Just say No To Mediocrity

A couple of days ago I posted my plan. This is fairly brief summary as I was hoping that I could expand on it over time as people asked questions and the results of my labours made my intent more obvious. Better to answer real questions than just blither on about what I guessed was interesting.

Yesterday, tomsonn replied with this excellent comment that I want to answer in detail as it touches on many interesting considerations. The whole thing reads:

“If you don’t mind me saying (you probably will…), I think you’re on your way to mediocrity. Few people can do everything well, but apparently the plan is to do big time world building, game design and illustration all yourself… Occasionally that works out. Most of the time it leads to ‘heartbreaker’ games: well intentioned but overambitious with some bright sparks, unfortunately buried under or rendered impotent by too much bland filler. Long-winded excruciatingly detailed descriptions of an uninteresting world everyone of your audience has already visited a zillion times. Bland not-so-great illustrations dampening rather than firing up the imagination. Clunky rules that are sort of playable in practice.

Not saying this is what will happen with your project, maybe you will pull it off. I’m just putting this out here because if you go down the mediocrity route, you will definitely be cheered along the way by a small group of loyal fans & followers of your blog. Some people enjoy the familiar, especially when presented as something new. If you really want to succeed with something worthy of being called a gesamtkunstwerk, this is not your target audience.”

As I said, there’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take this a bit at a time.

“If you don’t mind me saying (you probably will…)”

I don’t mind at all; in fact, quite the opposite. People asking polite questions is to be encouraged, and the hard questions are often the ones with the most useful and revealing of answers.

Dissenting opinions are fine too, preferably backed up with some sort of cogent argument as to why. Just saying that you don’t like something is OK, but of no real help to anyone else. We already know that you can’t please all the people all the time. Tell us why something doesn’t work for you, and the rest of us might learn something. Or we might agree to disagree. Either way we can talk about it.

Random abuse, on the other hand, will be blocked. This is my space on the net, and I expect people to behave as they would if they were in my house. Manners are free. Rude people can leave.

“I think you’re on your way to mediocrity. Few people can do everything well, but apparently the plan is to do big time world building, game design and illustration all yourself…”

This is always the danger of trying to do several things at once: spreading yourself too thin. So yes, I agree that this is something to be aware of.

I’ve tried to mitigate this in several ways. Firstly, it’s being aware of this as a potential downfall. Knowing the dangers is usually the first step to avoiding them.

Secondly, I’ve been doing much of this for several decades. World-building, writing, and game design has been my day job for years, though always for other people. I’ve worked on various different fictional worlds, and seen hundreds of thousands of my words published about them. So I know that I can do this stuff. Art aside, the main difference with Quirkworthy is not what I’m doing, but who I’m doing it for.

Art, as I mentioned in the plan, is an old skill that I’ve neglected, and which is going to need a lot of work to bring back up to a usable level. But again, I have done it before, just not as recently. There’s no reason to assume that I can’t produce passable stuff by applying some focussed effort and getting back to regular practice. I’m hoping that you’ll be able to see for yourself soon enough.

Of course, in all these areas, you may like what I do or not, and may consider it good, bad, or indifferent. Whether you think that I can do them all “well” is up to you. All I can do is try to bring my 30 years’ worth of skill and experience to bear, and make things that I like and which I think have merit.

“Occasionally that works out. Most of the time it leads to ‘heartbreaker’ games: well intentioned but overambitious with some bright sparks, unfortunately buried under or rendered impotent by too much bland filler. Long-winded excruciatingly detailed descriptions of an uninteresting world everyone of your audience has already visited a zillion times. Bland not-so-great illustrations dampening rather than firing up the imagination. Clunky rules that are sort of playable in practice.”

This part of the comment expands on the previous section and is largely answered above. What I’d like to add is that while doing it all myself is a great deal of work, it also allows me to use a lot more shortcuts and avoids some other problems. It’s not just adding time, there are also considerable savings here.

In addition, you assume that I would decide something was finished with all these faults in it. I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough experience to be able to tell when something is this bad, and put it back in the oven for a bit longer.

In general, your various descriptions of these failings basically amount to not liking bad writing, bad world building, and bad art. I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s not do that.

I tend to have higher standards than most people I work with as I’m something of a perfectionist (useful as an Editor, though often another pitfall to watch out for). As I have the final say in what gets released under the Quirkworthy banner, I think the danger for me is sitting on things too long because I don’t think they are good enough rather than releasing them too soon. As ever, you may disagree. It’s hard to prove without showing you a lot of finished stuff.

It’s also true that I am likely to get better over time, and that some of the things I release will be better than others. All somewhat inevitable.

Oh, one final point on this: format. I’ll be working in a variety of formats, and this avoids one of the implicit problems you hint at. A common mistake of inexperience with this sort of thing is feeling that you need to tell everyone all the cool background stuff that you’ve come up with, all at once. I think this is where your “bland filler” comment comes from. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing this long enough to have made this error and (mostly) learned from it. Also, importantly, I know that I don’t need to cram everything into one game or story or whatever because I can publish another short story next week, or another game next month. Each project needs the art and writing that it needs, and getting that balance right is more often an exercise in removing things rather than adding them. I refer you to my old post on murdering darlings.

“…cheered along the way by a small group of loyal fans & followers of your blog. Some people enjoy the familiar, especially when presented as something new. If you really want to succeed with something worthy of being called a gesamtkunstwerk, this is not your target audience.

I expect that I am currently writing for an audience of 3 men and a dog. Hopefully that will grow as I go on, and the size to which that expands will clearly be based on the perceived utility of what I do. As you say, it’s up to me to do good stuff!

Over the years it has become obvious to me that customers think they want new and different things a lot more than they actually do in practice. Time and again, in company after company, customer feedback and sales figures show that people ask for something different and then buy the familiar. You can see this most obviously in the endless sequels and remakes from Hollywood. Their research shows the same thing. It makes business sense.

For me, as a creative soul, rehashing stuff is dull, dull, dull, and not something I want to be doing. And yet, you must have something of that to keep people from becoming confused and lost. If everything is new then your reader feels cast adrift without reference points or compass. What’s needed is the right balance of new and old; and that’s challenging to find.

Your final point about what is worthy of being called a Gesamtkunstwerk is the one thing I might differ on. I don’t think popularity is a valid measure here.

Plenty of things are popular that are not the best. For example, McDonalds restaurants are hugely popular. However, I don’t think it’s very contentious to say that they do not make the best food. Ubiquity, low prices, and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns make up for that. You could argue that they make the best food at that price on that street, and you may be right. But best outside that limited context?

For me, whether something is or isn’t a good example of Gesamtkunstwerk is more about the process that created it and about quality than it is about popularity per se. I do need things to be popular enough to pay my bills, but that’s a separate problem. As far as a game, or book is concerned, I can envisage them being great examples of Gesamtkunstwerk without being popular at all.

 

Which Just Leaves Me To Say…

Thanks again to tomsonn for this great comment. I hope the above ramblings have answered some unvoiced concerned or questions for the rest of you. If you have other thoughts or queries, please drop them in the comments section below.

 

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7 Responses to Just say No To Mediocrity

  1. tomsonn says:

    I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that…., take your plan for doing the art yourself… “considerable savings”… “passable stuff”… that doesn’t sound promising. I guess we’ll see.

    I do believe you’re pretty good at game design and have produced decent solid stuff in the past. But at the same time, nothing really comes to mind or jumps out. Maybe because it was always done for others, and those others were commercial outfits aiming for middle of the road, lowest common denominator games & settings. I’d be interesting to find out if you can break away from that.

  2. Sam Dale says:

    Pantpantpantpantpant.

    *scratchscratchscratch*

    Woof.

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