On Success and Luck (in Life and TableTop)
As you read through the Nearly Complete Guide to Self Publishing you’ll find me referring to “success” and “luck” as something that can be influenced as opposed to something TOTALLY random. Because it doesn’t HAVE to be random. At least not totally!
[You’re reading an article in The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Self Publishing Your Games Online series]
By now you’ve heard that something like 95% of startups fail, and aren’t those are some seriously crappy odds to be playing with?!?
So why don’t we just ignore what “everybody” else in that 95% is doing and just focus on getting YOU closer to the 5% of startups that see some measure of success (that”quality of life” kind of success as opposed to daytime television “oodles of money” kind).
And the WHOLE POINT of this series is to help increase your chances of doing something meaningful in the games industry for as long as you want to keep doing it.
Now, notice how the phrasing of that last statement acknowledges that “Luck” is a known variable here and WILL affect your potential success!
Here’s the nifty thing though (and if you played any Dungeons & Dragons in school, you’ll appreciate this) the “randomness” of luck can be mitigated depending on how you stat out your character sheet, what kinds of adventures you choose to go on and how you prepare for encounters.
Once you get into an encounter, and everyone rolls initiative, all bets are off – but you can at least increase your chances of coming out with some bonus XP and maybe even phat loot if you’re smart about it.
If luck = being in the right place + doing the right thing + at the right time, then you can improve your odds by focusing on those things you have complete control over: what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.
Which leaves “time” as the only truly random variable!
And life without a bit of luck, like D&D without a bit of randomness, is no fun at all 😉
Before we go any further it’s time we defined both “luck” and “success” so that we’re all talking about the same thing. These are the core mechanics we’re working with: that luck roll is what we’re modifying, and success is what you’re playing for.
Success: What’s YOUR definition?
The EASY answer that comes to mind here is “I’ll be successful when I have OODLES of money!”, but why say that? What is oodles of money going to make possible, exactly?
See, I reckon it’s not the money you’re after but what that money will supposedly buy for you (I say that knowing nothing about you except the fact that you’re reading this blog – which means you’re probably more interested in making something meaningful then just trading hours for dollars).
But if you’re saying “oodles of monies!” automatically instead of detailing exactly what fulfills and satisfies you…then maybe you haven’t defined these things yet?
“Money” is an easy answer because it already has a socially defined value (a nebulous, vague value, but you can picture stacks of cash sooner than you can picture a more fulfilling life). It provides an easy answer to the question of “how will you know when you’re successful?”.
But easy answers are generally NOT the right answers. Here’s an example: the easy answer to “lose weight!” is to stop eating, right? But if you focus exclusively on that easy answer then you’ll starve to death at some point – which means you won’t be around to appreciate the affect your flat abs have on the girl or boy you fancy!
So the problem with reflexively saying “I want to make all the monies!” is: if you don’t sit down to define what success REALLY looks like to you, then you run the risk of spending the money you do make on things that leave you unsatisfied. Which creates a greater need for satisfaction, inspiring you to scramble for MORE money…which creates an even greater degree of dissatisfaction because you were already unsatisfied to start with!!
It’s this looping cycle of uber badness that Oliver James, author of Affluenza, illustrates beautifully. Over the course of his book he interviews individuals, from around the world, across a wide margin of financial success: From a taxi driver in New York City to a millionaire philanthropist with multiple inner city penthouse apartments and superstar girlfriends.
What Oliver found in these interviews (and the studies he cites) is that the amount of money you have to make to get that little mental burst of “YAY!” chemicals increases EXPONENTIALLY as you accrue cash. You need bigger and more over the top payoffs each time to get those dopamine hit, and you’re comparatively more depressed when you don’t get them.
So your first $50,000 will make you super happy! But to get that SUPER HAPPY again you need to make $200,000. After that you’d have to reach your first million. Then 10 million. Then 100 million. And so on and so forth until you’ve got lots and lots of zeroes in your bank account and a lifetime subscription to antidepressant medication.
Man, that sounds seriously sucky doesn’t it? And POINTLESS.
And this shouldn’t surprise you at all, but that taxi driver Oliver interviewed in NYC was more happy and fulfilled by his beautiful family and all the interesting people he gets to meet than the millionaire philanthropist was with his model girlfriends and penthouse apartments. Why? Because that taxi driver has his shit figured out, he knows what he enjoys most is meeting strangers and hearing their stories. And where better than New York for interesting stories? He’s built a life around what he enjoys most – what he does every day is an extension of those values.
If you know yourself well enough that you know what truly satisfies you and what you NEED to do to feel fulfilled…then why not start doing that stuff NOW? With your games, with the projects you take on and the stuff you say “Yes” to. And if you’re asked to do something that doesn’t line up with your values? Say “No”. You’ll have more time for the stuff that’s going to make you successful.
Money is just a way to keep the lights on and keep food in your belly while you’re busy doing what you truly enjoy (and the more you enjoy what you do, the less crap you need to buy).
So, let’s ask that question again, and put the easy answer aside for a minute, what does success look like to you?
Write out 3 to 5 stories of when you were most happy, most fulfilled, by the work you were doing. You lost all track of time, you felt depleted but totally satisfied (heh and no – as entertaining as I’m sure they are, stories about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll don’t count!)
While you’re writing about the work that made you lose all track of time, think about: What were you doing? Who were you working with? What were you trying to achieve, what was driving you and how did you approach solving the problem?
Look for patterns in those stories you wrote down. What do these stories have in common? There’s a pretty good chance that those are the circumstances you need to be in to be totally in your element and feeling groovy with the world.
Luck: Improving the Odds
Speaking of feeling groovy with the world, a real funny thing happens when you start focusing exclusively on how you work when you’re at your best, doing the kinds of things that make you lose all track of time. See, if you’re disciplined enough to only take on those projects that you’ll find deeply fulfilling – then when one of those projects becomes successful you’ll have MORE opportunities to do that kind of stuff…
…which creates a looping cycle of uber goodness! (Inverse effect of that Affluenza uber badness cycle, yo)
Of course if you’re just doing your groovy thing in the comfort of your own home without actually publishing any of your work where other people can find it and enjoy it, well…your odds of being able to do this sustainably are pretty low. Because at some point you’re going to run out of rent monies, and if you wait until that happens to start thinking about how to keep the lights on, then you’ve waited too long my friend!
And this is where we get into the concept of Sustainable Success. Success, YOUR definition of success, that brings in enough cashflow to keep the lights on and enables you to keep doing what you enjoy doing for as long as you want to do it.
You could wait until an angel investor knocks on your door because his car broke down outside on his way to Valve’s office and you JUST SO HAPPEN to be working on his favorite type of game right at that moment…
…or you can clean yourself up, book a table at a fancy restaurant, turn on the charm and start courting Lady Luck like a proper gentleman (smile and just be yourself my friend, you’ll do fine!)
Lets revisit that statistical formula for luck we spelled out at the start of this chapter:
Luck = doing the right thing + in the right place + at the right time
As we identified before, the only truly random variable here is Time. You have absolutely no control over WHEN something happens or WHY someone chooses to look at your game right at that moment (someone somewhere in advertising or business analytics just cried out in pain).
But you CAN control where you are and what you’re doing – and that’s the driving purpose behind everything in this series.
Everything I advise or ask you to think about comes from the perspective of getting you to where you need to be, doing the kinds of things you need to be doing, to make that successful Luck check when you encounter the Right Time.
Doing the Right Thing
Those questions I asked you to answer back when we were talking about what your definition of success is? Well, this feels like a good time to pull them out again, doesn’t it?
Doing the “right thing” depends entirely on what you’ve identified as important to you, what you do when you’re at your best and you lose all track of time. Now why is that the right thing to be doing as opposed to all the “go iOS! make a casual game! get on kickstarter! make a game for girls!” bullshit*?
Because if you’ve hit that state of Flow, and you get so much out of that kind of work, then you are going to produce something much more valuable than anything coming from someone who’s just doing it for the cash. You’ll think about it more, care about it more and have a deeper respect for the audience you’re producing it for.
It’s why Google is kicking Microsoft’s ass, why YouTube beat Vimeo – and it’s why Braid, Super Meat Boy, Journey and Bastion are better games than their big budget counterparts that cost SO MUCH MORE to make.
How do you recognize if you’re hearing buzzwordy bullshit? a) if their paycheck depends on you believing what they’re selling and b) if it’s SOMEONE ELSES story and definition of success. Alpha funding worked for Notch because he’s Notch and there’s a whole lot of details to that story that haven’t been published in articles and interviews. You can’t pick up someone else’s character sheet, step into their game in the middle of a campaign and expect to have the same experience they did!
You’ve got the benefit of starting out small – don’t let insecurity or upfront cash buy you into thinking you need to be bigger, have a bigger team or do more by adding whatever flashy features are popular in game development right now! Just focus on “the right thing” for you, your definition of success, and stay as small as you can for as long as you can. That way you’re flexible enough to shift and refocus on what’s important to you (you’re not locked into anything, if the prototype isn’t enjoyable then you can afford to make another prototype).
And if you’re working lean and you’re working small then you’re in a position to personally go where your audience is most likely to find you. What large studios need to spend millions of advertising dollars to do, you can do with a bit of time and the willingness to work outside your comfort zone, even if it’s really freaking scary.
Being in the Right Place
Avoiding an oncoming car in a thunderstorm where you can’t see three feet in front of you – that’s lucky.
Meeting the love of your life when you’re both traveling cross country and running into them again at a friend’s party – that’s pretty damn lucky too (and the plot of most romantic comedies).
But getting an interview with a journalist about you and the games you’re making?
That isn’t luck – that’s tactics. That’s making sure you’re in the right place for opportunities to find you. And it takes just one conversation at a meetup or a phone call to make that happen.
Now when that article gets Stumbled and Tweeted around the world, further than you had anticipated…no, sorry, that still isn’t luck.
That’s making damn sure that you’ve got a story people will learn something from or be inspired by, you’ve done something worth tweeting about, and you’ve shared it where the folk who will most appreciate it are most likely to see it.
Okay so what IS lucky? When that angel investor who loves the kinds of games your making reads an email from a friend saying “Hey man, think you should check this out…” and it links back to that article, which links back to YOUR website (where you happen to have an easily spotted playable demo that runs from the browser or installs BEAUTIFULLY).
Who finds your little opportunity bread crumbs and when they read it is NOT something you can control – what you CAN control though is how easy it is find your games online, to see what it is you’re trying to do (devblogs, gamasutra blogs, gameplay videos, public prototypes) and how easy it is your audience to share what they found valuable.
This same philosophy applies to making sure people know you and what you’re on about – speaking at conventions, meeting other devs at events, volunteering and helping out where you can. When you can articulate what you do and why you’re doing it (your definition of success from earlier) and folks know you as a pretty cool human – then the chances of someone sending an opportunity your way increases significantly.
Oh man, that sure seems like a lot of work doesn’t it?
I tell yah though, when all of this is about supporting the kind of work you love to do…it gets real easy. It’s easy to talk about. Easy to meet like-minded folks who get as excited about it as you are.
And starting at end game is never fun! The best stories from tabletop and MMO’s are all about the adventures you went through at the low levels, the sticky situations you got out of and those epic moments when you did something REALLY FREAKING AWESOME!
Business is just a game system. What you do, how you play and why you’re playing is what makes for a good game or not.
You Create Your Own Luck
As you read through this series think about how the examples and exercises apply to you, your interests and what kind of work you do when you lose all track of time. Then ask yourself what the quickest, easiest and most effective way is that you can start doing that stuff RIGHT NOW.
Your definition of success is all your own. It may be the freedom to make one of the 100 games you’ve got on your list without having to worry about any of that commercial bullshit. Or it may be using game design to finally figure out the answer to years of research on how we learn.
Or maybe you just want the opportunity to make your favorite kinds of games for a living (because damnit, that’s okay too!).
Whatever the win condition is, if you stay true to your playstyle, pick the people you play with carefully and choose adventures you know you’re going to enjoy then you’re going to have a hell of a lot more fun than that guy who keeps trying to play a Wizard when he really should be playing a Tank…
Biz Dev Translation:
If you’re doing what’s important to you, where those opportunities are most likely to find you, then you make it easy for Luck to happen.
Case Studies and Examples:
Reference and Research:
Affluenza by Oliver James
Dungeons and Dragons by Wizards of the Coast
Built to Last by Jim Collins
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
Griftopia by Matt Taibbi
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port
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