Product versus art

 Posted by (Visited 18991 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 102012

Yesterday, I posted about ways to improve free-to-play games, which got one commentator to say that I was comparing traditional designers to creationists, and free-to-play designers as evolutionists. A science versus religion debate, in other words.

Well, that was not really my intent. Let’s say instead empiricists versus intuitionists.

That said, I think an important takeaway, which echoes my earlier post about dogma in programming approaches, is that taken to an extreme both approaches can be dangerous. After all, religion misapplied led to holy wars, and science misapplied led to eugenics.

The spectrum in the case of games might perhaps be seen as intuition leads to art, and empiricism leads to treating games as product.

Are either wrong?

Let’s start thinking about this by considering the extremes. I’ve been promoting and defending the idea of games as art for a very long time now. But even in some of the oldest of those essays, I’ve argued against overly self-conscious, pretentious art:

…it’s sort of fashionable to put down being artsy, these days. After all, the public’s image of art is religious icons dipped in excrement*, it’s tediously boring French films, it’s dumping cases of type on a page and calling it poetry. These days, you can read about Art (with a capital A, of course) and substitute in this phrase: “pretentious, incomprehensible, shallow, manipulative, boring crap.” Why sign up to defend something that has that rep?

Well, it’s a valid rap. I have no tolerance for artsy crap. I find pretentious, overly craft-driven, self-referential, obscure, tangled, and weighty books to be garbage. Same for movies. I don’t like most foreign films. I think it’s the problem with poetry today. It’s why jazz lost its audience. Why nobody cares who is writing the Great American Novel.

(*All apologies to Andres Serrano, because actually, Piss Christ is real art regardless of how provocative it is or disrespectful it is real art is often quite disrespectful!)

On the other hand, I’ve also at length made the case that taking the notion of product to an extreme is bad business, that in fact the right way to approach a customer base, particularly one you hope is a long-term one, is to woo them, romance them, and build a relationship.

The discomfort many have with free-to-play models, which they express with words like “soulless,” is precisely that they see free-to-play as already having crossed the line to seeing games entirely as product. All you have to do is taken a look at the comment threads here, on Twitter, and on Google+ to see that.

The thing is, this is a spectrum, not a binary choice. Shakespeare wrote his plays to make money. Robert Heinlein, beloved of geeks, got started writing because he saw a chance to make $50 in a writing contest, and famously argued for rewriting little and keeping manuscripts in circulation until they sold. Dickens was paid by the word, and man, it shows. These ae all cases where we can say that art emerged anyway. But perhaps we should look at an example that is far more product-centric than that: the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Edward Stratemeyer was absurdly prolific, creating piles of well-known children’s book series: Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tom Swift… I could go on. And of these, his greatest creation was probably Nancy Drew, a titian-haired teenage girl detective who, along with her friends Bess (the “plump, timid one”) and George (“the tomboyish one”) and sometime boyfriend Ned Nickerson (“the fish’s bicycle”) solved mysteies in her native town of River Heights, and eventually all over the world.

Few would argue that the Stratemeyer Syndicate approached these works as product. (For a modern equivalent, we may perhaps look to James Patterson). Edward Stratemeyer’s method was to write summaries of each book — outlines, and sometimes less — and farm these out to writers to actually write. They worked for hire, did not get authorship credit, and could be shuffled across multiple book lines. There was no single “Carolyn Keene.”

Even further, once he passed away and the Syndicate was run by his daughter, the books were rewritten, sometimes mildly and sometimes with the entire plot discarded. The editing process here has gradually simplified the books, along with removing racism and period references. This has led to a thriving collectibles market for the original editions.

Nancy Drew changed with the times, and most argue, not for the better. You see, she was a perennial bestseller for literally multiple decades. She was born out of the early suffragettes, she became a feminist icon that inspired the likes of Gloria Steinem, she was put into a series of bad movies in multiple decades, was parodied, and in general had enormous cultural impact.

Many prominent and successful women cite Nancy Drew as an early formative influence whose character encouraged them to take on unconventional roles, including Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor;[130] journalist Barbara Walters; singer Beverly Sills;[131] mystery authors Sara Paretsky and Nancy Pickard; scholar Carolyn Heilbrun; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; former First Lady Laura Bush;[10] and former president of the National Organization for Women Karen DeCrow.[132] Less prominent women also credit the character of Nancy Drew with helping them to become stronger women; when the first Nancy Drew conference was held, at the University of Iowa, in 1993, conference organizers received a flood of calls from women who “all had stories to tell about how instrumental Nancy had been in their lives, and about how she had inspired, comforted, entertained them through their childhoods, and, for a surprising number of women, well into adulthood.”


In other words, Nancy Drew managed to do what we want from art.

It isn’t really surprising though, to read a book like the truly excellent Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak, and learn that really, the driving force behind Nancy was a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson, who managed to write the first Drew books many many of the later ones while coping with dying husbands, newborn babies, a thriving journalism career, and flying airplanes until she was in her 80s. She passed away an active working journalist at the age of 96. And even the person who edited the stories that many fans regard as having diluted the original conception of the character, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, was a suffragette when she was younger, a graduate of Wellesley, and managed to take over and successfully run her late father’s business for decades and also raise a passel of kids.

It is undeniable that some of the qualities of these women’s lives made it into the books, these books that were perhaps meant as mere product, books built to a very rigid formula of a fixed number of chapters with cliffhangers at the end of every one. Works tailored to the science of children’s book writing, as best as it was understood at the time.

In reading Rehak’s history (which I really can’t recommend highly enough), it becomes clear that there are specific approaches that were established by Edward Stratemeyer that in fact did push away from product. The biggest of them is the clear sense that he cared about his readers. He answered their letters by hand — letters coming in from all over the country, everywhere the underground trade in syndicate books took place across backyard fences and in empty stickball lots.

If anything, the decline of Nancy Drew over the years can be traced back to one thing above all: the sense that those who handled her, over time, came to care more about what Nancy Drew could do for them, as a business, than they did about what Nancy Drew could do for their readers. Harriet Adams came to see Carolyn Keene as a personal alter-ego, and it hurt the books. The last time the Drew franchise was “reimagined” for print the current owners of the property had her as a boy-crazy shopaholic teen. That version is off the market now, whereas you can still buy reprint editions of the original texts from the 1930s, cloche hats and roadsters and all.

Where does this tie back to games as art versus games as product? It’s simple, really.

When you create something thinking first of how it will benefit you, you are making the kind of product that people call “soulless” or “unethical.”

When you create something thinking first about the value it will provide the customer, you are doing the thing that builds lasting loyalty.

Make no mistake, providing value to the customer is the heart of a lasting business. It’s one of the things that metrics measure poorly. And it is the direction in which art lies.

The simplest measure I can think of is to ask yourself whether your product is building a community. If it is, you have managed to tap into an emotional relationship. Measure away, and be as empirical as you have the will to be. But do not forget, ever, to nurture that little flame of real connection — the fan letters, the dogeared books, the fan conventions, the many things that show that really, you don’t own this particular piece of the landscape.

Oh, you may own the franchise rights. But Nancy Drew really belongs to those that read her, and you cross those passionate people at your peril. In the long run, the stewardship of something like this offers far far more monetary value than creating anything disposable. It is where product meets art.

Don’t do things for your sake. And don’t do them for the sake of Nancy Drew, either. Do them for the sake of the little girls who grew up to be strong women, and the lasting impact and connection you will have to those customers, people, fellow journeyers, and friends.

  5 Responses to “Product versus art”

  1. “The discomfort many have with free-to-play models, which they express with words like “soulless,” is precisely that they see free-to-play as already having crossed the line to seeing games entirely as product.”

    Yes and no. I’ll start with the very first thing that snatches a knot in my tail: FREE to play. The term is disingenuous. These games are not free, by any stretch of the imagination. I see the term itself as a betrayal.

    I think the business model is predatory and designed to nickel and dime customers, if not Jackson and Grant them.

    When I read about “successful” games, all people are referring to is the amount of money generated. So when people rave about the success of FREE to play over other models, they are lauding the fact that it makes more money. To me the switch to F2P is kicking the chair out from under subscribers in hopes of catching the customers prone to dumping lots of cash into a game, sometimes to their (or their parents) detriment. Am I against making money? Of course not. But I think FREE to play is exploitative.

    I find it curious you don’t think this way, but you think advancing using levels is exploitative.

  2. Free to play is disingenuous. Games like OGame have been on this kick since like 2005. They also give you “deals” where they give you “extra” points at higher prices. The trick is that points cost them literally nothing! There isn’t even the production and materials costs that businesses dealing in real world goods have. Not only do people have problems processing tiny transactions as adding up to large amounts. Secondly “free” and “bonus” are words that have been shown kept people from processing the actual value of the product. Its similar to gambling. Gambling is illegal in the US. But the law doesn’t recognize that since virtual items have cash value, spending money on random result items in games doesn’t count. It should
    Raph is a really smart guy and I think he has some great things to say but he appears to be really naive about marketing.
    Not that games are the only people manipulating you in exploitative ways but, they have a huge advantage in a lot of areas over other industries.

  3. I totally like your redefinition of “good” vs. “evil”. Unfortunately it uses the operative word YOU (a.k.a the creator) in there. Actual companies are made up of countless individuals, some of which you never even get to meet (like the investors). Obviously some of those *are* in it for their own good.

    So the real question is how to push this “for-the-customer” philosophy up the foodchain. The devs often enough embrace “customer-first” (dangerously supposing their personal view of a customer), but feel management just wants their blood. Some managers ALSO embrace “customer-first”, but have strict deadlines and profit lines they need to meet so don’t really have as much freedom as others would think. The investors want first and foremost a good ROI, but do like the fuzzy feeling of investing in a “fun” company that entertains people.

    Raph, you’re in management, a big fish at Playdom. So is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you get this view to spread?

    I don’t mean to sound negative, I realize that social games are still in their infancy, their gold-rush, grab-the-money-lying-on-the-street-before-everyone-else-does phase. When this settles in a few years and the short-term profit-only methods start to collapse (or, more likely, to saturate), then I am sure the industry will adapt as every other industry has done in the history of the world and there will be balance between short- and long-term interests. But, just as you point out in your previous post, I doubt this change will come from philosophical analysis done beforehand. It might only come once the METRICS dictate it. Will you tell us when that happens?

  4. My way of pushing it to happen faster industry-wide is to write blog posts like this one and to speak at conferences about the benefits of longer-term thinking. And if you look back at posts on this topic and on marketing in general, you will see I have been pretty vocal about it.

    I do think that the change you mention is already happening, as a consequence of the price of development rising.

  5. A man in a bar asks a woman, “Would you sleep with me for a billion dollars?”

    The woman says, “Sure!”

    The man says, “Would you do it for twenty bucks?”

    The woman says, “Of course not! What sort of girl do you think I am?”

    “We’ve established that,” says the man, “Now we’re just haggling.”


    And with apologies for the misogynistic tone of the joke, that’s what it feels like sometimes to be an artist. People want to see your work, you want to show them your work, but you get hung up on the question of compensation.

    Giving it away for free is fun, sure, but fun don’t pay the mortgage.

    So you haggle with yourself between the unsullied essence of your vision and an expression of that vision that will pay the bills.

    But… funny thing about art: sometimes working within arbitrary constraints pushes you to learn how to make better art than you would without constrants. And marketability is no more of a constraint than six strings or acrylics on canvas.

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