Ten Thousand People or Ten Thousand Hours

Ten Thousand People or Ten Thousand Hours

And not 10,000 days. I’ve listened to enough of that since moving away from my Tool-obsessed college roommate. (Also, not about Macklemore.) This is about open development. You’re probably familiar with the concept by now. It’s where as a developer makes a game, they ask for feedback at every step of the way from their fans—and sometimes not fans.

It’s something mostly popularized by Kickstarter, though it’s simply another step along the way to the logical extreme where everyone makes the exact game they want and sell it to themselves. Before facilitated communications over Internet tubes, game makers just cranked out another game that incorporated the word-of-mouth feedback they got. Then they started doing betas, and now we’re at the point where players have managed to inject their input from beginning to end.

It is, quite frankly, a poisonous practice. Perhaps an extension of the equally horrific “the customer is always right” mantra, but it’s something that needs to end nonetheless. John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (temporarily and brilliantly Candy, Saga, Crushgun) wrote something yesterday about it and absolutely nailed it. How do people know what they want if they don’t know there are things beyond what they already know?


Open development homogenizes and averages deviations from the norm, but creativity thrives on those little spikes on the graph, those outliers from the middle of the bell curve. Once you filter one person’s vision through enough feedback, it’ll all come back out the same. Like how if you took into account a hundred people’s tastes at a one-pizza pizza party, you’d end up with gluten-free toast. But once people give money to the process (Kickstarter, Early Access, etc.), they feel entitled to own part of the creation. As Walker astutely puts it: “NO. NO NO NO. You’re a wallet, and that’s it.”

There’s a different idea, though, that I think contributes to the problem of this open development plague. Are you familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success? It’s a fairly popular book, but the main thing people took away from it was his 10,000-hour rule. It can be summed up in the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to get good at it.

That may or may not be totally true, but it certainly is skewed towards being right. The number one tip for writers is to just keep writing. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity at his first high school basketball tryout, but he practiced notoriously hard to earn the title of His Airness and a stupidly successful line of hoop-centric footwear. How do you get to [insert prestigious competition]? Practice.

Carnegie Hall

Part of game development is producing things, sure. I mean, you’re not going to make a game without some skill in programming or making art or at least figuring out how to use Google to hodgepodge together the Internet’s combined knowledge in the field, but in the realm of creativity—simply ginning up ideas—doesn’t take any special skill.

In the startup community, ideas are feared. Ideas are worthless. Execution is where the value is at, and that holds up in actually any industry. But execution is not just turnout out concept art or 3D graphics libraries. It includes turning those ideas from nebulous, hazy blobs of imprecise desires into concrete, discrete chunks that can be put into words. No more hand gestures; they need to be put down on paper.

And that’s where the 10,000 hours come in. The ability to transmogrify an impulse or feeling into something actionable comes with practice. Think about Broken Age. Tim Schafer said that in documenting the development of the game, he hoped to show that it doesn’t take anyone special to come up with ideas; it just takes work. He isn’t some genius at coming up with stories. He’s just a guy with a bunch of notebooks full of rejected ideas and a few good ones.

Tim Schafer and Cookie Monster

Of course, he also proved along the way that game development is a lot harder than anyone suspects/knows/is willing to admit, but hey, surprises are part of life. But the takeaway is that he just worked his way into being able to turn those fleeting bits of “hey, it would be cool if…” and “oh man, I would love it if…” into a brilliant little adventure game.

But all those people giving feedback during open development don’t have the same practice. 10,000 people with a single hour’s worth of expressing concepts in terms of gameplay and mechanics is not the same as someone who has 10,000 hours under his belt already. It’s not that these people don’t have great ideas—some of them actually do, though admittedly most of them have nothing better to say beyond “this is good” or “this is bad”—but they just don’t understand how to turn those ideas into a game, let alone make it part of one that is already under another vision.

In the opening blurb to Walker’s piece on RPS, he says that everyone thinks they’re right, and everyone else is wrong. Part of the 10,000 hours of learning is also figuring out that such a simplistic dichotomy is, like, super duper wrong. You learn how to collaborate and incorporate things that are beyond your base instincts. What’s that they say about good artists and stealing?

Never Sorry

You figure out how to mold an idea into something usable. You learn how to blend your past knowledge into this new experience. You learn how to cut away what works and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t happen right away. All those people sending emails and posting comments and dumping their stream of consciousness into a Twitch chat—those 10,000 people—don’t know how to do all that. They don’t understand the alchemy of turning ideas into gold. They don’t have the experience of putting in the work.

They don’t have the 10,000 hours.

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