What’s a success?
I woke up this morning to a hug from my wife, and it was lovely. Is that success?
While I don’t talk about it a lot here, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m doing, what projects I’m pursing, and generally raking myself over the coals for where I am in life as a grown adult. I look at what I’ve accomplished and I feel like I could have done more, that I could be further along than I am right now. Then I look at where I am and wonder if I’m further along than I tend to believe that I am. Then, usually, I pet the cat.
Success or failure is a big deal in basically every industry. We judged whether a game or a movie or an album has succeeded or failed. The problem isn’t that we do that, it makes sense, there’s a good reasoning behind it. And yet at the same time there’s a real challenge in any industry judging success or failure, because there’s so much more going on than the obvious metrics, and those metrics are lying bastards.
If anyone who listens to me yammer on regularly has any doubt remaining in their mind, Pacific Rim is one of my favorite films in the past few years. Frozen is another. Frozen certainly made a lot more money, and by all accounts it was a bigger success if you look at that hard data, and yet both of them produced incredibly passionate fanbases. I still see people excited over Pacific Rim getting a sequel and the mere existence of Frozen, even as 2013 looks increasingly distant from the present. Which one was a bigger success?
That’s not a question of which one won more awards or produced more pop culture references or anything like that. Both films made me happy. I enjoyed watching them. I felt the money I spent to see them was well-spent. Is a surprise overseas success better than a massive domestic one? Does the fact that one is getting a sequel and the other apparently is not change anything? Where’s the cutoff point?
I’ve worked as a game journalist for five years now, and I look at what some other people have accomplished and what I haven’t. I don’t have a very solid metric for whether or not I’m being successful or not. I could have more followers, I could be getting more hits, I could be getting more funding… but I’m also still doing this full-time, I’m producing writing that I can look back at with pride, I’m connecting with readers. I’ve had wonderful and not-so-wonderful talks with developers. I’ve been recognized. The time I spent not pursuing other opportunities often came about through necessity or through a need to pursue something more joyous.
Have I succeeded?
Games frequently fall into the crevice of being critical darlings and commercial failures. Saints Row the Third and Grand Theft Auto IV released in close proximity, and the latter made far more money. But the former was the one I liked a lot more. I connected with it, it was fun, it felt open and wacky and proud to be what it was rather than ashamed. Does that make it the success? Or does the sheer financial weight of the latter make it the successful one? Should the team behind Saints Row feel bad that they made less money?
How many fans should a game have before you can call it a success? How dedicated do they have to be? How many copies have to be sold? Call of Duty: Ghosts sold more copies than Super Mario Bros. 3, but I don’t think you can really argue that an iterative update of a shooting franchise is somehow a better and more influential game than one of the greatest platformers of all time. And I’d argue that both are superior all-around games to Kinect Adventures!, which is chiefly a gathering of games to serve as demonstrations of what the add-on could do and still stands as the best-selling game on the Xbox 360 individually.
Scored review aggregates might paint a different picture, but even then those are a mess. I love pointing to the Warhammer Online scores as an example of how launch reviews are meaningless in the long term when you’re dealing with MMOs, but it also serves as an example of how little a number means at the end of the day. Is a game with an average of 85 objectively better than one with an average of 80? What if one of those games is a first-person shooter and the other one is a real-time strategy game? It’s not just comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing a car to a skateboard. You expect different things from both of them.
There are times when I can’t help but feel like I should have done more with myself, with my life, with my abilities. But success is not a one-year process, or a half-decade process, or even a twenty-year process. My successes and failures are mine, but comparing yourself to someone else never works out. If you’re eternally chasing after the last thing someone else did, you’re never going to make your own things.
What is success? Larry Gonick shares a story from Herodotus in The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume I that gets at the heart of the question, a pair of brothers held up as examples of living well and being happy because they died young while being charitable. A happy and good life was not the result of ups and downs, but of the sum total of one’s life. You can’t rely on an individual day.
Not every game can be Tetris in terms of success; most can’t. Not every game can be an installment of the Final Fantasy franchise. But if the developers make enough money to live on, if they reach people with a message, if they make a game they can be proud of, does that count as a success? Does the actor who only appears in a handful of films and shows but feels fulfilled by those shows count as a success? Is success reaching a standard, or is it a matter of being happy?
Settling for second best isn’t a good place to be, but there’s a difference between settling for second best and realizing that as long as there’s a competition, someone’s going to be in second place. And third place. And fourth, and so on down the line. Ultimately, the best you can do is the best you can do. You shouldn’t fear that the best you can do might not be good enough; if you can be kind and generous and affectionate, live a life to be proud of with joy and kindness, that has to count as a success worth achieving when it eludes so many people.
Whether a game succeeds or fails in the eyes of critics or the general public, it’s going to matter most to you if it speaks to you. There is space to acknowledge that a game can be problematic in ways while still loving it; there’s some really uncomfortable sexist streams running through Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but it’s still my favorite part of the franchise. However cheesy Xenogears might be in hindsight, it’s still a game that had a huge personal impact on me, opened my eyes to what games could do, and set me down a road I’m still walking. It might be a shame that Recettear was only a small hit, but I still adore the game and its translation endlessly.
There is success beyond being first and best, and while you should never stop striving, you shouldn’t push yourself down if you can’t always be the first and the greatest. Relish the experience, don’t push down others for it. Success is always relative, and the size of a cultural footprint or the money brought in or anything else won’t make you connect with a work you don’t care about.
I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted, but I’ve accomplished a lot to be proud of. There’s more success to be had, but that doesn’t invalidate the success I have experienced. In games, in film, in comics, in life – it’s a long road. Walk it as it comes.