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Making Art for a Living
by Adam Saltsman on 08/07/13 12:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



What follows is partially a response to Elizabeth Ryerson's interesting post about art and commerce from earlier today, but is also just me getting around to posting something I've been meaning to post for a while.

Also, keep in mind as always, that what follows is written from a place of remarkable privilege. I'm a white, college-educated cis-male who grew up in a stable, tech-friendly, middle-class household in the midwest US. On top of that, a lucky early project of mine (Canabalt) received an overwhelming amount of attention. I keep these things in mind and on my radar, obviously, but I have no doubt that they still have some influence on the way I perceive the world around me...


We had our first child when I was in my late 20s, about 18 months after releasing Canabalt. Throughout those 18 months, I... didn't do much. I've thought a lot about why, and I can appreciate now that those 18 months, while they produced little of lasting value, still had a somewhat formative effect on me. But mostly I was sitting on ass and not taking shit very seriously for a long time.

I think a lot of people can look back and find an event in their life that acted as a kind of catalyst for a degree of either motivation or self-examination that was previously unknown to them. Often these events take the form of a personal tragedy, a family member lost, a divorce. I got lucky again; for me it was the birth of a crazy, crazy boy named Kingsley. After becoming a father I became very preoccupied with a kind of existential question about making games.

I'd already decided that that making games was a worthwhile way to spend my life. It can be easy (and even beneficial sometimes) to convince yourself that you're just building trivialities and time-wasters, but even those things can have astonishing value to people. Play is so fundamental to our existence as animals, I see a lot of worth and even nobility in devoting yourself to making playful things, regardless of their intellectual aspirations (though those are great too).

(A quick aside - I will be sometimes using the word mainstream in this essay, and by mainstream I do not mean Call of Duty. I mean actually mainstream, as in mainstream humanity, not mainstream gamers.)

And so the question I was struggling with, following the arrival of our son, was not "why games?" but "which games?"


I spent a lot of time in 2011, more than I intended, traveling to games-related thingies, meeting new friends, hearing good lectures, and making time to catch up with old friends. Late at night I would put the question to trusted creators: how do you decide what to work on? Is it all about maximizing your impact? Is it about money? Self-expression?

Eventually I'd cobbled together my own Frankenstein's monster of a belief system, which I still ostentatiously refer to as my Philosophy of Art and Craft. Be warned! The way I am using "art" and "craft" (much less "philosophy") here is specific and bespoke; they were just the best words I could find at the time for this purpose. Anyways, my philosophy goes something like this:


Everything I make can be placed along this spectrum, with Craft all the way on the left, and Art all the way on the right. As I said before, my use of these terms is somewhat non-traditional; for me, these terms are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. For example, some things I've worked on (Canabalt, Hundreds) share the following properties:

  • accessible or obvious interface
  • subject material with relatively wide appeal
  • medium to long total play time (replay or content)
  • weirdness and challenge often hidden or optional
  • small impact on a wide audience

Games with these properties would be firmly slotted over near Craft, on the left-hand side. Other games I've worked on like Capsule or Fathom seem to share other properties:

  • idiosyncratic
  • specific, personal, small
  • built around a single idea
  • no effort to communicate in a mainstream way
  • big impact on a small audience

For me, it's useful to place games with these qualities way on the right-hand side of the spectrum, over near the Art label. Remember, these labels do not have any intrinsic value, they are just boxes that are useful to me (as you'll see later, I hope). Anyways, these games and designs are all very important to me personally. They are all expressions of my values and interests, and are representative of me trying to make the most interesting thing I can at that time. Some of these games express Craft traits, and others express these Art traits instead. It's kind of up to the games.

Capsule, for example, would be ruined if I tried to force it into the Craft box. Too much of what I view as its inherent value depends on the traits I have labeled Art. But games like Canabalt and Hundreds required little in the way of compromise to fit snugly inside the Craft box. Canabalt was a straight fluke that way, but on Hundreds we put a lot of effort into making sure that the design was able to intrinsically communicate with normal people, but also be systemically deep enough to engage more serious players too. Hundreds' creative integrity was actually strengthened by this process, even though the same approach would destroy Capsule.


Kind of everything, it turns out. As I said earlier, I'd already decided that making games was a worthy venture for me. I didn't need a so-called philosophy of art and craft to figure that out. What this philosophy does help me with is figuring out, on a purely practical level, if a project has a reasonable expectation of connecting with a mainstream audience. The reason this matters is that connecting with a mainstream audience is a necessary (but not sufficient) prerequisite for commercial success, which makes a useful metric from the specific perspective of making games for a living.

A quick example: if I'm looking at a prototype that has a lot of Art traits, that usually drastically lowers my economic expectations for that project, because it is less likely, by my own definition, to connect with a mainstream audience. I usually estimate an Art-oriented project will make $5000 or less if I even try to sell the thing in the first place. What this means on a practical level is that project could only sustain a month or two of development without outside funding (i.e. dipping into our savings). For some games this is totally fine - Capsule only took a month or so to assemble - but for other Art games that might not be enough time, which can be useful knowledge.

Likewise, generally speaking, if the design shares more traits with the Craft end of the spectrum, I might upgrade the idea to some kind of imaginary "commercially feasible" rank, since it is more likely to connect with mainstream players. Commercially feasible can mean a lot of things, but generally to me it means this game could, if all the planets aligned etc, reach a large enough audience to bring in at least maybe low six figures. In my book, that is a "hit" game. But while Craft games seem way better suited to being hits than Art games, at least for me, Craft game ideas that I'm genuinely interested in working on are more and more rare, since they tend to be less exploratory and strange by their very nature, and require a lot more sheer effort to produce. Thankfully there are a few that still hold my interest.

Let me emphasize too that this does not mean making a value judgment about one game idea or another, or even actually making one game and not the other. I derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from both types of games, for which I suppose I should consider myself lucky. So long as I can afford to, I will usually make both: build a Craft game, then build an Art game with the leftover money. Then a Craft game, then maybe another Art game or two, and so on. For me, this approach provides a creative and financial balance to my work that improves my ability to make things no matter where they fall on the spectrum. It also pays the bills (and, occasionally, then some).

Grave, for what it's worth, is a Craft game. My other ongoing project, codenamed "Parlay", is way more on the Art side. My hope is that Grave will help me be able to pay the bills while I further explore Parlay in the future. If it doesn't work, oh well! I'll probably work on Parlay a bit more, but then I'll have to put together another Craft game.

Much worse things could happen.


I realize, of course, that at best, what I'm talking about here is an unreliable and unproven heuristic based purely on imagination and wishful thinking. A lot of the time I feel like a kid who has been playing Street Fighter II at home alone and thinks he's really good, but has never even been to an arcade. Maybe my tried-and-true strats just can't cut it in the long term; I just don't know yet.

I absolutely think it is possible for Art games to become mainstream hits, and of course it's extremely easy for Craft games to become huge flops... and yet, I still recognize these basic patterns. This tendency for games of otherwise equal depth and merit to sometimes strike a large target with ease, and sometimes a small target with ferocity. And I recognize this pattern for games of the former variety, games that strike wide, to have a better chance at commercial success, just by sheer probability if nothing else, but also for a tendency to better resemble things people already buy.

Does recognizing that basic relationship irrevocably mutate you into a crass capitalist machine hell-bent on soul-eroding bland rehashes? Maybe. I hope not. Maybe by measuring it we change it, or maybe by knowing our enemy we can better protect ourselves from its influence. Maybe we have to choose between having some heuristics and having a day job, neither of which is ideal, and both of which have a lot to offer. I'm not sure.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you should all make what you want, for who you want, whenever you want, for whatever reason makes your heart beat and your mind ache and your palms sweat. If you want to get paid to do that, then I think the approach outlined above is one possibility for framing the way you think about the part of your creative life where a bank account is involved.

I hope this was interesting to read and I am curious what you think; I'm on twitter too much as it is, so let me know! Thanks.

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Phillip Abram
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Great post. This reminded me of a Joss Whedon interview where he talked about going from making The Avengers to Much Ado About Nothing in his house. I like your approach of making one 'craft' game and one 'art' game. If you had an 'art' game that did really well financially, would you stop making 'craft' games or just make them less often?

Michael Joseph
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I wonder if Mark Twain thought of such things? I'm being rather serious. Times were different then but people still needed to make a living. Samuel Clemens did gold prospecting for a short period but did he ever consciously and cynically create works for "them" to pay the bills? I'm neither a historian or a literary expert and I have no idea.

For a person like Clemens, the criteria for a creative work might have been "is it good" rather than "will it sell." Perhaps back then, "good" was synonymous with commercial success. But I'm probably just romanticizing things.

On second thought, I think whenever you have a need to make a living (and egos that need bigger livings), you get works that... well... pander. But in a world where nobody needs to work just to survive, and knowledge is free, you probably get an explosion of innovation and great works as we maximize the populations creativity by freeing them up from mundane jobs. ( i can hear the anti-socialist/welfare proponents ill conceived rebuttals already... but what they cant rebut is that so much of human potential is wasted doing menial tasks)

Making art for a living can seem very bourgeoisie when the product is mere decadence and frivolity and not speaking towards political/socioeconomic/spiritual/moral issues.

Adam Saltsman
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yea i'm not sure about twain (i have part 1 of his autobiography here but haven't even dented that tome yet), but i know alexandre dumas was very successful with his writing, to the point where he often ran an entire studio pumping out amazing historical adventure fiction... jim henson was enormously successful as an artist during his lifetime... so was picasso, so were many classical music composers, and so on...

i personally completely and even aggressively reject the notion that making a living with art necessitates pandering to the masses. you can choose to do things that way, or you can just make great art that speaks to a wider audience. for me, overcoming this assumption about pandering was one of the most important things for me in recent years!

Brian Wolf
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Keep in mind that even Jim Henson started out doing commercials. His earliest version of Kermit the Frog was a spokesperson for Wilkin's Coffee. Then again, his coffee ads are hilariously violent for TV and arguably subverting typical advertising techniques, so...

Adam Saltsman
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YUP. i think jim shot like 500 commercials or something in his career O_O pretty amazing

Michael Silverman
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Nice piece, though its hard to read yet another redefinition of the words "art" and "craft." I would call the split here between wide and narrow appeal. Its interesting that you chose those two words to represent that clash.

Adam Saltsman
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yea i need to refine my diction there, things are confusing enough as it is already!!

Paul Alexander
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This is great, and helped me process some of my own struggles with wanting to do things on the art side vs. the craft side. Thanks!

Ian Snyder
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Thanks for the article, some nice stuff to think about. Also, Grave sounds really interesting, I'll be keeping an eye on that!

Henry Kuo
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Another way to look at it is creating something for others and creating something for oneself, not necessarily as opposing ends of a spectrum, but on two axes where it's possible to be both personally and commercially fulfilling, but more often falling closer to one over the other.

Epona Schweer
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Doesn't have to be all art (and economically defunct) or all craft (and commercially viable, if moderately soul destroying).

When asked why "Imagine" appealed to a mainstream audiences more than "Revolution", John Lennon said "I finally learned to wrap my message in honey" (source: rolling stone)

Embrace the awesome power of 'and': wrap the art of your game in a craft that is appealing (and understandable) to mainstream audiences.

While they're enjoying the craft, they'll absorb the art without even realising it.

Adam Saltsman
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yea - that's the perfect combo i think! man alive is it hard to pull off though

Titi Naburu
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"Cis" is the opposite of "trans", just in case.

Ian Bogost
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The key term in this article is "lucky." Not all success is luck, but a large portion of success is derived from circumstances brought about by good fortune. Learning to identify and take advantage of good fortune is possible to some extent, but mostly that involves banking and cashing in on the dividends from largely random, initial good fortune (the Matthew Effect).

Adam Saltsman
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for me the key term in the article is "necessary but not sufficient". there absolutely are concrete things you can do to remove barriers between your work and humanity at large. there definitely are decisions you can make that make your work more closely resemble things that people sometimes buy. for me, these have been helpful things to learn about and identify, because i actually have some control over these things. not complete control, but i do get some input.

and then, yes, luck takes over. fortune plays an enormous role in whether or not your now-nicely-prepared work actually connects with people - the right place at the right time, all that good stuff. but i don't have any control over this anyways, so i kind of don't bother worrying about it much.

so in a way i think my message is this (oh god horrible metaphor incoming): winning at roulette takes a lot of luck, but if you aren't dressed up real nice they're not even going to let you in the casino. (oh man i just wrote that)

Ian Bogost
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All right Captain Aberlour, how about this: they'll certainly let you in the casino so long as you're wearing a shirt and shoes. They'll even ply you with drinks to keep you there, because they know you'll always lose. But if you're dressed up real nice, you'll be more attentive to yourself and every aspect of your surroundings, including the contingencies that drive the roulette wheel.

Adam Saltsman
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well and something that will always be frustratingly true is the fact that if you can afford to spin the wheel more, your chances of winning go up too

Dave Hoskins
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Offset by the enviable loss of everything, because the house always wins.