2016 Indie Soapbox Talk

Line for the 2016 Indie Soapbox, via DamienKieken

I gave the following talk at IGS 2016, as part of the “Indie Soapbox” panel, where ten independent game designers speak about a current issue in games for five minutes each. Matthew Wegner asked me to do the talk, and told me the prompt was “whatever’s been on your mind a lot these days.”

This is an incredible time to be making games. In this talk, I want to discuss two ideas that make me very grateful to be able to make games right now, and if there’s time I want to share a poem with you.

The first idea comes from political campaigns.

On political campaigns, one of your most important tools is the voter roll. This is a list of all the people who might vote for you, and you rank them from a -3 to a +3. A -3 is someone who strongly supports your opponent, a zero is someone who’s undecided, +3 is someone who supports you.

To people who don’t work in politics, it seems intuitive that you would spend almost all of your time on the campaign talking to the zeroes, trying to convince the people who are undecided. In the business this is called, “persuasion.” But this is a losing strategy, because in the time it would take to get one zero to vote for you, you could get ten +3’s. You don’t win an election by convincing the most undecided voters. You win by getting the most people to vote for you.

This is always how I’ve approached my own work in games. Just like political candidates, every game will have some people who hate it (your -3s), some people who don’t care (your zeroes), and some people who love it (your +3s). Just like on political campaigns, you can find people who don’t care about your game and at a great cost of time and money, you can persuade them to try it. You can literally spend all day arguing with eggs on Twitter. But if you make a living as an independent artist, your +3s are your bread and butter. You need them to survive.

Here’s the second idea in this talk.

I think that in the future, it’s going to get a lot harder to talk to your +3s. One game that I make, Cards Against Humanity, has an email list that’s growing very quickly. These are our die-hard fans, our +3s, people who have asked us to email them when we have a new product. We treat this list with an incredible amount of respect: we only send two or three emails a year, and we work really hard to make sure they’re funny to read and tell people about new information.

But as our mailing list has grown, in the last few years, our open rate has gone from about 90% to about 50%. We’re pretty sure that this is because of Gmail’s multiple inbox feature — our emails are getting sorted into the mailing list inbox, and people aren’t just seeing them. In fact we often have fans email us who are angry that they DIDN’T get an email from us after a product launch.

And it’s not just email lists. We have about half a million Facebook fans, but when we post something funny, Facebook says, “Mmmm, maybe we could show this to… three thousand people. Unless you want to pay.” They’re like the mob. “Pretty nice page you have here, it would be shame if anything happened to it.” Twitter too, they’re switching to a filtered timeline, so you’ll have to pay if you want all your followers to see your tweets. My friend Charles Adler, the co-founder of Kickstarter, calls this “the gentrification of the Internet.”

Everyone in this room who makes a living as an independent game designer relies on being able to get the attention of our +3s for free, or very cheap. Of course there is a marketplace for consumers’ attention, and big companies like EA or McDonalds spend millions of dollars to promote their games in that marketplace, using television and billboards. But we’re doing it for free in a different market. In economics this is called an arbitrage — we’re taking advantage of the fact that an asset, people’s attention, is trading for different prices in different markets.

That makes this an incredibly exciting time for independent art and games, because we’re all able to talk to our +3s for free, and get thousands of dollars of publicity out of a tweet. But the least successful indie developer in this room is doing a lot better than Twitter — Twitter has lost $2 billion since launching in 2006. Something’s got to give.

So of course this moment won’t last for long, capitalism abhors a vacuum. I don’t want this talk to be a downer, but I do want to just take my five minutes to appreciate how good things are for those of us in this room, right now. If there’s time, I’ll share this poem with you. It was written by Frank O’Hara. He died young, at 40, but he wrote this poem when he was even younger, at 24.

ANIMALS by Frank O’Hara
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Thank you for your time, I am so grateful to be here with you tonight.

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