The High (Personal) Cost of Entering a Creative Partnership With a Friend: A Cautionary Tale

[Cover image courtesy of]

Some of you longtime Chi-Scroller readers may have noticed that I’m suddenly doing basically all of the articles around here, whereas it used to be a 50/50 endeavor. I feel like I owe it to you to explain that a bit. I will always be humbled and never take for granted that there are so many people out there who are regular readers of this website. There is so much just on the internet alone with which to occupy one’s time, so to have someone choose to give me a chunk of that–and more than once–based entirely on them legitimately enjoying what I put out is something that makes me incredibly happy and makes all of the work I put into this website worth it. With all that said, I don’t want anyone who does feel a bit of an investment in the site to feel like they don’t know what’s going on.

In October 2013, I co-founded The Chi-Scroller with my friend, Steve Zachmann. We were both at a crossroads in our professional lives and wanted to make a change, so we decided that we’d parlay our love of video games–always a major facet of our friendship–into running a website about video games together. Steve was a budding game developer, and I was a budding writer, so it was also meant to double as a way for us to both make contacts and break into our respective industries. Having the Chi-Scroller focus primarily on the video game scene surrounding Chicago–hence the name of the site, in case anybody has ever been curious about that–was our way of not only narrowing our focus and trying to stand out in a sea of video game blogs, but also hopefully make local connections with like-minded people for both business and personal reasons.

Well, we quickly realized that the Chicago game dev scene as a whole wasn’t particularly interested in a website dedicated to them, at least not one run by people they didn’t already know. I don’t know what the dev scene is like in other cities/regions, but the one in Chicago seems to be pretty insular and is extremely difficult to make yourself a part of if you aren’t already a part of it. I suppose that once you’re at the point where your game and your studio are being profiled in Polygon and Rock Paper Shotgun, you don’t really “need” the coverage of some scruffy upstart local blog. We foolishly thought that local indie devs would automatically want to support and cross-promote another local indie endeavor, and that turned out to not be the case. I need to point out that a lot of local people were very nice and welcoming to us in the beginning, and there were only a few devs that either ignored us completely or were specifically dismissive of us (though some definitely were). But whatever little buzz we garnered early on for simply being the “new kids in town” faded quickly, and it wasn’t long before the retweets and comments stopped coming, and the unfollows on Twitter and Facebook piled up. Message received: the Chicago game dev scene was not interested. “Thanks anyway, but we’ve already got all the friends/press we need” was the basic unspoken sentiment.

So rather than continue in futility trying to support and celebrate a group that largely acted too good/too cool for our insignificant attention, we decided to give up on the Chicago focus and make our blog about video game industry and culture as a whole. And we ultimately got the last laugh, as our view count began to explode shortly after. I’d also be lying if I said I haven’t indulged in a little schadenfreude by watching some of the people that particularly shunned us fail to reach Kickstarter goals, release not particularly well-received games, and/or close up shop completely as we’ve concurrently grown more successful by giving up on them, unprofessional though that may be. The little pet project that Steve and I started together, and stuck with through some pretty low periods–we once went an entire month with less than 200 total clicks–was finally proving to be worth all the trouble.

At this point, I need to back up a bit and explain the nature of our friendship at the time that we first started discussing what would become the Chi-Scroller. Steve and I actually hadn’t spoken in a number of years, for reasons that I won’t retread because they aren’t of consequence to this piece, and the Chi-Scroller ended up being the centerpiece of our reconciliation. Building the blog together ran concurrent with mending our friendship, and it was because of that connection that we took the blog as seriously as we did. We had both previously been guilty of starting and quickly abandoning projects like this on our own, but doing it together and having it being the foundation that we rebuilt our friendship on meant that we both treated it with much more passion than we might have otherwise.

Perhaps that right there was our first mistake. It wasn’t just two friends entering a creative/business partnership; it was two friends who hinged a friendship on a creative/business partnership. Putting something as heavy as a close friendship on top of a creative endeavor is inevitably going to put way too much pressure on it. And in retrospect, I have to wonder if maybe I felt that way more than him, that the Chi-Scroller was something of a tangible representation of our friendship and what we meant to each other as friends.

Down the road, we decided to jump on the YouTube Let’s Play bandwagon after it was revealed just how much cash people like PewDiePie, Sky, and Markiplier were making from their YouTube channels. Of course, so did everyone else, and YT became absolutely flooded with a new generation of me-too Let’s Players trying to be the next six- and seven-figure earners. So our meager little attempt at standing out from that pack wasn’t exactly a runaway success, but it was still a lot of fun. Mostly, it was just an excuse to make time in our busy adult lives to get together one night a week, eat some greasy food, and then play video games and laugh for hours. So when Steve got too busy to do it–and in his defense, he was doing all of the post-production work so he definitely was putting in a lot of time on it, far more than I was–it was hard not to take that as him saying he no longer had time for me as much as just not having the time to do the videos. I honestly couldn’t care less about making YouTube videos; nothing against anyone who makes and/or watches Let’s Plays, but they just aren’t my thing personally. Beyond the part of me that of course hoped we could get rich off of it, I mostly just liked getting to hang out once a week, and that’s more what I felt was being taken away when it came to an end. Again, that very well be me bringing too much of my own baggage to the situation, but it was impossible for me not to take it personally when he didn’t have time for it anymore.

Honestly, I don’t think our partnership–in and out of the website–every really recovered from that. I’m not here to bash Steve, but the fact is that over the next year he never fully committed himself to Chi-Scroller like had had in the past. He took several long hiatuses–some of which I was informed about, and some of which I wasn’t–followed by a period where his creative output just didn’t seem to have any real passion behind it anymore, and when I called him on it, he replied with an eight-sentence email that basically informed me that he’d be around for one more month, and then he was done. Just like that. He didn’t even bother taking me up on my offer to just decrease his role to an occasional contributor in order to still maintain some small piece of what he had helped to build. He was just done, clean break, he was moving on, and to paraphrase his sendoff, I should find another partner or just run the blog myself.

Now, we all know that creative partnerships end all the time. I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m the only person who was ever part of a creative team where the other person bailed. But the problem here was, as I said, the Chi-Scroller and Steve and my respective participation in and commitment to it had become a metaphor for our friendship, and I had begun to take any website-related decisions Steve made as friendship-related decisions. I don’t believe my taking everything about his treatment of Chi-Scroller personally to be completely unfounded. We had both discussed on numerous occasions how much the site meant to us and how it symbolized our friendship; this wasn’t something that I just decided to attach personal feelings to. That he didn’t treat the Chi-Scroller as delicately and sensitively as someone should a friendship and ended up just growing weary of it and quitting it like someone would quit some random job is impossible not to be personally hurt by.

I suppose that is where the lesson comes that I can impart from this little cautionary tale of mine. Advising anyone against entering into a creative and/or business partnership with someone they already have a personal relationship with isn’t something I’m going to do. There are numerous benefits to pairing up with your existing friends/loved ones in creating something, and many, many people have done so quite successfully. What I would advise is if you do decide to do that, make sure that you don’t put too much pressure on it. Minimize the baggage that is brought to the project, and try to work through as much of it as possible before any actual work is done. And be aware that there is an added risk that if you let your partner(s) down, especially if you do so deliberately (by quitting, flaking out, etc) that you aren’t just letting down a business colleague. You’re letting down a friend and possibly damaging or ending a friendship. It isn’t fair to anyone involved for you to act like you’re naive to that fact.

The universe has a way of balancing things out, and if getting into business partnerships with friends and family didn’t carry any risk, then everybody would do it. For all of the ways that it makes things a lot easier than starting something up with a stranger, the personal risks are that much higher and there is that much more at stake if someone quits or the project fails. Just know the risk, and be ready to face the personal consequences if things don’t work out, and you can hopefully be better-equipped to enter in a friendship-backed creative endeavor than I was. Luckily, ours was the type of project that it was feasible for me to continue with on my own and at least have one of us stick with the thing that we had built together and continue to make room in my life for it. Not everyone is so lucky.

If you’re wondering what Steve is up to these days–I have no idea. We literally haven’t spoken since he quit in January (he hasn’t even saw fit to drop by and leave the occasional comment on any articles here since). I guess you can figure out how well our friendship fared in the wake of our broken business partnership. So it goes, I guess. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t have been able to build this site without him and I’ll never forget that–but I’ll also never forget who ended up sticking with it and who it meant more to. All of it.