Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Fan Fiction

You would not believe how many essays I have written but not posted. :P

Anyhow, here's one on fan fiction, player-generated content, and related enterprises. I didn't have enough time to write a short essay, sorry.

All of you are probably familiar with "fan fiction", and many of you are probably familiar with anime music videos. Although the vast majority of the things these fans produce is crap, that's mostly because there are no barriers to entry. There are some astoundingly good AMVs and fan-fictions out there.

A lot of the really skilled fanfic writers get regular comments that they should go do something original, because they are so good. I doubt AMV creators get the same kind of mail, but there is still probably an undercurrent of wanting to do "serious" work.

The thing is, using a pre-existing IP or even pre-existing media gives you a killer combination of advantages, and I think it would be interesting to talk about them.

1) An existing fan base. The most obvious advantage, and the one which people usually stop at. "That Star Wars fanfic is popular because Star Wars is popular!" "That Naruto AMV is popular because Naruto is popular!"

Perhaps, but there are a million other Naruto AMVs and Star Wars fanfics. They aren't popular, because they suck. The popular ones probably don't suck. They probably show every bit as much skill as a big-name AAA production would.

2) An existing media base. This is an important one that people don't seem to understand. There's more to homage than simply riding the wave of popularity.

The thing that is popular exists and the author will use it. What a skilled author does is take the best parts of it and remix them with the best parts of his own skill. The results can be astonishing - often better than the original. Why?

Because the author has a particular thing he is good at. Maybe he's good at visual rhythm control. That's not something you can use alone, now is it? You need something visual and a song to put it against.

By picking the best visuals and songs he can, the author functionally "teams up" with the original author, using the parts that the original author was a genius at, and then inserts his own gift into the cracks where the original author was weak.

This means that an author can take the best of the best and combine it with their own skill, instead of having to scrounge for second-rate content they either build themselves or beg off random people.

Specialization - they wouldn't get these chances without the ability to remix other, powerfully crafted works.

If they stop fanficcing and AMVing and try to do something independently, they have to build this content. I'm sure many of the best have tried, only to realize that they royally suck at some element of the mix, souring the whole batch.

Lastly, someone doing fanfics and AMVs has...

3) An unlimited media base. Often, the best AMVs and fanfics use multiple sources from multiple IPs. This is something that AAA studios can't seem to figure out, but these super-specialists often have a surprising amount of skill. It's just practice: why would a AAA writer write crossover fics? What a waste of time!

Not really. Now, instead of taking the best of the best and combining with your skill, you can take the best of the best and combine it with the best of the best. You can pick tiny pieces - that one thing that the IP did spectacularly. That one perfect character. That one extraordinary plot.

All the stuff that was merely "great" can be left in the background.

Sure, there's an element of "who could kick whose ass?", but that's part of the strength of the original media. It's just a rather juvenile kind of strength.

If you've ever read/watched the best of these "copycats", you probably noticed that even when they were talking about an IP you hadn't seen, it was rock-solid. Enviably solid. Even though you had never seen it before and therefore were not a fan.

That's because the author picked the best stuff available.

(This is especially clear in AMVs, where several times a good AMV has lured me into watching a disappointing series.)


Okay, why the hell am I talking about crossover fanfics and AMVs?

Because these are specializations which are going to become more and more important as our world gets internettified.

Even if present social morality insists you can't use someone else's media or IP for profit, there are other, socially acceptable uses that are largely overlooked because there's nobody who thinks like this in any real position of power.

For example, is there any reason that two or three companies wouldn't combine forces to create a product or marketing campaign?

Oh, sure, it happens from time to time. But it's pretty rare and doesn't last long. Usually, it's just a business deal: "we'll distribute coupons for you guys if you pimp us out in your stores." How clumsy. How ugly.

What if someone skilled at taking the best and combining it perfectly managed to hook up with three or four small-but-growing software companies? Take the best aspects of each - this one's database skill, that one's design sense, that one's UI designs - and glue them together into one ultra-formidable product?

Oh, wait, we call that out-sourcing and consulting.

Of course, companies outsource and consult largely at random because there are no specialists available that they can trust: any specialist on that level is undoubtedly going to be biased.

It's a difficult situation, but it's not what I'm talking about. Screw companies. They're dinosaurs in the data world, anyway. How about people?

For example, you meet half a dozen talented programmers. You bring them on board for one project which uses each of their best talents. You form a limited company which dissolves into maintenance-only after the product is completed. No muss, no fuss, no long, lingering death.

But how will someone be able to do these kinds of combinations?

They need media that those people (or companies) have produced.

You won't know the capabilities of these programmers unless you've used their programs and said to yourself, "wow, this UI is fantastic! Too bad the back-end sucks..."

Which is quite a bit like saying, "wow! That space ship design is fantastic! Too bad the dialogue would be better as someone making fart noises..."

In the latter case, dozens of people would rush to write better (or comedic parodies of the original) dialogue, keeping the same space ships, characters, plots - and giving credit to the original authors.

In the former case, dozens of people clone the UI without mentioning the original programmers. And, typically, they clone it badly, since UI isn't their specialty or they would have already made a UI of that quality.

Which is better?

Well, one produces a better product and gives the original authors credit and encourages people to buy the original author's product.

The other produces a worse product and carefully gives the original authors no credit and competes directly with the original author's product.



This one is tough...

So, feel free to remix anything you see here, so long as you mention me.

Because that's the way the future is going to be. That's the only way an individual would want it. And individuals are getting more important every week.

BTW: the idea of protecting these kinds of things (music, movies, text) dates back to an era when, if you produced something similar, it competed. That's not true of the on-line world.

Sure, if you produce something just like Flickr, you'll be competing. But you wouldn't. It would be idiocy and suicide.

Instead, you produce something that works with Flickr. That enhances both you and Flickr. Even though your symbiosis with Flickr uses much of their pre-existing code and functionality. Even though you are "using their popularity".

Google understands this. I think they are the only big company that does.


Craig Perko said...

Oh, player content follows the same principles.

Patrick Dugan said...

I'm always interested in PCC, but I think PAC may be a more appropriate application.

I had an idea a while back to do a Metroid/RPG-type game using tiles ripped from ROMs and animation suites from Shyguy Kingdom (google it, you'll flip), possibly using some sort of PAC to generate content, the ultimate remix. I had this silly Pulp Fiction meets Kingdom Hearts plot in mind too...

Chrono vs. Mega Man, think about it.

Craig Perko said...

Of course it's appealing: it's fan fiction. :)

Anonymous said...

Just an anonymous person giving a comment. I happened upon this blog by a search on Google (yeah, Google's still Web Queen). Very interesting stuff being said here, especially in this post. I don't know exactly what to call it (I'm only 16, cs). Professional amateur, maybe? That way, it doesn't give the idea of paid work, but retains the basis of what a professional is.
Or maybe I should just call it professional blogging. Much more detailed than what I've seen before, sadly.

Craig Perko said...

Thanks. I usually stick to game dev stuff, but all my off-topic posts get more notice. :)