You know that Ashton Kutcher video that’s circulating around? It’s the one where he says that he’s never been too good for any of the jobs he’s had, that opportunity always looks like hard work, and that none of the people around you are smarter than you so you should be able to do anything they can do with hard work. So I teach a music class over the summer called Stairway to Stardom. This is the 18th year I've taught it. At the end of the summer (Sunday, a week ago), it ends in a battle of the bands where all the students performing in their bands play at the Crest Theater to about a thousand people.
This year, the surprise guest was Frank Hannon, lead guitarist of Tesla. Ok, he’s usually the “surprise” guest every year. He’s on tour, but he flew to Sacramento just to talk for 5 minutes on stage to inspire the young participants of the program. His message was fairly simple and one I've heard him say before, but it would make a great addition to the Ashton Kutcher video.
There’s always someone better than you. It’s easy to give up and think that no matter what you do, you’ll always be out classed. And as Frank explained as a young musician once himself, he was always surrounded by guitar players that could out play him. Instead of being intimidated by them, he would listen and learn from them. When I was a young musician and struggling to get my band playing in the better clubs, performing in local music festivals, and seeing other bands that had the connections I never seemed to be able to make, I’d offer to work for those bands. I’d build or improve their websites for them, I’d roadie for them, I’d pass out flyers for them, and I would learn and make some of the same connections they made. I saw first hand how they promoted themselves. I saw the types of connections they made and why. Eventually, I was able to get my band Stigma playing in big venues.
Something else that’s important and related to this. Every artisan has a skill level and a potential level. The more disappointed you are in your current skill level, the higher your potential level is. The day you are satisfied with your skill level is the day you stop improving. If you’re really doing well, each time you hit a milestone(thus increasing your skill level), you’ll realize there’s more things you don’t know and will have to get better at, thus your potential goes up.
This is an interesting dynamic because the closer your skill level is to your potential, the more confident you are. That being the case, confidence is then completely unrelated to skill. This is probably what Ashton was hinting at--just because you think people around you know more than you (because they’re confident) that isn’t always the case. It can be an incorrect assumption to assume just because someone is confident, that they know what they’re doing. I think this is a big part of why talentless people of low potential end up becoming bosses--they just seem so confident.
This reminds me of Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi proclaimed he was the wisest man on Earth. Socrates thought this was impossible, because he didn't know anything. He didn't know anything because he realized the more he knew, the more he realized he didn't know. He decided to go to others that were thought of to be wise. When he spoke to politicians, he soon realized that they believed they had all the answers, even to things they couldn't possibly know. He soon realized that because their minds were shut, that they couldn't possibly be wise, and thus he challenged the very idea of what wisdom meant. By questioning society and proclaiming that politicians were fools, he got himself executed. And yet, it’s his name that we all know, not the names of those that executed him.
How does this relate to the game industry? Well, it’s not the big companies that challenge conventional wisdom. It’s the small indie studios that do. Maybe 90% of the time these new ideas fail, but they’re small enough that they can regroup and try again. When that other 10% hits and that thing everyone else would tell them would never work, is successful, then the big companies copy them. The big companies aren't uncreative. It’s just that when you have a huge payroll to meet each month, taking gambles on new ideas means people get laid off.
But as a side note, the artisans with high potential that fail, are more likely to assume they failed because they’re just not good at what they’re doing. The higher their potential, the more insecure they will feel and the more insecure, and thus, ready to quit at the first sign of failure. It’s those with low potential that have confidence and are less deterred by failure. This is a sad dynamic because it means in the long term, that the mediocre will be successful and the brilliant and talentless both will give up early. This is why it’s often important to find others that believe in you, even when you don’t, to encourage you to keep going.
Putting all this together, if you’re an indie studio because you grew up playing games from big game companies and you want to create that same experience but with 0.1% of the budget and without all the expertise, maybe you might want to rethink things. As Frank Hannon might say, move to where the big companies are so you can learn from them. As Ashton might say, no job, not even a minimum wage game tester job is beneath you. So start on the bottom and work up.
If on the other hand, you’re disappointed in what games are out there and want to do something unconventional, you might have the right mindset to go indie. So if you’re unconventional and consistently unhappy with your work, but still driven to get better, you’re probably on the right path. Don’t give up.