“The Secrets to Creating an Indie Game Franchise” – my full GDC18 talk with slides

I’m excited to share with you my talk and slides from the presentation I gave at the Narrative Summit, Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, on Monday 19th March this year (2018).

The video of my talk is available, but it is behind a paywall in the GDC Vault:  “The Secrets to Creating an Indie Game Franchise“.

So, for those that can’t access the recording — I’m happy to now share with you what I said, and what I showed on the day. (Hello and thank you to those that came!)

The approach I discuss here applies across artforms. But this talk was specifically for a game developer audience, addressing how the approach can be used for indie games.

Whatever artforms you work in, I’d love to know what you think!

Welcome everyone. I’m Christy Dena and I’ll be talking about “The Secrets to Creating an Indie Game Franchise”.

But why are these secrets? Why aren’t the techniques to develop a franchise common knowledge? Why aren’t we all learning how to do this as part of our craft?

You may be thinking, Christy, it’s about money. Franchises are about exploiting revenue streams. But that is the business etymology, the historical origins of the term franchise that kicked in 16th century onwards.

But for us here at the Narrative Summit, as writers, as designers, we have the problem of crafting multiple artforms into a whole experience: games, films, books, soundtracks, whatever.

Why isn’t this skill common knowledge?

It’s because there is a lot of resistance to making in multiple artforms. I know, I’ve been battling these resistances for 20 years.

You’ve heard of the 10,000 hour rule, well the idea that has stuck with people is this: if you hope to be any good at anything, you need to work at one thing for a very long time. If you don’t, you’re a “Jack of all Trades and Master of None”. So we all believe that working in multiple artforms dilutes or corrupts your creative development rather than enhancing it.

“Not Us” – It’s the belief that each artform is substantially different, and so it is not what “we” do. Writers don’t talk about media. Or game devs don’t do linear media. If it’s not interactive, it’s not us.

“Not Now” – It’s the fear that maybe your interest in more than one artform is perhaps some elaborate procrastination exercise. That you shouldn’t do it now, you should focus on one artform.

“Not You” – It’s the idea that you couldn’t possibly be a polycreative (a creative genius), someone who could create great things in more than one artform.

“Not Art” – It’s the idea that a franchise is not art.

But I’ve created, consulted, mentored and judged hundreds and hundreds of transmedia projects around the world. I’m here to tell you that a franchise is something you can learn to craft. I’ll show you how.

So this where you probably started?

You may be looking at AAA franchises, and thinking that you need to create webisodes on youtube, and bring out novelisations and graphic novels, and a feature film, and merchandise, soundtrack, and maybe do an alternate reality game.

You can’t do those on an indie budget. You can do scaled down versions like a PDF and a webisode perhaps. But how do you decide which one to pursue?

Just knowing what artforms are available to you is not enough.

Step one. We’re starting with the premise that our franchise is shit.

Here is a book by Steven Pressfield, who wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance when he was 51. There is hope! The book is called Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit.

He learnt this when he was working in advertising, where nobody wants to spend time with your advertisement.

He explains that once you start with the idea that nobody automatically wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You ask yourself Why don’t they want to read it? Why don’t they want to play my game?

And with this you “acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/developer to the point of view of your player.”

You’re thinking about what the player is thinking and experiencing at each point.

This approach is behind successful projects in all artforms. So let’s look at how you can action this and how this relates to franchises.

In Hollywood, there is a screenwriting technique called the “sequence approach” – some of you will be familiar with it.

It was developed by Frank Daniel who, after analysing hundreds of successful screenplays, realised there was an emerging best practice that would help us all make great screenplays. Frank was a screenwriter himself, playwright, and novelist, who had a masters degree in Music and a doctorate in film. He influenced generations of filmmakers in his roles which included being the first Artistic Director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.

Interestingly for us, his sequence approach “focuses on how the audience will experience the story and what the writer can do to make that experience better.”

So what is the sequence approach?

Basically what it does is take the existing structure we all use and we see here of a beginning, middle, and end, and adds shorter sequences.

But the emphasis here is not the shorter sequences, but that these sequences are driven by an audience question.

The crucial part of this approach is to think about what drives the audience interest at each point of your film. What questions drive them? What are they thinking about.

You’re the one that designs that interest with a ticking clock, dramatic irony (when we know more than the characters for instance), and importantly dramatic tension, when we withholding an anticipated resolution.

This thinking about the audience experience, what is on their mind, what they know right now, what they’re expecting next, is common to all successful works.

For example, Brian Upton, who was the co-founder of Red Storm Entertainment where he designed the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon; and was Senior Game Designer at Sony. He talks about “situational design” where “nexus of play is not in the transactions, is not in the actions, or the interface, the nexus of play is inside the player’s mind.”

He talks about the importance of designing for player anticipation.

OK, so how does this actually work in a game? And a franchise? Let’s have a look at What Remains of Edith Finch.

Our first question is one that seems will drive us to the end of the game:

“What remains of Edith Finch”? “What does that mean?”

As we play we find one that comes very early is “How do I get to the house?”

The designers strategically placed the house in the distance, (a “weenie”), to get us to think about where we are to go, what we are to do.

And then they mention we have a key. So the developers have us thinking “What does this key open?” “I need to find something that needs this key.”

You see how these questions work as objectives?

So if we’ve had those previous small questions answered to our satisfaction, then it is more likely we’ll continue to the rest of the game.

In fact, Brandon Sanderson, best-selling science fiction and fantasy writer, talks about this technique as a “promise”. He doesn’t see it as a question, but as an open bracket and closed bracket. You promise that something will happen, and then follow it through. You indicate to the reader that your story will be about something and deliver on it.

Now all of you know this in terms of genre – you know that when you promise a player that this is a party game, it is a FPS, it is an openworld game, a horror, an action adventure, a comedy, you have to meet the expectations of how those genres operate. It’s a feedback loop where our players engage in a continuous reappraisal, and these promises are one factor in how they decide, and why we must deliver.

I really like the notion of a “promise” because it about what players thinking about, it is also what we’re signalling to them we will provide, and then too, with “promise”, it implies we have a responsibility to honour it.

So how can we use this for our shit franchise?

If we agree we have this best practice of switching between our POV and our players, of designing for leading promises and keeping them, then we have an approach that we can use across artforms in our franchise…

 

 

You see, we can think about the questions in our players’ minds BEFORE they get to our game.

WHY do our players want to play our game?

 

Then WHY they want to watch our webisode? Why they want to read our graphic novel? Why they want to listen to our soundtrack? In the words of my colleague Marc Ruppel, it is what happens between media that is the most important.

And we’re not alone. A study by Kultima and Stenros (2010) looked at game experience models and posited that “If we think about the perspective of the player, there need not be any separation of the different parts of the experience.” The experience for players starts before they’ve even opened the game.

James Ernest, founder of Cheapass Games, former writer at Wizards of the Coast and former Game Design manager at Microsoft.

He says, “If I had to pick one thing that games should have […] it is “a reason to play”. I don’t like to say “a hook” because that implies superficiality. It’s not just a foot in the door, it’s the reason you keep coming back. It’s what distinguishes a hit from a flop, between two games that are empirically identical.”

OK. So what are these promises? These promises for franchises?

What are the promises that invite our players to play the game, then watch a film, to listen to music, to read the book?

You already know a few.

You experience them all the time. We have Personality, Nostalgia, Spectacle, and Novelty, to name just some.

[I just want to give a quick shout-out here about these cards, and all the illustrations you’ve seen in this talk. These are custom made by my wonderful illustrator Marigold Bartlett for my forthcoming book & design kit.]

You know the lure of “personalities” or “stars” can have on a project. It’s Angelina Jolie playing Lara Croft, or Stephen Merchant voicing Wheatley, the characters themselves, Lara Croft, or auteur directors.

It’s filmmaker Eli Roth being brought in to do the animated trailer for Dark Souls 3. It’s musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie being brought in to do an animated short for Assassin’s Creed Unity.

It’s the appeal of Rami for Vlambeer games.

So what is the personality promise? The personality promise can be credibility, but it can also be the promise of being with someone who lives a life we want to live, to be.  

Nostalgia will be familiar to you.

It in the 8-bit games, pixel games, such as Sword and Sworcery and Nidhogg, and 1930s-style animated game Cuphead.

What is the nostalgia promise? It’s the promise of positive memories, the comfort you feel with those memories. The thing about nostalgia, if you don’t have positive memories with them they won’t be a promise you’re after.

Spectacle is a promise we know too.

Think of a Transformers movie trailer and you get what spectacle can be about.

It can be many things that widen our eyes in some way, it can be a visual beauty, such as the blue and green marine life of Abzû, or the black splatter on white in The Unfinished Swan, or the photorealism of Assassin’s Creed.

What is the promise of spectacle? It’s the promise you will experience of awe.

 

Related to this is Novelty, and how things that aren’t the status quo draw our attention. It is Pokemon Go!, which for many introduced them augmented reality gaming. It is Johann Sebastian Joust, where you’re not using screens but glowing move controllers and dancing around each other. It is Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, where instead of playing a game by yourself in a VR headset, you call out bomb diffusing commands to a mate on a headset. The promise is stimulation through change.

But there is also a social promise operating in these projects. Indeed, it may be the more of these promises you offer AND deliver on, the higher likelihood of not just player acquisition (gaining new players) but also player retention (keeping your players).

So what are other promises your players want and you can provide in a multi-artform context? Why, on top of all these other promises, would players STAY with your game franchise when you change artforms? Why not just to a new property? To new IP?

These are key cross-artform promises. The promises that help your players cross artforms.

They are, if you like, the genres of crossing artforms.

They are why your players go from your game to your soundtrack, to your graphic novel.

They are the promises you signal and then keep.

The Revealing Promise is about revealing more. More information, more characters, new mechanics, new stories.

It is a sequel, a prequel, anything that primarily offers a new insight.

It’s when you get the end of a Kentucky Route Zero episode and want the story to continue, you want to find out what happens next. Let’s look at some examples.

The Revealing Promise is in the card game Consentacle, where you’re engaging in a mutually satisfying and consensual intimate encounter with an alien.

You can go straight into playing the game, but Kickstarter backers also have the option of a 12 page prequel, where they find out how Kit and Dup meet and what stands in their way. [Edit: The prequel comic is now 10 pages.]

It is something that can be enjoyed before playing or after, setting up the character motivations or giving context.

And then there is the game That Dragon, Cancer, that tells the true personal story of Ryan Green and his family as they raise their son Joel who is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

We follow the family through the hospital treatments, the playgrounds, the church and then Joel’s afterlife when he dies at age 5.

In what is perhaps the most heart-wrenching prequel there is, the book released almost a year to the day before his passing is titled He’s Not Dead Yet.

 

And how about the hidden object game Hidden Folks, where you can also keep playing more games with the playable t-shirt and playable poster.

 

The revealing promise is also about meeting the interest in revealing more about the creation of the game, or games in the case of 120 Years of Vlambeer. Their collection includes art, but also their game and audio design, and studio beginnings.

Now you may notice I have the reliving promise card there too. Because in some way players are reliving moments from the games.

 

But if we look at fan interest in Art Books, we see a definite leaning towards the revealing promise more than the reliving one.

Many say they prefer to see more work-in-progress than final art. This is an example of how knowing these promises can help with your decisions.

 

So let’s look at the Reliving Promise. It is about providing a “dependable pleasure”. What that pleasure is, is determined by both you and the players.

It is the eternal question of what stays the same and what changes?

Often audio moments continue across projects. It’s the submarine clang that Grant Kirkhope took from the Goldeneye film and put into the game. Or the music and opening sequence flying over the pine-trees and mountains for Twin Peaks. Changes can happen around those dependable pleasures.

The Papers, Please short film gives us key moments that we know from the game.

In the live action film, we watch as the inspector (who we played in the game), has to decide who to award entry.

It includes the mechanics of moral dilemmas, the focus on the passport, the clink of the stamp, the high stakes of moral outcomes, and the nation’s motto in the end.

But is it too much the same though? It promises the familiar, but is it too familiar?

For Brain & Brain’s Burly Men at Sea, they promised a great reliving experience. After playing through their folktale adventure, which you can play through again to explore different regions. Each playthrough is assigned a code and is depicted as a book in a digital bookshelf. What you can also do is go to their website and enter the code and be sent a printed book of your personal playthrough.

But, the art, while the same, was different enough in places that I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing key moments again. This is an example of what Donald Norman calls “the gulf of execution” – when the actions that we provide do not correspond to the intentions of our users. Not meeting the promise.

But if we as creators know what our players are expecting, we can nuance the emphasis between the familiar and unfamiliar accordingly.

Kentucky Route Zero has “interludes” which are games and stories and plays that happen between each digital game Acts.

The most recent features liveaction video footage of the local community television station and a digital game of the video. Having the same event juxtaposed in these two artforms, you can’t help but look for the differences and revel in them. The creators are very aware of the players experience of these projects and rewards them with lots of intertextual references between these two works.

In the live action video, Rita for instance mentions we probably already met the guest Maya, an allusion to us having met her in the game. These references go further, to not just all the games, but also as Robert Yang spoke about on his blog, to meta player discussions.

One thing that Cardboard Computer also do is use a lot of the “inhabiting promise”.

There are two key ways the inhabiting promise can be met, the promise to be inside the created world.

Inhabiting can occur via transportation to a created world. Or it can happen when the created world transports to our world.

It is being able to explore the alien world of Pandora at a theme park.

Or being able to enter the painting of Vincent van Gogh’s “The bedroom”, as the Art Institute of Chicago offered when they teamed with AirBnB.

So you transport away from your world, and immerse yourself in the created world.

It is the installation for You Must be 18 or Older to Enter, where the conceit is: “You’re alone at home, and you heard about this thing called porn at school.”

This installation at SlamDance has you set-up in a room. The nifty thing about this experience is that on the other side of the “window”, there were people getting their photo taken. So when the game suddenly takes over with loud porn groans you literally experience the momentary panic or embarrassment at being caught looking at porn. So the key mechanic of game is there in an embodied experience.

The reverse transportation is when the created world enters your world, the player’s world.

An example is Question’s The Magic Circle, which is meta-fictional game where you play the protagonist in an unfinished game. You can wander through the unfinished world, and hear the trials of the designers stuck in development hell. Now the company Question have the usual website and press-kit, but they’ve also created the website for the fictional developers, their social media and their own press releases. The world overlaps our own.

There is Jacob’s Paradigm game, a surreal adventure game set in a strange and post apocalyptic Eastern European country. Jacob has the protagonist existing on Tinder, there is a travel guide for the fictional country and book on the fictional religion, and you can get the floppy disk for the game (one of 356 floppys) which of course doesn’t work. But we have the nostalgia promise operating here. Now I have bought the floppy disk, but not the game yet. So this is an example of different artforms appealing to different people, but also potentially being a conversion tool.

There are so many examples of the inhabiting promise, the Alan Wake Files book you can buy that is credited to the in-game author, the play in Kentucky Route Zero you can buy that is credited to the in-game character, the PipBoy that you could buy too.

In fact, this inhabiting promise is such an allure that in the upcoming Star Wars theme park there are areas where you will only get in-fiction merchandise.

The Walt Disney Imagineering Executive Creative Producer Chris Beatty explained that “in order to create truly authentic experience that felt like you were on a planet from the Star Wars universe, they’d only sell certain merchandise, and that merchandise was based on the idea they are made by characters […].”

Here we have both of the inhabiting promises: created worlds we can go to, and then can take home to our world.

The Shaping Promise is something different. We all know fan fiction, and the creations fans make in response to your creative projects. You have no control over that. Players do that if they want.

But when you as developers facilitate it happening with creative projects, you’re working with the Shaping Promise.

It is the promise of being able to make the project more like us.

An example is mods.

And recently we have one with the Game Master’s Toolkit Defiant Development have offered for players to make their own encounters and full challenges. Which they said they knew their community would want.

It is also the experience of figurines – which can be a way for us play out our own adventures with the characters we love and want more of. Like Boba Fett and even Maisy.

Indeed, you could conceivably say that the more of these promises your offer and deliver on, the more you are likely to appeal to a range of players and keep them.

I have mentioned some key ones today, not all.

So when you’re deciding what media you’ll choose, it isn’t about what the big studios do, or even what artform is popular necessarily. Everyone may be doing graphic novels, but it may not be of interest to you personally, or fit your gameworld.

The key we’ve learnt here today is to not decide purely based on the object, the media. The critical aspect that will make or break the design of your indie game franchise is to think about what your players are looking for. They’re looking beyond your media to something else. To the revealing, reliving, inhabiting or shaping promises you signal.

But, lastly, there is something even more powerful than all of these. It is the ultimate multiplier.  It is something that once again operates in all artforms, because it operates in all people.

It is the Values Promise. The promise of giving the player something they believe in being.

Shalom Schwartz, in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Marketing, explains how our values have been shown to influence our career choices, our political persuasions, our feelings of wellbeing, and for us now, what entertainment we choose to engage with. He researched the recurring values happening across 20 countries and has published the results, which I use in my design.

Indeed, Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, talks about the importance of “relevance” in drawing visitors in to museums. Nina warns that “It doesn’t matter how powerful the experience is inside the room (the museum) if most people […] choose not to enter.”

Nina explains that you need to think about your visitors, think about why they come to you, what value they get. “The more you start to matter to people, the more they will desire opportunities to go deeper […] They will come back and ask for more.”

If you don’t think about Values, they’ll still be there. They will default to the values of the status quo. But if you consciously think about them, they may be different and will resonate with players.

Take David Reilly’s Everything. You have the game, the 10 minute gameplay film the soundtrack, and the Alan Watts recordings made for the game.

Throughout all of them are the values of “Self-Direction: Independent thought and action—choosing, creating, exploring” and Universalism: Understanding, appreciation of all people and for nature” for example.

You can be introduced to the values of the game through the film, you can purchase the soundtrack to the game to relive the game. And you can also purchase the recordings to take those words and listen to let them change you.

Creating your own indie franchise is possible. You experience lots of artforms everyday as players, it is time to practice it as designers.

Resist all the forces holding you back.

The secrets have been right in front of us.

Indeed, if we look even further back at the history of the term franchise, beyond commercialisation rights, we find that it derives from the French verb franchir, which means to ‘go beyond the limits’ of something, ‘to jump over’, ‘to cross a threshold’, to ‘give liberty to’, to ‘make free’.

So go forth and free the artforms you have inside you and make that indie franchise.

Thank you for your time.

I Love Playful Testing

Many of you will be familiar with playtesting, or at least testing.

You sit there with a notepad and pen, watching players play your game. You write observations, you may get the players to “think-aloud,” and then afterwards you interview them, and then debrief with your team.

Tracey Fullerton describes playtesting as “something that the designer performs throughout the entire design process to gain an insight into whether or not the game is achieving your player experience goals.”¹

I understand the importance of having player experience goals, and testing to see if they are being reached. It is a key aspect of great design: to know where you want your players or your audience to end up, then retroactively design towards that; and test whether it is happening; and tweak until it is reached. Of course, the nature of the project changes in this process too.

But what if the testing was less about how our design is working, and more about how anyone’s designs are working?

I’m talking here about facilitating a playful mindset in our testers, so they shape the game in a way that brings them more joy and satisfaction.

My thinking is heavily influenced by at least two things: the monthly Remote Play sessions I’ve been running, and (the recently departed) Bernie DeKoven.

Remote Play Sessions

I run two online studios for a Masters program, and another to train studio faculty. And for the past 10 years, all my projects have been collaborations with interstate and international colleagues and clients. I can count on my hand the amount of times I’ve done co-located projects. It is normal for me to do remote work, and for many indies and studios alike.

One thing that is critical (and almost completely ignored) is the importance of team bonding and trust in the online environment. A big part of facilitating that is playing together.

But not many online games translate well for this, as they’re often competitive and anti-trust, or with high levels of skill as a barrier to entry.

So for the past few months I’ve been running an online remote play design group, where we come up and test games teams can play with each other online (via Zoom or Skype). The group began with colleagues from a lab and community I co-run called Forward Slash Story.

Most of them in this group aren’t professional game designers, and so I needed a way to guide their design while at the same time ensuring we were enjoying the process. We also don’t have much time, and so the iteration and feedback cycle needs to be pretty short.

So what I facilitated are Designing-Testing sessions. We’re designing the game while we’re testing it.

This is actually a bit common with tabletop game testing. It is so easy to make a quick change, that if something is broken you can quickly tweak to keep the play happening.

But thinking back, I was first introduced to this design-during-play approach by Tassos Stevens in 2011. He took us through playing games and changing them as we go, as a way to learn design. (I recently wrote a play review of Bernie & Tassos’ A Game Legacy.)

And this is just what a playful mindset is.

Bernie DeKoven’s “Well-Played Game”

Indeed, this is what life-long play-advocate Bernie DeKoven explained in one of my favourite game development books ever: The Well-Played Game

For Bernie, “playing well” means this: “When we are playing well, we are at our best. We are fully engaged, totally present, and yet, at the same time, we are only playing.”

Indeed, “the well-played game is a game that becomes excellent because of the way it’s being played.”²

The key is, players are enjoying the experience so much they’ll do anything to keep playing together. Like a game of ball-in-the-air, we end up taking big leaps and give each other easy lobs to collectively keep the ball in the air.

Remember back to a time when you’re really enjoying a game with others; and they just missed putting their piece down on the board by a split-second, or their foot missed the mark by a touch, and you all decided to let it happen? That is when  you’re more interested in playing well than winning.

Bernie explains how we do this: the times we give hints to help our fellow players, have fair-play rules, allow small cheating, boundaries, bases and safe zones, time out, interference, and so on. These are the ways we can try and keep the game going.

Then we can also decide to adhere to the rules, but change what those rules are. As Bernie says, “it’s easier to change the game than to change the players”³

We change the rules by bending them, borrowing them, handicaps, and scoring. A post by Bernie a few years ago has some ways to change a game:

(“Seven Ways to Make Almost Anything More Fun” by Bernie DeKoven, Major Fun, Matt Weinstein, Elyon De Koven, Jon Jenkins)

But during these sessions, we’re not thinking about rule changes. We’re just thinking about whether it is allowing us to play together.

For instance, we want to do something while someone is taking their turn, so we invent a rule for what we can do during that time. Or we make it harder to draw so we come up with more awkward pictures, and so on.

I have found that it works once you set up an environment of trust, along wtih friendliness.

As for suggesting ideas, it isn’t just the kind of “Yes, And…” improv situation that many of you will be familiar with (where you enthusiastically go with every idea put forward). Instead, we put forward quick justifications for why we think a design tweak would be good. If people respond positively to the idea then we go for it, or if people aren’t sure then it either becomes a “let’s try it out” scenario or another idea is proposed, and so on.

What I love is that:

  • We’re not waiting until after the testing to hear from the players about what they think worked or didn’t, or their ideas. We’re seeing and hearing it in the moment.
  • With this open design/playful design, the players are more likely to let us know what isn’t working. They’re not rationalising afterwards (though of course your interviewing and observation skills can counter this).
  • I enjoy the testing, and have my ideas pushed in interesting ways.
  • It helps to pry our tight hands from around the project, and be open to any ideas.
  • We end up having a great play experience, no matter what condition the game started in!

When To Use?

I haven’t widely applied this approach as yet (I’m keen to though), and so my guesstimate for testing scenarios are:

  • As a design-learning tool with designers and non-designers
  • At the early stages of testing (first playtest etc)
  • When you’ve been doing too much self- and confidant testing
  • You need to check on your confirmation bias (we are twice as likely to see confirming information than disconfirming information, seeing our player change the game will make the latter overt)
  • When you’ve hit a stalemate with your design
  • To stress-test your design with unusual uses
  • To inspire updates, DLCs, expansions, or new editions

Of course, this kind of testing is easier with multiplayer, live games, low-fi prototypes, and tabletop games than digital games (and especially when they’re further down the pipeline). But there may be ways around the asset manipulation issue too.

Consequences

This approach dispels the idea that the game is the end-product. That it is in a state of incompleteness–it isn’t the game–until it is finished.

What if the playtest is the experience? It certainly is for the players.

It repositions the active forces in the creation process to include all present.

It opens up ideas for your game that are outside your current idea canvas.

It facilitates a design approach that is less about producing a product, and more about the lived experience of life.

It facilitates a mindset that the world can be changed. As Bernie DeKoven said:

Learning that it is possible to change the game – that, for the sake of creating something a little more fun together, for each other – might very well turn out to be fundamental to our collective survival.³

 

If you’re interested joining these monthly remote play session, contact me in Facebook or elsewhere. Just about everyone in the group has had a go at running a session, so we’re about to open our doors to whomever wants to play! We’re online, and so worldwide is welcome (we currently have New York, Austin, Sydney, and Brisbane player-designers). You can join our Facebook Group to play or design games to play!

References

  1. Fullerton, Tracey (2008) Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Designing Innovative Games, 2nd Edition. Burlington, MA: Elsvier, Inc, p. 248.
  2. DeKoven, Bernie (YEAR) The Well-Played Game. p. xxiv.
  3. DeKoven, Bernie (2016) It’s Easier to Change the Game than the Players, DeepFun.com

Feature photo from Scotland Now, no photographer cited.

The Two Markets: Finding Your Kin

“The reasonable person adapts themself to the world;
the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to them.
Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable person.”

George Bernard Shaw
“Maxims for Revolutionists”
Man and Superman (1903)
[pronouns changed]

The way we make and what we (and our audiences) find appealing about our creative projects has changed dramatically, for those who have changed dramatically themselves.

This is an insight I came to while doing “customer discovery” for my forthcoming book & design kit. I’ve gone from not thinking about why my audience is drawn to my projects, to drawing on common wisdom on audience appeal, to finding common wisdom an echo from a cranky past, to testing appeal, to discovering an appeal that is beyond what we’re taught. 

It is a realisation of a market, an audience that is coming to light in the wake of cumulative worldview shifts, and one that makes it possible to find our kin.

  1. The two christmases
  2. There is no spotless mind
  3. Mass media and mass appeal
  4. Customer discovery & testing
  5. Appeal testing
  6. Discovering my audience & me
  7. The two markets
  8. Targeting your kin

1. The Two Christmases

It was just before the Christmas holidays. The world seemed to be counting down to the vacation break. But there were some people, like myself, who were frantically trying to get their creative project released before it was too late.

This creative project was a major one for me. It was my first original project after spending a few years consulting and freelancing in a new creative area. I had said yes to just about any project that came along so I could learn everything I could. It meant I sometimes worked on projects that were just not me.

I had spent years working on a PhD at the same time too. But when my mum suddenly died from a brain aneurysm weeks before I was due to submit (and weeks before a previous Christmas), I put it on hold. I put it on hold while I tended to the coroner’s inquiry, funeral, house-packing, and deep pain of the mother-daughter journey stopped. Then I went back and completely rewrote the PhD to address the problems everyone was debating. I couldn’t see a way to discuss what I really wanted to, because people in academia and industry alike were still debating if it existed. They were also asserting what it was by drawing a tiny circle. So I rewrote my PhD to not talk about what I saw, but to try and move the discussion from where it was. I didn’t succeed.

This creative project, however, would be mine. It would be what I wanted to say. It would be my way of transmogrifying my heartbreak and epiphanies about death into a weirdly unique creative gift.

I had been homeless for over a year so I could channel all my funds into the project (don’t do this, it doesn’t reduce costs…it costs you and your project). I did pet sitting, and crashed at friend’s houses. I was living out of my car and it was exhausting. And now, these last few weeks before Christmas, I was down to my last 100 bucks and finally had all the project assets in place.

I had some colleagues testing it, but not many. Not everyone we added as testers downloaded it, so I ran out of chances to get feedback pretty quickly. The feedback we did get was fine. Some were excited, and some were saying it worked. No major problems it seemed.

I needed to get funds in quick to pay for some more promotional work, and I personally needed to see what people thought of it. My plan was to release, and then as people play I could make any necessary tweaks and use the sales to promote harder.

So I soft-launched the project. I emailed everyone who had supported it with crowdfunding, and colleagues. I messaged them all and posted in social media.

I put it out to the world.

And then…

…hardly anyone downloaded it.

Not even the people who had prepaid for it in the crowdfunding campaign. And hardly anyone posted about it. Some did. But hardly any.

I realised that all those lovely and generous and wonderful supporters during development were encouraging me, not the project. They liked the idea, but not enough to buy it or even just play it when it was sent to them.

That shouldn’t matter though. It was my job to find people who wanted it, and it was my job to produce something good.

I felt I had let them all down. I had let myself down. I wasn’t making anything meaningful to contribute to this world.

And…how could I be so blind-sighted by this tepid response?

I took a job teaching. I decided to heal in a cave for a bit, and find out how I could do it better.

I had put so much time and effort into the project, but of course there were things I already knew would improve it. Indeed, looking back, I launched too early. I should have taken a few more months to fix the things I knew needed fixing. But for some reason I had in my head that it was more important to release “on time” than wait until it was ready, and I was dead broke.

I never expected to open to a bare room though. And so since then I’ve been working on how to make a better project, and importantly figuring out how I can know beforehand if anyone gives a shit about it.

 

2. There Is No Spotless Mind

Of course, I started my journey into the market logic of my projects with what I had unconsciously soaked up from all the stuff around me.

There is what I gathered from being an audience member, my decisions about movies and TV shows and games and books based on what I liked about a poster, billboard, Facebook post, trailer, and Netflix thumbnail. There is what I keep learning through making, the requirements of funding bodies and financiers. And there are studies, industry books, and industry discussions.

I was always in two minds about it all though.

On the one hand I had this assumption about the way it works, and how people tell me it works, and on the other hand, a great unease with it all. This unease was not just because I didn’t have access to the same resources, but was due to the shaky premises the economics were built over. I feel I’m being complicit in a great untruth.

So when I hear people talk about that tension, people who actually have their projects at stake, I sit up.

Ted Hope has produced independent films such as The Wedding Banquet, Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind and Adventureland, and is now the Head of Production at Amazon Original Movies. In 2013, he was seated on stage for a panel at the TIFF Industry Conference (Toronto International Film Festival) (1). The panel was on financing and packaging films, that is, about the ways films are funded and the role of the ‘package’ of stars involved in selling a film to stakeholders and the audiences alike. But importantly, Hope spoke about the disconnect between the film ecosystem of the past and the one we find ourselves in now.

He explained how America has a market-driven entertainment economy (which is also beyond America too), and this ultimately corrupts a creative’s work in some way. We all suffer, he says, when “content is designed to sell first and foremost as opposed to advance the culture”.

I remember thinking, we can say these things in finance panels, and not be relegated to the “this person does not understand reality” box?

Then the economy collapsed, Hope continues, and “many filmmakers across the world started to kind of shift [to] that ambitious type filmmaking.” Yes, and Hope has worked to nurture these kinds of films, “films that get to have that privilege of stepping outside market-demands as a place to start and try to focus on their own ambition.” In moments like this I wonder if it is possible that we, I, can make projects that aren’t designed to sell first, but do actually sell?

But the problem, Hope pauses, is that there is an overhanging film ecosystem that runs counter to this kind of filmmaking. In the past, “there was a scarcity of content and you were able to control that content and direct distribution and you could focus people’s attention to those movies, [but] that’s not the world we live in.”

So what happened? And why does this ecosystem cast a shadow?

 

3. Mass Media and Mass Appeal

I grew up viewing TV, with that limited set of channels assigned to us, and making the regular trek to see a movie at the theatre. I saw movies post the birth of the first blockbuster, Jaws.

For many of us, watching television and movies was about being spoken to by characters and news and talk show hosts as if we were all the same. Apparently we had the same interests, needs, laughed at the same jokes, and wanted to look the same way. My viewing was on the one hand a study of the world and how it thinks, and on the other hand a lesson on indoctrination.

Indeed, in my 20s, driven by curiosity, I tried all the things I was told how someone like me would succeed in life. I got skinny, dyed my hair blonde, got a full-time job, learnt to drink, bought the latest fashion, and had sex with people I was meant to be attracted to.

It didn’t work.

There is no end-state to that lifestyle. You’re always trying to be better at it: earn more, buy more, look more. It is a lie, there is no peace or satisfaction. There is no success, just lots of people feeling validated they’re doing the right thing because there are lots of other people doing the same thing. Everyone is looking to the side at each other, and no one is looking where they are going.

But still, there was the idea that there is a one mass of people. TV and film was made as if it was talking to everyone. Indeed, the ultimate film to make is a four quadrant movie. That is, the film appeals to four demographics: male, female, above the age of 25, and below the age of 25. So adults, kids, and (only) 2 genders. Examples include Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park.

In 2013, the same year as Hope’s panel, Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, was published (2). Elberse, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, put forward data and case-studies to argue that the blockbuster is good business and will continue to be.

Beginning her argument with Alan Horn, then president and chief operating officer of film and television at Warner Bros., and now Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Elberse relates how Horn sees the logic of the blockbuster. Horn explains that it isn’t counter intuitive to spend more money on making a film, even though the consumer pays the same ticket price no matter the cost. You still need to get people to the theatre, he adds, and you do this through higher costs:

The idea was that movies with greater production value should be more appealing to prospective moviegoers. Audiences respond to movie to stars, but those lead to higher costs. Audiences respond to special effects, but those lead to higher costs, too. And you have to let audience know you are there with your movie—really market it as an event—but that of course further adds to the costs. (Horn in Elberse, 2013, p.1)

So what Horn did, Elberse explains, was “single out four or five so-called tent-pole or event films—those that have the broadest appeal—among its annual output of around twenty-five movies” and give them the biggest production and marketing budgets.

Now, we are still seeing blockbuster films, and games. Our Marvels and Star Wars are earning big.

Yes, they appeal to a lot of people.

But as Hope spoke about, this kind of mass appeal thinking was closely connected to our experience of mass media. Before there were more options available, we all had to watch films and TV shows from the small range of options available.

We were a captive audience.

But what we’ve found is the assumption that comes with that “mass appeal” is wrong: a status quo viewpoint is not critical to that success.

Black Panther, and Wonder Woman are two examples of mass appeal that are not the status quo…or not the status quo of the past. Movies that tick all those appeal boxes are not appealing to all, and TV shows are being cancelled because of behaviours that were once considered status quo.

As Hope explained, we’re in an era of abundance and choice of media, rather than scarcity and captive audiences. People have more choice, and stars, sequels and spectacle are not the only attractors (and stars perhaps are less so in the context of character-based appeal). The system hasn’t adapted to the different ways people are making and choosing films, TV shows, and games.

The system being utilised is from a different context.

In 2005, I remember reading new media marketer Joseph Jaffe’s book Life After The 30 Second Spot (3). In that he explains that consumers can no longer be reached through mass media technologies such as TV because of the “continued fragmentation and proliferation of media touch points and content alternatives” (p.284). This was foretold in the 1970s & 80s by futurist Alvin Toffler, when he spoke about “demassification” (4), and in Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte posited that broadcasting will collapse and be replaced by an era of narrowcasting and niche media on demand (5). Then even more recently, Chris Andersen explained in the context of his ‘long-tail’ theory (6) that “the era of one-size-fits-all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes” (p.5). As Alan Andreasen summarises for us (7):

It seldom makes economic and tactical sense to treat a target audience as one monolithic community. There are a number of reasons for this. First, a “mass marketing” approach ignores the considerable variety within most target audiences and underestimates the likelihood that they will clump together strategically in meaningful ways. Second, given this variety, a single approach is either so broad as to be ineffective or it is targeted at one dominant group and not meant to meet the interests of and needs of a great many other valuable targets. Third, given this variability, it is also likely that some target audience members will be more appealing than others, and some deserve to be ignored altogether. [NP] Thus, in principles, an optimal strategy is one that aims the most appropriate approach (e.g., a relevant, impactful message and behavorial option) at each target individual or group and that spends no more campaign resources than the segment merits (which might mean zero). The one-strategy-fits-all approach defies market reality, private sector experience, and the need to optimize small budgets. (Andreasen, 2006, p.104-5)

Indeed, we as creators can choose to ignore the status quo, and reach others.

So we’re seeing a disentangling of notion of a single mass media being linked to a single mass appeal. But the shadow of a single mass appeal is still cast over many. It is an idea that persists in studio and indie thinking. Saying that isn’t the only way is like yelling at vacuum cleaner.

There wasn’t always a single mass appeal anyway. Some of the movies I saw as a kid were ones that dared to capture the zeitgeist, such as Kramer vs. Kramer. My mum, brother, and I cried all the way from the cinema, as we were a single-parent family from divorce, suddenly seeing the pain we tried desperately to keep hidden from the schoolyard, right there on the big screen.

We can reach more people in different ways, with different messages.

Perhaps I could actually create projects that people care about? But how?

4. Customer Discovery & Testing

I mentioned at the beginning that I’ve been doing “customer discovery”. This is different to the testing we’re more familiar with. In film, for instance, there are test screenings. They happen when the film is done (or mostly done); scuttling in audiences to give their feedback with enough time for some last minute edits. In music a band may put together a demo, to see if they can attract a contract and perhaps get thoughts from peers. Comedians test their TV or show material at improv nights. Trying out bits to see what gets laughs and what doesn’t, and explore how to stretch it further. In games, there are testing stages through most of the project: technical testing, playtesting, usability testing, and so on.

These are all about the aesthetics (how it works and how it affects). But what about appeal? How can I find out if my project will be downloaded when I release it? How can I find out if people give a shit, or that I’m making something meaningful to people?

There are things that as writers (and designers) we’re told (either by clients, employers, industry books, or society) that people find appealing.

You have to use X genre, X actors/studio/personalities, with X partners, and so on. I do believe in the power of genre, but that is about meeting expectations, not about choosing the same action structure to get the cash in.

So I’ll be making all these decisions about how my project is constructed. So how do I test whether these are actually appealing? How do you do that?

It was actually from the startup scene that I learnt about a kind of testing that isn’t about the experience of the product necessarily, and happens very early in the process. It is called “customer development,” and was introduced to the wider community by Steven Blank (7) and popularised by Eric Ries with the “lean startup model.” (8) Blank was trying to understand why his own startups failed, and why others did and some didn’t, and realised a key factor:

So what is it that makes some startups successful and leaves other selling off their furniture? Simply this: startups that survive the first few tough years do not follow the traditional product-centric launch model espoused by product managers or the venture capital community. Through trial and error, hiring and firing, successful startups all invent a parallel process to Product Development. In particular, the winners invent and live by a process of customer learning and discovery. I call this process “Customer Development,” a sibling to “Product Development,” and each and every startup that succeeds recapitulates it, knowingly or not. (Blank, 2006, p.iv)

What Blank discovered has since been evolved into the notion of “customer discovery” (and now “continuous discovery”). That is, finding out if you have a customer for your product before you finish your product. Before you’re down to last 100 bucks.

This is where the “lean” part comes in. Customer discovery is about finding out as early as possible if you have a customer. The lean part is about doing it quickly and cheaply. Don’t spend too much time or money until you have an idea of what people are interested in.

I actually had Blank’s book while I was working on project that bombed when it hit the proverbial shelves. I had previously ensconced myself in the startup scene in Sydney, running the first BarCampSydney events and soaking up everything I could find online. I even hired startup mentors to guide me through the beginning part of that project, because I wanted to release the custom technology we were going to develop at the same time.

But the thing is, most of the processes for customer discovery in the product space are utilitarian-driven. They’re about products that have utility, like an App to help book a restaurant. And so you test whether your product will solve a specific everyday problem.([I’ll note that the area is developing to think about problems, desires, and opportunities—hat tip to the ever insightful Teresa Torres.)

Indeed, I tried startup and product approaches and kept finding the feedback I was getting wasn’t always hitting the mark. The conversations were always about the features of my project, research into the existing market buying the same genre and tech, and so on. It was all about solving a problem that lots of people have. It didn’t matter what was happening at a deeper level. Just like the conversations about genre, stars, and spectacle, it was all about a shallow appeal.

I was finding out how it was answering a superficial need, not moving the soul. So I put customer discovery to the side and ended up spending two years on a project that launched to the sound of a handful of downloads.

The notion of “continuous discovery” is intriguing to me though, especially after seeing what happens when you ignore it. And so since then I have been investigating how to draw on this seemingly golden insight in the artistic context.

5. Appeal Testing

If you’re in my social network or have been to one of my talks, you will have come across my testing. Besides product testing my design kit, below is an overview of the testing I have been doing to see if my project appeals to people (and why), to discover if I have an audience and who they are.

Testing the table of contents of the book. Titles need to communicate what they’re about in some way, and lure you in. So I would print out the table of contents and show people. I’d ask them to share their thoughts (the think aloud method), and they’d mark the ones that they’re really excited about, the ones they don’t understand, they ones they’re not interested in. Then we’d have a talk about what they think it is about. I was interested in what they were projecting onto the chapter titles.

Testing book titles. The book title is also something that needs to explain and lure. I have done so many iterations of this (and will continue to do so). I’ve tested them in different ways. I have tested the title in the table of contents. Over dinner when colleagues have asked what the title of my book, I have shared whatever one is my latest with them and gauged their response and advice. I have tested by posting in Twitter and calling for feedback, and iterating with the feedback. I have bought multiple domain names and tested the mini websites by giving them out at talks and workshops. I gage interest by how many follow through, and then by how many subscribe to the mailing list.

Testing with talks and workshops. I have been giving guest lectures, industry presentations, and industry workshops on techniques from my book and design kit. With these I test the pitch, the framing of why to use the techniques, the names of the techniques, the description of the techniques, examples of the techniques, and activities to use the techniques. It isn’t enough for me to use the techniques, I also need to see how others use and understand them. I want to see what parts resonated, and catch unpredicted interpretations and uses. I have also been doing blind-testing workshops, which means I pass on the materials and other people teach without me there. This is how I see if they work without me, with other viewpoints joining in.

It is with the talks and workshops in particular, with the titles of them and who came to them, that I’ve learnt the most about who my project appeals to, why. I also discovered there are people I don’t want my project to appeal to. I don’t want a broad appeal. I’ll tell you about it.

6. Discovering My Audience & Me

One thing I talk about in my book, and do in practice, is see appeal of a project as more than what the genre is, or the content concerns. A key factor is why each of us personally connect to it. What role does the film, book, game, have in my journey of life, in me understanding my being?

In order for me, as a creator, to meet this deeper audience interest in my work, I need to know what it is about. Questions about theme, genre, and values are what help me with that process. What I am trying to say with the book? What is the journey I want my readers to go through? What human values are important?

A big factor too is thinking about the afterlife of the project. If it is a success (in whatever form that takes), then I will be giving talks about it, spending time with clients, making more stuff to go with it, and so on. It needs to be something I want to keep spending time with, and something that will keep enriching me. It needs to be a continuous exploration rather than one that ends on the last page. To continue being interesting to me, it can’t be just what I already know, it needs to combine what I know with what I still want to know more about. So the core idea, the core question, needs to be something that cannot be answered right now.

Once I have that new core idea, I need to test that with audiences. But this is where the rubber really hits the road. This is the most difficult because I can’t just pitch the core insight. The insight they’ll get at the end of the book is different to the reason they come to the insight. I know what happens at the end of the book but my audience doesn’t. I know the change they’ll go through, but they don’t. For most of them, they live in a world that doesn’t have that end-point in sight. Otherwise there would be no need for the creation.

Indeed, the key aspect of customer/audience discovery for me is bridgework. This is seeing the connection between what I’m offering and what my audience is interested in. What we both find appealing. I am part of the equation. It isn’t just what my audience is interested in or the problems they face, it is also what I am interested in, what I am choosing to offer and to whom. I find this is something often missing from the world of product conversations. The personal of the audience, the market is there, but the personal of the creator is left out.

But how can you connect what is appealing to you and what is appealing to your audience, if we’re not in the same place? I need to create a bridge from where they are to what they can see in the distance. I’ll be taking them further than what they can see, but I need to angle their interest in a way so it is in the direction I want to take them…and they want to go.

You see, we need to find some commonality between us in order to connect. But we’re also in two points of time. What you’re doing as a creator then is figuring out a way for multiple moments in time and space to co-exist. The one you’ve created, and the ones of your potential readers. And this is the kicker: it is hard to keep the truth of the new reality while also reaching other realities. Most don’t. They just make it appealing to where the audience is, in a manner that counters the truth of where they should end up.

Let’s take the title of a podcast from TED’s “WorkLife” by Adam Grant: “How to Trust People You Don’t Like“. The episode is about how trust is facilitated between astronauts. It is a great discussion, citing many helpful studies and techniques you can use to facilitate trust in your teams. Trusting people you don’t like is one part of that discussion.

But can you see what that title does? It says: you live in a world with people you don’t like. We all feel that. So it has “universal appeal.” What it is also saying is: we live in world where there are people we don’t like, so here is a way you can live with them. It says how do you live in the world the way it is?

Indeed, the episode is in many ways a discussion about how to live in the world where nothing changes. The techniques to trust each other take us some of the way into understanding each other more…therefore tiptoeing us towards a different kind of world. But ultimately, it ends there. Then, unusually, there is an extra bit at the end of the podcast. A small segment about the “overview effect.” The discussion is considered outside of the focus of the episode but too fascinating to share.

The thing is, the extra segment is about the effect of looking at the world as a planet, and how that changes our perspective. So this is where the audience could have ended up, and indeed they do. But the episode was structured around an appeal to the way the world is in a manner that doesn’t make it possible to include the intended end point. They couldn’t find a way to structure it from the time and space starting point that chose, and the end point they discovered. But the title, the lure, didn’t need to appeal to the way the world is (a world in which there are people you don’t like, a world where trust is an issue). Instead, it could have been pitched as something that connects to a goal, an audience, that is greater than that.

So, the hard part is deciding what their starting point is. What audience mindset do I appeal to? The market logic of our recent past, that ghost system, tells us to make it appeal to the status quo. Make it something everyone can relate to. This is what I’m suggesting that podcast did, and in fact just about everyone does. Indeed, I’ve been doing it as part of my customer discovery process. And this is how I found out who I don’t want to appeal to.

Last year, I pitched a talk to the Narrative Summit at the Game Developers Conference. Held in San Francisco, the event is the largest industry event for game professionals in the world. Thousands turn up. The title of the talk I ended up giving is “The Secrets of Creating an Indie Game Franchise.” That wasn’t the title I pitched, or the fourth or fifth. But it was one that matched what I was talking about while also appealing to the audience brief of a *young hungover game devs who may be new to the industry*.

As I’ve said, this is a remarkably common approach: offer something both experts and non-experts would find interesting. It becomes more universal then. But what universe?

The talk went very well. (I will be sharing the speech on this blog shortly.) But what I realised in some of the follow up conversations from that talk and other workshops and labs I’ve given, is that the pitch you give may make it appealing to people who aren’t after the same things as you.

I was meeting great people, and having great conversations with colleagues, and booking new clients. But I discovered I was also having to produce more materials for people who didn’t share the same foundations as me.

I found that there are certain things I had to explain or argue.

There were people, for instance, that needed to be convinced to be interested in making Art.

People that haven’t thought about how Art & commerce affect each other.

People who don’t feel that having themselves in their project is important.

People who don’t have something to say.

People who don’t care if they maintain harmful systems

People who don’t want to change systems.

And even just people who had never thought about the area I was talking about, and wanted me to reach into their mind and click on a switch for them.

I thought that maybe I have got it all wrong? Maybe I have to appeal to where they are at?

Maybe I have to go back in time to before I made all these decisions about my creative practice?

Maybe I have to go back in time to before my project bombed, before my mum died, and before I decided to try and do something meaningful in my life?

Maybe I won’t ever make for someone like me?

But in reflecting on all the things we’ve spoken about so far, I realised that the key aspect I’m testing for is not whether anyone is interested, but who in the world I want to be speaking to.

The more ideas we can think up, the more satisfying our lives will be.
Alex Osborn

 

7. The Two Markets

What I’ve found is that there isn’t a single “mass appeal”.

It isn’t helpful to me to think about four quadrants, millennials, tech enthusiasts, thrillers, nostalgia, stars, and so on.

Nor is it just about being non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-transphobic, and so on.

No, it is something that encompasses these, and more.

It isn’t the case of one big mass appeal and then tiny niches of alternative ideas.

There are actually two mass appeals:

For the first, the-way-it-is, market. They value what is commonly agreed upon to value, which means they’re usually more extrinsically-motivated.

The world is binary. Winners and losers, males and females, nerds and jocks, good and evil, rich and poor/rich-aspirational, and so on. Girls do X, Boys to X. People are attracted to X.

They also see world as being set in stone, as a fixed entity that you can only win or lose at. Indeed, so far, based on my observations and conversations with colleagues who are these folk, they think they’re just above the ones they’re depicting. They’re not in another reality, they think they’re winning at the reality they’re depicting; and anyone who isn’t submitting to the reality they see as losing. They do not perceive a choice. It is often unconscious therefore.

For me, the the-way-it-is-market, applies to both the way my audience views creative practice, and the world. They’re the ones that go with the echoes of past business models and economic structures. And they’re the ones who don’t see harmful structures,  see no harm in maintaining those structures, or just don’t think they can change them.

For the second, “the-world-you-choose” market is for people who realise, for various reasons, that there is more than what is being offered. That even though a lot of the world is structured to support the pervasive reality, it isn’t the only option.

There are options.

I’m interested in people who know there is a choice in how you see the world, and what you do and think in this world. I am one of those people, and I design for them.

I can tell a movie, TV series, game, book, album, or play when the creators involved don’t realise there is a choice. They’re creating in a bubble that they think is the only reality. But it isn’t the only reality. Indeed, I get excited when I see others talking about different ways of seeing, such as adrienne maree brown in her book Emergent Strategy (10):

I love the scene at the end of The Matrix where Neo sees everything in green-on-black code. Emergent strategy is a way that all of us can begin to see the world in life-code—awakening us to the sacred systems of life all around us. Many of us have been and are becoming students of these systems of life, wondering if in fact we can unlock some crucial understanding about our own humanity if we pay closer attention to this place we are from, the bodies we are in. […] This book is for people who want to radically change the world.” (adrienne maree brown, 2017, p 2-5)

But what we’re taught is that an effective route is to go with pervasive existing realities or mental models as a way to lure the most people in. Put males in leads to get the audiences through the doors. Appeal to people’s vanity, their sense of competition, their need for status, and so on.

That world isn’t the only option though. The default world is not the only world. And there is a mass of us that choose a different kind of world.

8. Targeting Your Kin

Thankfully, since coming to these realisations, I have found existing strategies to do this. I love finding studies and people that are already doing what I want to do. It helps me putting my argument forwardas a woman, I often find my views are not considered valid without other voices supporting itand it makes me feel less alone. Alan R. Andreasen, in his great book Social Marketing for the 21st Century, talks about the ways we can target people who are open to change, and help influence that change. So his book isn’t about social media marketing like I thought at first, but about social change marketing.

One of the concepts Andreasen talks about is how marketers direct their campaigns to people at different stages of change. Ideally you want what is called “high involvement” people (11)—people who have been thinking about it and searching for answers. Building on the work of social scientists, Andreasen puts forward his own four stages of change as follows:

Precontemplation: a large amount of the target audience, who don’t think about the behaviour change, the different worldview. They don’t think about it because they don’t see it, or they don’t want to do it, or think they can’t or it isn’t applicable to them.

 

Contemplation: this is the audience that are thinking about doing the behaviour change. Early contemplation audiences are considering the benefits, especially to them personally. Late contemplators know what the benefits are, but they’re now finding the costs in their front of mind.

 

Preparation and Action: These are people that have thought through the behaviour change proposition and are ready to act. They haven’t taken the action yet because they may have some self-doubt, lack of opportunity, or just needing a final push.

 

Maintenance: This stage is if the behaviour change, the action, is more long term. For these people, there is the need for assistance in the repetition of behaviour, or the need for a deeper change of self to become a different person.

 

Writing and designing for any of these stages requires different strategies and tactics. A precontemplation audience is very different than the other stages, and one that marketers rarely target. Indeed, I it would take the creation of a whole different set of materials to try to appeal to the people who either don’t see it or have already provisionally rejected it for whatever reason.

I am also less interested in the contemplation stage too, as my efforts are directed towards how to do things once you’ve decided to make a change. So how do I ensure I’m not appealing to precontemplation and maybe even contemplation audiences?

I have found that when I use concepts and terms that are crouched in the pervasive existing reality (“the-way-it-is-it”), I appeal to precontemplators and contemplators. Talks and workshops are especially helpful for identifying this, as you get the instant feedback loop if content isn’t matching where the audience is at and what they’re expecting.

Indeed, when precontemplation and contemplation people are faced with ideas that are for people who are ready to take action, their pre-action concerns need to be addressed first. They need to have it explained that it is a thing, and that there are people in the world who have already chosen to do it. Or they may just want to argue against it, because they’ve already chosen to not do it. Or they need to have their cost fears addressed.

At this point, I don’t want to spend my creative energies now or for the next few years in trying to convert these people. They may at some point in the future change their mind, but I am not putting my energy into facilitating that.

For those at the precontemplation stage, I don’t think others can either. It needs to come in some part from themselves, if they want to. For those at the contemplation stage, they can be addressed by other creatives. These pre- and contemplation-stages are important, but they require different strategies and tactics. Which means I’m creating a different set of materials and also a different onboarding process.

So, now I write down what stages of change I’m targeting, and what accompanying views and behaviours I want them to have already considered. And I change my titles accordingly. For instance, this article was originally titled “The Two Markets”, but I added “Finding Your Kin” to make it clear who I’m calling out to, and conversely signalling to others this may not be for you. It also include “market” discourse because I’m living in both worlds, and we’re in transition.

So what I’ve found is that it is not just about certain post-contemplation views on artistic practice that I’m aiming for, it is also about people who not only realise the world can be many things, but want to facilitate that understanding and ability in others. Ironically, in a world packed with blockbusters about saving the world, and reality shows about transforming your body, love life, and home, most avoid the ultimate transformation of themselves. That takes longer than a few months. For those of us who are walking this journey, to transform ourselves and our world, making projects for males and females over and under 25 doesn’t cut it. We’re going further. And my 100 bucks is not for busting blocks, but building blocks. 

“It is the function of art to renew our perception.

What we are familiar with, we cease to see.

The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and,

as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”

Anais Nin

 

My great appreciation to Paul Callaghan for giving feedback on a recent version of this article, and Ellen Jurik for giving feedback on an early draft!

Illustrations by Marigold (Goldie) Bartlett – for my forthcoming book and design kit.

Bibliography

(1) Hope, Ted (2013) “Financing & Packing: From Indie to Studio”, TIFF Industry Conference,  (published Youtube 13th march, 2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1_2ZBkr4Wg

(2) Elberse, Anita (2013) Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

(3) Jaffe, Joseph (2005) Life After The 30-Second Spot: Energize Your Brand with a Bold Mix of Alternatives to Traditional Advertising, Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

(4) Toffler, Alvin (1970) Futureshock, New York: Random House. Toffler, Alvin (1980) The Third Wave. New York: Morrow.

(5) Negroponte, Nicholas (1995) Being Digital, London: Vintage Press.

(6) Anderson, Chris (2004) The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, New York: Hyperion.

(7) Andreasen, Alan R. (2006) Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

(8) Blank, Steven (2006) The Four Steps to Epiphany, 2nd Edition, CafePress.com.

(9) Ries, Eric (2011) The Lean Startup, New York: Crown Business/Random House.

(10) brown, adrienne maree (2017) Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Chico, CA: AK Press.

(11) Celsi, Richard L., and Jerry C. Olson (1988) The Role of Involvement in Attention and Comprehension Processes, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 210-224.

 

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