A less-icky way to look at attention-seeking
Here's the thing:
When I hear the term "marketing", I want to crawl into a hole and die.
Maybe I should just end this essay here.
OK. I didn't.
Here's the other thing: I know I'm not alone in this uneasy feeling.
The word "marketing" seems to imply this: making your creative output (or, if you like, your productive output) attractive, saleable, convertable to cash.
It's an uneasy feeling because well, we do need money! (for the most part.) And what's more, and I guess I can only speak for myself, but I do want people to know and care about what I'm working on. I need affirmation. I hate feeling irrelevant or disposable. I want to feel important somehow, like I have my little corner of the world where I'm doing my thing.
This is a slipperly slope and tied up in all sorts of ways with insecurity. I think it's a common experience, and maybe magnified by the internet, which can start to feel like an attention-seeking contest that we're all mostly losing. I often am fighting with myself over this— after all, I love working, per se, and I believe in what I'm doing. More or less, the kind of games I make are storytelling.
Clearly, this goal is what matters to me. I don't need external justification for it, and I don't need to wrap it up per se.
But feeling that, it's only natural to want a lot of people to have that conversation. Jealousy when a game comes out that gets a lot of attention is unfair, but it's real and common enough. But that negativity aside, though, who wouldn't want a lot of people to enjoy the things we make? What can be more normal. And what's more normal than to have it be disappointing if it doesn't seem to happen right away.
So there is not only a practical side to it. There is a personal, creative reality to "marketing" as well (and this will be the last time I use this word, I promise, and I am not about to just euphamism-it-away, either.) We might want to connect with a lot of people.
Recognizing this, I know for my part I've always felt, well: this is the business side of things I have to do. It's a necessary evil, ideally I'd be so super famous or the game will just be so super amazing that I can just, uh, let it slip into the thoughtstream, and catch fire, but ugh, no that probably will not work, so I gotta get serious about this. After all, I make a very skeletal non-living doing videogame online for dollars, or yes I want to do! Best to business up.
Like so many unpleasant things, we don't want to think about them very much, so we don't, and so they can become a blind spot. Well, probably some wise advice would be: when you notice an upleasant thing you don't like to think about, you should sit down and think about it, real real hard.
I am sorta doing just that, now, not because I'm wise but because of various exciting life changes that kind of jolted me awake.
Take a step back and think about titles.
When I made The Real Texas, I purposefully used the title as a kind of misdirect; it's supposed to evoke a kind of simplistic Cowboy ideal, to set the player up for a certain kind of experience which, then, turns out differently and hopefully more poignant than would be anticipated. Especially in the context of videogames, a story ostensibly about a Texas gunslinger will come with a lot of baggage. This baggage, then, is like the jumping off point for what I was trying to do in the game (tell a True Cowboy Story, duh.)
I realize of course that the game is pretty silly in parts, and far from perfectly realized, but also I know that for at least some people it does work on the level it's supposed to. I'm real happy about that.
So the purpose of the misdirect title wasn't to mislead, but rather as an important part of the context going in. The trailer was another key part, and I was careful to give a clearer picture of the game's mood, there, particularly through the narrated text. And let's be clear: Cowboys, in the romantic sense, are lonely, considerate, wistful beings.
So the title— and the trailer— in a way they frame the game. They are part of it, even if they sit somewhat outside of it. I mean the title is important, yet Texas, itself, plays no role whatsoever (the closest we get is Utah.)
I saw some advice recently, directed at (visual) artists. It said, try to focus on just making things for your friends, those who already care about you and what you're doing. Worry first about communicating with them. There was more to it than that but this was the part I liked best.
Videogames are so broad; some games are made in an hour or two. If you can make ten games a year, it's relatively easy to share them with your friends. This advice is then followable! It's a bit thornier if you are working on something that takes more time. So often the idea of sharing your game means posting something about it and hoping other people take interest. The reasons why we do this can start to feel pretty foggy and shallow.
The internet sharing channels have become very visual; perhaps the easiest and best way to get attention is to have something visually interesting, and, ideally, animated. (Side note, but I miss that twitter used to be text-only; I think this is a huge gap right now, there's no text-only sharing site. Another essay.)
So nowadays games are perhaps shared best online if it's in a visual way. If you desire attention, it seems like the best thing is to find something flashy or visually interesting about your game, and make an animated gif, post that, and hope for the best. Some games, and some types of games, lend themselves to this really, really well!
(Actually I often think about how this can and likely does feed itself back into the design of a game, which could be a good or a bad thing. Really, I think it can't be entirely bad, at least for many types of games, since it can encourage the creator to make the visuals more delicious. But also, the animated gif might not be the point, so it could be bad in some ways too. Well, another essay.)
Apart from animated gifs, though, your options might feel limited. You could release a partially completed demo, or show part of the game at an expo. You could make a mailing list email or kickstarter backer post. You could do a dev blog and explain what you're trying to accomplish.
Whatever you do, one way to look at it is you are trying to share an artwork that, necessarily, can't be shared in a complete form, because the completed form will be a long time coming.
Tim Schafer recently gave this excellent quote, also making the rounds:
Whenever I meet another indie dev, especially someone who is shipping their first game, I don't know how to say it, but I want to prepare them for the fact that shipping games sucks. I want to tell them, "Listen, it's about the long haul. You're not going to get rich off this first game. You'll be lucky if you get any attention at all." You've just got to start making your back catalog. We make money off of our back catalog. You'll make more money on your first big Steam sale than you will on your launch day. Just to try to prepare for not getting all your hopes up for this amazing launch that's going to change your life. See it as just one more step in this long career where you're making good stuff, putting it out there, and making money over time with it. Enabling you to do the thing that you love.Tim Schafer Talks Shyness, Comebacks and Being Asked Not to Touch George Lucas - glixel.com
Actually, here, well I do have some experience here. I can say: it's true for me. Releasing a game might not be that fulfilling in and of itself (you should celebrate, and feel good about it, though.) Mostly, uh, nothing magically happens. But that's not quite it.
For me, by the time I release something, I have put so much into it that it's not realistically possible to get the response I will need to feel satisfied artistically. It can't all come at the end, because I am far, far hungrier for validation than that, all through the process.
(Side note: there's an ugly narrative, which is: "just release 40 games, the 39th will flop, but one of them will eventually be a hit!" to which I answer a) life is not that long b) how are you supposed to fund 40 games c) way less than 1 out of 40 of games are hits, d) even if you do have a 40th game that's a "hit", how incredibly depressing and unsatisfying those first 39 are for you, and e) this entire line of thinking makes me want to die. Really these arguments all seem to come from people whose entire conception of videogames is as a way to get rich, not as a way to express ideas, entertain, provoke, bore, or whatever ten thousand other things you might want to do. But this belongs in the "success" essay that I will, god willing, never write.)
The word I used above, that I promised not to use again: the reason it feels so bad is because it's a money-centered label that has been affixed to a normal creative process. Sharing is pretty healthy. If it generates money, great (maybe), but really the point is just to communicate in the first place.
It feels a bit off to have something meaningful and human reduced to a number. But don't throw the whole process out, just realize the word is a paper-thin label stuck onto something greater.
So that brings me here. This essay won't have an end, I'm just in a process.
Being forced to think about these things, I've realized that what I really want is validation and to share somehow, all through the process. Because the type of games I want to make are (mostly) very long-hauls, I need a way to kind of put it out there that is less about producing an interesting visual tidbit and more about, well, communicating the same ideas I am trying to communicate in the game. I definitely need to make money and this will help, but it should be fun and constructive, not just a time sink, or it's not worth it.
For years now I have been pushing at this a bit blindly in the dark, trying to express myself creatively this way without having thought hard or clearly enough to yet know what the actual problem is. But maybe now I have a bit of clarity.
The solution I have arrived at, and I'll leave it here, is:
So right now, it looks like what I'm going to do is just try to create a kind of alternate home for what I'm creating primarily as the game, as Paradise Never, to let it is sort of spill out in other forms. These are complimentary to the game and exist not just for some hollow commercial end, and definitely not as a necessary evil, but as a really valid and positive creative step to take.
Looking at it this way feels very clear and very non-icky. It's not even about getting attention, it's just me doing more of what I like to do, in a more expansive way and one that can be shared and bring people enjoyment (which is my goal) in the meantime.
There are some specifics, but that's another essay! Or really I just will get down to it.