If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last 3 years of making Web content, it’s the following two principles:

1. Make your own crap
2. Stop giving your crap away for free

Really, everything else you wanted to know about the Intertubes stems down from those two ideas (and I’ll discuss the 2nd in a future post). So why don’t more content creators do this? Half of what we see linked around online is something that derives its source material from something else, whether it’s a mash-up of two movies, a spoof of a video game, or a special effects short about video game characters infiltrating our world. There’s a reason for this precedent, and I think all of us content devourers are partly to blame.

In Episode 14 of Web Zeroes, Going Viral, we jokingly put together a formula that created a surefire way for online content to go viral. Derivative content + relevant references + humor/special effects = viral videos. While it’s mostly a joke, there’s also a nugget of truth to it. And really, the only completely necessary piece of that equation is that the content should be derivative. It’s a sad but telling glimpse into the online community’s level of engagement in some ways.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many notable exceptions out there. The Web is full of wildly successful individuals who all make their own stuff, and make it quite well. There is a conversation that is constantly circulating about these people’s content, and in order to break into it, they have to talk about you. The easiest way to hijack the discussion is to create content that already has a buzz about it. Namely, something totally derivative. This could be a popular game, a movie, or any number of other things.

This is exactly what we at SmoothFewFilms set out to do when we created A Day in the Life of a Turret two years ago. And it worked. Or so we thought.

Our primary goal with creating that short was to make a viral video that would grow our audience and “help us get famous”. If you haven’t seen it, it’s just a goofy skit about two turrets from the videogame Portal as they gripe about their day. For a couple of months, we had planned on creating a short based in the game, primarily because we knew we could do it easily given our past experience making machinima in the Source engine. Once the Internet buzz grew about the game exponentially right after its release, we knew that we only had a small window to make the video. The Internet will only tolerate jokes about cake for so long. We piled on references to Halo, Call of Duty 4, Lost, Facebook, and anything else under the sun we could think of to help connect it to different audiences. We knew that if it was at least halfway decent, it stood a good shot at blowing up.

Portal TurretsIn terms of numbers, the video was wildly successful. The linkbacks we got from other sites sent close to 100,000 visitors to us in the first 36 hours or so of its release, and the YouTube versions have since garnered millions of views. Joystiq called us for a brief interview and we even saw ourselves mentioned in an issue of EGM. Really, episode 14 of Web Zeroes is based in part on this entire experience, including the e-mails from our hosts (though they were much nicer about the whole thing).

While our site’s traffic jumped from about 1,000 visitors to 3,000 visitors a day in the weeks following, we still didn’t see the success we wanted. There were no contacts from Valve, no video game studios jumping in and saying they wanted to hire us. After the content hungry masses had stripped all the meat off of our site’s bones and left its carcass to bleach under a megabit sun, there was nothing but radio silence.

And really, this is why derivative content seems so appealing at first but ultimately a fruitless endeavor from a long term perspective. Yes, DITLOAT helped us out immediately by bringing us new viewers that stuck around for the rest of our machinima run and eventually Web Zeroes, but we also spent only a week making it. What if we had spent several weeks? Months? Years? Sadly, there are many out there that do this exact thing, with content that they can never truly own or sell. In fact, we did it with The Leet World for two years, only to eventually be told it would never go anywhere commercially. And if other content creators are anything like us, they want to be able to do it for a living.

StarfoxThere are a few situations which immediately come to mind. Such as the fanmade sequel to Nintendo’s Starfox, Shadows of Lylat. As far as I can tell, the game is still currently in development, and it looks incredible. But I do remember ranting a little bit to Nick Comardo about the situation, wondering aloud why these guys, who are clearly talented, didn’t just make something that belonged to them? While what they’re working on looks remarkable (and I want to play it), I couldn’t help but lament the fact that they have years of work that they can’t profit from directly. Nick’s answer was short, but true: Because nobody would have cared if it wasn’t about Starfox. In the end, it’s their choice, and I hope it works out for the best.

And really, this gets down to the heart of the issue: for the most part, the geek sphere doesn’t always care for original content. They care about content that is crafted from the forge fires of things that they already love. This is why a fanmade Metal Gear Solid movie can get watched millions of times, whereas if the same creators had released an original work with the same premise but different characters, it might have gone largely ignored.

This isn’t a knock against the creators of either of these two projects (hell, we did the same exact thing), but more of just a curious look as to why people continue to do this online. If you just want to make something for fun, that’s great. But if you want to make it and sell it, derivative content should only be used as a tool to help bolster your audience for the project you do actually own. Because people won’t stick around for the former, but they certainly will for the latter, if it’s made with the same care and skill that brought them to your other content in the first place. However, if you can somehow legally sell this derivative content, then you can have your cake and eat it, too. That’s just not usually the case.

This is ultimately what lead us to finally create Web Zeroes. We had a fan base that was brought in by the derivative content, but we couldn’t do anything with that old content monetarily. So, we made something that belonged to us. We won’t be quitting our day jobs anytime soon, but it’s a much improved step towards what we were aiming for, whereas continuing to produce content that used someone else’s intellectual property was more akin to running in place. If we could go back and do it all again, I’m still happy with what we learned over the course of all of this. But I do think that if someone had come along and given us the lesson on “make your own crap” earlier on, it would have saved us some headaches before we arrived to that conclusion on our own.

In the end I think the responsibility falls to all of us to support original creations and show them to everyone we can. Building a fan base from scratch is hard work, especially when people think the best results lie in making things that piggyback on the hard work of others. I’d like to think that in the long run, Web outfits won’t have to rely on this to gain popularity and opportunities, but we’re not quite there yet.

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