The value of positive reinforcement for indie creators (and how to get it)
Heya! Ben (Perplamps) here with another post not directly related to Ooblets, but rather something I’ve been thinking about lately when I try to follow the thread of what got us from where we started to where we’re at.

Positive reinforcement!

We had started a few games prior to Ooblets, but we always made the rookie gamedev mistake of keeping it all a secret and expecting that when it was done or ready to be shown, the world would flock to us.

After some time we’d always get disheartened by these games and give up.

As you’ve probably seen, we took a drastically different approach to working on Ooblets. We tweeted out the very first art test we made for what would become Ooblets as soon as we made it, and never stopped sharing our (a.k.a Rebecca’s) work since.

The first art test for what would become Ooblets

It’s easy to take for granted now that people are into what we’re doing, but at the time, a couple ❤️s and retweets meant everything to us. To be honest, we still wait with bated breath to see if each of our posts take off or not, and get totally disheartened when they flop.

Most human achievement is about matching rewards to behavioral choices, so it’s not surprising that social media acts as a giant Skinner box for creators, where you exchange appealing work for social currency.

If Ooblets were a stealth project, I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if we’d have given up on it long ago. How would we know that it could be a success or if we were just wasting our time? I mean, that’s still something we worry about, but at least now we’ve got all sorts of data to help quell our self-doubt and fears. That leads into the next important aspect of positive reinforcement:

Learning from responses

Besides encouraging creators to make more, positive reinforcement is also invaluable for gauging interest and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

We try to judge the success of our work and how we’re presenting it by how much attention and positive reactions we get to what we post. In fact, we even dropped an entire game we were working on (IT Simulator) because it wasn’t generating as much interest as our early posts about Ooblets. If we weren’t putting ourselves out there, we’d have no real way to judge which would catch on better.

From IT Simulator

We end up testing out a lot of hypothesis and random ideas all the time, like switching from tweeting gifs to videos and measuring how they perform differently.

Another aspect of this is measuring feedback (or lack thereof) to get a more pragmatic understanding of the relative value of your work (a.k.a. the dreaded reality check). If the only voice you're listening to is your own, you're going to get a very skewed perspective, so try to get as many data points as you can and be willing to adapt.

Getting positive reinforcement

This article isn’t about why you should give positive reinforcement to folks (although you definitely should be!) but rather how and why you can get some positive reinforcement for your own work, because I assume most people reading this are content creators of one type or another.

It all boils down to one piece of advice: You gotta put yourself out there.

I know this is terrifying for a lot of people, particularly when you feel you’re competing with folks who seem so much more skilled than you. The thing you have to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of interest to go around, and nobody has a complete monopoly on it. Even if you’re just starting out and you think your stuff stinks, I guarantee that there are people out there who will still dig it.

How can you put yourself out there?

Here are a few ideas and things that have worked for us:

  • Have and use social media! 

This is the most important one. Have personal accounts and post your work frequently. If you’re making art in secret and only posting it on the walls of your room, you can’t be surprised when nobody knows about it. You should try to be as active as possible, but a good rule of thumb is one post of your work every day or two.

  • Have stuff to show! 

When you’re working for a company or doing freelance you might not be able to show off your work due to contracts and stuff. Try to dedicate some time to your own portfolio and social presence every week. I’d even hazard that you should prioritize your own success over your employer’s success (blasphemy I know). Rebecca always felt like she had a really weak portfolio because she wasn’t working on her own projects and wasn’t allowed to show most of the work she had been doing.

  • Don’t wait until things are perfect! 

People actually respond better to work in progress a lot of the time. You also don’t know exactly what other people will appreciate. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have Rebecca post something she thought wasn’t impressive enough to show and it ended up doing really well. Also, game bugs tend to make for way better tweets than showing everything working as it should.

  • Reciprocate! 

Always keep the phrase “you gotta give to get” in your mind. If you’re just posting your own work and expecting people to come kiss your ring, you’re gonna have a harder time than if you help support and encourage your peers. Different social channels differ in how you should do this, but on Twitter at least, you should be retweeting folks in similar circumstances as you, replying, liking, and just generally doing the stuff you’d like people to do for you.

  • Humanize your work! 

Give people a point of reference about where you’re coming from and what you’ve done. Show people why they should appreciate your work. E.g. if you’re an artist and you post a piece you did and write the caption as “Piece Title (2017)” you’re not giving as much perspective as a caption like “I just finished the inks on this piece that’s taken me a week, but I think it turned out pretty well!”. That second caption is going to perform a lot better.

  • Listen! 

Don’t be persistent with stuff that isn’t working. I see a lot of people get complacent with doing things they feel comfortable with and never vary from it, even when it’s not giving them any positive momentum. You should always be seeing some positive movement like increasing follower counts every week, and if you’re not, you have to try figuring out what will work better. For example, if you’ve been on Twitter for 10 years, made 50k tweets, and still have like 400 followers, you might want to change how you approach things.

  • Make a Patreon! 

This one’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s something to consider. If you can devote the time to post regularly to it, it can be super valuable to see that people (even if only a couple) are willing to support you and that you owe it to them to keep making stuff. Don’t expect to cover your living costs or even get more than a few dollars, but I can tell you that even though our Patreon is doing pretty well, every new subscriber we get gives us a really warm feeling and makes us want to post more. I guess if I’m shilling Patreon I’d better find some sort of affiliate link… here you go!

  • Make a Discord! 

If you’re a gamedev, it’s becoming more and more valuable to have a Discord server for your game. I ran into a new game the other day that was just starting out, but it had a Discord link. I joined up and had a really good conversation with the devs, which has encouraged me to suggest that you all make a Discord, too. When you’re trying to make connections to folks in the industry, having easier and more ways to contact you is super valuable. (By the way, here’s an invite to the Ooblets Discord)

  • Have a good website! 

Put your best foot forward, and show the work you’re proudest of front and center. A lot of portfolio websites hide everything behind menus and submenus, thumbnails, and way too many pages. Remember that most people have a very limited attention span, so hook ‘em in the first few seconds.

What do you think?

That’s all I’ve got for now, but if you have some other ideas that worked for you, please comment with them.

If you found this article helpful, I’d love it if you shared it around so more folks can benefit from it!