Avoiding tunnel vision

This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the sixth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.

Back when I worked for Xbox LIVE, I frequently commented on the dangers of what I called “developer tunnel vision.” Nearly all of the devs I spoke with were not paying attention to a diverse set of industry news sources. What’s more, they were focused on at most couple of similar platforms, and were ignoring the rest of the market. (Back then, everyone was talking about XBLA/PSN; today it’s Steam/iOS; tomorrow it will be something else.)

At the time, this seemed completely insane to me—even suicidal. Didn’t these devs understand how quickly things change in our industry? How quickly their current efforts could be rendered irrelevant by shifts in the marketplace, or by strategy shifts made by the platforms? Developer tunnel vision…it was so obviously reckless and short-sighted!

But then I started my own development studio. Almost immediately, I stopped dedicating several hours a week to following industry news and found myself giving it a couple hours a month—if I was lucky. I started fixating on a couple major platforms. Turns out, it’s damned hard to make games, be a good father and husband, and do anything else at the same time.

I justify it by comparing myself to other indies. Spry Fox is actively engaged with Google Play, Apple iTunes, Amazon’s Appstore, Steam and a bevy of web portals like Facebook, Armor Games, and Kongregate. Compared to most indies who are fixated on just iTunes and/or Steam, that’s pretty good, right? Of course, since I’ve stopped reading, I’m missing crucial context about what’s happening in the very ecosystems that we’re focused on. You can only get so much insight into the market dynamics of iOS and Android by studying the performance of Triple Town. And I’m clueless about emerging platforms, European and Asian game portals, among too many other things to mention.

This article is partially a mea culpa. Folks who work at games platforms (myself formerly included) tend to be pretty judgmental about what developers should and shouldn’t be doing. Actually being a game developer is an eye-opening and humbling experience. But more importantly, I want to take this opportunity to encourage my fellow devs to do the one thing that can help counteract tunnel vision: talk to each other as regularly and often as possible! It takes less time than comprehensively consuming several news sources a day and tends to be more fun, too.

Is there a developer meetup in your area? Join it. If there isn’t, consider starting one. [Places to start your search: the IGDA chapter list and meetup.com.] Are you a member of a decent industry mail list? If not, join one and/or make one of your own. The Stanford Graduate School of Business hosts an open-to-the-public game industry list that is large and diverse.

Once you’ve connected with other developers, do yourself and everyone around a favor and don’t keep secrets. Talk about the games you’re launching. Share details about their performance. Describe things that surprised you (player reactions, revenue fluctuations… whatever.) The more you share, the more the people around you will hopefully be inclined to return the favor. And their feedback on the information you share may turn out to be invaluable.

Most game developers are never going to fully avoid tunnel vision. One way to counteract that is by making friends and sharing ideas and data. Too many of us are fixated on our “trade and design secrets.” But odds are that your secrets are worth less than you think, and your ignorance is a greater liability than you can possibly imagine. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s true for me!

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