It's vague, it's nasty, and it's the reason why we have so many failed indie studios.
Not what you were expecting, right? We've got a false notion in the indie sphere about what success truly means.
My name is Nicholas Laborde. I started a risky business (games), in one of the worst economies on record (locally and nationally), with a product in one of the most consistently least profitable parts of the market (shmups), and to top it all off, the company is led by a guy who can't even code (see: me)...
... and yet I wake up every single day thrilled and fulfilled by the challenges ahead of me and Raconteur Games -- it's part of our story.
In this blog, I won't even pretend to act like I know some magical secret or insight; rather, I hope to impart a perspective about success I've developed through many failures, tough moments, and grit-building experiences.
Have those words ever been uttered to you? Do they make your heart drop into your stomach? Are you afraid to hear those words?
Before we can define success, we have to talk about failure. I've mentioned earlier that I can't write a line of code; instead, I'm one of those rare indie devs that focuses exclusively on everything "not making the game" -- marketing, hiring, finance, management, etc. I previously discussed how I'm viewed in some circles because of this, and that in and of itself has helped fuel this story.
I was recently called out by someone who looked at our numbers on SteamSpy, and started to lambast me saying that I and my company would fail, that I made stupid decisions, and there was no chance I could do anything with our product. (Clearly, I was dealing with quite the optimist.)
My first question I ask you: How would you react to this? How would you react to someone publicly attacking everything you've poured your heart, mind, and soul into for two years? How would you handle the feeling of someone putting themselves on a pedestal to intentionally make you look bad?
How would you handle being a failure in anyone's eyes?
For better or worse, this person defined success monetarily and was sticking to it.
We have unrealistic expectations about what these words, both success and failure, mean. Rami Ismail mentions this in his fantastic new talk "You Don't Stand a Chance" (which I highly recommend).
Survivorship bias is the idea that we fixate only on the incredibly small amount of success stories, and not the overwhelming amount of failures that exist in the world.
As a result, there's this idea that we all think we'll be the next Minecraft or DayZ. Call it cultural viewpoints, inherent optimism, or maybe just plain insanity, but this affects the mindset of how many indie devs and studios begin.
When they don't achieve that, they view themselves as failures and may never pursue another game again.
I want you to remember something. Failure is a mindset, and it's not the end of the world. To me, I define failure as the following from a mentor of mine:
Failure means you either gave up when things got too tough and you could have given a little more, or when things didn't work out as you wanted and you learned nothing from the experience.
I have never failed.
Those are the two words that I always ask myself in the wake of any sort of "failure attack," as I like to call them -- either externally, by someone who has it out for you, or internally, when you're questioning the path you're on.
I like insurmountable odds. The odds have always been against me -- I was told (and keep being told) that being a "business guy" is no way to get into games or run a studio; that wanting to run a business won't help you make it in this industry; that if you don't make a ton of money, you're a failure. I'm attracted to big challenges, and that's just how I am because I'm blessed to have been raised with a mindset that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
The story I mentioned of being called a failure in the making left me unfazed. Why?
I know my definition of success, and I urge you to give your own definition of success serious thought.
What is my definition? I'll share it with you:
Success, to me, is creating something I enjoyed creating, with people who enjoyed creating it, and putting it out into the world.
I was lucky enough to know early in life that money would not be my definition of success, because it's not what matters in the long-run.
Our first game, Close Order only has seven reviews on Steam, two of which are negative. We've only got a few active people giving us feedback, and we're not making money hand over fist. We are, much to my chagrin, another Early Access game that launched in an unpolished state.
Where I argue we differ from the norm, however, is in our ability to know who we are, what we're doing, and why we're doing it.
Another experience I had recently involved finding a video of someone really tearing our game apart, with the comments centering on how we could have released such a broken game (I do read every single bit of feedback people write).
I responded thanking them for their honest criticism, and invited them to try the game again at a later point when we've applied what we learned from our mistakes. The creator replied and told me the comment was "significantly more positive and kind than it had any right to be," and added that because of it he'll return one day to see our changes.
I think we're afraid of success, because we don't know what it means or what it entails.
I look at Notch and I'm very disheartened. An extremely talented, accomplished individual who by all standard definitions of success, is successful. He made a world-renowned product, became a billionaire, and everyone knows his name.
Yet he has recently tweeted about being lonely and unhappy.
I'm not here to critique the mindset of Markus Persson, but rather, to invite you to think about what success means to you. It's clear that Notch doesn't feel fulfilled by money, and is trying to see what in the world will change that.
We fear what we don't understand. People are afraid of being successful, because it's not normal.
I had a Management professor in college who once said something blunt: "Half of you are below average." He made no mistake in telling you the hard realities of life, separating his lectures into "white hat" and "black hat" -- the former "telling things as they ought to be," and the latter "telling you how it really is."
He also once noted, "Don't follow your dreams, many things aren't possible, and you aren't in control. If you attempted to swim across the Atlantic, you would die."
The moral of the story from my favorite professor? You must define what success means to you.
If success is to make the next Minecraft, you will more than likely find yourself lost and unfulfilled. If you define success as money or a highly specific goal, what will you do if and after you achieve that?
The mentor who gave the quote about failure likes to talk about me as a success, which while very humbling and generous, still feels odd and surreal to me.
Our company is not yet profitable, our game still has a few months ahead of it, and the odds are still against us.
And yet I harken back to my personal definition of success: I've done something I'm proud of, with people who enjoy working together, and we unleashed it into the wild.
What is your definition of success?
I invite you to ask yourself this question as you keep pursuing your project, begin a new one, or go in an entirely different direction in life. This is a question we don't typically ask ourselves, and I genuinely believe this leads to an overwhelming amount of failed indie studios, unfinished Early Access games, and projects that never even get off the ground -- not even mentioning a lack of personal fulfillment.
Many people talk about starting. Few actually begin. Rarely does anyone finish.
Know what success means to you, and you'll cross the finish line.