Repeatable Success

by Mike Shea on 1 April 2013

"If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

- Carl Sagan

My good friend Dave the Game wrote an excellent article entitled Get Bit and the Tabletop Effect describing his experience in getting his game, Get Bit, on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. In it, Dave makings the following quote:

With that in mind, I get asked relatively often how it came about. It's not a story that I think is duplicatable for other game designers (though I'll tackle that question specifically later), it just might provide some insight into how it all came about, and how having some advantages plus working hard plus getting lucky can lead to some pretty cool things.

Dave does a great job covering how his game got picked up by Wheaton and Tabletop but there's a bigger point in the statement he made I want to discuss and that's recreating success. I would argue that the type of success Dave saw with Get Bit is repeatable with a simple plan:

Start making awesome things and keep doing it for ten years.

Note that I said simple, I didn't say easy. Making something that really gets people's attention isn't just luck, it's a lot of hard work building up skill and building up a reputation for delivering awesome things.

Stefan Pokorny and Monty Cook

Another good friend of mine and I were talking about the Dwarven Forge Game Tile Kickstarter and he asked how we could get in on something like that. I told him "easy, we start by running a successful gaming company for the next 18 years". That's what Stefan did to get $300,000 in Kickstarter funds in three days. Stefan has worked hard over the past 18 years learning his craft and producing the best 3D fantasty terrain available. He has struggled with it for a long time, connecting with his tribe at conventions like Gencon for nearly two decades and he's likely run into quite a few of rough patches along the way. I'm guessing it's never been easy.

It takes a long time to build up the skill and reputation to make something truly remarkable. It takes time and effort learning how to make awesome things and building up the reputation to be successful in an attention economy.

That's exactly what Monte Cook did with Numenera, a Kickstarter that pulled in over $500,000. Do you want to pull in that sort of attention (and dollars) for your RPG product? Simple. Start publishing remarkable roleplaying games and do it for the next twenty years.

Here's an interesting thought when we consider the attention economy and Monte Cook's time at Wizards of the Coast working on D&D Next. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes on his departure but I bet Wizards didn't pay him $500,000 to work on D&D Next. The value of his reputation has a clear quantitative measure and I bet it was worth more than Wizards was willing to pay him. Whatever his reasons for leaving the D&D Next team, I'm betting it ended up as a good business decision in the end.

Good is What People Pay For

It's easy to argue against the drive of the masses when looking at what is valuable and what is not. Some shitty movies end up pulling in a lot of money while some great ones get ignored. In general, value is a very easy thing to determine: value is what people pay for.

Stephen King says it best in his most excellent book On Writing:

"If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented."

The creative world is in a much better spot than when King wrote this. We live in a wonderful age where corporate middle-men no longer determine what people see, hear, play, or read. Nothing stands between you and a billion people except the quality of your work and your ability to market it. Twitter, Amazon, Kickstarter, Lulu, and even Facebook (ugh) all help you get your art in front of people. Sure, everyone else in the world is trying to get attention but even your post apocalypse novel can compete with the Walking Dead if it's remarkable enough.

What makes your piece of art remarkable? What makes it different and cool and interesting in the eyes of your audience? Why would they spend their time, attention, and money on your thing when so much else demands the same? If people aren't buying your thing, it's a lot less likely that you don't have the visibility you need and a lot more likely that it's not worth people's attention. If you want attention, you have to create something remarkable. Not just good — remarkable.

How do you make something remarkable? Work at your medium of choice over and over and over again. Ship. Get it out there. Know your tribe. Get good honest feedback on your work.

The Luck Factor

The easiest argument against these ideas is that luck plays a big factor. It's the same argument I bet Stephen King hears about the light bill quote. Somewhere there's a guy in a little cabin writing the best science fiction novel ever read but he'll die of an embolism and the novel will be eaten by crows before we ever get to see it. Bullshit, I say.

Dean Gilbert, the guy who knows why you're so miserable all the time, has a fantastic TED talk entitled why we make bad decisions that touches on why we might fixate on these stories of lost genius. We suck at really understanding the odds because we fixate on individual stories instead of the bigger picture. Let me spell it out for you:

It's far less likely that your genius is going undiscovered than it is that your work simply isn't that great to begin with.

So much less likely that we shouldn't even pay attention to it at all. Instead, get better at your craft, make some stuff, get it in front of people who will care about it, and then make more stuff.

Back to Wil Wheaton

Looking back at Dave's original article, it is true that his process isn't repeatable. You're not likely to get your game about sharks and dismemberment on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop show. Luckily, Tabletop isn't the only way to get your work seen, heard, and played. There are an infinite number of paths to success. If you work hard, work for a long time, and end up making lots of awesome things that people care about, you'll get the attention you deserve.

In the mean time, it's time to get back to work.