The Power of the Marginal by Paul Graham

The Power of the Marginal, found via Jason Kottke’s remaindered links, is a hugely interesting essay on being an insider versus being an outsider.

That’s the paradox I want to explore: great new things often come from the margins, and yet the people who discover them are looked down on by everyone, including themselves.

It’s an old idea that new things come from the margins. I want to examine its internal structure. Why do great ideas come from the margins? What kind of ideas? And is there anything we can do to encourage the process?

My personal take on this is that established structures (‘inside’) represent a concrete expression of a way of looking at things, a paradigm. But paradigms always become outdated, and as soon as you come up with a more appropriate one, you need to express it in a different way. This new way will seem wrong from the old point of view and thus won’t be accepted. The essay lists several other reasons why an established structure will resist the new and different.

Consider the famous business example of the US railroad companies, who thought of themselves as being in the railroad business rather than the transportation business, and are now much reduced in power (compared to their heyday in the late 19th century) because there are so many other transportation options. Companies organize around what they do, and when what they do changes, their organization may no longer be appropriate. Look at Dell: new paradigm, new organization. Computing is full of examples. Look at Java: new paradigm (increased computing power makes virtual machines feasible), new language / computing model.

This works in culture as well as in business or technology or science. Compare the original Battlestar Galactica with the new version, or look at the TV series Deadwood. New paradigm (21st century vs the 70s, say), new entertainment that appeals to current audiences.

In game development, being an outsider, being able to take risks, being allowed to fail – this is all obviously related to indie development, to the lack of creativity on an industrial level, to why successful developers become boring. To unfairly pick one example: id Software established a new paradigm, now they’re bound by that paradigm, and they’ve become, well, boring. Will Wright designed The Sims, now The Sims is a major EA business unit (with good people in it, hello Robin), while Will is off in a skunkworks unit building something completely new (and if wants to ‘fail’ the way he did on ‘Raid on Bungeling Bay’, he better keep it secret and call it a prototype or something). Note how a genre – often created because of one or two successful games – is essentially a paradigm.

One big question is: how can you encourage the right level of creative destruction inside your organization or industry. How do you select the bits of structure you want to keep, versus the ones you want to keep fresh? The pressure to change is always there, because reality is always more real than any mental construct. The revolution will come, the questions are how soon, and will you be ready. Just as you can choose how much risk you want to take on in investment, you can choose how much churn and uncertainty and creative destruction you want to accept in your company or industry – or career. Consider Google’s 70/20/10 rule – essentially, Google’s staff (well, most of them) are encouraged to spend 10% of their time working on something completely new (more about this here and here).

(Note that I am not an uncritical fan of approaches such as these: Google seem to release an awful lot of stuff just to see what sticks and seem at risk of becoming too unfocussed, especially when something does stick (see this article for why Google may not be organizationally prepared for running an online payment system). And this article by Malcolm Gladwell shows how one company – Enron – encouraged its employees to take risks, and ran into deep, deep trouble, and how another company – Walmart – remained a huge success by not changing their organization.)

Which paradigms in game development are getting close to obsolescence? The main wavefront of games – AAA titles, mainly console – are leaving behind a huge gap for smaller games that take less time to develop, and there are now various attempts to fill this gap: casual games, downloadable games for consoles (for all next-gen platforms), new companies such as Manifesto Games, Valve Software’s Steam network. There is serious discussion about the possible obsolescence of the blockbuster (often in the context of the Long Tail), although I am skeptical about that.

Digital distribution is just a matter of time, although much water must still flow under the bridge before it becomes ubiquitous. Arguably, the Long Tail is here already, but it can still develop a lot further (again, see Manifesto Games). As I recently noted, games are curiously isolated from the bleeding edge of online services and participatory culture – is there a gap there, just waiting for someone to frame it the right way?

Finally, on a personal level: how can being an outsider help you be more creative? I just said no to a good offer to work on a well-funded AAA next-gen game, and one of my reasons was that with great budgets come great constraints. All that for the ego trip of having a AAA title on your resume? It rarely seems worth it.

Anyway. Please read the essay (the one by Paul Graham, not my rambling), and let me know what you think.