Thursday, July 9, 2020

Deja Vu for the New

It's been a task writing up these posts at this time of year. Where I am is much too hot and options to cool down are simply not plentiful. At the same time I've been left alone with my thoughts, and that's dangerous in the summer heat without a proper outlet. Who knows what idiocy one will think up while in a heat-induced stupor and thinking about b-movies. This time I've been going over things I've done before on this blog, only from a slightly different angle than usual.

We've gone over the horrible state of art and entertainment many times, but it's also summer! We're not in winter, so why be miserable? Let us try for some positivity today. Instead of once again diving into how the old industries have stumbled, we can look at what they can do to turn it around. I do not necessarily mean only those in high places, but also those in the independent circles or middle market that wishes to know what they can do to capitalize in this climate. You don't have to keep treading water with the wider industry. You can get an edge quite easily.

You can't come up with a winning formula for success overnight, but there are tricks you can perform and tips you can use to get you closer to the right road. Whatever you do just make sure it isn't anything Hollywood or OldPub is currently doing. That's the best way to guarantee you're heading in a better direction.

So let us take this medium by medium. It should be quite a trek.

For comic books, the answer is simple, but it's not going to be one its current fans will want to hear. Comic books essentially need a hard reboot to get back on track. Nothing about the current industry is anything like where it started and until that changes the industry will only sink further and further into irrelevancy, and then death.

Ever since the 1980s when a cadre of upcoming artists decided they wanted to make content solely for adults, screw the majority of the audience, the market has shrunk until it has become purely a haven for infantile fanatics and sex perverts. This is a long way from its original audience of all-ages fare and straightforward moral stories. The solution to the current comic problem is to do the opposite of what got them to their decrepit state.

Comic books need to bring back all-ages comics as the standard. They have not been primarily aimed at children since the 1970s, and it has shown in declining sales. Comic books are an inherently juvenile format and that is their strength. Old comics and the classics could whip through plot points, action scenes, and wild settings within a single issue all while telling a complete standalone story. They were made for quick reads to get younger audiences interested in adventure which would then inspire them both in future professions and to move on to books. This focus on younger audiences is how you grow your base. The fact that no industry does it now is why just about all of them are dying. But no industry has been hit worse than comic books.

This decline occurred because the strengths of the medium have been abandoned. The focus on visuals means image is important so the art needs to be exaggerated and weird, and the action can be framed in a way can't really be done in other mediums. The scale and size is the strength of the comic book. That slow, ponderous, and ugly, is the standard now, is the reason the industry is dying. Comic books that take the focus off speed, imaginative art and paneling, and adventure and wonder, for mundane "realism" are not comics. These are not comic artists: they are wannabe novelists that can't write prose or pace worth anything.

The fact is that comics had a strength which allowed them to appeal to all-ages naturally. Writers who get into the medium and cannot write for all-ages are in the wrong medium, and are not looking to grow the art but are instead more interested in stroking their own egos. It is the same with artists who have no appreciation for the peak of the human form: if you aren't willing to make your characters as aesthetically pleasing as possible to the widest audience then you are in the wrong medium. Go draw leaflets for underground alternative bands and college clubs instead.

New comic writers and artists have that advantage of aiming for an audience that hasn't been catered to in over a quarter of a century. Do what the old industry refuses to do. It is the only path forward for this dying medium, since its why it remains successful everywhere else in the world. The fact that only the west has a piddling industry should tell you everything you need to know. Do the opposite of what these hacks are doing.

Comics are in rather dire straits compared to the next mediums coming up, but it isn't hopeless. It just needs a new tact. Go back to the past.

Let us now move on to music. Once destroyed by the emergence of file-sharing, the industry has yet to regain its footing. But independent artists have more than a few tools at their disposal.

Music is a bit trickier to discuss, since soundcloud and bandcamp are still the best bets musicians have for being discovered. Not much has changed on that front. Those sites could use better ways to discover new things in genres listeners like, but without the sites a band has far less a chance of being found by potential listeners. There is little else a musician can do aside from writing music and sharing it online. There is only one other thing they could consider going forward.

In an age where visual presentation matters more than ever, musicians should try to take advantage just like record companies did with MTV nearly forty years ago. The best way to do this would be with music videos on sites like youtube. Simple visuals that match the catchy tracks could do a lot to bring attention to your music and attract new listeners. There is a reason early MTV was so big, after all. They found new ways to present old things.

You don't need fancy tricks or tons of CG to wow audiences, you just need a video that matches the tone and content of the song. If the track is good enough it can pull a lot of the weight. The audience doesn't expect Take On Me from fledgling artists with a few bucks to their name, but there's nothing preventing a piece on the quality of Never Gonna Give You Up. which is just as, if not more, famous. It's not impossible: it can be done.

Movies have much the same advantage when it comes to working on a smaller budget. Unless you're making a multi-million dollar blockbuster coated in CG effects, like every other tired picture out there, you can make just about anything you want with far less than it costs to make one of those mammoth movies. And since Hollywood already has that over-saturated market covered you can instead focus your efforts on other things instead. You can bring back the low budget b-movie that was killed off way back in the 1990s.

The fact is that modern Hollywood movies are overproduced. They cost too much for how poorly most are written these days, and the CG effects have not improved in any appreciable way that practical effects still aren't superior. Guerrilla film-making is now easier than ever. Movie-makers now have more tools at their fingertips than ever before that they can use to create something unlike what the black-hole of creativity known as Hollywood is putting out. Software is cheap--you only need the time and the drive to put into it. Audiences will appreciate your efforts far more than they will another overproduced generic blockbuster.

Go back to what was forgotten, and pick up the pieces. You don't need to make a Fast & the Furious when you can make a Miami Connection. This might sound like deja vu, but going back is what will help you move forward.

Video Games are in the same place as movies. This is rather ironic since the AAA industry is obsessed with aping movies and jettisoning gameplay as a consequence. They cost far too much to make and require far to much to break even. It's not sustainable, and it s going to lead to a console crash. People don't need already-bad movies made worse only with button presses, triple the length, and six times the price. This is not a healthy industry.

Next gen is probably going to be an unmitigated disaster. Indies can't carry the weight, and the middle-market still hasn't recovered from being demolished in the bloodbath of the late '00s, and neither have the genres that have been more and more ignored and warped from their original intent from the time of the first 3D generation back in the mid-90s. What can you play on a modern system today that you couldn't last gen only with less purty graphics? There is no innovation, there is no respect for the past, and their is no future.

Since then, everything that has made the medium what it was has been shed. All that is left is a contorted mockery of the worst aspects of FMV projects from back on the Sega CD and linear game design focused on anything other than gameplay ripped out of 2008. I'm pretty sure this wasn't where the designers of Pong or River Raid believed the medium would be decades later. There is nothing in those games remaining in today's industry.

The industry as it was no longer exists, and its replacement has hit the wall. The next console generation is going to be a catastrophe.

This industry no longer exists

But what happened?

We've lost the concept of scores and stage-based difficulty progression, not to mention the idea of lives and continues. Challenge has been ejected for "accessibility" and ultimately unrewarding gameplay. There is no reward for mastering the gameplay loop aside from getting a movie cutscene that could be replaced with an old Felix the Cat cartoon and it wouldn't make any appreciable to the game. Game are made by gameplay, not gloss. These aren't even games anymore--they're interactive and over-expensive movies.

Success has given these companies big heads. Instead of being the replacement for Hollywood, they decided they would rather be Hollywood. What do you think will happen by aping a dying model? It's going to take a crash to wake the industry up, and the crash is already here. Once you hit the stage of a medium's life where innovation and audience plays a backseat to posing and image you have already lost the battle. It's over.

To fix this requires just what was said earlier. More deja vu. Go back to basics and fashion your product for the audience your medium once did before. You must remember when the games didn't need to cost absurd amounts to make or need crunching to pump out disposable 6 hour movies in between small segments of button-pressing busy work. Sell to the demographic that wants what you have to offer--the one that made you to begin with. Put gameplay first again instead of political and social posing. This shouldn't be hard, but apparently it is.

Video games are games before they are anything else. They are not interactive movies. Even if they were, Hollywood doesn't charge $60 for 6 hour movies. Why should the game industry? No one is ever going to put 100 hours into The Last of Us 2 but there are many that still hook up their NES systems to play Mega Man 2 to this day even decades later. One has held up, the other won't. Much of the problem just comes down to the loss of the long-view. We've thrown away the sturdy and reliable for flash and glitz that isn't going to mean much in the near future.

You can crow about "mature" writing all you want: it's not mature, at all. It's juvenile teenage nihilism that wore out its uniqueness back in the 1990s. The Last of Us 2 has writing worse than a d-movie on the SyFy channel and worse than even the most throwaway adventure novel from the 1970s. It loses in comparison with every other medium it wants to ape. A game like Mega Man 2? That can only be done in the medium it was made for, and it is where it shines the brightest. The right approach moving forward is obvious.

If it sounds like deja vu that is because it must be repeated over and over. The key to moving forward is looking back. Abandon your roots and you will eventually fall without a leg to stand on, unable to rise again. This is the sad tale of every industry in the west right now-- everyone detests where they come from, and their misery shows.

Lastly there is everyone's favorite punching bag. This would be OldPub, the industry that isn't long for this world and has long since abandoned any potential audience growth for its cabal of urbanite elites that write books to impress their friends before anything else. Because of these types, reading has been turned into a joke.

Teach kids to hate reading in elementary, don't give them anything exciting to read as teenagers, then wonder why they don't buy books when they become adults. If it's intentional, it's insidious; if it's not intentional, it's unbelievably inept. Either way it shows an industry of imbecility currently getting exactly what it deserves: irrelevancy. This was the first major industry to shoot itself in the foot, and it's going to take the most amount of work to heal and get back to business. That is, if you believe it ever will, at all.

Back in the 1990s every adult would go on and on about the importance of reading, and how it was the only medium that offered pure imagination. Put down the video games and go on a real adventure like Ivanhoe or the Three Musketeers! These are the stories you can't get by staring at a screen. This was their call to arms.

Programs like Wishbone or Reading Rainbow existed to promote reading classics and opening up your mind to imaginative possibilities. Kids ate this up at the time. Then, at around the same time, Goosebumps blew up big with simple kid-friendly horror stories. They did it--kids were reading! It looked like Gen Y might be the generation to bring reading back, even in an age of blockbuster movies and video games.

But that revival never happened.

Books continued to fall into irrelevancy despite this push. Even with the Harry Potter explosion followed by the Young Adult boom, none of that lead into anything better or an appreciable rise in book sales. In fact it's become a joke that Harry Potter fans have never read another book. The people fed this series of children did not keep reading. In fact, they stopped.

Despite these successes back in the early '00s it never lead into anything else. There were no major books or brand new authors that emerged out of the system. Heck, OldPub still pumps out Young Adult books to this day, only the primary audience appears to be middle-aged urban women--not children. Kids don't read them. Kids don't read anything anymore. And OldPub doesn't care. This is why they are called OldPub, and why they are dying.

Big chain book stores are also on the way out, and that isn't too much of a shame considering how they also let their shelves be filled with books no one wanted to buy. This is an industry that worked very hard to chase off normal people. They tried to tell audiences what they should want, instead of giving them what they wanted, and now they are dying.

So how can OldPub turn it around? Believe it or not, they can reverse course. There are several things they can do in order to both bring readers back and make bank at the same time. They are also things OldPub will never do.

First is to bring back pulp-inspired writing and build a whole line around it featuring both reprints of old works and new works in that abandoned style. Bring adventure and cheap books back in a big way. The second task is to get these into the hands of kids and introduce them to reading as soon as possible. If kids know how fun reading is they will be more willing to do it for themselves and discover whole worlds they otherwise wouldn't. But they need to know the material is out there, which requires a heavy marketing blitz.

What's also important is to not use "pulp" as part of the advertising. The industry has done a lot to try and paint the pulps as all sorts of vile things and to warp the word "pulp" into being the equivalent of throwaway trash. Until this egregious notion has been set right, the word has been tainted. More important than using the word "pulp" is pushing fast-paced adventure stories, the kind people loved less than a century prior.

An adventure line with painted covers of action and wonder is enough to attract eyes. Stock the shelves with cheap 200 page pocket paperbacks filled with excitement and you will be surprised at the reaction and how quick they will sell. Just offering this one "pulp" line would be enough to attract eyeballs and with a cheap price can get even those who not otherwise want to read reeled in to pick them up. The presentation is obvious, especially considering this is how Goosebumps broke out big to begin with. Makes you wonder why they never tried it again.

The fact that this isn't being done, and that no publisher is interested in doing it, is a sign that OldPub is irrelevant and on the way out. They refuse to course correct with ideas meant to attract wider audiences, and instead double down on the same disaster they have been for decades. Who needs adventure when you can be force-fed identity politics and tired genres that haven't sold in decades  while these publishers live off new printings of books older than most of their current employees. In essence, in order to survive, OldPub needs to not be OldPub.

That's simply not going to happen. They are where they are because they chose to be there. They don't want to succeed, they want to matter. Their quest for relevancy has instead made them irrelevant as a cultural force.

A pulp approach could bring kids, teenagers, and young adults, back into reading at a time when they are taught to hate it by the education system. Instead, pulp has been spat on and thrown in the trash by tastemakers. To turn this around OldPub would have to admit they have failed in their primary job of being booksellers, and they will never happen. Instead their industry will continue to shrink until its unceremonious death. No one will mourn this broken system's collapse, and that is entirely their own fault. No one has done more to prevent OldPub's success than OldPub itself.

The big takeaway from all this is that nothing in life is hopeless. People don't change nearly as much as these industries pretend they do. In order to reach the public again after decades of deliberately ignoring the audience, one needs to go back to basics to when they were catered to. You must work for them, instead of working to warp them. Yes, it's a strange sense of deja vu to have to repeat this lesson for every industry, but it remains true for all of them.

Art doesn't "progress" as such, new forms and takes are merely created that run alongside classic styles to accentuate their differences and similarities. Once you toss aside the originators and the reason your industry exists for your own pet projects that goes against what human beings crave, you will fail. This is currently the case with every modern industry in the west. They do not want to connect with audiences, they want to dominate them. Not only do they refuse to return to their roots, they actively hate and slander that which got them there to begin with. Until they admit they are not working in a void, they will continue to exist in one until their well overdue demise.

NewPub, however, doesn't work in a void. We are constantly learning and growing, and always aiming to improve our craft and relationship with the audience. We are the opposite of the dying system. As OldPub dies, we rise.

The time for deja vu is over, we know what we need to move forward. Now we can finally soar into clear skies, leaving the old industries behind.

Remember to always keep your chin up, and have a good one. If this summer heat doesn't kill me I'll be back again next week. When I return I'll have something really cool to show you. What is it? Let's just say that NewPub will never be the same.


  1. A very good post, sir. (And having seen the steaming pile that is the Last of Us 2, as well as the backlash from fans, and the counter-backlash from self-righteous developers, I think you're right on.) The trouble is finding good adventure stories from creators who don't toe the party line and admit to their audience that they hate them. I just unfollowed an author I had previously enjoyed for telling his audience that if they did not agree with perversion, then to stop following him. I sadly did so. I will not be buying any more of his books. These authors should really not go out and work hard to alienate their audience. Fortunately, there's plenty more out there in indieland.

    1. Thank you!

      Unfortunately, there is a lot of nonsense out there which requires a lot of filtering. The old curated system simply doesn't exist anymore.

  2. Good post, but I get the feeling I'm even more out of touch with the modern video game industry than I thought. The games I've bought and spent the most time recently are Dragon Quest XI and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; are those really as big outliers as this post would suggest?

    1. They were the standard back in the 16-bit era and even a bit into the 32-bit age. But slowly over time they've become rarer and rarer.

      Just a couple of years ago there were people explaining away Nintendo's success with platformers and adventure games as if they had some sort of magic dust that no one else could match. That's not the case: they just continued to make the games people have always wanted to play.

      And that's why they've remained successful. More companies would do well to remember that.

    2. I think Nintendo has generally benefitted from never straying too far from their identity as a toy company. They're inclined to create things that people want to play with (which is why they often look into non-traditional interfaces), they don't have ambitions of providing all-in-one entertainment devices, and they're not hiring frustrated filmmakers. They make GAMES.

  3. Another thing old pub can do is stop trying to be just in the lumber business. What I mean is that they really should encourage the e-book end of things with realistic e-book prices. E-books are here to stay, trying to kill them in the crib didn't work.

    1. Acceptance would do them a lot of good.

    2. Chris
      But...but..but bookstores! Without bookstores the culture is just so shallow!and so crude!

      Spain was good example of this obsolete thinking. Man the sheer panic when the Spanish govt locked down 4 months ago the bookstores and publishing companies expressed.
      No kidding since the books stores list 35% for each lost book sales and the publishers 45%

      Yet they refused to pump out ebooks or republished the backlist in ebooks/audiobooks.
      I was really put off by the lazy attitude.

  4. What I liked about comics when I was growing up was that they felt like they respected my intelligence more than the moralizing and overly sanitized stuff that was playing on TV. Everyone carried swords and guns in the He-Man and GI Joe cartoons but somehow no one ever even got hurt, but in the comics the characters had complex emotions and could be hurt. I wasn't bloodthirsty but I wasn't (very) stupid either. And the best comics still hold up as fun and imaginative adventure stories for me now. I do see some comics now that seem like they're trying to be kid-friendly, but they're doing it in the same way that those dumb old cartoons did: By creating safe, bloodless worlds in which nothing is at risk and everyone just makes stupid, self-referential jokes all the time.