I was for a while moonlighting as an independent game developer. I had previously released two moderately successful games, but I was unhappy with the quality of the tools I had written. My data serializers were a one-day hack, my renderer was ugly, and my entity system was out of date.
I decided, for my next game, I would do things right. I began to rewrite my tools from the ground up. After four months of nights and weekends, I had a production-quality data serializer. Then I spent two months writing my rendering toolkit, capable of the most beautiful modern rendering techniques.
I watched the latest talks, read the latest articles, and worked for three months until I had a cutting-edge entity system, written according to the latest industry best practices. Nine months after I began I still had no game. I didn’t even have a prototype.
I had spent all of that time working on perfect, beautiful tools and none of it working on a video game that I could actually sell.
For my first two games, my approach had been different. I had only built a tool if I needed it. The data serializer was a hack written in a day, but it served my purposes exactly. My renderer had been ugly, but I had hammered out a good-looking game from it. My entity system was out of date, but it let me build prototypes quickly. The cutting-edge systems I modelled my system after were designed for making huge, complex games built by hundreds of people, not small games built by one person. It only ended up slowing me down.
With my new approach, I allowed myself to be distracted by my own creativity, and in doing so wasted time building things I didn’t need.
What did I gain from the nine months I spent on improving my tech? I gained the satisfaction of having completed a beautiful work of art. But I failed miserably in the most important task of a game developer: Making a game that people want to play.
Creatives of all types are prone to distraction. Engineers want to try deep machine learning blockchain internet of VR. Artists are inspired by a particular use of colour. Designers want to use skeuomorphism. Musicians are really feeling synths lately.
It’s important for a creative person to feel inspired and creative. There’s a time and a place for nerding out on new ideas. But your first priority in creative work is to think about the person who will consume your work; your viewer, player, listener, or user. Your customer. Is your customer interested in synths?
Working Backwards From Your Customer
As a creative person, you’ve tasked yourself with an extremely difficult proposition: creating something that someone else considers valuable. There are two parts to that endeavour: creating something and making sure someone thinks it’s valuable.
Creating something is hard enough, it takes many thousands of hours of skilled, experienced, passionate work. It often requires a team of people working together. At the end of all that hard work, there’s no guarantee that anybody will actually like it. Doing the hard work to create something just for nobody to like it is disappointing and demotivating, not to mention a terrible way to make a living.
But there’s a way to significantly raise your chances of building something that people will like. Going through this process is more important and often even more difficult than creating the thing in the first place. But there’s no better way to avoid building something that nobody likes.
You must work backwards from your customer. Forget your interests and inspirations for the time being. Immerse yourself in the experience of your customer.
Think only about the person who will view, play, listen to, or use your creation. To work backwards from your customer you must ask questions: What do they want? What will they find appealing? Why do they care about what you’re creating?
The answer is not, “People like synths,” “People are interested in artificial intelligence,” or “Skeuomorphism is the new hotness.” These trends don’t matter. If after this process you arrive back at the conclusion that you should pursue your interest, be suspicious.
There are many tools you can use to create. The likelihood is small that the best way to build the thing that your customer wants is also your exact current inspiration. If you arrive back at your inspiration after working backwards from your customer, you’re probably lying to yourself. Specifically, you’re probably imagining too much that your customer is like yourself.
It’s OK to be interested in new things. Even if nobody else in the world would be interested in synths, you may still find value in exploring them. You may learn things you can apply in other areas, just as I learned much while creating beautiful tools for nine months.
But don’t use the appeal of exploration or the value of learning to fool yourself into thinking you’re creating the right thing. If you haven’t considered the person who will consume your work, you are likely doing the wrong thing.
Your primary goal as a creative person is to create something people want. To do so you must work backwards from the person who you intend to consume your work, your customer.
Be Your Own Businessperson
Take off your creative hat for a minute. To be successful in building something people want, you must for a little while be a businessperson, and businesspeople care only about profit. Profit is revenue minus cost. Your creation should be as valuable as possible for your customer (which you can then figure out how to turn into revenue) while costing the least to produce.
When building my video game I should have started with a game idea that was compelling. I could have created four-game descriptions and asked gamers which they found the most interesting. I could have created four prototypes and observed which people played the most. I could have looked at industry trends and tried to create a type of game that people would love that no other game company was creating at that time.
Those are all examples of how I could have worked backwards from my customer. Once I knew what people wanted to play, then I could write exactly the renderer I needed to ship that game. Perhaps I could have avoided writing a data serializer altogether.
By doing that I would have created a game that people loved, thereby maximizing revenue, while avoiding building tools that I didn’t need, thereby minimizing costs.
Instead, I made something nobody loved, gaining no revenue, while building tools I didn’t need, and paying many costs.
New technologies are hard and therefore costly. New creative directions will take more work and are therefore more costly. You’re a businessperson who wants to avoid costs. If you can get by without these distractions, you should.
Being Creative Within A Box
After you have thought thoroughly about your customer, you’ll have defined a box. The box represents the space of creations that will amaze your customer, bring them joy, and solve their problems. Inside that box, there will be plenty of room for creativity and the application of technology. Plus, it’ll be the best kind of creativity: creativity with constraints.
If your box points you in a new direction, you can take that new creative direction with confidence. You can indulge in that exciting new technology knowing it will solve your customer’s problem. But if you don’t first know your box, you risk doing work that nobody will care about, appreciate, or use; in other words, work that no customer will value.
Are you starting to regret reading this article because it’s too businesslike and you just want to be creative or technical, without thinking about dirty business words like profit and customers? OK, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with building a career where you rely on someone else to think about the customer.
Just know that until you begin thinking about delivering value to customers, other people who do will steer your professional life.
If on the other hand, you want to be a founder, start a band, become a freelance artist, or advance in your organization, then you must accept what comes with it: the responsibility of delivering value to customers.
Once you learn how to do this well, it will set you free to do the things your heart desires. It will give you the confidence that in doing those things you’ll be eventually successful. It will give you a new purpose for doing what you love. At least, it did those things for me.
It will be hard. If you’ve never done it before and you’re thinking, “This will be easy,” then you’re fooling yourself. It will be very hard. But like anything else, you’ll get better at the more you do it.
If you were able to work so hard at becoming the highly skilled creative or engineer that you are, then you will be able to become a highly skilled deliverer of value to customers.
But first, you must stop getting distracted by your creativity and think about your customer.