Fan Culture is Not Developer Culture

Feb 6, 2013

There is common confusion among people transitioning from full-time videogame fans to part-time videogame creators that developers should still, like good fans, soak up everything they can about videogame previews, videogame reviews, industry gossip, awards events, new releases and new trends.

For comparison, consider whether a writer trying to stay on top of reading every top selling novel will be making much progress on a novel of their own.

It’s not even just an issue of time, though! As proof of that, consider that a song doesn’t take long to listen to, and an image can take even less time to look at. Should a musician listen to every chart-topping song? Should a 2D artist scramble every day to view the latest in popular illustrations and paintings?

The answer, of course, is no, they should not. A few reasons:

  • Most music isn’t going to be any given musician’s style, and most artwork isn’t going to be any given artist’s style. In our case as developers, most videogames out there will have nothing to do with our genre, our audience, or our style. It’s of course possible to glean inspiration from things that aren’t in the same category of our own, but those cases are fewer and further in-between, and for that matter could come from anywhere (including other mediums, or even better, real life experiences).
  • Studying something, to extract something of use from its construction and presentation, requires a great deal more time and hard work than simply listening to it once or looking at it casually. It requires repeated encounters with it, deep diving into details, exploration to understand its context and synthesis, often going into information not apparent in the artifact itself, including the developer’s other work and the business circumstances which either brought it into existence or pulled it from a fate of obscurity into the limelight. Dissecting even a 3 minute song or an image is no trivial task, and a videogame might take a month or more of focused effort to take apart. That level of sustained concentration on playing is easily incompatible with also giving production the consistent attention it needs.
  • Just because something is popular, by any metric (financially, as a cult classic, or hitting the Reddit front page), definitely does not mean that it’s any good. At the expense of sounding a little hipstery or jaded, a ton of commercially successful work in any medium is dumbed down, derivative, formulaic, and forgettable. In videogames, plenty of great work doesn’t get much exposure because it doesn’t come across in a screenshot and has zero marketing push, while other mediocre work is racing to the top partly due to strange market effects like established branding, nepotism between industry contacts, reviewer groupthink, and a whole mess of other factors quite other than the videogame itself. It’s a mistake to assume that the best-known artifacts happen to also be the best ones for a developer to know.

Additionally, especially in the videogame case, if you’re going to make a videogame based on someone else’s already popular work to ride part of its success (note: which is very different from cloning as a learning exercise, which is legit and very helpful), good luck. (1.) You’re already a full development cycle behind your competition, and by the time you release they can be on a sequel or many updates later while countless others who had the same plan release at the same time as you and (2) you’d need some pretty serious financial resources to win in that type of Red Ocean open warfare, anyway.

Dilbert‘s still got it.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest totally hiding from the world. Coming up for air is an important part of swimming longer. But if you’re putting time into playing popular games or reading up on game news, make sure it’s something you’re doing because it’s what you want to be doing, and not under some misguided impression that it’s an important part of working on your game, or becoming a better videogame developer. In all likelihood, it isn’t.

If you really are deeply studying a specific game as part of development, then truly investigate it: replay it, take notes on it, write about it, and once you’ve got what you need from it, move past it.

Instead of getting caught up in the news, make a point to periodically catch up on what went down. After the smoke clears. In a matter of days it’s surprisingly easy to catch up on months of ignoring the news and new releases. By that time it’s cheaper, too, on sale online or available discounted in the used and bargain bins, since full-time consumers have all moved on by then to the next newest thing.

Go get lost in making your own beautiful thing. Forget about the noise and hype, 24/7 consumer spectacle, the irrational rising and falling in the trends or reviews or stranger’s drama.

The game release you should be pumped about, so fixated on that you’re not paying attention to what else is coming out or when, is the one you’re working on.

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