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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.

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Latest comments (29)

I think it's interesting that even the most famous "celebrity" developers are still fairly abstract figures. Compare them to high profile (or even medium profile) people in other creative fields and there's very little attention paid to who these developers are as people. Profiles of film directors or musicians, artists or authors, tend to focus on the person. Who are they, where did they come from and how does that influence their art? That doesn't happen in games. It's mostly "This person who made that game and said this in an interview". It's all about the product, about the business, about the technical process, and rarely about the deeper and more human creative impulses.

I'm not saying that knowing Phil Fish's life story would have changed anything - God knows, it probably would have made it worse - or that fans truly "know" their favourite bands or actors because of interviews, but there's still a definite layer of abstraction with regards to the people who make games that you don't see in other media, and it's much easier to attack an abstraction than it is to attack a person.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
The games industry is undergoing a celebrity revolution with the emergence of personalities open to public adoration and derision.
That seems to be putting it a bit strongly if you ask me. Ask a random person on the street to name you a single game developer, chances are they won't have a clue.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
I have done this.
At Imagine in the early 1980s I made the bosses, David Lawson and Mark Butler, very well known. Then extended this to staff like Eugene Evans and John Gibson.
At Codemasters I made the Darling brothers into minor celebrities and then did the same for the Oliver Twins.
In addition I have consistently raised the profile of the key people behind most games that I have marketed.

It definitely makes marketing a whole lot easier. The public want stories that involve people, not stories about things. Especially abstract things like games. Just look at any tabloid newspaper to see the truth of this.
It is important not to do too much publicity for publicity's sake stuff. It is essential to tie the person back to their game some of the time.
Also once you have created your celebrity the media want them all the time, so you have to ration them.
And celebrity isn't permanent. You get forgotten very quickly if you don't work at it.

There are other advantages of celebrity. Politicians want some of your stardust. I remember Margaret Thatcher inviting Eugene Evans to 10 Downing Street. And the people in our industry who receive honours from the Queen are the ones with the best publicity, not the ones who have done most for the industry.
Become famous enough and you get special treatment from hotels and airlines!

In our industry we do not create personalities or celebrities anywhere near in proportion to our size and the reach of our output. A lot of this is down to the personalities of many development staff, who shun the limelight and don't have big egos. Which is a pity because we would be far better off as an industry if we had recognisable faces to represent us.
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Show all comments (29)
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I worked with Eugene for years before starting Rubicon, he never mentioned that.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
The ones looking for fame are usually lacking in the game making department. Rarely coders, but I have seen a couple who are twitter follower /press hungry. Creates bad team dynamics in my experience.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend8 years ago
Luckily most of the 'names' we have in the games industry are there based on their contribution to creating games and just as long as it stays like that I have no problem with a figure head for products. As Sandy mentions though; this kind of fame could be a very dangerous thing and attractive to the more outgoing and maybe less skilled individual.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 8 years ago
We just need a few big public examples of the cost of how we act on social media.

John Romero was bad enough during the Ion Storm days, could you imagine if he had twitter back then? Tomorrows hot shots just need to see examples of fail from today's hotshots.

We are seeing every specialist industry whether sport, politics or music going through this problem. This is not a games industry centric issue. It is a self correcting problem and will solve itself.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
Bleh... a game creators fame should be based around what they create, not themselves. Alot of times as an artist or creator, the worst thing you can do is feed your ego. To big of an ego affects your work and your personality towards others, especially to those in the field who might one day be available to give you a hand when your down in the dumps if things dont go right for you. I also believe that remaining humble and open to different points of view is better for your work. Fame isnt always a good thing and sometimes remaining out of the spotlight, out of twitter, facebook bolds well for the person.

For what its worth, fill fish isnt making another FEZ game thanx to twitter. He could as easily kept his mouth shut or deactivated his twitter account and simply made another game. Let the game do the talking, just as the first game did. But trying to be the Piccasso or Warhol of gaming really doesnt work to well.
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If developers want to have it be about them and not the product, there is a whole industry that does this. Just hire a publicist, but the fact is, the most interesting thing about most developers is their creations. We arent particularly cool or good looking or any other of those superficial tabloid requirements, we are just people who love making games. I dont see anything wrong with that.

Every dev. I ever known worth their weight just wanted to be left alone to make games, money was only useful so they could eat have a family and make more games.

Who the hell wants to be famous anyway. You at that point just become a marketing tool, and a pretty inconvenient one to if you ask me.
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Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software8 years ago
Todd, I wish they had a LIKE button here :)
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The problem with notoriety is keeping yourself legit. I think it's a lot easier if you are a lone developer to keep an honest relationship with the public. Where it gets dodgy is where a game is a product of a team. In my experience I've met and worked with many 'geniuses' (whatever that means) and about 2% of them are known to the press. I'm very happy if Fireproof's games are recognised by our industry peers and the public but I would run a mile from the thought of being personally recognised on the street. Singling out a figurehead from gaming teams as a big genius distorts the reality of what it takes to make the majority of games. Worse, personal fame encourages the idea of the idealised, perfect person and Im a big believer in imperfection and failure as part of experimentation. And as a figurehead, if you agree to the path of personal fame you have to play it out forever, even when you (inevitably) release a bad game or one day just can't hack the bullshit of it all. I'd rather we stay relatively unknown, let our games speak for us and keep the ability to have room to fail. Why bring more pressure on yourself, games should be made from a happy place and narcissism, self-doubt and vanity need to fuck right off.
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Donald Dalley Freelance writer 8 years ago
Who the hell wants to be famous anyway.
As I read through these comments, it seems we are discussing introverts vs extroverts. An introvert just wants to be left alone to develop in solitude, out of the limelight. Extroverts? Well, just keep it all in perspective, guys and gals. ;)
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Jason Avent Studio Head / Creative Director, TT Games Publishing8 years ago
People don't care who makes the games they play. They care about quality. One man bands are to be admired by the game dev community though. Making a successful game by yourself when other people are using teams is bloody clever. If they don't want celebrity though (and I'm not sure it's ever really healthy), they should only engage with their audience as a corporation might - after PR training and only when it's absolutely necessary for promotion or garnering play test feedback. Otherwise it's a bit of a mug's game.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
Damaging effects?

How about the effect of gaining creative power in the industry?
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
@Dave Herod:

Why do you quant types make the classic mistake of judging the future based on the past?

Do you know that in 1900 if you asked who "starred" in this or that movie, nobody would know. Today, they know.
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Will Luton8 years ago
Notch's 1.2 million Twitter followers and all the consumer press column inches Phil Fish has received recently would support that many players are interested who is behind the games they play.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 8 years ago
This is a natural step on the evolution of the medium. I don't see why game designers should stay anonymous. The important thing is to remember that while a game idea may start with one person, we mustn't forget the team effort.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
@Tim Carter
"Quant types?"
Who said anything about the past or the future? "is undergoing" suggests the present to me, and right now I don't see any game devs being of any significant relevance to anyone outside the industry or the more hardcore gamers.
As for comparing today with 1900, they didn't exactly have widespread media coverage, mass marketing back then. Today we do have those things and yet the average game customer still couldn't care less who made their games, so that seems a pointless comparison.
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Kevin Huang Website editor, Perfect World Co. Ltd.8 years ago
I think your article reflects an emerging global trend in the game industry.

In China, there are also many 'pop stars' in the game industry who are fond of expressing their ideas through Xinlang mircroblog(a bit like Facebook)or other social media platforms. However, unlike Notch or Phil Fish, most of them are not developers, but C-management officials:). They do not only talk about game-related news; they make comments on other social phenomenon or show their clothes, furniture, cars, thinking of life- almost on a daily basis. For example,

1. It seems we people are easy to be angry, easy to get frustrated, and we care about money very much.-from CEO of a mobile game studio.
2. Well done! Whose life is not a game? –from CEO of another mobile game studio

Real developers, in contrast, are still 'invisible' in China.

Sometimes I wonder, how can the posts of game ‘pop stars’ be related to games. But a sad fact is, as a website editor, I need to ‘repost’ their nonsense talks, because they can bring in traffic to my site.

BTW, Mr Will Luton, will you consider writing something about China’s game industry in the future?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kevin Huang on 20th August 2013 6:22am

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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
You have to think from the perspective of a member of the public.
Which works best "XYZ announce their new side scroller Fracking Fun" or "Justin Bieber can't sleep at night, his brain is so busy on the design of his new side scroller "Fracking Fun" ?
People relate best to people. Less to things and even less to ideas.
Putting a face behind a product humanises it.

In the game industry we are very bad at it. So we have a major weakness compared with all the grown up IP industries that use personality relentlessly. Because it works.
The naivety of some of the comments above is astounding. We are a business. We have to pay the rent. IP products are about visibility and emotional engagement. Personality is the best and easiest way to achieve this. So we need to get much, much better at building and maintaining celebrity.
And we will. Because of Darwinian survival of the fittest. Game publishing now has a very low barrier to entry. Being a mega corporation no longer matters. So those that succeed will be those with competitive advantage. Using personalities to market products is a very powerful advantage.
If you don't believe me look at 22 Cans and Godus. There are very many studios in Britain of a similar size and importance working on games. I can think of several in Leamington Spa. But Godus gets more publicity than all the others put together because they use the power of celebrity.
And really 22 Cans are only scratching the surface of what is possible. They aren't really on the horizon of the mainstream media. Our products are ubiquitous and mass market now and this is where we need to be. 20 seconds on Chris Evans R2 show is worth more than the front cover of every gaming magazine.

So I predict the next few years will see several new highly successful gaming brands built around celebrity. They will be the Beatles, the Rolling Stones of our industry.

And if anyone wants help in achieving this just give me a ring!
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Bruce is right in most things he says here, but there might be a sweetspot where the mixture of celebrity and price for a video game works best. Similar to how there is a price where a licensed game on iOS will sell, no matter how bad it is.

Indy games cost between $5 to $15, meaning the scrutiny towards the product coming from the player is considerably less than buying the n-th iteration of a $80 product.

You can probably sell a $5 game by merely giving two interesting interviews of what you were trying to do and where the game failed. For a $60 game, that is out of the question. From a production standpoint, you have a more interesting video game show, if the games are crazy (Patrik Klepek's Worth Playing comes to mind) and the developers candid and not under the same pressure than some stressed EA or Activision developer spouting out a memorized script.

off to gamescom then, visit the zoo.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 20th August 2013 9:21am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
Just ftr, most indy games cost between $1 and $3
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
Bruce is right about people caring more about people than things, but it's certainly a lot harder to create an association between a game and the person who made it. Justin Bieber isn't really comparable because he IS his product. He's absolutely inseparable from what's making the money. If he's making noises (I won't call it music) it's his voice you hear. If he's on a stage or on tv, you can see him. If he made a game, for all you know someone else could have done all the work and he just claimed credit for it. In a movie, everyone knows the actors and to a slightly lesser extent, the directors, but barely anyone knows who the stunt coordinator is even if they're one of the best in the world at their job. As far as the majority of consumers care, games just make themselves. I'm not really commenting on whether that's a good or bad thing, just that I don't see any real evidence of any "celebrities" now outside of a very small microcosm.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
@Dave Herod

Thanks for that. I can only put so much in each post!
With TV, movies and pop music the person is, to some degree, the product. So celebrity is inevitable. With games we can be anonymous and hide behind the product. Which, unfortunately, is what we do.
However there is an IP entertainment industry that is very similar to ours in this area. And that is animated movies and television.
Here you see Disney going so far as to name his business after himself to project his personal brand image. And it worked. Also he made his animators famous and made documentaries about them:
Then there is Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit creations. He uses his celebrity relentlessly to push his products.
And the Simpsons. Matt Groening is famous, as are the people doing the voices. And they use celebrities within the cartoon all the time. Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Rupert Murdoch, Stephen Hawking, Tony Blair, the list goes on and on.

We could and should be doing all of this. And, to a degree, people like Michael Acton Smith and Torsten Reil are going down this road. And it is working fabulously well for them.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
On the other hand, look at the backlash recently from Visual Effects workers in movies, finally sick of being underpaid and unrecognised for their work while pampered actors get all the glory and reward. A game is a team effort, do we really want one or two people from the team raised up to celebrity status leaving everyone else feeling bitter because they don't get anywhere near the same recognition despite doing just as much, if not more work?
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend8 years ago

Yep, some individuals are championing this developer celebrity as if it is something we HAVE to do in order to survive, like it is some kind of right. Yea, keep dreaming. The games industry is NOT the movie industry and should not operate like it does. I think the movie hierarchy is a disgusting example of what is wrong with the entertainment industry (obviously not including ourselves) and how the work of many gets accredited to a single person.

We don't need it and it will do nothing to improve the games we make. I really hope that we never go down the road to this perverse manipulation of talent to prop up someone elses ego.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
In my experience on console games, when it comes to that time in the dev cycle where people are getting credited for their work, the desires and intentions for this kind of thing are usually revealed. I always laugh when I see names pop up before a game starts. For me it's like a dev blacklist. Never a good idea to put your name there in my opinion. Consumers simply dont care, and other devs worth their salt will probably think less of you for it. Some people just can't resist though. :)
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 8 years ago
Developers are not performers.

The popularity of their work has no intrinsic link to their charisma or beauty.

How many famous living artists can you name?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gareth Eckley on 23rd August 2013 3:56pm

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Eyal Teler Programmer 8 years ago
Just found this article. It's an interesting topic. I don't know about celebrity status, but Kickstarter has certainly made developers a lot more visible. I know some people knew the people behind the games, but I really had no idea who Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo or Jane Jensen were, even though I knew their games. Now I not only know who they are, I also know what they look and sound like. That extends to much less known devs. I know who Ross Tunney is, for example, and before Kickstarter I probably would never have heard of even his games.

I think that in the long run this does help my connection with the games, and it certainly helps these people get money from me. I gave money to Tim Schafer partly because I found him funny, to Brian Fargo partly because he came up with Kicking it Forward, and I keep giving money to Ross Tunney because he's such a nice guy and such an enthusiastic developer, even though I probably won't play his games much (which goes for pretty much every game these days).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eyal Teler on 17th September 2013 8:23am

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