Subscription Conniption

A new generation of consoles is released and PC gaming dies again. Google makes us stupid. YouTube serves up algorithmically chosen banality over quality shows. Television replaced the golden age of cinema with tawdry soap operas. Radio distracted children from their studies and turned their brains to mush. The printing press made our thoughts sloppy and cheapened scholarly work. Writing itself made us forgetful and replaced instruction with the illusion of wisdom. In short, everything you love is being replaced with the worst kind of nonsense.

I have a quiet admiration for people who warn of the dangers of technological progress, because they know their track record and will always be terminally uncool. Most of these takes weren’t even wrong, just incomplete. We can point out the problems, but the long term benefits are hard to spot. So what do we make of the present interest in streamed and subscription gaming? Is it a threat to developers as ( would have it?


To answer this question we need only look to the recent past. US movie production in 2000 produced 2,000 titles and approached 7,000 by the year 2012. This is despite the introduction of subscription streaming services by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. The share of box office revenue from non-MPAA member studios increased from 20% to 50% over the same period. These movies also take the largest share of ‘top movies’ for their year measured by Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and user scores. TV production more than doubled from 100 new series to about 250 over the same period. Digitization drove this growth and a significant part of that change was in distribution. The worst we can say is that subscription streaming did not hinder the growth in movies from 2000 to 2012. The same can be said for music and book publishing.

Netflix began to produce its own shows in 2012 and it is instructive to know why they did this. Licensing costs were increasing as rights holders realized the value of their content. Netflix’s choice to create content was as much a bargaining chip in these negotiations as it was an effort to gain and retain users. Disney is expected to make its own streaming service, and HBO is already streaming.

This anticipated landscape resembles a likely future for gaming. Humble, the last non-publishing subscription service, started in 2017. Netflix established itself because studios did not realize the value of their libraries. This experiment can only be run once, and so incumbents are the ones driving this model for gaming.

The Threat

At its core the article is more concerned with subscriptions. Streaming may be a catalyst for subscriptions, but the threats come from subscriptions. The distinction matters since subscription services exist now and do not require the same kind of investment streaming does. If a subscription model is a threat to developers, then that threat is here now and does not go away if streaming fails.

This means I am less interested in concerns based on streaming such as the availability of mods. This is a problem consoles have been living with for a while (and for which there is a solution). It is better to focus on how developers get paid and how they navigate the marketplace in the future.

The article identifies discoverability as a threat to developers. Specifically, it worries that a platform’s games will have priority over third party ones. It also fears a drop in financing, though I think this begs the question. A concern about access to sales information stems from a real problem with Netflix.

In essence, the article is worried that developers will receive less money for their work. The most convincing objections present specific mechanisms that make this happen. The subscription model is consumer friendly, but at a cost to developers. We should not be indifferent about developers or view the relationship as adversarial. Intellectual property protection is not consumer friendly, but we value new works enough to make it law. Adverse effects on the supply side will find their way back to the consumer.

Are these threats serious?

One comparison we can make with’s list of threats is to the status quo. Here discoverability and market information are less convincing. How many copies did Cultist Simulator sell on Steam in two weeks? Only Steam and Weather Factory know. Weather Factory practices open production and is transparent about their sales. However, Steam  does not permit developers to publish sales information for their platform. Valve has a notoriously testy relationship with SteamSpy, mirroring the Neilsen/Netflix spat. Title specific information will likely depend on whether the rights are bought outright or on a per-play basis. Not having access to sales data is still a loss, but we are already reliant on 3rd parties for market information.

Discoverability is another problem we already deal with, but could it become worse? A platform prioritizing its own games over third parties sounds like it would. Would a platform have any reason to do this? A glance at Origin Access shows EA titles in the top 10. But then, a purchase of Origin Access implies an intention to play EA games. Extending the list to games I can see on my screen, I find Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, Mad Max, and Cities: Skylines above Titanfall and Battlefield 1. Scrolling down there are a number of excellent indie games listed above cherished titles in the EA back catalogue like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. The costs of making these games are sunk, and so the goal of any platform is to maximize the number of subscriptions. Mediocre games boosted by tweaks to the algorithm carry the risk of the platform being percieved as low value. The only case where such a tweak might make sense is a per-play license that exceeds the cost of maintaining an internal title. But we need to ask: Just what kinds of independent developers are we talking about there? Have I missed an entire genre of independent games that are lower cost and direct competitors to Madden, Need for Speed, Assassin’s Creed, and Battlefield? Platforms should be trying to buy these developers if they exist, not license from them.

Financing is the final concern, but I’d like to reframe it into more than an assumption that revenues drop. If an individual title’s influence on a subscription choice is low, licensing terms will be unfavourable to developers. Reduced revenues mean future projects of similar scope are less profitable, making investment less attractive. Alternatively, since projects are largely self-financed budgets necessarily shrink. But project scope is not fixed. Profit margins can be restored by making smaller games or reusing existing tools and assets. If the resulting games are too small, platforms will need to pay up. This is a different environment for developers, but not necessarily a hostile one.

These concerns aren’t baseless, but are they a threat to developers beyond normal shifts in the industry? Does the fear that developers will face lower revenues outweigh the concern that Fortnite is successful at the expense of other games? Is the potential for algorithmic tweaks a greater threat to discoverability than the shift to Steam Direct? Perhaps we are better served in viewing subscription services as a shift in gaming that carries opportunities along with threats.

Differences under subscriptions

Here is a good article on Eurogamer about game endings. It charts the progress of, well, progress (like the title says), guided by commercial context and technological constraints. Every one of these changes could have a “threat to developers” article written about them, and in a sense they would be right. Arcade machines are not what they once were. Saving permits players to ruin the experience for themselves. MMO’s really do require investments unavailable to independent developers. Steam Direct has meant it is harder to get your game noticed than before. And yet gaming has never been better and more people are making them.

The printing press did not usher in an age of peace and quiet contemplation, but we do not consider that a vindication of its critics. Recognizing the difficulty at appreciating the benefits of a given innovation, how might we think about changes that might come from a broad adoption of a subscription model?

If games are bought outright or licensed for a term (as opposed to a per-play like on music services), this seems to bring a degree of certainty to developers. Developing around expected revenues from a license is a less uncertain prospect than trying to triangulate tastes, price, and attention into a successful release. Furthermore, just as streaming has not replaced Blu-Rays (or even DVDs), we’re more likely to see a hybrid future. Licenses can provide a cushion for a less successful release, or even give a game a new lease on life as is already happening with Humble and Twitch Prime.

The consumption behaviour of players in a subscription service will change. Marginal costs for new games on a subscription service are zero. Players will no longer need to ask “Is this game worth X?” before playing. Not too long ago we were talking about the death of the single player game. Removing the implied price/time ratio puts single player back on a level playing field. What matters is if the game is attractive enough to play and if the time spent is worth it.

Even the threats carry their silver linings. Tyranny, Orwell, The Witness, and This War of Mine, are nowhere to be found on the Steam Top 100 but are on Origin Access (Top 70 no less). Even if platforms were to prioritize their own games, third party games can be compared across platforms. This doesn’t just provide an estimate of how well a given game is doing, it identifies niches for particular platforms. Instead of betting everything on ‘charting’ on Steam, a game can leverage success on one platform into launches on others.

There are also clear negatives. Subscription services will likely reintroduce gatekeepers. This benefits incumbent developers, but means we miss out on unexpected successes. These games are good candidates for an ownership model or a niche platform. Signing with a subscription service may just as easily become an aspiration for developers instead of a necessary evil.

One way to gain perspective is to ask if we were to invent the games industry again, would we choose the status quo we seem so attached to? We’ve switched to digital distribution, but in some ways we’ve just replaced walking with clicking. We still buy the product, and the expansion packs are now smaller and cheaper. MMOs and Free to Play are notable and successful exceptions, but the majority of games still follow the old model. Is there any reason to see this as any more natural than an arcade?

One major shift in perspective a subscription model will inspire is a view of games as complements instead of substitutes. It’s hard to see the purchase of a game that’s not yours as beneficial on a storefront. Games in a subscription model will benefit from players being able to switch between games without cost. This is an environment that rewards faster, innovative work.

The benefits and detriments of a subscription model are far from certain, but we should resist the temptation to see it as a threat over a technological shift. Developers who can work on a budget and produce unique experiences are well positioned for a future where players can experiment without cost.

L’Affaire le Laissez-Faire

A little over a month ago Valve issued warnings to the makers of adult visual novels and others which became publicized resulting in controversy and uncertainty regarding the status of games with sexual content on Steam. A few weeks later Valve reversed this implied decision and announced that they would open the store to anything that they “…decide [is] illegal, or straight up trolling.” A lot of commentary seemed to react to, or at least occupy the same space as, Leaf Corcoran’s (of response that the new hands off approach was “ridiculous” and to keep “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” off of Itch. Gamasutra summarized a number of reasonably high profile comments here.

Given that this news is already a month old, the best I can offer here is a room temperature take, but I’m struck by how the focus has been on free expression when I don’t think this is really what is at stake here. For all the effort to form two poles between the Itch and Steam approaches, the main differences are technological. Before weighing in on any of the commentary, I’d like to begin by examining possible reasons for Valve’s actions.

The economics of keeping games on Steam

Valve’s announced laissez-faire approach to Steam should be viewed in light of the original news that there was a coming crackdown on sexual content in games, which invites us to ask why Valve might want to take a game off of its platform. Valve has a pretty good deal going with the Steam where games pay $100 to be listed (recoupable after $1,000 in revenues), and they take 30% of revenues, meaning their variable costs are matched by increases in revenues and their slotting fee ensures the developer is on the hook for at least some of the on boarding/vetting costs of a game that does not sell.

Since the on boarding costs are sunk, why would Valve ever want to stop selling a game? There are likely two sets of explanations: Costs directly relating to the title itself, and knock on effects from a certain class of product. Direct costs are fairly intuitive to understand. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to identifying entertainment products bringing about the decline of civilization and so carrying that title also means assuming the liability of angry people complaining that you are carrying a product that brings about the decline of civilization. In physical stores these encounters are diffused among different locations and staff. For a digital storefront they are taking on the sum of complaints which will be directed to their staff who could be tending to other requests from other games, and are doing so on the internet which tends to alter the character of the interaction. Nobody would seriously consider removing GTA from Steam, but dealing with the associated complaints do represent a real cost for carrying that particular game over a less controversial title.

Indirect costs are a bit easier to understand when considering a class of games. A common complaint about Steam now is the discoverability problem: Getting a game in front of its audience when more and more titles are being released. Some genres take less time to create games for and so it is to be expected that there will be a proliferation of low-cost titles entering the market on a daily basis. The indirect costs can be summarized as follows: Valve may take 30% of sales, but if the problem is severe enough that customers are shown games that do not result in sales over games that would have, everyone loses. These costs can be compounded by discouraging developers to release on steam or even create the game in the first place, though it’s doubtful we’ve reached this point (this will be covered later). Forgone sales are one of the more quantifiable indirect costs, but the main point in considering both costs is to show that some titles will be more costly for Valve to carry than others and that it is likely there is a class of product that can be identified as such.

In light of these added costs we can now consider Visual Novels. Visual Novels are relatively low-cost products with a straightforward production model. So long as the game can sell more than the costs of obtaining art, words, and someone to glue it altogether, it makes lots of sense to put it on Steam, and the tools built to create the first game (say a script that links certain phrases with displayed character emotions or a set of templates to produce characters faster) can be reused, lowering the costs of future games. None of this is to make a quality judgement, as there are clearly people who  enjoy these games, and some of them (Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend, Doki Doki Literature Club) seem to have appealed to players who do not normally engage with this genre, but this is a recipe for overproduction and the potential crowding out of other titles.

A noticeable number of Visual Novels also follow in the fine tradition of independent and European films trying to sell into the US market. Hollywood has an edge on production value and spectacle, and so rival offerings need to offer something to entice audiences away. While I’m sure there are defensible aesthetic reasons for doing so, it is not a coincidence that these films have a fairly high incidence of the leading lady, sometimes the leading man, and sometimes everyone else taking their clothes off. Sex doesn’t just sell, it’s high margin. As with film there are plenty of Visual Novels that do not fit this description, but there are many that do and by their very nature are the most attention getting. Whether this is because the Visual Novel field is crowded or it is just one of the conventions of the genre, a product in this space is more likely to contain sexual content than a product in another genre.

Returning to our evaluation of costs, it’s pretty clear to see how both the direct and indirect costs can be higher in the case of Visual Novels, specifically adult ones. If discoverability is a problem, the economics of Visual Novels are such that we’d expect them to be a larger contributor. More importantly, the higher incidence of sexual content means that Valve will need to spend more time vetting entries to ensure compliance, and likely committing to additional costs as patches will likely command greater scrutiny than a game like Opus Magnum. Finally, it is likely there will be a higher incidence of reporting/complaints with this kind of game, either due to hostility at the lack of quality or with regards to content. Whether any of this seems fair or not, it is understandable for a company like Valve to turn around and say that these games are more trouble than they are worth and to reevaluate their place on Steam. The focus on games with sexual content suggests that Valve was aiming to curtail simple games whose primary draw was titillation, regardless of their profitability. The subsequent focus on the content of these games (as opposed to their volume) is unavoidable, as it seems to have been the only condition for reevaluation, but the motivation here is not personal dislike on the part of decision makers at Valve but the fact that this content was associated with other costs that Valve no longer wanted to bear. This distinction is important as it explains why The Witcher 3 or GTA V did not face the same scrutiny.

The economics of opening up Steam

Just as games have indirect costs, so do policy decisions. A vocal subset of gamers were upset, but this doesn’t carry very much information nowadays. Likely more concerning to Valve were the expressions of uncertainty on the part of game developers. As Amazon, Netflix, and Google will tell you, content is king, and so Valve has a vested interest in being the first place developers think of when it comes to distributing their game. There are strong network effects at play with Steam, and while they can be difficult to unravel, they can do so swiftly. If the speculation in the preceding section was at least somewhat correct, then the uncertainty of the developers who have already been chosen for removal is no big loss, and it’s debatable if this can be read as “First they came for the adult Visual Novels and I said nothing…”, but the publicity resulting from the reevaluations serve as a reminder for something that has always been true: A ban (de facto or de jure) from Valve can destroy your company. A large number of developers are not just big unhedged bets on the PC gaming market, they are bets on Steam itself. If your business model is built around releasing lots of small, low-cost DLC, Valve is one submission pricing decision away from making it unaffordable, and the announcement can come right in the middle of production. If you made small games that can be completed in under two hours, guess what the refund policy did to your revenues. I’m not sure if Valve has ever done anything quite so heavy handed as what was implied by the reevaluations for sexual content, but introducing this level of uncertainty will leave firms wondering if their next title should maybe be a mobile game instead.

The uncertainty created by Valve’s decisions is something of their own making given that they are so tight lipped, but it also made the announcement of the new plans all the more noteworthy. A statement from Valve is also a useful point for a summary since everything above has only been speculation on news about Valve. We know firms were contacted regarding the reevaluation of their games for content and that this became a fairly prominent news story. From Valve we know they were responding to that public discussion, that they are changing course, they now prefer the laissez-faire approach and will collect their 30% while only intervening in the case of illegality and trolling. We’re left asking if this is a good decision and what the consequences will be. Following our reasoning above, this essentially means that the uncertainty felt by developers after the news about reevaluation was more costly than the decision to leave things on the platform. This seems plausible seeing as developer uncertainty can be an existential threat to Steam in a way discoverability is not, as well as the fact that Valve privately contacted the developers for reevaluation but publically posted when responding to the media coverage of that decision. Valve’s post does also spend a lot of time talking about discoverability which inclines me to think that this has always been the focus.

Had the story not been public then eliminating the biggest problem spots (cheap titillating content) was seemingly the lowest cost way of clearing the channels and helping discoverability. The uncertainty created through the subsequent publicity was more costly than the gains from improved discoverability and so the decision was reversed. However, reversing the decision doesn’t solve the original problem and so the second best option is to invest in technology to help mitigate the discoverability problem. The opening of the platform adds another dimension to the problem, but I suspect in part it lessens the burden on the people handing reports and curation as the only real decision rule will be the Valve defined category of “Trolling” which may not reduce the volume of content complaints but can reduce responses to boilerplate “Valve does not curate…” messages.  The case for Valve’s reversal being caused by developer uncertainty is also strengthened by the fact that Valve merely announced the new policy with later implementation, while their usual pattern has been to implement then announce (even if it’s meant letting a negative story fester for longer than we’re accustomed to from other companies).

What does it mean to have an open Steam? The economist Joel Waldfogel has a good and readable summary on the effects of digitization on music, movies, books and television. At the risk of oversimplifying, Waldfogel’s conclusion is that digitization has created a golden age for these media and this is due to projects that otherwise would not have been realized but for the fact that digitization has lowered costs. Conclusions like this normally inspire a dismissive “Well that’s obvious” (if it helps, you’re very smart and I’ll be sure to ask you next time), but analysis like this is valuable because it helps us understand the mechanisms that brought about the outcome. I’ll take a point from Waldfogel and present it as a puzzle: Should the effect of lowered costs of production translate into marginal gains in niche areas, or will it produce unexpected hits that produce substantial gains? Most readers are likely going to know of some indie successes and so say that it will produce hits, but this does not harmonize with the ‘obvious’ conclusion that digitization produces a golden age. To see why consider that under the old model there would be gatekeepers who evaluate a given project and if the returns exceed the cost of production then they would approve it. Lowering costs allows more projects to get made, but these are projects with returns lower than the previous threshold, meaning we should see a proliferation of niche projects, not hits (which would have been produced under the old system). Where do the hits come from? The hits come from the fact that gatekeepers aren’t that good at predicting future outcomes for present day production and so lowered costs are allowing more hits to be realized outside of traditional channels. This is observed in the data through the growing share of self-published/independent/non-traditional projects in revenues or best seller lists. Since the quality or success of a given product is something of a random draw, the gains from allowing more products on Steam have an outsized return even when some of the ex-ante losers turn out to be ex-post losers.

If we think Waldfogel’s analysis has applications to gaming as well, then distribution platforms need to be better at predicting final quality, or the platform should be open as possible to projects that previously would not have passed gatekeepers such as Greenlight or a large publisher. But Steam already seems to have achieved this through the Steam Direct program. Morgan Jaffit’s (Defiant Studios head, makers of Hand of Fate 2) analysis indicating more winners and more losers seems to be exactly in line with the experience of other creative industries as reported in the Waldfogel article (though the an increased share of ex-ante losers in revenues is something of a matter of speculation given the notorious difficulty of estimating sales on Steam). This is why it is important to recognize the mechanisms through which the gains in other media were made, since these gains rest on the unpredictability of outcomes and the failure of traditional gatekeepers to manage it. The most relevant question stemming from the new lassiez-faire approach is whether or not quality guidelines are analogous to gatekeepers in terms of evaluating the value of products. If you feel that they are an impediment to high value products being realized, then Valve’s decision is a good one, will likely be profitable, and we’ll all benefit. If you feel they are largely irrelevant (possibly even orthogonal) to a project’s value, then the best case scenario from this decision would only be the incremental gains that will come from incorporating niche products.

Another way of examining this question is whether or not there is such a thing as a pornographic masterpiece. That is, is there a work of pornography (realized or unrealized) of genuine artistic merit that we have suppressed through these guidelines that would achieve a level of appeal beyond its traditional audience? Most definitions of pornography deny any aesthetic value, but if this is the only argument then we are simply begging the question. The same might be asked of hate speech (is there a work of bigotry of such sublime beauty that failing to publish it would impoverish our culture?), though this would certainly be illegal in some jurisdictions and so still banned. While there have been independent successes outside of Steam (Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress for instance), none of them seem to be products that would have failed to pass the Steam Direct system. These exceptional cases are always dangerous ground to tread on, and so it is possible that the unavailability of traditional commercial channels really has prevented a pornographic masterpiece from being realized in gaming, but it doesn’t seem like a product has emerged that has achieved universal acclaim within its own niche, let alone as a contender for mainstream success.

The reason we care about whether or not the gains from removing content barriers are incremental (i.e. niches) or the realization of mainstream hits is that it is what we should measure against the cost of lowering these barriers. For this we return to the discoverability problem and see just how far apart Itch and Steam really are.

The costs of discoverability problem

If we believe Waldfogel’s analysis applies to Steam then Steam Direct has produced gains above and beyond the incremental benefits stemming from lower costs for games. However, we started with the speculating that the impetus for reevaluating adult visual novels and similar games was the discoverability problem brought about by implementing the more open system. Waldfogel briefly addresses this in the “more research is needed” section at the end, though the idea of information cascades (the Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch 1998 reference) does seem to be in line with the “big open” strategy employed by recent successful releases. Waldfogel’s summary does suggest that the cost of search (which we’ve termed the discoverability problem) may not increase, but I am operating on the assumption that this is not the case for games given that developers (who are better informed than I am) describe it and Valve has dedicated resources into mitigating it (and they see almost the entire market).

All of this may seem a bit abstract, so here’s an illustration of what this means. Suppose everyone had an app like Tinder which contained true information about potential romantic matches, but was optional to use and had some search preferences. Let’s say the search preferences start with the default setting of people who are very similar demographically to you and if the love of your life is present in this group, you will find them within two or three swipes. The next setting will put you in a pool of likely matches which, if it contains the love of your life, will find them in 7 to 12 swipes. Finally you can include literally everyone but you will not find the love of your life until 400 to 328,922 swipes. The growing number of swipes represents the increasing search cost as we grow the pool in search of that special m’lady or m’sir. Our choice of search setting is going to depend a lot on our expectations of how likely it is we’ll find our match in each of the groups. The cost difference between the default and second option is more than double, but is broad enough to be pretty appealing to risk averse people who want to maximize their chances. The literally everyone option is so costly that even if we turn the chance into a certainty, we may prefer to reserve it as a last ditch option (or abandon the app entirely).

Switching to Steam Direct seems a bit like switching to the second option in the example above. It does increase the cost of search, but the reward is worth it, especially if we’re looking to expand beyond what’s familiar. But we are unlikely to want the pool to increase indefinitely since the search costs don’t merit the increased chances of finding the love of our lives (game or person). If the benefits of removing content restrictions are analogous to the ones obtained through the reduced costs of games, then we should be willing to entertain higher search costs, but if the benefits are limited to the incremental gains of niche products then we may not willing to accept any additional inconvenience.

A key difference for Steam is that at the moment we are collectively setting one search preference for everyone, and so we’re deciding if we want to go from the expanded category to the literally everything one. It’s true that some people are not able to find the love of their life from the current choice (maybe this explains the desire for pornography), but the inconvenience to this group is considered the lesser evil compared to the universal inconvenience faced by the entire platform and its attendant frustration and likely abandonment by some users. To return to games specifically we can characterize search costs on Steam as the time it takes a customer to find a game they like, the forgone opportunity of Steam to make a sale by serving up the wrong recommendation, and the equivalent lost sale to the developer.

Valve’s new approach involves investing in technology to help lower search costs, including allowing them to restrict the pool of potential games they are exposed to. I don’t think anyone really knows how successful they will be at it. If Valve succeeds, then we will all benefit through faster matches to games we enjoy the most. If the system doesn’t work as well as they plan, then I suspect we’ll see a few more applications of the “trolling” criterion to keep users from encountering offensive content they wouldn’t buy in the first place. When looking at the Steam Direct guidelines, it becomes apparent that Valve hasn’t really given up a lot since half of the rules are already legal matters, and the remaining can credibly fall under a the trolling criterion. In fact, Valve offered some clarity on the condition and used a banned school shooting game as an example of what would not be permitted.

This brings us to Itch. Itch’s submission guidelines are extremely permissive, a fact that tends to be lost when you see people who have never used the site complaining about censorship in response to its founder’s Tweet. Itch also does not have the resources that Valve does in terms of being able to automate the curation of a given user’s pages and so they are less likely to propose a technological solution to the problem. Itch faces the same issues of discoverability and desire to maximize revenues as Valve but needs to employ solutions that reflect its capabilities. It is difficult to find a more direct solution than saying ‘don’t put this kind of stuff on our site and if you do we’ll ban you.’ If anything this is likely more a timely reminder of Itch’s existing policy rather than any kind of policy shift (so far as I can tell, the rules have not changed substantially since Corcoran issued his tweet or, indeed, years before he did). In fact, based on the clarification Valve offered to the definition of trolling, there seems to be very little difference between Itch and Valve in terms of what they consider (or will consider) unacceptable on their platform.

If it turns out there are substantive differences between Itch and the future Steam, it will be an interesting experiment in terms of whether or not these content guidelines actually do prevent the realization of good games. At the moment Steam is not my go-to source for interesting and unknown games but Itch is. The free speech warriors reacting to Corcoran’s tweet seem not to have been interested in the relative freedom of Itch’s platform to Steam Direct and Greenlight, and Itch has done fine without them. Gaming as we know it has also not collapsed under Valve’s relatively more restrictive policies, and Itch’s ban buttons are not likely to steer the industry into some kind of Hays Code. In truth, most if not all of the percieved difference is likely explained by Corcoran’s directness and Valve’s vagueness.

It’s fun to wrap oneself up in the illusion of a principled stand on free speech or against intolerance, but there really isn’t a lot for either side beyond rhetorical posturing. People who want to see the Valve decision an unmitigated win for free speech need to reconcile that with Valve’s follow up comments which seem to be banning exactly the kind of titles we’d expect a reasonable set of content guidelines to ban. Likewise, Itch’s permissive submission policies do not seem to have reduced the storefront into the dumpster fire predicted for Steam, nor has it seemed to produce the controversial hit that has demonstrated the outsized welfare gains from removing content restrictions. This is why I think the difference is merely technological and if anything Steam is shifting closer to Itch. The small scale experiment of Itch also suggests that the gains from loosening content guidelines are incremental for their respective niches rather than an opportunity for previously censored hits to finally be realized.

Seeing the realization of Valve’s promises will make all the difference, but my own expectation is that this decision will result in much needed curation tools being made available to users and developers, pornographic content will be made available (though the most egregious examples will likely still be banned) but will need to be opted in, and there may be some improvements made to the recommendation engine. Because the new policy will likely mean the entry of niche products, a ‘first do no harm’ approach would mean that most of the changes should be imperceptible to users, since these are products they have no interest in buying in the first place. So long as Valve is able to ensure these niche entries aren’t a nuisance to the rest of us, it’s hard to see this move as a bad one, but it hinges on both the new entries not being as bad as the worst that people assume (the hate speech case) and Valve being able to segment the user base in a way that doesn’t cause games we would have otherwise enjoyed becoming invisible to us. Of course, if Valve finds this problem is much more difficult than they anticipated, they have left the details open enough to make the changes modest and we may find the store isn’t all that different from the way it is now.

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. For this article, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Keys for Streaming

Streamers getting keys for the games they play seems like a topic that should be well covered, but I notice more anecdotes on Twitter (usually frustration with the current system) than exposition. In setting out to fill this gap, I now realize there are a few reasons why this is the case. I am acutely conscious of the fact I am setting out to write on a topic that is basically a career for others, that I am not that big of a streamer, and that access to keys (especially early ones) is a gatekeeping mechanism for established streamers in a competitive space. With these limitations in mind, I’m going to focus on what I think people are trying to accomplish on both sides of the exchange, and offer some of my own experiences in asking for keys. I’ve split the article into two main sections, the demand side (streamers), and the supply side (devs/publishers), but it is intended to be read as a whole, as things work best when each side is conscious about the needs of the other.

The Demand Side

Where do streamers get keys from? They buy them. Not all the time, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. One of my favourite streamers, Johnny Big Time, buys the majority of games he plays on his stream, because they are big releases he likes. Most people start this way because most people start streaming with a game they already know well. Even if you’re an established streamer press keys may not be available to you. Two noteworthy examples from my own stream would be Cultist Simulator and In Other Waters. Both of these games produced the coveted “How do you find such awesome games?” feedback and Cultist Simulator in particular has been a big source of growth. While I am reluctant to speak for the people handling key distribution, I think I’d have a shot at a press key for both of these games. So why not wait and save the cost of backing the games? This brings us to an important point that should be discussed before asking for keys.

There’s an unhelpful assumption among some viewers and streamers that free keys are a perk of the job. Yes, you can play the game on your free time, and yes, you tend to accumulate a bit of a library over time, but if you are broadcasting just for the ‘free stuff’ you are almost certainly working for much less than minimum wage. There are lots of reasons to stream and it is important to understand why since it is the core of your broadcast. In my own case I like streaming games because I get to share both the games that I like and the ideas that I think are behind them. This tends to mean covering quite a few games and those costs can add up, even when accounting for donations. This provides a motivation (cost) as well as a reason why I am suitable to cover the game (I will cover it in depth, and specifically discuss the themes and how they relate to me). If you want to do this for a living, then the motivation is likely the same (minimize costs for your business) but the value proposition is likely different (you’ll likely be able to present the game to more people than me). The point here is not to rank more or less noble reasons to broadcast, but instead get the knowledge will help us when approaching people we want keys from.

The most effective method I’ve found for getting keys from developers is to simply ask. If you’re like me there is likely some apprehension about approaching people for a key, usually in the form of “I’m too small to get a key.” Maybe, but why make the decision for them? If you’re just swinging by to hoover up as many keys as you can, then you really are wasting everyone’s time, but chances are if you’ve read this far you’re not doing that. It doesn’t hurt to think about what information the recipient would like to know. I usually write too much in my e-mails but I write who I am, why I am interested in the title, and what my plans for streaming it are (I usually get a ‘It’s your stream, cast it how you want’ to this). Much like a cover letter, this shows you’ve done your homework and gives whoever is deciding who gets keys what they need to make an informed decision rather than having to guess based on publicly available information (i.e. your follow count and how many times you’ve streamed in the last two weeks).

Once you’ve submitted the request it’s out of your hands and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Of course, we’re human so there’s probably some anxiety with regards to responses as well. No is not the worst thing you can hear. No means that someone took the time to review what you wrote and made a business decision, even if it wasn’t the outcome you wanted. My least favourite, and sadly a rather common, response is to hear nothing at all. The worst part about no response is that there’s no real feedback, and there’s no definitive point of “This ain’t happening” to plan around. The best I can say is to keep busy and try to plan around your estimates and don’t make your schedule dependent on things you aren’t sure you can get. If the answer is yes, congratulations! Make sure you deliver on what you said you would. This is how you build a reputation. To date I have only failed to cover one game (though another is a bit delayed) and this was ultimately because I really did not like it at all, and I thought nobody would be served by me dedicating a stream to something I clearly didn’t enjoy.

If you find that you’re not getting a lot of traction, it wouldn’t hurt to reflect on who you are approaching and what you are bringing to the table. I might have the purest of intentions and be the perfect fit for a new Dragon Age game, but I’m not going to reach an audience in a way that kind of title needs to do well, and so it’s simply more sensible for me to get in line like everyone else and buy it. This shouldn’t need saying, but it is very important you do not throw a tantrum if you don’t get a key, public or otherwise. People talk. If someone as low on the totem pole as me can know which streamers who didn’t make the cut for a very high profile release proceeded to beg, threaten, and generally disgrace themselves, then you can be sure that people who actually matter have heard it as well. Remember why you are doing this, listen to any feedback you receive, and carry on with your plan.

The Supply Side

As a streamer, I can’t claim any special insights as to the situation faced by developers, so it’s probably best I state my basic understanding of their problem at the start. Discoverability is a problem and so streaming is one tool that people who sell games can use to increase awareness of their game and ultimately sell more copies.

I’m not really equipped for talking about big streamers because I don’t have this perspective, but I imagine there’s an equivalent discoverability problem for attracting big names to cover a game. Paying a streamer does not mean they will like the title, and a given game may not be appealing enough to them for a given reason to ensure coverage. I suspect the exposure granted by a large channel makes this pursuit worth it, but I think there is a lot of value that can be extracted in some overlooked parts of Twitch, and especially for games that are starting from a position of “how do I get anyone to cover my game?” it’s a fine place to start.

When Twitch reported their estimates of the effectiveness of streaming at selling games, mid-tier (33-3333 average concurrent viewers) streams were the most effective at turning views into sales. I only occasionally fall into this tier but my best assumption for this conclusion (if we take the study for granted) would be that the channel is small enough to allow for a more personal touch (the replication of the couch experience mentioned at the top of the Twitch article). Variety channels and ones that cover lesser known or unusual games also tend to have fewer viewers but are better positioned to connect viewers with games they’ll enjoy in their specialty and recommend them. Paying attention to this class of streamer not only connects you with the people who are the most effective at driving sales, but you will be reaching out to streamers who are less likely to be inundated with key requests, making your pitch stand out.

Even as a smaller caster, I have reached a point where I have to decline certain key offers due to a full schedule, and so I’d like to talk about why some games have been covered but not others. I do sometimes get e-mails from specialists (covered below), and of the unsolicited requests these are a little more likely to be taken up. In some of these cases I have developed a bit of a relationship with the manager and so I’ll cover something they’ve had trouble getting people to take up, or they have a good idea of what I’m good at (there is also an inverse of this relationship where I’m more likely to skip e-mails from certain sources, usually because of a lack of professionalism or because the process is too inconvenient). Very few developers have reached out individually, but I never replied to the ones that presented an offer to apply (i.e. it wasn’t an offer for a key, it was an offer to be considered). The only ones I didn’t accept out of the rest were ones that were very obviously generated by a bot (I have yet to receive a MOBA e-mail that has not acknowledged the ‘streaming similar games’ was me streaming Dota 2 as a commentator). A decent template for contacting a streamer isn’t too different the kind of information you’d like if that streamer was contacting you: What is the game? Why is it a good fit? Obviously there are time constraints, but the more a developer conveys they have done their homework, the more inclined I am to accept the offer.

When evaluating key requests there are some basic checks that can be done, but there is a trade off between time and quality in these evaluations. The most common criteria is follower count, but this is a highly overrated measure. Follower count should be used to established that they are a genuine caster and are likely to have some active viewership. VODs are helpful in establishing the broadcaster’s activity in the past two weeks, and can give you an indication of how good they are at sticking to a schedule. Since Twitch VODs now include chat activity, VODs are also more effective at gauging audience engagement in the form of chat participation. VODs will also indicate what the streamer has been playing recently, while highlights will indicate some games they have played in the past. Twitch’s recent rollout of clips also provides insight into how that streamer’s audience perceives the stream (and allowed me to make this video of Johnny Big Time. That’s two mentions in one article. He’d probably be great at selling your game by the way). These are not especially time consuming, but they will give you a high level view as to the consistency of a streamer and provide a snapshot of their cast. If there is time to spare, it is advisable to watch a bit of a VOD or two to gain some insight as to how a cast goes, especially with regards to conduct and style. An investment here can be turned into a list that will grow over time and make this kind of outreach easier in the future.

One final opportunity that appears to missed by developers is reaching out to the existing community. I was a Kickstarter backer for a reasonably big recent release and was separately offered a press key through a service I’m connected to. I reached out to the developer asking if it was possibly to get my key in advance so I could cover the game and not take away one of the limited promotional keys. While I credit them with getting back to me promptly, there was no plan in place to deal with this eventuality. This is a fairly narrow problem, but it does illustrate an important point. Kickstarter backers are likely to be among some of the most enthusiastic ambassadors for a game, and some subset of backers will have streams. Whether you want to avoid situations like the one I described above, or simply want to ensure the number of concurrent viewers is higher when press keys are finally released, looking in your own back yard is an obvious yet often overlooked source of casters.

In summary, reaching out to smaller casters likely to result in coverage that is more effective in translating into sales, and is likely to carry a certain degree of goodwill due to the lack of attention these streamers receive from developers. Instead of focusing on follower counts, VODs, highlights, and clips can provide better insights as to the quality of the cast and the engagement of the viewers.


There are key mailing services and managers of influencers and content creators (or some variation on this title) that will take care of streamer outreach for a fee. In principle I think these services are a very good idea as such a service should be able to build a large, high quality portfolio of streamers and be able to segment them by the type of game they’re best equipped for. The reality is much more mixed. My own personal experience ranges from exceptional firms that have nudged me from indifference to active coverage of a game, to ones who have used the job as a vehicle to raise their personal profile through distributing keys to their stream team and little else. Regrettably, the exceptions aside, most specialists I’ve dealt with tend to no more than any developer can: send out a mass mail and sort by follower count, and so all that is being paid for is a mailing list. This is not to recommend against the use of a specialist, as time is a valuable resource, but if I were responsible for hiring, I would ask searching questions about the criteria for inclusion and who the target audience is.

Possibly as a consequence of the mixed result of specialists, some websites have emerged offering to connect developers with streamers through their platform. This is likely to be a less costly means of reaching out to casters, and if the criteria is simply follower count or some easy to access top level information then this may be effective, but this approach misses out on the personal touch that improves outreach to streamers and underlies their connection to their audience. But so far as getting just a list is concerned, this is probably the most cost effective approach.

Closing Remarks

Discoverability is a problem shared by streamers and games, and so hopefully can create a degree of empathy on both sides which can form the basis of more effective communication. Games that a streamer connects with are the lifeblood of any broadcast, and these broadcasts can help these games stand out to their potential audience. The aim here has been to overcome the lack of attention due to a smaller follower count or crowded marketplace through a tighter focus on the factors that lead to converting follows into purchases.

It should be said that this overview will necessarily be limited by my experience as a smaller caster who actively seeks out unusual or under-covered games. I do have an interest in a more data driven approach to identifying streamers for a game, but have only been able to work with hypotheses. I am looking for an applied case to run this on, and so if you’d like to discuss this, feel free to drop me a line at

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general.

Hot Sex Robot Takes

Ten people in Toronto lost their lives when a man drove a rental truck down a street with the intent of hitting as many people as he could. A screenshot of his Facebook post identifying himself as an incel was verified, Redditors cringed at the quality of mainstream coverage of that community, and commentators took to their keyboards for a fresh set of hot takes.

The takes are a particularly depressing reminder that being dumb and outrageous will generate more attention than a thoughtful and honest effort to engage with any given topic. I will credit one column with bringing my attention to Amia Srinivasan’s article Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?, even if I suspect the author did not read it all the way through, but have no intention of rewarding sloppy thinking with the traffic it so obviously craves. It is sufficient to say are a lot of op-eds talking about sex robots and incels right now, and not one of them has acknowledged that this is a solution that community actually wishes for.

If we are looking for some kind of ur-take, the most likely candidate is Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias : Two Types of Envy. Why include a link just after claiming I don’t want to reward a certain type of article? Mostly because I think Hanson is actually trying to make a point about our attitudes towards income redistribution. Leveraging the Toronto tragedy is tacky, and the analogy between sex and income is unconvincing, but it seems reasonably clear it is intended to provoke deeper consideration of a fairly major policy that most of us take for granted as being good. I am warmer to Srinivasan’s article than Hanson’s since the former taught me things I didn’t know, but I recognize the latter as an effort to make its readers be reflective. Furthermore, it is one of the few articles that directly acknowledges the threat of violence that comes with the incels’ self-pity.

This omission of the violence underpinning everything written in that community is combined with the curious implication that somehow multiple commentators just happened to independently arrive at sex robots as a solution in time to discuss its relative merits. There is no way to know if any of these writers did bother to read about the community, but it difficult to tell which admission is more damning: That they have carefully sanitized the group’s conclusions for their take, or that they are covering a group responsible for multiple acts of violence without bothering to do any research. One can argue the merits of the equivalence Hanson draws between income and sex (for instance, calls for income redistribution being underpinned by threats of violence seems almost axiomatic to someone with a libertarian worldview, but this is not the only motivation for this policy), but he starts with the violence in Toronto and he specifically says the threat of such acts is the tool incels think will achieve their goals.

It is appropriate to describe what is happening in the incel community as young men being radicalized by an online extremist group and carrying out acts of violence. As such it is useful to take them at their word as to their motivations. The Oklahoma City bombing did not seem to inspire think pieces about what McVeigh got right about US foreign policy, and nobody seems to be rushing to ask if IS has any good points to make about slavery, but apparently we can’t just reduce a violent subset of the sexual have-nots to its most toxic form and instead should consider what the Toronto attack means vis-à-vis getting some. In contrast, Srinivasan identifies ways in which our sexual preferences and norms lead to unequal outcomes and the loneliness that entails, all without having to ask whether or not we’re doing enough to keep misogynists happy.

Reducing the conversation to sex robots and the need for incels to have their desires satiated presents a violent group as far more reasonable than it actually is and essentially grants all their premises all in the name of another column and some retweets. Who can seriously look at those posts and say the obvious problem is the quality and availability of masturbatory aids? As it happens, columnists only needed to read the full argument with regards to the sex bots to find a mapping from an average readership to incels. Incels hope for a future with sex bots so “a woman’s only value” falls to near zero due to the availability of alternatives. It’s repellant, it’s obviously wrong, and yet the lived experience of What It’s Like to Be a Really Beautiful Woman reveals this is apparently how beautiful women are actually treated by ‘normies’. Not only does this allow for some soul-searching on the part of men, but creates a stronger link to an incel’s beliefs on which an effort to de-extremize them can be built.

Columnists looking for a particularly sharp edge need not limit their economics study to Hanson, but could instead consider a paper by Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah which found a decrease in sexual violence that coincided with the decriminalization of prostitution. Such a column would not need to resort to science fiction to consider the consequences of the introduction of alternatives for people unable or unwilling to find a traditional partner. This concreteness is exactly why such a column is unlikely to appear in the op-ed pages as it would require the columnist to be accountable for getting things wrong in a way that science fiction does not.

Among the details that have been glossed over in the attack, the reaction of the police officer on the scene is the most interesting. Despite the attacker’s efforts to provoke him to open fire, even asking him to “Kill me”, the officer did not fire his weapon and instead apprehended the suspect. There will be no martyrdom for the Toronto attacker and he will be confronted with the humanity of his victims and the consequences of what he has done. It’s easy to imagine writing that the attacker got what he deserved if the encounter with the officer had gone differently, and yet now I will have to confront his own humanity. This exceptional bit of police work now means that we have a better chance at gaining an insight into why and how these men are being radicalized, and replaces the nascent incel legend with court appearances and consequences.

This is what we are losing in the op-eds about sex robots: The humanity of the victims, the loneliness of the incels, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of our daily conduct and their ideology. The angry response on social media is not a demand that these columnists suspend their right to speech, but that they exercise their right to thought.

Games and Movies

Competency disclaimer: I have no background in game development, but I do have a background in film production. I write articles like this with some trepidation, as the world does not need another player of games telling makers of games how to do their job. However, in so far as the perspective of a former film practitioner is useful, I would love to see any conversation this may provoke in the comments.

While I have no authority to appeal to on this subject, it seems evident that games have been heavily influenced by cinema, particularly James Cameron/George Lucas style blockbusters (and many indies carry direct references to art/independent films that have influenced them). This is an intuitive step because movies convey meaning through a combination of images and sounds, and blockbusters in particular create a level of excitement and spectacle that are the standard for modern entertainment products. Furthermore, tapping into the conventions of cinema gives game developers access to a fairly sophisticated grammar that has taken us from understanding a message in 30 seconds to a mere 5 seconds or less in advertising. While borrowing from film seems like an obvious step, it may not be the most appropriate. What follows is an account of some ways I think cinematic techniques may be inappropriate for games, and some examples of alternatives that have been effective in games I’ve enjoyed.

How does a movie work?

Film theory is a big subject, and the knowledge applied on the film set may never find itself in a book, but there are some basics that find consensus among the practitioners who have written down their thoughts. One useful, idea that emerged was the theory of montage.

Just as Fascists saw the utility of the new technology of radio for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union saw the propaganda benefits of film and dedicated considerable study to it. The theory of montage is best illustrated by an experiment done by a filmmaker named Pudovkin. Pudovkin filmed an actor with a neutral expression looking off camera and then edited this against three separate shots: a girl playing, a casket, and some bread. When viewers saw each clip they would credit the actor with a portrayal of a father’s love for his daughter, or terrible grief at his mother’s death, or unimaginable hunger. The performance gained meaning through the shot that followed it. The filmmaker Eisenstein developed the theory of montage further, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that montage is the juxtaposition of two separate shots to create a separate meaning (if you took an undergraduate philosophy class, you might see a parallel to a common formulation of Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis).

Montage is a useful framework for thinking about how meaning is created in film, but if we’d prefer to divest ourselves of any intellectual commitment with regards to meaning, we can at least use it to illustrate how editing is important and unique to film. I do not say essential as there are famous exceptions such as Rope and Russian Ark that attempt to be ‘one shot’ films, but, of the films that influence games, a large portion of the experience and meaning come from the juxtaposition of specific shots to provoke a particular response. Editing seems to be the one truly unique feature of cinema that sets it apart from theatre or radio. Consider how constant edits to the ticking clocks of the bottles (being opened or ready to fall) create tension in this clip from Notorious:

We can narrow our focus to the components of montage and consider the shots themselves. Even in a film like Rope, the choice of what to show the audience makes all the difference. This includes technical considerations such as the length of lens, depth of field, and exposure, but more importantly it involves the decision of what to include or exclude in the context of what the audience has seen already. This is cinematographer Bill Fraker discussing a famous shot from Rosemary’s Baby:

Divorced from the context of the film (or even away from the big screen), this shot is not likely to have the same effect as it did on the original audience, but it should serve to illustrate the point. Any camera is perfectly capable of conveying information, but when wielded by someone who understands the audience’s perspective the result is a special experience and one that is unique to motion pictures.

Shots and edits in games

Having considered the essential tools of shots and edits in film, we can consider how these might apply to games. At worst, they don’t fit at all, and at best they work in a very narrow sense for a type of game that has gone out of fashion. Cinematics are present in games, and shots and edits are used quite effectively to bring about certain emotional responses or to convey information, it is very difficult to say that this is the game so much as it is the game part being put on hold to provide context for the next interactive part. Shots and edits are out of place in games, and this makes it difficult to claim that cinema is a good reference point for games.

This is an example of a movie that almost certainly would have been better as a game:

Aside from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, which both presented the first person perspective as found footage to justify edits, there aren’t a lot of well known first person movies, and it’s easy to see why. This perspective gives up the most powerful tools for creating meaning in the filmmaker’s toolbox and really only gains a gimmick in return. Yet anyone who has played Amnesia knows that one of the biggest annoyances present in The Lady in the Lake is one of the most discussed experiences of the game. While moviegoers’ patience wore thin watching Philip Marlowe open yet another door, Amnesia’s players lost their mind fumbling with the game’s doors while monsters chased them.

Games do not directly lend themselves to edits beyond loading screens, which are motivated for technical reasons rather than narrative. This is not a failing of games, as it would be very unusual to be playing a game and suddenly have the perspective change. One case where this worked well was the prologue for Battlefield 1, where dying would move you to another soldier on the battlefield, but even this excellent choice could not be sustained for the rest of the game. Most, if not all, of the interesting choices with regards to shots are also absent from games since the player is in control of the camera. It is not possible to have a Rosemary’s Baby moment in most games because the player controls the framing.

There are exceptions, and it would be much more difficult to make this case in the past as Resident Evil, among others, used fixed camera angles that allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds (Resident Evil also readily reveals its inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Lucio Fulci). The introduction of Chris Walker in Outlast also relies on a forced perspective and, while it is technically a non-interactive moment of the game, is fairly seamless in its use. Of course, Resident Evil has long since moved from pre-rendered backgrounds, and it may be better to say that if cinema is to be a reference point it is most effective in the horror genre, rather than for games in general.

This is not to argue that cinema is useless for gaming, or that it should not be used as a reference point at all, but rather point out the limitations of this reference. With fewer technological constraints it becomes easier to recreate our favourite movie moments in an interactive format. Yet, as in the case of Resident Evil, the more effective use of cinematic techniques were driven by technological constraints. The Mass Effect series has generated more alien worlds and species than all the Star Wars films, but it is still not clear how this moment from The Empire Strikes back could be realized in a game by anything but a cutscene:

Alternatives to movies

A movie without shots and edits seems a lot closer to a theatrical production or a radio play. As it happens, radio drama contains more parallels to how stories and experiences occur in games than movies. Like film, technology is essential to radio drama, not just for its broadcast, but for its creation (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in addition to being hilarious, was the first radio drama to use stereo and it made a huge difference for that particular story). Critically, radio is confronted with the fact that it only has sound to convey its ideas. The absence of a visual component means there is always a space for the audience to create part of the story in their head. The difference may be best illustrated with old story in advertising of a radio and TV advertiser arguing over the merits of their respective media. The radio advertiser wins the argument by proposing a commercial of a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream rolling into a Lake Michigan that has been drained and filled with hot chocolate, after which the Royal Canadian Air Force then flies overhead with a 10 ton maraschino cherry which is dropped on top of the mountain to the applause of 25,000 onlookers.

When I reflect on the stories and moments in gaming that have engaged me the most and seem to be unique to gaming they tend to be cases with enough suggestion to get my imagination going, but not enough to think for me. Sunless Sea is well known for its writing, but I am particularly fond of the decision to give enough time to reflect on and digest what happened between ports (even if this lull was a complaint among some players). While it isn’t out yet, In Other Waters restricts your perspective to an AI assisting the xenobiologist, and has a companion book to provide another glimpse of the world. The demo was visually attractive in its own right, but it also gave me enough to imagine what my in game companion was describing. Cultist Simulator goes even further than the previous two by keeping time running and trimming down the text. While the game is entirely card and token based, there has not only been enough to keep me talking about what’s going on in the world during a stream, but also to make fairly clear mappings to my own life. Finally, Paradox Grand Strategy games like Crusader Kings II are, in essence, maps, stats, and text boxes, and yet the most rewarding way to play is to role-play your ruler and go along for the ride as the events and text provide more momentum for your imagination.

While one might argue that pausing to read text is a poor man’s cinematic, the fact remains that in all of these games the player is given the interesting choices to make, and there is enough information given to keep the imagination going during the real time components. These games play to gaming’s strengths by remaining interactive, while still being able to tell a story (unlike Space Invaders or Offworld Trading Company which are pure interactivity).

What can movies teach?

Movies can be very helpful in specific technical areas. Obviously if a game contains cinematics, the team would be wise to learn the techniques. Movies by good cinematographers will teach valuable lessons in colour and lighting, though these cinematographers are often inspired by great painters (especially the Dutch masters). There is also no accounting for the sources of inspiration, and so at an individual level movies may provide the creative spark that eventually becomes a very good game.

However, cinema’s use as a reference is likely due more to its dominant position rather than its suitability for gaming. Montage allows an audience’s imagination to be engaged as in the case of radio above, but this technique is not available to gaming due to its interactivity. It is more appropriate to seek out other examples of how authors have engaged our imaginations in real time if we are looking for applications to gaming. Seeking inspiration from examples like radio drama allow us to make games that rise above ‘movies but with the essential features removed.’

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. In this case, and Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil. I have also received press keys for Offworld Trading Company and Crusader Kings II DLC.

The Numbers Game

Follower numbers are either the most or least important metric to a stream depending on who you are talking to at the moment. This isn’t unique to streaming as we’re perfectly happy to make scorecards for anything: Citation counts, CPU benchmarks, salaries, horsepower, awards, sales, years, credentials, ELO, ancestry, land, height, if it can be measured, we’ll press it into the service of gaining status. Such measurements are never in short supply and are convenient to employ since arguments over methodology don’t carry the same appeal as the blood sport of showing someone they’re not worth as much as they thought they were. This post is going to be about the boring discussion of methodology.

Defining the question

If the question is “What measure will allow me to lord my status over another and make them feel inferior?” then the answer is specific to the person you’re talking to. The fact that we insist on asking the wrong questions results in the untrue and unhelpful assertions that follower counts don’t matter or are the only thing that matters. We are awash in data, but we seem to be short on interesting questions to answer with it.

Is my stream a success? Give me a definition of success, and I’ll find you a measure that can answer that. Fame and popularity are perfectly legitimate goals, and are more likely to correlate with measures like follower count. Does success mean respect? This seems like it would correlate with fame or follower counts, but clearly Rowan Atkinson’s fame is quite different from Stephen Hawking’s. Of course, if one is streaming in order to be respected, there may be more fundamental questions as to whether or not this is the best way to pursue that goal.

For most people streaming is a hobby. The fact that it is a hobby does not mean that a streamer cannot be ambitious or aspire to turn that hobby into a profession, but it does help to provide some perspective. Model trains are a hobby. It is conceivable that one might aspire to own the best model train set. While I’m not clear on what the criteria for the best model train set might be, I can at least hypothesize its existence. The pursuit of the best train set may provide tremendous satisfaction despite the fact that a comparison to all other train sets is impossible. Here the measurement would be against whatever Platonic ideal of train set the hobbyist aspires to. The only time we would say this ambition was a problem was if the failure to own the best train set brought more distress than enjoyment, and this would be because hobbies are supposed to be enjoyable.

Unlike train sets, streaming necessarily involves a social dimension, and so followers seem to align more closely with certain goals. Enjoyment seems to be the main goal but let’s entertain the possibility of a goal like having the best stream for a moment. What does that look like? Maybe we can warm up with an easier question: What’s the best movie? Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man. We can’t definitively answer this because it’s a matter of taste. If streaming is like any other broadcast medium then popularity is not a necessary or sufficient condition for quality, though it is for commercial success.

If we fail to keep a clear question in mind then we are unlikely to find the data we need and we will be susceptible to others telling us what we should care about. Priorities can change, but in addition to keeping us grounded, well formed questions enable us to benefit the most from the information we have and achieve our goals.

What followers mean

Someone following your channel means that at some point they pushed in a button to select into seeing your channel listed on a subset of all Twitch channels should the user select that tab. Usually this is not what people think when they see that someone followed, but this is the only certain knowledge we have. It says nothing about their intentions to ever visit the channel again (although on average it is more likely they will return), nor does it say anything about their state of mind when following or unfollowing. For instance, I assume that behind every follow there is a remarkably attractive woman who has been driven wild with lust through the quality of my content, and I am happy to report I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

We are usually safe making a few assumptions about followers. It’s not unfair to see it as a vote of support that says “I like your stuff enough to want to know when you’re live again” but this is not always the reason. When another channel (especially a larger channel) raids, there will be an influx of followers who will never see your content again, since the follow is more a show of support for the channel that brought them there. On the rare occasions I draw the ire of a larger streamer on a social media platform, I will inevitably see a few additional followers on the channel. Even if these were benign (they usually aren’t), my conduct outside of Twitch does not always align with my behavior on stream, and so the channel may not be a good fit.

A follow is basically a probability. It’s the probability that someone will come back and you’ll have a chance to entertain them again. They may keep coming back, they may not, and sometimes it may even be because of something you had direct control over. When someone watches a stream they become a concurrent viewer, which will determine the ranking of the game on the browse page, and the ranking of the stream for the subset of streamers who are playing that given game (or category). Of course, concurrent viewers can only be measured when a stream is live, and so while this is the measure Twitch cares the most about with regards to partnership and their own sorting, the measure is not as convenient when attempting to use it to compare yourself to others.

The attention paid to the probabilistic viewers in the form of followers is out of proportion to the actual increase in probability that someone will watch. There are billions of people in the world right now who will never know about a given broadcast. The probability of a given Twitch visitor watching your stream specifically is infinitesimally small. While the probability for a given follower is higher than a given Twitch viewer, our inclination assign a super-fan probability to each follower is clearly mistaken. In addition to the inflated probability we assign, we overvalue the measure in general since it is the most convenient point of comparison to our peers.

When I started on cast I had no followers, and occasional views. Sometimes people would watch and sometimes they would follow. The likelihood of them returning was somewhat high since there were no reasons for them to follow other than enjoying the content, but even then it was a while before I could stream with the knowledge that there would be at least one concurrent viewer throughout the cast. Part of my growth also came from connecting with other streamers, becoming involved in their casts as a viewer, and moderating some of them. JessyQuil has and continues to move heaven and earth to draw attention to my cast, but despite our similarities there will be a subset of our viewership who likes one but does not like the other and this is fine. What this is intended to illustrate is that if I was unconcerned with the viewers who were not watching when I started casting (my only potential source of viewership), then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start worrying about them once they include me in the subset of broadcasts they’re informed of when they hit the following tab.

This does not mean that followers are without value or aren’t desirable to have more of. It is intended to be more precise as to exactly what it means to have a follower and illustrate how easy it is to let poorly formed questions assign an undue importance to this metric. If you are looking for a proxy of success defined as popularity, then followers can provide some estimate of what the concurrent viewership will be. But concurrent viewership is not an unknown variable as Twitch will report this to you as a broadcaster directly, display it live during the stream (and services will report their estimate of a concurrent viewership for some casters). This is a lamentably common example of a frequently asked (and highly overrated) question being answered in a misleading way with inappropriate measures.

Measures of success on Twitch

Twitch’s preferred metric for success is concurrent viewers. We know this because this is how they determine placement on the list of streamers playing a given game and is the measure that determines partnership (beyond “knowing a guy” which isn’t measureable in the same way). These align with Twitch’s goals of having as many people as possible on the site, watching ads, subscribing to channels, and cheering with bits. Intuitively it’s not the worst way to identify channels with broad appeal either since, all things being equal, people will leave channels that aren’t entertaining them, while remaining in a channels means you at least consider it suitable background to whatever else you’re doing.

On the other hand very little of this actually has to do with quality. If you are looking for quality, go watch a Stanley Kubrick movie. If the evening’s entertainment simply must be Twitch then you are likely to notice that the streams you like (likely the ones you follow) are not necessarily the most popular on the platform or even in their category. Twitch’s interests are not the same as the viewer’s interests and this is reflected in the kinds of channels you are driven to. Looking closer at the simple ranking by viewer count we see that the penalty for failing to keep a viewer in your channel (and potentially on the Twitch platform) is fairly steep in the sense that there is an active penalty in terms of placement on the channel listings. In contrast, the behavior that is rewarded is relatively minor. A viewer does not need to be engaged, entertained, or really even present so long as their browser remains on the channel.

A very common measure of success on Twitch would be partnership. If this is true for you, then yes, concurrent viewers matter quite a bit and you need to consider how you will maximize this. There are a number of well known games that people who are pushing for partner status will play to boost these numbers, though I think many partners will tell you that gaining the partner status is the start of the journey, not the destination. It’s worth noting that in addition to fairly well known exploits like bot viewers, streamers will employ tricks like embedding their streams in ads on game related wikis to boost their concurrent viewers. While I think for some set of streamers (even hobbyists), wanting to become a Twitch Partner is an understandable goal, the singular focus on concurrent views avoids asking the interesting questions about why this role is more important than any other potential ambition.

The only information partnership conveys is that an Amazon affiliate has decided to share ad revenue, enable subscriptions, and emoticon slots at some point in the lifetime of the channel (noting that the requirements for partnership have changed over time but at present there are no requirements for maintaining that status). This status does not imbue the broadcaster with unique insights, work ethic, or any special moral authority beyond whatever the audience willingly surrenders to them. There are also no assurances that people will actually use those subscription options. Audiences need to be built and maintained regardless of partnership status.

Partnership likely has the best alignment with Twitch’s priorities (though, of course, the health of Twitch is not directly tied to a given partner or broadcaster except in the aggregate), but there are other groups who have different goals. While developers may not want to broadcast on the platform, they specifically would specifically like to see the largest number of people who did not know about the game wind up buying the game, which is roughly correlated with viewership (though more on this in a future article). Hobbyists will likely have private goals that are unique to their casts, or more abstract ones as “Be the best.” To speak to my own case (and this has partly been shaped by changes I’ve made over time), I stream to show people things that interest me and hopefully convey why I find them interesting and help them to see things that way too. Streaming is also a decent way to improve on your presentation skills, and so the purpose of a channel might just simply be to provide these opportunities to strengthen these abilities.

Using measures profitably

One of my least favourite features of getting involved in communities of streamers is to see otherwise nice people behave in selfish or dishonest ways in hopes of gaining a few new followers. Some parties can be depressing affairs where it feels like a secret game was announced where you need to give away all your cards and accept as few as possible, or that having a conversation with a person below a certain follow count will transmit a terrible disease. Online this kind of behavior is seeps through into broadcast content through careless talk about ‘loyalty’ to the stream, view bots, or unwelcome self-promotion in other channels. These are depressingly common cases of people who have mistaken the measure being used with the end goal itself.

There are obvious problems with the kinds of behaviour outlined above, but they also carry with them their own corrective mechanisms. A streamer who is constantly complaining about viewer or follow numbers is simply not going to be that fun to watch, and either they will grip tighter on their remaining views and lose them, or they’ll take the hint and lighten up. Beyond simply being unpleasant to be around, this kind of focus on a follower count, or a similar metric, also leaves a streamer vulnerable to unscrupulous actors. Follow for follow schemes, view bots, and stream teams that bear a resemblance to pyramid schemes are examples of this and seem to have a robust customer base of people who have mistaken their metrics for their accomplishments.

Considering my own goals, a high number of concurrent viewers is desirable as it means the message is getting out there and I have an opportunity to share things with a larger audience than before. However, this goal also provides some very good limits on the composition of this viewership. Since I want to share the game with this audience, one that wants to tell me how to play the game or do some kind of ‘Twitch plays’ scenario is not going to fit well with this format. This does not mean they do not have a place on Twitch, but it does mean that they would be better suited to another channel, since I am going to be frustrated by them, and they will likely be frustrated not to have their expectations met. I also do find comparing concurrent views useful, but only against other casts I have done.

Comparing broadcasts is a particularly interesting case as the following dilemma will hopefully illustrate. I generally like playing adventure games in the style of Life is Strange or The Wolf Among Us on cast as it lets me talk about the story with people who may or may not have experienced it before. However, these kinds of games also tend to have a lower average concurrent viewership than a strategy game like X-COM or Crusader Kings II. The most likely reason for this is that I am competing with the game’s dialogue and so have extended periods of camless silence followed by periods of wandering so I can say what’s on my mind (so people wanting gameplay are bored to tears, and people who want to hear me talk have to wait until after the dialogue). To complicate things, the chat activity is also quite a bit higher, especially at the end, indicating that while the viewership is smaller, those who stay are engaged with the content. Viewership is down (on average), but the engagement is deeper than the aforementioned strategy game which does not inspire the same kind of chat response.

I have the data, but what’s the question I’m asking? Probably something to the effect of “Should I keep doing adventure games?” This is a simplified account of how I came to decide that these games should be ones I do as a special event or at a time I know regulars will be able to watch, since it will have the most impact. Concurrent views alone were not sufficient to measure the total engagement with the ideas behind the stream, and so chat activity (as well as more general feedback) needed to be taken into consideration as well.

The most popular measures tend to be ones that do not convey a lot of information. Take two random streamers as the top of games currently in the top ten on Twitch and compare the number of concurrent viewers. Is the one with more viewers better than the other? Assuming you even have an answer to this, the concurrent views are not likely going to be the deciding factor. In reality, the comparison by views is meaningless simply because there are so many other variables, and yet this comparison is made far more by streamers than any other mentioned so far.

Sadly, there are no shortcuts to doing this kind of analysis effectively. It requires honesty, both in terms of asking proper questions and considering the appropriate measures. This is not an exercise in moving the goalposts. Streams can shrink and die, and this information will be seen in the numbers as well as successes. The most effective questions are going to be ones that are measureable and oriented towards specific goals. What is the best time to stream is a good question to ask (and note that if you do radically change the time you broadcast, know that you’re likely going to see a dip in viewership while you re-establish yourself at the new time). Quality indicators can be tricky, but measuring things like how much you talk, the number of times you found you were lost for words, or the number of books and articles you read relevant to a game or topic you were going to cover for cast are all things you can use to identify if you are becoming a better presenter.

Moving beyond high scores

Broadcasters are best served when they stop looking at Twitch as some terrible massively multiplayer online arcade game with leaderboards, and instead use measurements against well defined personal goals. Using numbers to compare yourself against others only means bad questions are being asked and that the measurements will always be changed so you come out on top. Streamers can instead use the information provided by Twitch, their viewers, and their own private measurements to throw aspects of their broadcast into sharper relief.

This change in emphasis is also helpful when interacting with other broadcasters. A comparison of concurrent views or follower counts is adversarial and not a great conversation starter. Talking about unexpectedly successful casts, or communities that have active and positive Twitch viewers are conversations more in line with people’s original intentions in broadcasting, and are more likely to result in a friendship or at least a collaboration. Since communities and networking remain one of the most effective ways to grow an audience, this shift in perspective also carries a greater chance at channel growth in the long run.

On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.