Being creative for a living is not easy. There is the stereotype of the starving artist, who can live a creative life but no be able to pay his bills because creativity and business don't mix well, and it is absolutely true. Navigating through companies that need to make money for a living and have a bottom line, could be soul crushing when all you want to do is create cool, innovative, fun things for a living. These are the important lessons I learned that helped me survive and keep my creative spirit.
Back in February of this year, I gave a talk to the students at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) about working in a creative industry, and more importantly, how to survive in one. Here are the highlights of my talk entitled: 5 Important Lessons I Learned Being A Creative Professional (that will also help you keep your sanity).
1. You Create Your Own Momentum
A lot of times you'll not want to go to work because you don't like the product, you're not confident enough to finish something, you don't want to work on that school project, or not even want to go out and look for a job. It's not easy to get motivated about something that doesn't excite you. Like Lucille ball says "The more you do, the more you can do." I grew up in in East L.A., there were gangs everywhere, we were on welfare, and as poor as you can get. I grew up in that environment, and I didn't think I could be a game designer because I didn't think I was smart enough, good enough, or was privileged enough. So I just "knew" I wasn't going to be able to do it even though I really wanted to be a game designer. I figured I could do my other dream though, pro wrestling. It was cheaper, and it was physical so you didn't have to be "smart". I figured I would go and do that dream instead and I signed up for pro wrestling school. After I graduated from wrestling school, I found out that wrestling is really, really, really hard, physically and mentally. After surviving something like that, I absolutely knew I could be game designer, because this wrestling thing is really hard and being a game designer is probably easier because you're just sitting down designing things. The perspective of the dream changed for me, my attitude changed towards this previously "unattainable" goal because I unintentionally raised the bar to a very high standard for myself. Wrestling school raised the bar for me, it pushed my personal limits and made everything else easier in comparison. I now had this momentum and I wasn't about to let it go to waste. The next week I got a job at Activision, and a few weeks later I started going to school for game design. It was very easy to do, and it was easy to graduate from the game design school compared to wrestling school for many reasons.
I like this Lucille Ball quote for two reasons. One is this, when you have a momentum in life, once you start going, you start rolling, its kinda hard to stop and you don't want to stop. When you start doing things, it's easier for you start doing NEW things, and you then start doing things outside of your wheelhouse. The first time you do something outside of your wheelhouse, you don't know how to do it... so it's scary. You might get people angry, or you might feel bad because you did something wrong. But afterwards you're not scared anymore, you're more confident because you know you can go through something like that and it won't be the end of the world. You are just able to do more things, you start to like the challenge of doing stuff you've never done before. You don't really want to stop it because it leads to better and better things. Honestly, that's the kind of momentum you need if you want to realize your creative dreams.
2. You Don't Need Permission
There's a friend of mine that wanted to start a sewing class, and I asked her why she didn't just go and start it. She said she didn't feel like she should. I said "You know how to sew right?", she said "Yeah". I said "And you want to teach people right?", she said "Yeah". I said "And you know where the students are who want to sew, right?". Once again she said "Yeah". I told her I could build her a website and she could get started right away. She then said that she didn't feel like she should. She said she didn't feel like she had permission to do it. Keep in mind that she didn't have a boss or anyone to answer to, yet somehow she still didn't have "permission".
There's a lot of people who should be doing the things that they want to do, but they just don't feel like they're worth it, I've come across that a lot. The thing is, you don't need permission, if you want to do it, just go and do it. You can do it, and if you fail at it, you're just going to be better at it next time, you'll adjust, trust me. You don't need permission to start your own game studio, or project, there's literally no one stopping you. There are people out there that are LESS qualified than you, doing what you want to do, the only difference is that they are out there doing it. Confidence will get you a long way. This is going to sound cheesy, but it's also very true. The only one stopping you, is you. Give yourself permission, and if you need to hear it from someone else, then here, I give you permission to go and build what you want to build.
3. Create Your Own Path
What happens a lot with major game developers, is that something big comes out like Clash of Clans, and everyone does their own version if it. This happens in every other entertainment industry as well, not just the game industry. But they can never make the money that clash of clans made because the people that developed it, and the users who play it, already made all the discoveries that they're gonna make with that engine and mechanic. So when you make your clone, you're just going to make diminishing returns. You don't have to make whatever has been made already though, just make your own thing, make your own Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird made 50k a day, the developer didn't follow any other pattern of something that was created already, he just went and did whatever he wanted to do. Disneyland was like that. Theme parks were not profitable when Walt Disney created Disneyland in 1955. In fact, every expert in the amusement park industry told Walt Disney not to do it because it would absolutely fail. Walt Disney did it anyway. Now Disneyland today makes the most money of all Disney properties including movies and toys. Disney didn't look at the situation with the attitude of 'well this other amusement park is successful, let's go and do that exactly', he knew that his park was going to be different, and it was. You want to build something for people to discover, copying something that exists, by it's nature, is not a great platform for discovery. Although, after that, other people did say 'Disneyland is successful, let's go and do that exactly', such as "Dreamland" in Japan.
Amusement parks were not massively successful before Disneyland, but Walt just did what he wanted to do, and he executed it in a way that nobody had ever seen before. When you do something like that, you make your own pie, you're not trying to get a slice of something that exists, you own the entire pie.
4. There Is No Wrong Answer
When you start developing your own things, and you develop more original stuff, people start trusting your vision. It seems scary now, but when you do creative long enough, you start to realize there is no wrong answer. What I mean by that is this, each one of you has a very unique view on life. You've all had different experiences, you have all been through different things, even if other people have been through the same things you have, you are still viewing it through you're very unique lenses. So whatever you make, if you make it true to yourself, if you make it based on how you honestly see the world, it's always going to be an original product and original products are almost always full of discovery (fun),
That means there's no wrong answer as long as it is true inside you especially if you are passionate about it. If you're passionate about it, then you're passionate enough to finish it. The guys who developed Super Meat Boy, would not have finished that game if they weren't absolutely passionate about it. The developer was very emotionally invested in that game he created, and that's the only way he could've finished that kind of an undertaking. As long as its true and its something that resonates with you, what you produce can't be wrong. There's no need to worry about 'well I don't know if the markets going to like it' because good creative people don't rely on market research to develop their products, they rely on passion.
5. Be A Factory Not A Warehouse
There's a very common thing I've noticed it in the game industry. A lot of students and professionals will have an idea they have hung on to for 8 years and they don't want to tell anyone about it. They want to develop it eventually but they think other people are going to steal it. The problem with that, is the way your brain works with creativity, if you hold on to an idea, you're just dating yourself, you're just aging yourself. As soon as you let that idea go another idea is going to spawn in it's place, don't worry about this being your only good idea. The more you let your ideas out into the universe, the faster your brain starts coming up with ideas to replace them. So just have faith that you will have more ideas, don't be afraid of letting them go. At that point you become a factory, you aren't a game design warehouse where you've held on to 1 "great" idea all these years.
When you get used to letting old ideas out, and letting new ones germinate, you just keep churning things out. You kind of need that, because game development along with almost all entertainment, is a numbers game. It's the same with reality TV, the same as movies, 90 percent of the stuff is going to fail and the stuff that does work pays for everything else. But the only way you can get to those ideas that eventually are successful is if you have numbers. The more you do it, the faster it is for you to churn out even more creative ideas, the faster it'll be for you to get to those hits. Believe it or not, your ideas just get better and better, because you always learn something every time you let an idea go.
In the end, it is quite difficult to be a creative person AND make a living off of it. You have to dream like a child, but take responsibility like an adult. You must maintain that childlike imagination, while navigating that corporate world and adult life problems, in order to continue making original and fun products.
The professional side of things always trend towards the bottom line, meetings and milestones. Remember that you're a creative person, that's the reason people buy entertainment, because it's a fun product. YOU make it fun. Don't let those adult responsibilities kill off that child.