Backer-editing Dreamcast Worlds

I feel obliged to point out that, by popular request, I’ve set up a way for you to pre-order a copy of Dreamcast Worlds if you missed the Indiegogo funding deadline. Just go to this page.

Last week I sent Dreamcast Worlds supporters the first extract from the work-in-progress, and asked what they thought about it. It was the first step in an experiment in ‘crowd-editing’, though in reality, the ‘crowd’ part isn’t really appropriate – it’s more that a small number of backers are generous enough with their time to discuss the book with me and share their opinions. But the principle is that as a self-publishing, crowd-funded writer, I have a direct connection with my audience – and as such, I don’t have to make guesses about what they want from a book. I can just ask them.

I decided to start out at the deep end, sending a part of the introduction that – I hoped – would do the theoretical work that I enjoy so much, without sacrificing the sense of humanity or losing people’s interest. Those who shared their thoughts – either by email or by joining in the Google+ hangout – were honest, constructive and kind. They said that the extract was still more academic than they would like. One person put it particularly succinctly – “When I backed Dreamcast Worlds,” they said, “The two things that excited me were ‘Dreamcast’ and ‘Skies of Arcadia’. For me, it’s important that they show up early in the book.”

I’m so, so glad that I’m being told that now, while I can still make changes so that my backers can be proud to suppport Dreamcast Worlds.

So in response to the feedback I received last week, I’m trying to change the way Dreamcast Worlds approaches historical writing. I’m trying to get rid of signposts – I’m told that people don’t actually want or need to know where the book is going, they just want to get on with it – and I’m experimenting with what happens when you stop writing about theories, and instead tell stories about theorists.

I don’t have anything to share yet – and I’d rather that the next extract I release be about the Dreamcast or the games – but I do want to share some reflections on what happens when you stop writing about theories, and start writing about theorists instead.

I started with Le Corbusier. He had some really neat ideas about architecture. But it turns out that he was a bit of a diva, and that when his ideas were put into practice they didn’t have entirely positive effects.

Le Corbusier wanted to be famous, and he wanted to change the world. He chose an arty pseudonym, created a bit of a myth of personality around himself, and made lots of money as a consultant to urban planners.

Since his days at school in the early 1920s he had been imagining a future filled with skyscrapers and automobiles, not necessarily because he believed in their benefit to society – more because they were technically possible, and technology, as any console gamer knows, drives progress in its own image. Right?

Le Corbusier could easily be cast as a Final Fantasy supervillain – he wanted to remake the world, to cleanse it and purify it of the filth of poverty, make it logical, rational, mathematical. He liked to apply the golden ratio to everything, and he dreamed of bulldozing the slums of Paris and replacing them with skyscrapers.

The problem was, he forgot about the people in those slums. When he designed smart, fast urban freeways, he forgot to put exits near their homes – or he deliberately didn’t bother, figuring that they wouldn’t own cars anyway. Many cities were remade according to his designs, and the result was unemployment, entrenched ghettoisation, and a whitewashing of local culture with cold, clinial modernism.

What does this tell us about game developers? Well, originally I just used Le Corbusier’s theories about archictecture to make sense of virtual space design. And I still do that, but with a caveat; having a rational theory behind your designs doesn’t necessarily make you a better designer. It can lead you to focus on the technologies and forget all about the people living with them. Sega learned too late that you do that at your peril – the Dreamcast was a beautiful piece of kit, but that wasn’t enough to bring people to it.

11 thoughts on “Backer-editing Dreamcast Worlds

  1. “I’m experimenting with what happens when you stop writing about theories, and instead tell stories about theorists” – a good approach; I myself need to occasionally remind myself to stop framing out what I’m going to do and get to simply doing it, because half the time the act of doing it brings up things I hadn’t even thought to plan for. Which ironically dovetails with what you say about Le Corbusier to segue to another point I wanted to make- the customer is ~not~ always right, although they are usually on to something. None of us are actually writing your book- that’s your job- so whatever grand vision or structure we think it should have, if you get to that point in construction and realize that, vision and input be damned, there really needs to be an off-ramp into some supporting material or the whole thing will turn out unbalanced and ineffectual, don’t be afraid to do what’s needed. If you’re really good, do it in a way that will still make the audience’s concerns go away- not, perhaps, address them as directly as they ask, but re-jigger things so they don’t even necessarily come up. A bit of Disney magic, that- I’ve heard stories of things as simple as reversing a flag direction so guests stop noticing the flagpole and start noticing the actual experience…

    • Sean – thanks for having faith in me ^_^ Still, getting criticism early is really helping me to write a better book while also presenting super interesting challenges that I didn’t even know were there. It means that the process is a lot harder than I ever expected, but it also means I’m becoming a much better writer. Normally as a writer you’re guessing at what your audience wants – I’m really glad that I can just ask.

  2. Can we still have some theory? I like theory, which is kind of why I didn’t respond to the first email because it all seemed good to me. Having said that I think that looking at theorists is a really interesting tack too, and sounds like it will only add to the book. (My only worry would be the possibility of it being too ad-hominem, but I’m sure that you’ve got that covered).

    • Thanks! It’s good to know that there is some love for theory – I certainly can’t bring myself to remove it entirely. If you notice me getting ad-hominem I’d really welcome the criticism🙂

      • I’ll see what I can do!

        It’s a funny one, really. When I was doing my philosophy degree we constantly had it drummed into us that you should never critique the theorist, only ever the theory – which makes a certain kind of sense if you believe you will ever reach a pure philosophy, especially in metaphysics or epistemology. But I always thought you can’t entirely divorce a theory from the person(s) who formulated it, or indeed the culture and mindset in which they exist. Which is probably why I didn’t do so well and now read more sociology than philosophy.

        So yeah, I actually do think that it’s important to understand the cultural/linguistic/personel etc. basis of a theory, as long as we don’t judge the validity of the theory solely on that basis, if you see what I mean? So I suppose that is what I’d be looking out for.

  3. Zoya, I enjoyed the first extract, and actually would’ve liked a bit more on ANT! But I understand that not all readers feel the same way. I don’t know if your approach lends itself to being read without an understanding of it. If it does, one option is to expound on theory more in an appendix.

    I think the writing has been fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to reading more!

  4. I think that Nicholas Lovell nailed it concisely. I love theory, but I think that for maximum readability, it can be a really effective tactic to lead off sections or chapters with an anecdote or biographical observation and then, once the reader has a narrative thread to follow, use that as a springboard for deeper explication of terms and theories. If you lead with the explication, then the reader experience feels abstract, and the reader may get lost before they make it to your more concrete examples.

    For example, the above stuff about Le Corbusier is quite compelling – I hope you’re planning to include that kind of information in the book itself, as I think it would help ground and contextualize things for the audience, and could transform your book from an informative reference into a real page-turner. Anyway, best of luck!

    • Thanks so much Ken! That’s very encouraging feedback. “Transform your book from an information reference into a real page-turner” sounds like a major win and exactly what I need to be aiming for.

  5. Pingback: 2012 in writing | Zoya Street

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