a good deal of turmoil and glutted the field – mostly with crap, but that’s Sturgeon’s Law at work. And besides, like the saying kinda goes, one man’s piece of crap that should never have been released is another man’s diamond in the rough, or something…

Now I fully admit I’m a lot slower at both than I would like to be. I’m working on it. Writing surprised me with how slow I am. Actually, game development is the same. In my mind, I’m a lot faster. Probably because when things are going really well and I’m really making tons of progress, time disappears for me and I think I’ve only been at it an hour when closer to three have passed by.

But if I could write four novels a year, or release two RPGs a year, or some combination of this (2 novels and 1 game?), I totally would. I aspire to this. Because my experience as an indie and my work with other indies (both in games and in print) who I consider to be successful leads me to believe that the “secret to success” in both fields (in most creative fields for that matter) is pretty boring:

  1. Predictable and reasonably frequent releases
  2. Sufficient quality
  3. Targeted to an appropriate market

Of course, there are tons of variables that change constantly in there. But ultimately, it comes down to getting a chance up to bat as frequently as possible, and being good enough that you can usually score a base hit even if luck doesn’t favor you with a home run.

And of course, everyone can name a handful of people who bucked this process and succeeded extremely well by most definitions of “success.” It happens. And we can all define “success” however we want.

However, a recent article in the Huffington Post which I am declining to link to in order to avoid this kind of linkbait trolling in the future made a case that nobody should be very prolific, and that if you were writing more than one book a year (yes, the author’s arbitrary cap on frequency) then you couldn’t possibly be creating a quality masterpiece like you should be, implying strongly that anybody publishing more frequently than that has sold their soul to be a crappy hack writer. She also stated quite firmly that indie was a second-class tier of far lower worth than getting released by the major publishers.

Of course, she herself has only one book released which she self-published, excusing herself because she did it after a very long period of painstaking development and was ready to unleash her masterpiece on the world, and hadn’t yet shopped it around to publishers (who, I guess, would have no doubt been chomping at the bit to represent her masterpiece if only she’d given them a chance).

This article has been thoroughly torn apart by a large number of authors whom I would consider quite successful. I’m sure some rich and successful author has risen to her defense at some point, but that could just be a ploy to keep the competition down. (Some interesting examples can be found here, here, and my favorite here).

I agree with many of the arguments against this. What makes one per year an arbitrary “reasonable” value anyway? And who is the arbiter of “great?” I really don’t know. Many of the classics we now revere were written by “hacks” who just kept cranking things out at a really amazing rate. With the exception of maybe Shakespeare, only a fraction of their work is really remembered and so honored, so none of ’em were batting 1.000 according to modern critics.

There’s another saying we had back at SingleTrac, which came out effectively as, “That’s why sequels exist.” In game development, the final product is NEVER as awesome as we imagined it. In hindsight, once it’s really too late to rip everything apart and start over, we know the things we should have done, and how we could have done it better. We learn with every game. I was on a panel with Steve Taylor of NinjaBee at the Salt Lake Gaming Con a few weeks ago, and he said about the same thing. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of, “I’ve developed and shipped over thirty games in my career, and I feel like I’m just now starting to figure out how to make games.”

The thing is – there’s no such thing as perfect. There’s no perfect book, there’s no perfect game. And echoing Steve’s statement, I feel like in both writing and game development, the more that I learn, the more I learn how much I still need to learn. There’s this really weird view that we can take our first pass on something, stick it in a rock tumbler called “workshops” and just keep going and going and going, and eventually it’s going to come out a polished gem. It’ll be more polished, but if it wasn’t a gem going in, it won’t magically transform when it comes out. Most of the time, we just need to take what we’ve learned and move on to the next project… with better ideas, better skills.

And yes, better ideas come. It seems that when you are a newbie in a creative field, you come in with some tender, awesome, wonderful ideas that may actually be pretty awesome and wonderful, but you hold onto them jealously as if that’s all you’ve been allotted in life and you don’t want to waste them. I suppose we do go through dry periods sometimes, but most of the people I know in creative industries have the opposite problem – they’ve got more things on their back-burners than they could finish in a lifetime.

But on a completely different tack… why are you creating this thing? Who are you creating it for? The implication by the article seems to be that you are creating it for yourself. Anyone else who happens to understand your creative genius can therefore bask in your glow. While I would agree that you are your own audience and you should make the things that make you happy… write the books you’d want to read, write the games you want to play… that’s a fundamentally self-centered viewpoint. It’s about serving our own ego. And while that’s not a terrible thing, if that’s your highest and noblest goal, IMO you are shooting pretty low.

In my view, we’re actually serving other people. Our audience. That is what we SHOULD be about. Worry about their happiness, and let our own take care of itself, I guess. I remember listening to an interview with John (“Cougar”) Mellencamp, and he was asked “Do you ever get tired of playing the same old songs in concert? Don’t you wish there was more demand for your newer music?” While I was never a big fan of his music, my respect for him as an artist went way up when I heard his reply. He said, “No, because I’m only here because of them. I’m an entertainer, and they are paying me to play what they want to hear.”

You hear a bit about games and software turning into a bit more of a service industry, but most of the time when people are talking about that, they are really only talking about ways to maximize their revenue generation. But I think to a large degree, all creative “industries” are exactly about that. So really, as artists or “creative workers,” shouldn’t our job really be about creating things for our audience in whatever quantity AND quality makes them happy? If one comes at the expense of the other (which is eventually true, but the relationship is a lot more complicated up until we hit a really high threshold), then we may have to strike a balance that pleases our audience.

If your average gamer / reader is like me… they really want both.


Filed Under: Books, Production - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Xian said,

    In some ways I agree with the comment about being a prolific writer. One author I used to read a lot of was Stuart Woods. I loved his earlier novels, Chiefs, Under The Lake, New York Dead when he was writing one a year. Now he churns out four titles a year and I don’t even bother, they became formulamatic and unoriginal with the same themes running through each title.

    However, one size doesn’t fit all. Brandon Sanderson is another prolific writer, one of my favorites, and he manages to keep each tale fresh and unique.

    Anyway, as much as I want to play FK2, you have to do it at your own pace. I honestly don’t see how you do it with a day job, indie developing, writing books (and a daily blog), and I still read here where you manage to squeeze in time to play a game for fun too. The Age of Decadence was a long time coming, but I guess that shows that perseverance is the main quality needed when you set out to do a project.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, it really is about striking that balance. There’s a point of diminishing returns for both. I mean, if I could magically wave my hand and make a new RPG every single day of appropriate quality, nobody could keep up, so it wouldn’t be worthwhile. And likewise, I think there’s a point in quality where it doesn’t make enough difference … although you don’t know where that point is, and a lot of it depends on what your competitors will be doing.

    But I think it’s completely wrong-headed to think that there’s an open-ended sacrifice of quantity on the alter of quality necessary to not be a some kind of sellout. That’s the kind of attitude I’d expect from a grad student, maybe, but not anybody serious about their craft or trade.

  • Jacob said,

    You hear a bit about games and software turning into a bit more of a service industry, but most of the time when people are talking about that, they are really only talking about ways to maximize their revenue generation.

    The magic of capitalism, or rather, the magic of a lack of compulsion in the market, is that increasing revenue is one of the most useful ways to measure an increase in service to others. Parting with money is something most people consider rather carefully. They will tend to do so only in ways they believe will benefit them more than the potential of spending it on other things will bring. So the best way to maximize profit tends to be finding the best way to serve your customer. If you can decrease quality and still make sales, then quality wasn’t that important to people. If you increase quality and increase sales, then you’ve served more people. The magic of a lack of compulsion in a marketplace is that it puts greed in service of serving others.

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    I’m sorry but I agree with too with that comment that nobody should be prolific. One novel a year? Where are the Tolkiens and Saavedras any more?

    However I mean, publishing one book a year is too much, in my opinion. Diffirently is to write one book or more a year, and have them rest some time to see if they are really worth. Later, edit them, rewrite them, and publish. Masterpieces takes time to produce, sometimes, a whole life span.

    The problem again is capitalism. We have an excelent article at Indieorama (in Spanish, sorry, but you can autotranslate it) that explain it very well, and says that “you don’t have to capitalise everything, sometimes art is art, and not a mere product”.


  • Rampant Coyote said,

    What? Doncha know that dissenting opinion is totally not allowed on this blog?!?! It ruins the illusion that I actually know everything! 😉

    But I really don’t believe you can create a “masterpiece.” That’s beyond you. You can make quality, sure. And you can innovate. And you can make something that can move your audience. And you can get better at all of those with lots of practice. But I think the difference between something simply being of high quality and “very good” and the designation of great / classic / masterpiece really only comes from either the approval of gatekeepers or general popularity. A whole bunch of academics stick a blue ribbon on your work, or it “goes viral.”

    I remember reading some stories about the Mona Lisa. Now it’s considered this fantastic genius masterpieces, but it was centuries before it was recognized as such. Somehow it just caught the attention of the right people, and pulled ahead of so many other works that are probably of equal quality but continue to languish in obscurity.

    But then, this could be the sour grapes grumbling of a guy who is so deep in his own mediocrity that he can’t even fathom that level of excellence. I accept that possibility. 🙂

  • David W said,

    Ruber – how do you learn to improve without getting feedback? Hold your work close, don’t let anyone see it, never try something new or different – how does that make you a better artist?

  • Noumenon72 said,

    At least you have your day job so you know you can produce things at a reasonable pace and aren’t just bad at coding.