27 August, 2018
Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how popularity really affects creative work. We tend to have this vision of a creative person as an iconoclast who follows the beat of their own drum. But reality is more complex than that, of course. The reality is that popularity matters quite a bit in creative work, especially if you want to make a living at it.
Let’s take look through the lens of my own experience.
We tend to tell people that creative work should be done for its own sake. Be true to your vision! Don’t bend to the whims of others! There’s also the perception that if you do something for the sake of being popular, you’ve done a bad thing. “Selling out” is the usual term for this.
And so you have the concept of “pure” creativity untouched by the taint of what’s popular. The unspoken rule is that “if you build it, they will come,” implying that good stuff is found by people automatically without the need for marketing or gaining attention in any way.
But this is bullshit.
And this works if you’re independently wealthy and can survive long enough on your own to not have to worry about how rent will be paid or how food is bought. The reality is much different for people who want to make a living from creative work, you need to worry about what people are interested in.
To make it more complex, some people have an innate sense of what people like. They know how tap into the “cool” of the times to make something people like. They make it seem effortless, like they follow the “ideal” above and don’t worry about what’s popular. People with this ability perpetuate that idea, unfortunately, which keeps others from grasping the idea.
The game industry
So now we’ll take a look at how this applies to the game industry. Game design is a job like any other, but it’s a job that everyone thinks they can do well, usually because most people don’t understand what the job really requires. But it doesn’t matter, because this draws a lot of people to the job. This has two interesting consequences: first it lets employers make game designers feel their job is precarious, second it makes game designers rather fiercely territorial and ready to prove themselves “more worthy” than others.
Popularity is important because a designer needs to learn to either be the type to take charge quickly and get respect, or the type to just go with the flow. As you become more established in the game industry you can use your experience to help convince people of the worth of your ideas. Or if you’re the type of person who runs the company and calls yourself “lead designer” then your ideas are accepted since there’s the implicit concept that you sign the paychecks.
But if you don’t have any of these other advantages, you need to make sure your ideas are popular enough to be supported by others. Going in with a “crazy idea” rarely works unless you get other people on board with the idea early. Some people are better at convincing others of this, and these are the people who make better designers in practice because others aren’t looking to discredit their work.
Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit about the problem the game industry has with exclusion; this is another way the game industry pushes away some designers.