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Making Art for a Living

My "philosophy of art and craft", and how it affects what I decide to make, and when...


What follows is partially a response to Elizabeth Ryerson's interesting post about art and commerce from earlier today, but is also just me getting around to posting something I've been meaning to post for a while.

Also, keep in mind as always, that what follows is written from a place of remarkable privilege. I'm a white, college-educated cis-male who grew up in a stable, tech-friendly, middle-class household in the midwest US. On top of that, a lucky early project of mine (Canabalt) received an overwhelming amount of attention. I keep these things in mind and on my radar, obviously, but I have no doubt that they still have some influence on the way I perceive the world around me...


We had our first child when I was in my late 20s, about 18 months after releasing Canabalt. Throughout those 18 months, I... didn't do much. I've thought a lot about why, and I can appreciate now that those 18 months, while they produced little of lasting value, still had a somewhat formative effect on me. But mostly I was sitting on ass and not taking shit very seriously for a long time.

I think a lot of people can look back and find an event in their life that acted as a kind of catalyst for a degree of either motivation or self-examination that was previously unknown to them. Often these events take the form of a personal tragedy, a family member lost, a divorce. I got lucky again; for me it was the birth of a crazy, crazy boy named Kingsley. After becoming a father I became very preoccupied with a kind of existential question about making games.

I'd already decided that that making games was a worthwhile way to spend my life. It can be easy (and even beneficial sometimes) to convince yourself that you're just building trivialities and time-wasters, but even those things can have astonishing value to people. Play is so fundamental to our existence as animals, I see a lot of worth and even nobility in devoting yourself to making playful things, regardless of their intellectual aspirations (though those are great too).

(A quick aside - I will be sometimes using the word mainstream in this essay, and by mainstream I do not mean Call of Duty. I mean actually mainstream, as in mainstream humanity, not mainstream gamers.)

And so the question I was struggling with, following the arrival of our son, was not "why games?" but "which games?"


I spent a lot of time in 2011, more than I intended, traveling to games-related thingies, meeting new friends, hearing good lectures, and making time to catch up with old friends. Late at night I would put the question to trusted creators: how do you decide what to work on? Is it all about maximizing your impact? Is it about money? Self-expression?

Eventually I'd cobbled together my own Frankenstein's monster of a belief system, which I still ostentatiously refer to as my Philosophy of Art and Craft. Be warned! The way I am using "art" and "craft" (much less "philosophy") here is specific and bespoke; they were just the best words I could find at the time for this purpose. Anyways, my philosophy goes something like this:


Everything I make can be placed along this spectrum, with Craft all the way on the left, and Art all the way on the right. As I said before, my use of these terms is somewhat non-traditional; for me, these terms are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. For example, some things I've worked on (Canabalt, Hundreds) share the following properties:

  • accessible or obvious interface
  • subject material with relatively wide appeal
  • medium to long total play time (replay or content)
  • weirdness and challenge often hidden or optional
  • small impact on a wide audience

Games with these properties would be firmly slotted over near Craft, on the left-hand side. Other games I've worked on like Capsule or Fathom seem to share other properties:

  • idiosyncratic
  • specific, personal, small
  • built around a single idea
  • no effort to communicate in a mainstream way
  • big impact on a small audience

For me, it's useful to place games with these qualities way on the right-hand side of the spectrum, over near the Art label. Remember, these labels do not have any intrinsic value, they are just boxes that are useful to me (as you'll see later, I hope). Anyways, these games and designs are all very important to me personally. They are all expressions of my values and interests, and are representative of me trying to make the most interesting thing I can at that time. Some of these games express Craft traits, and others express these Art traits instead. It's kind of up to the games.

Capsule, for example, would be ruined if I tried to force it into the Craft box. Too much of what I view as its inherent value depends on the traits I have labeled Art. But games like Canabalt and Hundreds required little in the way of compromise to fit snugly inside the Craft box. Canabalt was a straight fluke that way, but on Hundreds we put a lot of effort into making sure that the design was able to intrinsically communicate with normal people, but also be systemically deep enough to engage more serious players too. Hundreds' creative integrity was actually strengthened by this process, even though the same approach would destroy Capsule.


Kind of everything, it turns out. As I said earlier, I'd already decided that making games was a worthy venture for me. I didn't need a so-called philosophy of art and craft to figure that out. What this philosophy does help me with is figuring out, on a purely practical level, if a project has a reasonable expectation of connecting with a mainstream audience. The reason this matters is that connecting with a mainstream audience is a necessary (but not sufficient) prerequisite for commercial success, which makes a useful metric from the specific perspective of making games for a living.

A quick example: if I'm looking at a prototype that has a lot of Art traits, that usually drastically lowers my economic expectations for that project, because it is less likely, by my own definition, to connect with a mainstream audience. I usually estimate an Art-oriented project will make $5000 or less if I even try to sell the thing in the first place. What this means on a practical level is that project could only sustain a month or two of development without outside funding (i.e. dipping into our savings). For some games this is totally fine - Capsule only took a month or so to assemble - but for other Art games that might not be enough time, which can be useful knowledge.

Likewise, generally speaking, if the design shares more traits with the Craft end of the spectrum, I might upgrade the idea to some kind of imaginary "commercially feasible" rank, since it is more likely to connect with mainstream players. Commercially feasible can mean a lot of things, but generally to me it means this game could, if all the planets aligned etc, reach a large enough audience to bring in at least maybe low six figures. In my book, that is a "hit" game. But while Craft games seem way better suited to being hits than Art games, at least for me, Craft game ideas that I'm genuinely interested in working on are more and more rare, since they tend to be less exploratory and strange by their very nature, and require a lot more sheer effort to produce. Thankfully there are a few that still hold my interest.

Let me emphasize too that this does not mean making a value judgment about one game idea or another, or even actually making one game and not the other. I derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from both types of games, for which I suppose I should consider myself lucky. So long as I can afford to, I will usually make both: build a Craft game, then build an Art game with the leftover money. Then a Craft game, then maybe another Art game or two, and so on. For me, this approach provides a creative and financial balance to my work that improves my ability to make things no matter where they fall on the spectrum. It also pays the bills (and, occasionally, then some).

Grave, for what it's worth, is a Craft game. My other ongoing project, codenamed "Parlay", is way more on the Art side. My hope is that Grave will help me be able to pay the bills while I further explore Parlay in the future. If it doesn't work, oh well! I'll probably work on Parlay a bit more, but then I'll have to put together another Craft game.

Much worse things could happen.


I realize, of course, that at best, what I'm talking about here is an unreliable and unproven heuristic based purely on imagination and wishful thinking. A lot of the time I feel like a kid who has been playing Street Fighter II at home alone and thinks he's really good, but has never even been to an arcade. Maybe my tried-and-true strats just can't cut it in the long term; I just don't know yet.

I absolutely think it is possible for Art games to become mainstream hits, and of course it's extremely easy for Craft games to become huge flops... and yet, I still recognize these basic patterns. This tendency for games of otherwise equal depth and merit to sometimes strike a large target with ease, and sometimes a small target with ferocity. And I recognize this pattern for games of the former variety, games that strike wide, to have a better chance at commercial success, just by sheer probability if nothing else, but also for a tendency to better resemble things people already buy.

Does recognizing that basic relationship irrevocably mutate you into a crass capitalist machine hell-bent on soul-eroding bland rehashes? Maybe. I hope not. Maybe by measuring it we change it, or maybe by knowing our enemy we can better protect ourselves from its influence. Maybe we have to choose between having some heuristics and having a day job, neither of which is ideal, and both of which have a lot to offer. I'm not sure.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you should all make what you want, for who you want, whenever you want, for whatever reason makes your heart beat and your mind ache and your palms sweat. If you want to get paid to do that, then I think the approach outlined above is one possibility for framing the way you think about the part of your creative life where a bank account is involved.

I hope this was interesting to read and I am curious what you think; I'm on twitter too much as it is, so let me know! Thanks.

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