In response to yesterday’s post about forgetting the money, Jeremy Springfield kindly shared a presentation by Scott MacMillan. Scott’s presentation is about why his indie studio fell apart. His conclusion is that art and business are at opposite ends of a scale, so he thinks an indie studio must be in the middle somewhere. With sympathies to Scott for his studio’s fate, his framework is wrong.
Not only is art a business, it is the best business to be in. Madonna, Apple, James Herbert, Valve, Ogilvy, Terry Pratchett and Lady Gaga are all in the art business in one form or another. So are you. The questions are do you realise it, and do you understand how the art business works?
Art’s Marketing Story vs What Art Is
Art is traditionally depicted as a solitary pursuit, with mass media or the mainstream at the other end. It is the poet penning verse in the Lake District, or the Russian novelist scribbling his great novel on bed linen in Stalin’s gulag, which only gets published after his death.
An artist in this vein is a romantic figure who shuns or is shunned by the crowd, only for her genius to be realised much later on. She’s a marketing story of what an artist should be rather than what an artist actually is. There some artists who did labour away in secret and became famous posthumously, but there are many other kinds.
As Seth Godin puts it, art is any human act that is created with the intention of having an impact and changing the world. It is a generous gift, and although you may sell a souvenir or recording of it, the idea of the art is a gift to the world.
The impact may be small, and the change equally so, or it may be grand and far reaching. Art, however, is all about change. Changing minds and hearts, changing perspective or circumstances. Giving people the ability to see, hear or do things in a new way is what art is. It may take on infinite forms, from poetry to technology design, music to crafting furniture, a sonnet or a shoot ‘em up, but at the centre of it are the human beings – the artists – who make the unique contribution that changes things.
You cannot cause change without a means to distribute it.
Most forms of distribution involve commerce and so art is inevitably tied to a product. The quandary that many creators wrestle with is whether they should go for mass appeal or cleave to their personal interests. The scale of art vs business is a scale of personal vs populist, implying that in order to be successful you have to water down your ideas to become boring enough for mainstream sheep to like.
It’s a nonsense quandary borne by the fear of shipping. Is Lady Gaga boring? How about Hunter S Thompson? How about the Sex Pistols? In the business of art the trick is not water oneself down. You can’t change the world by being tepid.
Mass market companies that produce deliberately tepid products rely on scale processes to succeed. Zynga, or online Bingo, are watered all the way down because they are looking to capitalise on advertising, and advertising needs to be broad. If Zynga can be everywhere on Facebook with a simple product that anyone can understand, then they can rely on Metcalfe’s Law and win. Ubiquity is their strategy.
The tepid ubiquity depends on having a warchest to acquire and retain customers. What works for Coca Cola does not scale downward to the small cola vendor. Scale is geometric, meaning that it rewards the big guys disproportionately while the small guys who act like the big guys fail to get out of the gate. Small guys have to think differently. They need to cause change.
In most cases developers are small guys. They cannot deploy a ubiquity strategy because it is very cash intensive. The mistake that I see repeatedly is the small developer who thinks that if make a tepid game then they will experience the upside of broad appeal without the advertising budget to back it up. They think that mass market appeal is all about being nice and friendly and unthreatening, and somehow this turns into a win. No.
The small company’s job is different: It’s to make art, cause a change and be noticed for being different. Nobody notices yet another game that looks like every other game unless they are exposed to it so much (via a ubiquity strategy) that they can’t help but eventually notice it. What works for Zynga or Electronic Arts works because they spend gigantic amounts of money to be ubiquitous. That’s probably not you.
The artist makes a controversial game character called Super Meat Boy, creates a sexy-as-hell music video, writes a deliberately provocative book, creates a social network that changes how people communicate or designs a mobile phone that changes the meaning of the term smartphone. Being an artist means choosing to kick away from bland as hard as you can, and do so in a way that makes people’s heads turn.
Art is all about change, and the distribution of art is all about noticeable change. The art vs business dichotomy is right only when considering work created alone in the basement for nobody else. Outside of the basement, art and business go in hand in hand across all walks of life because business relies on art to lead.
Subversion Starts with Shipping
Real artists, Steve Jobs famously said, ship.
Art is only art if it is shared. A poem written on a piece of paper that nobody ever sees is not art. A poem sold in a volume of others, distributed for free via Twitter, or just shared among friends is art.
The hard work is therefore to make art that will distribute. If you mean to cause a change then there is no point being obscure or boring. Nobody will understand the obscure and nobody talks about the boring, so your job is to find the hooks that your audience does understand and then subverting or using them to change their minds and the world.
This does not make you a sell-out, nor compromise your vision. Great artists understand the context in which they operate and figure out a way for the intended audience to access what they have created. James Joyce, Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare all worked within a context and so do you. They created works that touched the lives of millions because what they created was simultaneously understandable as well as deep to its intended audience. Joyce, for example, understood that much of his audience would be well-read intellectuals, so he laid deliberate traps in Ulysses to get them debating about its meaning forever. And they did (and do to this day).
Shipping your game (or your novel, song or sculpture) as successful art is about aligning to the audience expectations and then using them. If you want to create a sci-fi saga about gay and lesbian issues then you have to work to make sure that sci-fi saga readers can access your works first before you change their world. Subversion comes from confounding expectation, not making big leaps in the dark.
Even those who have spawned whole new genres get their start by working with things already understandable. Tolkien changed the world, including probably yours given, because he knew how to write a folkloric saga. He studied myth cycles extensively and used them as a basis for his own work. Elves, dwarfs and dragons are present in Middle Earth for a reason, as are ultimate good and evil. The medieval setting is deliberate, as are the linguistic cues borrowed from Finnish and other languages.
Tolkien started from a strong base of cues and signifiers that readers would understand and then changed their world. JK Rowling has more recently done something similar. Each realised that they had to create fearlessly but also work to give the readership a way into their work so that they could understand it.
Go For It!
So here are the three things to take on board to kick ass, change the world, and sell a lot of games:
- Figure out where your audience is at. Understand what they already know and what they need in order to be able to access your work.
- Develop an idea that uses that, but deliberately confounds or otherwise up-ends what existing ideas are already doing.
- Share it, tell everyone you’ve made it, and give the gift to all. Ship, distribute and tell your marketing story.
Sounds hard, doesn’t it? Well it is. But better that than a sobering realisation that you didn’t water your business down enough to be just like everyone else.
Now go for it!