Let’s talk pandering and worldbuilding.
You want the game to sell, you want the book to be read, you want the game to be exciting. But you also want to build an interesting world and a consistent setting. However, if you did just a few things you might just sell more, just a little fan service or . . .
Don’t. Don’t do it.
If you’re really serous about worldbuildingg, don’t go pandering. Don’t sex up your world for no reason, don’t go throw in something that doesn’t fit. Don’t go breaking your hard work for the vague promise someone will like it. Don’t wreck what you built.
I’m not saying you can’t focus on a reader’s needs or a gamer’s interests – I’ll address that in a bit. Instead I want to note that pandering is destructive to worldbuilding.
Why We Pander – And The Risks Involved
Why do people pander? Because in some cases it works.
We know that turning a story into a visual booty call gets sales sometimes. We know that a gratuitous explosion sequence gets people going “ooh.” We know you can throw in some almost-familiar characters and get fans. We know it can work
The problem? Emphasis on can.
Of course when you pander you can also break your world, and in a way that screams “I am so pandering to you!” You can include elements to blatantly get attention and they stand out like sore thumbs, and your audience feels insulted. Or as a friend once put it, roughly “I don’t want the writers sticking their hands down my pants.”
You can loose track of what’s real and what’s “sales” and then your world spins into unknown territory, and not the fun kind. You can’t tell when you stuck something in and when you “meant for something” to be. I’m sure we can look at a few media properties like that . . .
For that matter, in a world where plenty of people are willing to pander, you’re probably not unusual and there are people who maybe a hell of a lot better at it than you, ad probably less ethical than you are.
I’m not saying people can’t succeed in doing pandering worldbuilding. I’m saying it’s not a good choice for a serious worldbuilder, and some of them are better than you at selling out.
If you’re a worldbuilder, it runs counter to what you’re doing. So make a call.
Pandering Versus Worldbuilding
Worldbuilding is about building a consistent setting and set of characters that works. The problem with inserting gratuitous elements into it is that it breaks your hard work. Much as a Mary Sue/Gary Stu can be blatant and obvious, so can inserting pandering elements. This stands out, ironically, the more you build your world – because there’s more to look “wrong” against.
I find in the end you have to make a decision of what works for your world or what sells, and if you’re dedicated to your craft, the world wins. Otherwise, what you’re doing is just dressing your ideas up in poorly fitting suits of what you think other people will like.
And that’s one of the final problems with pandering – you don’t know what people will really like in lot of cases. Your assumptions can be quite dishearteningly wrong, and then you’re stuck with a setting that is a mess and wasn’t worth it.
But, I know sometimes we need to get a game to be what people want, sell our books, or get that game out there. And I’d suggest some other approaches to give people what they want without selling yourself out.
Viewpoints As Vantage Point
Imagine you have built a world, but your gamers want an action story. Or you have a consistent setting, but you know romance in it would sell and you really want to get this word out there. The thing is if you built a consistent world, you can find a place and time in it to give people what they want without breaking the world.
Your world may be at peace now, so your action game takes place in the years before – perhaps punctuated with some Babylon 5- like flash forwards for extra spice.
The world you have isn’t one where you planned to write romance, but you want to explore that to get your world out there, so pick a time and a set of characters and explore it. I recall some romance novels a friend pointed me at that had marvelous worldbilding and you didn’t need the romance (in factI suspect the author merely used that as a perspective).
Someone wants political drama and your setting is a light fantasy meant for comedy – so you can focus on the ridiculous political elements in some kind of Blackadder-meets-Discworld fusion.
In fact I find it the hallmark of a good artist that they can change the lens on their world and experience it differently. As I’ve noted, you’ve got all these different perspectives – characters – you can pick ones that work for your ambitions.
Or perhaps you want to deliver a straight-up commercial work but want to be a good worldcrafter . . .
World As Focus
Another method I see, especially if you’ve got to pay the bills, is to build a setting that fits certain needs – then go deep into them and build a world among the themes that will sell. Take them to their logical extremes and then some and do good worldbuilding with the elements that will work for your venture. You might be surprised.
A grand example of thisI think is the Borderlands game series, which was re-invented many times early on, but finally became a kind of action-comedy. It’s deliriously over-the-top, packed with guns, explosions, crude jokes, and everything you can imagine and obviously knows what people want. Ib one way it panders – but in another it’s a comedic, well-realized, and interesting setting. It’s a world where the ridiculously arrogant villain Handsome Jack is annoying at one moment – then reveals his humanity right before a boss fight.
(I will argue some of the plot-fill-in between the first and second game was a tad lame, but still well done in the end. Also I will never forget my first acid-shooting revolver.)
I actually am a bit fond of this method of “start with the marketing an build up” as it causes you to explore ideas and may surprise your. You may make all sorts of discoveries, build a good story for a game or book or whatever, and manage to market.
Yes, I prefer to build worlds straight-up. But sometimes you gotta eat – might as well do your best work.
Pandering really breaks worldbuilding, and though some people can manage to jack blatant fanservice into a consistent setting, I’m not going to count on it (and even if you do it you may not be the winner). Instead, I’d focus on the craft of worldbuilding.
With that craft, you can find what sells in your world, or you can even take a seemingly lame set of ideas and turn them into something beautiful. But build that ability.
Of course, if you think pandering to your audience is bad, there’s actually a case of pandering that’s far worse . . .
But we’ll address that next.
– Steven Savage