Finding an audience as a game designer or filmmaker

Let’s go back in time, before there was video on demand (VOD) or flat-screen TVs. Before I could go to a store and check out a wall of movies, pick any ones I like, and take them home for a pittance. Before there were VCRs and videotape, with inconsistent, low-resolution images that had to be stabilised with a knob. Before there were multiplexes where I could see a variety of movies in one location just by walking across the hall.

Way back in time, there was a young boy getting popcorn from a concession stand. Bag in hand, he went to find a seat as near to the centre of the theatre as he could manage. He sat down, eating his popcorn, thinking, “Oh boy, what’s going to happen on the big screen in front of me now?”

And it was a big screen, because theatres were big. They didn’t have to accommodate twelve different current releases. The rule was: one building, one movie screen. And there the young lad sat, excitedly anticipating the adventure ahead. And occasionally, he thought to himself how great it would be to grow up and make a movie himself someday.

Free tools like Blender (left) and Unity (bottom left) have democratised game dev, but the scale of the games market makes success difficult. As inkle’s Joseph Humfrey said earlier in this issue, “The indiepocalypse is real”

You may be thinking this boy was me, but you’d be mistaken. He was the boy sitting next to me in the theatre. Nonetheless, I knew I loved movies and I knew there were people who made movies, and wouldn’t it be cool to make one myself. Then people like him would be excited to come to the theatre and watch my movie!

And lo, the fantasy of becoming an entertainment provider was born. For me as a child, it was just that, a fantasy. And given that movie equipment and film development cost money (and time), it was all the more likely to remain a fantasy. This was a bummer in some ways, but it had some upsides to it as well.

These barriers to entry made me less likely to suffer the reality crashes that occur when I venture out of fantasyland and try to produce something. Society benefitted as well. These barriers spared us from countless abominations (from the awful to the lame). No one ever saw them because it was too much effort or money or time to make those things come true. Whenever the threshold effort to create something increases, it happens less often.

Now, anyone can make movies incredibly easily. And to some extent, they can make video games as well. In fact, the ability to realise your childhood dreams (especially in terms of aspirations to be an entertainer) is greater now than it has ever been. The dream factory has franchised its development. The world is my SDK!

But has this helped? Even though it’s far easier now to realise my production dreams, what’s easier still is to produce rubbish and pop it out there. And people do… constantly. Today’s earthlings collectively generate an unbelievable volume of content. According to Tubefilter, more than 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute worldwide. This means every 60 seconds I fall another three weeks behind in my viewing. It’s impossible to keep up with that. Fortunately, no one needs to. The vast majority isn’t worth viewing. We spend much of our time sifting through an ever-widening river of digital sludge, looking for worthwhile nuggets.

You’ve come up with a game concept that sounds great on paper. But how will players respond to it in practice? There’s only one way to find out…

It’s all about signal-to-noise ratios. It used to be that finding anything at all was novel because there wasn’t much signal (or noise, or anything at all) – it was mostly silence. Lately, the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute takes care of the finding-something-from-nothing department. The main trick now is finding meaningful signals amid the constant bombardment all around us. That’s a very different challenge, and it calls for a different approach. But then again, that’s about finding something that’s already there.

When it comes to design, and especially designing video games, it’s not about finding something that’s already there but rather creating something that never was. This brings us to the reality of creating entertainment. Can I create a signal worth receiving? Am I clever enough? Visionary enough? Skilled enough to pull it off? This is a challenge that hits us right in the ego.

It’s easier now than ever in the history of humanity to create and distribute audio or video content. But making something worth seeing? That hasn’t really gotten easier. People create and distribute content with alarming alacrity, but how much attention is paid to the fundamental issue of quality? At the root of it all lies one crucial question: Is it any good?

I have my opinion, but what is that worth? Virtually anything uploaded carries the inherent ’seal of approval’ of the uploader. But if the point is to garner attention and positive feedback, the provider isn’t all that important. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s good, the market will tell me with sales/hits/likes/comments. There’s no more solid feedback than hard numbers. They’re great when you can rest on them, but brutal when they fall and hit you!

Handling feedback is the surest way for any developer to gain insight and find direction on a project. Some welcome this with open laptops, seeking to address problems which get revealed. Others respond with denial, refusing to let the intrusions of others impinge on their grand vision. But in the final analysis, most content is simply looking for an audience. And it’s never been easier – or quicker – to see if I’m finding one.

I do wonder, though: will that kid who used to sit next to me in the theatre ever see this?

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