Monday, May 18, 2009

Career Advice for Teachers and Designers: Do, Don't Show, Don't Tell

There is something that has taken me many years to learn, after observing a number of other game designers and the systems that affect their careers. It boils down to something like this:

If you have to tell everyone how great you are, then you're not.

The best designers do not have to "self-promote" within the industry, because they have worked with other people who respect them enough to be their willing evangelists. As soon as you spend too much effort trying to build yourself up, that is precisely when the rest of the industry will gleefully tear you down. If you feel unappreciated, like you're just not getting a fair shake and you're not getting the attention and appreciation you deserve, it is because there are so many talented people out there competing for that same attention. Best move is to be patient and not overreach; yes, you will feel underappreciated for awhile, but in time your good work will come back to you.

If, by contrast, you spend a lot of time and effort convincing people that you're God's gift to game design, the worst possible outcome is that you succeed in your efforts. And then you're given a project that is beyond what you can handle. But you won't realize it, and you'll take the entire project down with you, and your co-workers will not thank you for their pink slips when the studio closes.

The same rule applies to teachers, but in a different way.

There is a temptation as a teacher to drum up attention for your classes. You want students to know that you're teaching all these cool classes about video games. You want enough students taking your classes that it proves to the higher-ups that there is demand and that they need to throw more resources at your program. You (and probably your boss and boss's boss) want "butts in the seats" under the assumption that if only enough people take these classes, they'll see how awesome they are and spread the word.

This leads to a similar problem as with the industry. If you promote your classes, you will get some students who either feel compelled to take them by your high-pressure tactics, or you will get students who are largely unmotivated and assume that "game class" equals an easy A. Neither of these students really wants to be in your class, nor will they try particularly hard.

In the long term, I'm thinking that the best way to promote your classes is to spend all your time making your classes a great experience. If the classes are that awesome, your students will evangelize for you, and they'll do it better than you can. Your initial class population might be lower, but it will also be more motivated and energetic because those students had to do some work just to take the class -- they had to find out that it was there, and they had to read the course description and probably talk to their advisor to see if this was for real, and they had to sign up on a leap of faith without encouragement from you. These are the students you want in your class.

In both industry and academia, this is the advice I would give:

Spend your time doing great things. Don't spend as much time showing or telling about your work. Let others discover it for themselves.


Seth Burnette said...

Great. Now you tell me after I've set up a blog to trumpet my awesomeness.

But seriously, how can a person not look like they are showing off in our age of transparency and continual self broadcast?

Ian Schreiber said...

Seth: great point. I guess what I should say is, don't make yourself look better than you actually are.

Take a look at some of the people in the industry that are doing amazing things, and how are they presenting themselves. A lot of times, you'll see people start a blog post with something along the lines of "this is what I'm working on, I know it's not perfect, but I wanted to put it out there for discussion". They will talk about how that brilliant theory they posted last month was completely ripped apart by their friends over dinner. They're willing to admit that they are not right all the time.

Basically, there's a fine line between sharing your (potentially flawed) work and thoughts in the interests of information sharing and cultivating discussion... and using your work as a way to convince other people of your greatness. In both cases you're making a post, but the tone is subtly different, and people notice.

Mark Sawyer said...'re saying we should NOT follow in the footsteps of a certain Daikatana developer?

Arnold Hendrick said...

Sid Meier wasn't very well known until Bill Stealey started putting his partner's name on the boxes (as in "Sid Meier's Pirates!" or "Sid Meier's Civilization"). Then, when he had a mega-hit, everyone knew him. In short, marketing IS part of game designer name recognition.

Now Sid is actually a nice, unassuming, pleasant fellow. That makes him a rare bird among "famous" game designers.

There are also quite a few brash, loud, ego-centric, self-promoting designers. It has been conclusively demonstrated that if such people are significantly associated with a hit game, they can parly said association into funding for at least one gigantic game effort. Little details like ignorance of what they're attempting, putting relatives and pals on the payroll, or having a drug addiction problem are ignored.

Of course, these gigantic efforts invariably collapse like a house of cards. The egomaniac rarely gets the opportunity to make the same mistake again.

The moral of this story is that if you want a long career in the game industry, being quietly competent is the best strategy. If you want a chance to be on center stage and have suitcases of money, the winning strategy is being a lucky egomaniac. Of course, you could always play the lottery instead.