In today’s world, where we are hyper-connected to one another in more ways than ever, it seems that we often forget that humans are the primary consumers of the products and services that we all provide. We regularly release things to the world that we wouldn’t recommend to our own friends, and provide service and support to other people in ways which we would be offended to receive. We are now equipped with more tools and knowledge to produce the best products ever possible, and provide the most human interactions ever possible, directly to people all over the world. So why don’t we act like it?
Sometime last week, as I was sitting on my couch at home and winding down for the night, I noticed that there were updates waiting for apps on my iPhone. I am fairly religious about updating apps, so I did as usual and downloaded the pending updates. This particular night there were updates for two games waiting: Circadia and 1-Bit Ninja.
Normally I skip reading the release notes for an app, but if it is an app I particularly care about then I try to peek at them to see what’s being updated. Most release notes for an app update plainly list what is being updated, and that’s about it. For 1-Bit Ninja, there were three short items, the first stating that the developer, Ben Hopkins, was releasing an entire new world full of levels. “This is awesome!”, I thought to myself. For a game purchased for $1.99 last summer, it is incredible to continue receiving significant updates months later.
When looking at Circadia’s release notes, I was greeted with a letter from the developer, Kurt Bieg. I was intrigued, as almost all release notes that I’ve seen from iOS apps up until now are usually just a checklist of the updates. There might be a blog post online somewhere, but usually the details are “1) bug fixes 2) a small new thing 3) another small new thing”, and that’s about it.
This was a shocking experience. I felt like Bieg had written a letter directly to me, the player. I felt connected to him, and was now particularly excited to try out all of the new stuff that he built for me. At least, it now felt like it was built specifically for me, but in reality I was one of many thousands of people who had purchased Bieg’s game. The truth of the situation, and what makes it particularly magical, is that very few users update their apps on a regular basis. Then, even when they do update their apps, the number of people who decide to click through to read the release notes is undoubtedly small.
This left me giddy and, frankly, a little dumbfounded. I decided to reach out to Bieg on Twitter to tell him how much I appreciated the letter. It was informative, kind, and most importantly, unexpectedly human. We had a quick back-and-forth about how important it is for game developers to show love to the little details of the entire experience and to be human to the people who play their games. Once we moved the conversation to email, he said this:
I think if someone takes the time to try my game, I owe it to them to spend time on them.
For an independent developer like Bieg to take the scarce time that he has to be thoughtful and informative about something which almost nobody will view is meaningful in itself. It reminds me of the dedication to craft which the original Macintosh team took such care to cultivate. Steve Jobs drove them to the edge of sanity by requiring that the inner guts of the Macintosh be as beautiful, if not more so, than the external shell. Now every original Macintosh has the signatures of the original team engraved inside. This device was just as much a piece of each of them as it was a piece of machinery.
Many people are so intensely dedicated to their craft. It’s why I believe that your personality informs your craft, and that you should use that to your advantage. Whatever you create should be treated as a piece of yourself shared with the world. The people who interact with or purchase it should be treated with respect, gratitude, and admiration for giving you their time.
Communication, Identity, and Vulnerabilities
Recently I attended a screening of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about indie game developers. The documentary follows the development of two different games as they near their release: the soon-to-be-released Fez and the already successful Super Meat Boy.
Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the creators of Super Meat Boy, spend a large portion of their time on-camera discussing the personal struggles they have gone through to get their game finished and released. It’s impossible for the viewer to fail to realize that this game has consumed their lives, and more importantly, that their lives have become a piece of the game. You cannot have Super Meat Boy without Edmund and Tommy.
Jonathan Blow, the developer of Braid, makes many appearances in the movie and had this to say:
Making it was about: let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities, and put them in the game.
Most telling, however, is the time you spend with Phil Fish, the designer of Fez. In the movie, Phil states bluntly:
It’s not just a game. I’m so closely attached to it. This is my identity. It’s Fez. I am guy making Fez. That’s about it.
It is truly incredible to me that someone can create something so personal, yet share it widely with the world. Having played both Braid and Super Meat Boy, I can tell you that the joy and smiles I share with those games are something I’ve only experienced during indie titles. That’s also why I am eager to play Fez once it is released.
Each person I’ve referenced so far is an indie developer, working alone or on a very small team. You’ll probably argue that the human approach can’t be scaled to work for a major corporation, or even a mid-size game studio. However, back in the 90s particularly, Nintendo was incredible dedicated about responding to kids who wrote letters to them with ideas or questions.
For example, there is an entire blog full of scans of one fan’s childhood letters to Nintendo. Most important is the incredibly thoughtful and personal response that a Nintendo representative sent to the blog’s author, who was a kid at the time. Notice how direct and human the interaction is, and imagine how inspired and connected you would feel if you received this from a company which you admire so deeply. We should all hope to create products and services which consumers connect with, but the career-defining goal should be for them to grow a deep connection with our company and our company’s purpose.
There is a great talk by Simon Sinek about how great companies and leaders inspire us to join their cause. The premise is that you should “start with why”, meaning that you should always question the purpose or reason for doing something before you decide what it is you are going to be doing. Use this concept to help frame your thinking when you are making decisions. If the “why” behind any decision isn’t a positive one for the experience of your users or customers, then it likely isn’t the right decision.
Make It Personal
Let’s go back to Kurt Bieg and Circadia. He crafts each game with such care that he treats the entire experience of playing his games as if they were hand-delivered himself. He writes a letter to his users for each update. You can probably imagine his devastation when he receives a support request from someone having an issue playing his game. Each email or tweet from a customer is a chance to have a personal connection and deserves a genuine emotional response.
He remembers that he is human, and that the person at the other end of the iPhone/tweet/email is human. He makes it personal. It’s the indie way.
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