You Should Be Participating
What a fan-made video game hack taught me about how I tanked my YouTube company
Author’s Note: I sold my ownership stake and resigned my position as CEO of Team Four Star in early 2019. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views and opinions of T.F.S. Entertainment LLC or any of its current owners or employees.
My YouTube company, Team Four Star, was failing, and I didn’t understand why.
In Dream Job Burnout, Thomas P Seager, PhD writes about how people who actually attain the “dream job” of professional YouTuber or Twitch streamer often find the reality much more challenging than the dream would imply.
Burnout is a real problem and the causes, which Tom and I cite in that article, are also real. YouTube’s algorithm is notoriously fickle. The pressure to release new content is stressful and the instability of a boom-and-bust business can make even the booms feel precarious.
But none of that was my problem.
My problem was that I fundamentally misunderstood what kind of business I was in. I thought I was in the media business. My company produced YouTube videos.
That’s the media business, right?
I was not in the media business. I was in the community business, and I was bad at it.
In the early days of YouTube, it became a fad to post shortened parodies of popular anime series called “abridged series”. The barriers to entry were low. Anyone with a cheap microphone and some pirated video editing software could create an abridged series, and the YouTube platform made it easy for us to share our creations.
The series themselves were universally amateurish, but that didn’t matter. We were having fun pushing the boundaries of what could be done with our slapped-together setups and untrained talents. We made sly references to one another’s series, which became inside jokes and elaborate crossovers. The audience delighted in following ridiculous plots that required knowledge of a half-dozen series and the personalities behind them to fully appreciate.
When a group of us decided to pool our talents and form an “abridging super group” called Team Four Star, it seemed like the next logical step. We now had the best editors, writers, and voice actors working together, specializing in what we were best at. Production values improved until, by around the second season of our flagship series, they were indistinguishable from professional media.
And that’s where it all started to go wrong. We thought we were on the right track. We were making the media better. Everyone wants better media, don’t they?
That’s not the highest priority in a participatory culture, which is what the abridging community had been.
The highest priority in a participatory culture is for members to make meaningful contributions, and we were taking that away by raising the barriers to entry. Instead of building a participatory community, we were modeling ourselves after our heroes in traditional media, who seemed to us to occupy positions distant from and above the audience.
Funimation is the company that makes the officially-licensed dubs of many of the shows we parodied. Their company slogan, spoken in a conspiratorial whisper every time their logo appears, is…
You should be watching.
What an incredibly shitty slogan that is.
Not, “You should be participating.”
Not, “You should be co-creating.”
Their directions are, “You should be watching.”
Sit down, shut up, and passively consume what we give you.
This was the company I was emulating. I was telling a community that was accustomed to being co-creative partners in the media they loved, “Sit down, shut up, and wait while we make you more media to passively consume.”
And the waits were getting longer and longer. By the end of the first year, Team Four Star had reached a sweet spot where most of the rough edges had been sanded off, but we were still able to release content at a reasonable pace without killing ourselves.
That sweet spot didn’t last long. We wanted to be like the big boys in traditional media, so we continued to push the production values to heights no one had ever actually ask for, and our release schedule slowed to a crawl.
Nobody outside our closed circle was telling us, “This needs to look and sound better.” They often did tell us, sometimes more and sometimes less politely, “it sure would be nice if this came out more often.” But we weren’t listening. Instead, we dismissed and belittled that feedback.
And I wondered, at the time, why the audience so often seemed actively hostile.
My “ah-ha” moment came when I read Infinite Remix: The Story of Link to the Past Randomizer, in which blogger sab0tender uses Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture to examine the community that has sprung up around a fan-made video game hack, called ALTTPR for short.
Jenkins characterizes participatory culture as having:
- Low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.
- Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others.
- Some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.
- Members who believe their contributions matter.
- Some degree of social connection between members, including caring what others think of what they have created.
The code for ALTTPR is open-source and freely available. Anyone with the knowledge to do so can design, implement, and share new features. Those without programming skills can contribute in other ways, such as creating music packs or volunteering to help organize the community’s yearly tournament. Contributions are shared on the community Discord server — a persistent online chatroom with thousands of active members. While playing ALTTPR well requires in-depth knowledge of its nuances, the community is welcoming and friendly to newcomers with questions.
Sab0tender is right on the money: the ALTTPR community is a participatory culture in every sense, and it’s that “participatory” distinction that I credit for the community’s explosive growth and the deep loyalty and investment of its members.
It’s possible, though, for a participatory culture to morph into another familiar kind of culture: a consumer culture in which a tiny minority create content and a vast majority consume it.
That’s what had happened to Team Four Star.
Consumer culture is not always a bad thing. I recently attended a charity event called Awesome Games Done Quick. It’s a week-long marathon in which skilled gamers play through video games as fast as humanly possible for a large audience which pledges money to charity.
While it’s not a for-profit event, it is a consumer experience. A small minority of people put on a show for the large majority, whose involvement consists mainly of consuming that content.
This year the event raised over three million dollars for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. That’s a good cause and an amazing accomplishment, and I don’t mean to belittle the good that consumer cultures at that scale can do.
I didn’t attend AGDQ for the charity event, though. That can be experienced by watching the live stream from home. I was there to meet people, to learn more about the community, and above all, to play and co-create.
On my first night, just as I was heading back to my hotel room after touring the convention floor, my phone buzzed. A name that I recognized from a previous online event had just posted an open invitation on the convention’s Discord server. Was anyone interested in a pickup game of Multiworld, a popular multiplayer branch of ALTTPR?
I thought of ignoring it and going to bed. I’d been traveling all day and could use the sleep.
But then I thought better of it.
Sleep be damned, this is what I came here to do.
Multiworld is a complicated beast — a hack of a hack — and it took nearly two hours to get the game set up and some technical issues resolved. That would never happen with a professional product, something with more polish. Something with more “production value.”
But while the other players and I waited, we started chatting. I recognized other people from online and I introduced myself.
This was why I had come. Not to consume a polished product; I could do that at home. I came here to connect with people who shared a common interest. The lack of polish in Multiworld not only didn’t get in the way of that connection, it actually facilitated it.
Part of the reason ALTTPR fascinates me is that it represents a compare/contrast with my background in the YouTube abridging scene. Both arose from participatory communities of fans who aren’t content to passively consume the media they love: media that is owned by large, conservative Japanese corporations. They want to be involved in the co-creation of that media.
And while I (in retrospect, foolishly) restructured the friendly, open abridging community into a closed, hierarchical, exclusionary company, ALTTPR remains open and welcoming.
Even after Team Four Star pushed the abridged series’ production values to the point where only a select handful could keep up, we kept pushing our technique to a point that was, frankly, masturbatory.
Meanwhile, we neglected to spend time and energy mentoring newcomers to the scene. We saw anyone operating in a space we now saw as “ours” as competitors, not collaborators and community members.
This not only increased our workload and stress levels, it also distanced us from the community we sprang from.
Going down Jenkins’ checklist:
- We had raised the barriers to artistic expression.
- We weren’t offering support for anyone outside our closed circle to create and share their creations.
- There was no system of mentorship whereby we shared what we had learned.
- Members felt their contributions didn’t matter.
- What social connections did exist were hierarchical; we treated ourselves as beneath the “real” professionals at companies like Funimation, and yet somehow above our own community.
Not only were we not serving the participatory community we had sprung from, but we had outstripped our own ability to deliver content in a timely manner, alienating the new consumer audience we’d attracted.
By contrast, when the level of skill at the annual online tournament central to the ALTTPR community became so high that many people couldn’t meaningfully compete, a secondary tournament was organized for lower-level players, giving everyone the opportunity to participate, regardless of skill. And when even that started to seem intimidating, a third tournament, called the Mentor Tournament, was organized that explicitly paired brand-new players with experienced coaches.
ALTTPR hasn’t sacrificed quality to keep their community open and accessible, but they haven’t sacrificed their community out of blind perfectionism either.
While talking with folks in the ALTTPR community to research this piece, one developer mentioned feeling guilty because he thought he “ought to polish the randomizer’s current problems instead of innovating new stuff.” Another idly wished that Nintendo, the company that owns the original game that is the basis of ALTTPR, might someday hire the randomizer devs to work on ALTTPR in a professional capacity.
Nintendo, like Funimation, is a dinosaur. It’s large and impressive. It’s very good at creating polished media products with high production values, and very bad at cultivating participatory communities among its fans. It seems certain that something so large and powerful will last forever… except that the meteor is coming.
I don’t want to see ALTTPR co-opted by Nintendo. And I don’t want to see it restructured in Nintendo’s image, the way I modeled Team Four Star after traditional media businesses like Funimation. That just makes for a smaller, shittier dinosaur. I want to see ALTTPR stay true to its strengths. I want to see it stay what it already is: a mammal, warm and quick and adaptable.
The future of ALTTPR isn’t more features as an end in themselves, but only because implementing new features is part of the joy of creation. It’s not better production values either, if those come at the expense of inclusivity in the co-creation process.
My mistake with Team Four Star was thinking the world needed better media.
We’re in a golden age of media. For the price of an Internet connection and a subscription to any of a half-dozen streaming services, I have access to more high-quality media than I could consume if I spent the rest of my life doing nothing else.
The world needs communities. People need communities. We need more chances to connect over shared interests. We need opportunities to play together and to co-create the games and media that we love.
That’s what I experienced in person at AGDQ, and that’s what the randomizer community needs more of, because online experiences will always be a pale substitute for real, in-person human contact.
That’s what Team Four Star used to represent, until I played my part in fucking it up.
That’s what the world needs.