The Celebrification of Developers
As indie developers become public personalities, what damaging effects does it have on their personal and professional lives?
The games industry is undergoing a celebrity revolution with the emergence of personalities open to public adoration and derision. But is it good for games? Or, more importantly, the health and happiness of the individuals involved?
Growing up in dull semi-detached England, with football down the park, fish fingers for tea and "Hello World" on the Commodore 64, I was very ordinary. I was a little geeky, a bit chubby, but very average. Every night I would lie in bed wishing for all the trappings of wealth (an Amiga 500) and fame (girls).
"The indie revolution has attracted characters with creative vision more akin to Hollywood than the spare bedroom"
It was painful that my music and sports stardom faded quickly due to an obvious dearth of talent, but as I started my career in games I heard over and over how the press lamented the lack of rock star game developers.
The people behind games have never been very visible. In the 70s these were solitary men with beards, and as titles grew more complex they became a vast sea of men with beards. Their stories were usually pretty boring: they made games because they liked playing with computers. Often they were introverts, humble and dull. They had no interest in fame and the public had little interest in them.
However, the indie revolution, sparked to existence by a perfect mix of access to audience and technology, has attracted characters with creative vision more akin to Hollywood than the spare bedroom. Game makers need to build audiences for the success of their endeavours and they can do that by being a face. And whilst Jonathan Blow's jawline is much less refined as, say, Brad Pitt's, many developers are becoming celebrities.
This 'celebrification' is enlivening making games and giving players role models, drawing more people in to development, especially indie and auteured games. This shift is proving more prosperous than any Skillset-accredited course or government pot could ever hope for. We are making men sitting in pants at their laptops for 12 hours a day as glamorous as it could be.
Creating luminaries will lead to all the benefits that more people in games can bring: a bigger and brighter community, plus new and fresh talent making exciting games. However, celebritydom demands storms, turmoil and gossip.
"This shift is proving more prosperous than any Skillset-accredited course or government pot could ever hope for"
Today, there's no shortage of scuffles, gaffs and controversies swamping out of the indie scene, fuelled by Twitter and picked up and over by the press. Successful developers are exposed to the skinner box of worship and animosity every time they open Twitter, Reddit or a forum.
As I approach my thirties my idea of what constitutes success and happiness has changed from external to personal measures and the strength of my relationships. The very idea of celebrity and constant spotlight seems like hell.
I don't follow the gossip mags, but I'm exposed enough to see many lives of celebrities slide as constant pressure and relationships warped by their status cause them to have to deal with stress, anxiety and depression whilst deluded, distant and constantly and publicly scrutinised.
Already we've seen our first casualty. Phil Fish, in withdrawing from the industry, signalled that his newfound notoriety was overwhelming and bringing such negativity it was impacting his life.
Alternatively, I have seen wonderfully talented game makers find success and become surrounded by sycophants as their follower numbers climb, building their ego and creating an echo chamber of self-confirmation. Each more confident statement garners praise and attention, building a Pavlovian feedback loop and ultimately arrogance and narcissism, distancing acquaintances and friends. This risks placing the individuals in deluded isolation, having lost the ability to be self-critical or work with others.
Whilst the notoriety afforded to devs is comparatively mild (Notch at 1.2 million Twitter followers isn't even in the top 1,000 accounts on the service), it is growing. Fame on the global scale we see today is an entirely new and artificial construct that we as societies have little understanding of how to control, or as individuals deal with.
However, movie studios and music labels have had nearly a century of dealing with what the limelight puts a person and their relationships through. They've created their own supporting industries of public relation professionals, image managers, stress coaches and rehab clinics - plus many experienced veterans of fame. Yet the games industry has almost nothing for dealing with eminence.
"Successful developers are exposed to the skinner box of worship and animosity every time they open Twitter, Reddit or a forum"
This may all sound hyperbolic when compared to a Britney Spears head-shaving meltdown. However, there's an undeniable trend that the new wave of developers are more recognisable than previous generations. Notch and Fish are more in the public eye and more accessible than Wright or Molyneux ever have been.
There's a symbiotic relationship between the press, developers and the fans that is forming and will undoubtedly boom over the coming years. The press want to create engaging stories, the players want idols and villains, and game makers need an audience.
From this mix new fame hungry and PR savvy game makers will rise. They will gain incredible levels of success but they may also be unable to deal with the personal challenges that brings with them, and we'll have no idea of how to support them. We're at risk of hurting those that we attempt applaud. So be careful what you wish for.