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Before The Wheel

An essay about the market's lust for certainty, the mad things we do in pursuit of it and the ways of thinking that separate business folk from creatives.

Brendan Vance, Blogger

July 26, 2016

15 Min Read

One thing you learn after a few years of professional creative work is this: money loves certainty. Not just any kind of certainty, mind you. Not the kind we produce in science labs through decades of careful experiments; not the kind that comes down from the mountain on the lips of old philosophers. It's the feeling, the sensation of certainty: that wild glow behind a gambling addict's eyes that compels them to bet their savings on roulette.

This should not be especially surprising; what is creative commerce, after all, if not an exercise in risk? We gamble the money of our financiers (and, often, our own livelihoods) on outcomes no honest person could predict. Will we complete our project on schedule, if indeed we complete it at all? How many people will like the thing we make; how many will pay money for it, tell their friends about it, come back to us for more? How many people will even hear that it exists?

If you are a creative executive—someone tasked with determining how much money to spend on which idea—you must attempt to predict these very outcomes, honestly or otherwise. You sit on a pile of money your bosses ordered you to spend very carefully. Your job, as we've established, is to gamble it; yet if you said so out loud you'd be tossed from the building and replaced with whomever had the good sense not to speak. Instead you must convince many rooms full of high-powered biz people (most of whom privately want to strangle each other) that something, anything is a sure thing: that the money they entrust to you will turn like magic into more money, and later into more money still. This is all money ever wants to hear.

What follows is a story about the ways creative people can and cannot be certain. It's a story of gamblers, crafters, hucksters and true believers. Mostly it's a story about the age-old gulf between artists and business folk, which only seems to widen as we cram ourselves into smaller and smaller rooms. If we read this story together, and we read it with sympathy, I think we can make it across.


The creative biz defines itself, in large part, by an unending war between two intellectual traditions. On Mad Men they frame this as a tale of creatives versus suits: the artsy hipsters, with their grand ideas, versus the bean counters and their correspondent gladhanding. It's not that the creatives aren't trying to make money; nobody enters the ad business for artistic purity. It's that the two parties disagree, fundamentally, about what's valuable.

Creatives—in my profession, game designers and artists and my particular subclass of programmer—believe that to have knowledge we must explore. We must throw ourselves into something, wander around, get lost, find a way out, then do it again and again for years. Our job is to make things, which we learn to do by making things. Every time we solve a tricky problem, we've charted another course through the wildernes. We soon come to know the landscape: what's easy, what's hard, how generally to make our way from point A to point B. The more ingeniously we navigate, the more valuable we judge our work to be.

A little taste of that knowledge makes some people cocky; I expect we've all had peers who insist they know exactly the right thing for everyone else to do with their time. Yet sooner or later, experience and responsibility lead us towards a fear and respect for our craft: for all we've yet to learn, and all we can't control or predict. We become increasingly pensive; as Don Draper says, we spend less time making stuff and more time thinking about how to make it. In doing this, we complete the cycle of our creative trade. A novice programmer claims to know nothing; an intermediate programmer claims to know everything; a senior programmer admits to knowing relatively little.

(This is to say that while money is in love with certainty, the creative process distrusts it.)

Big projects demand personnel who know 'relatively little'. If you walk into one without them, you might never walk out again. And yet, as the cast of Mad Men learns the hard way, these people are never all that you'll need. To get the kind of money you require to do your work, you contend with your boss' boss. Your boss' boss has no patience for the pensiveness of experienced creatives. They're never happy to hear you say you don't know what to do, even if 'knowing what to do' depends entirely on divining the future (a superpower not even they possess). Programmers like me find this maddening, dealing as we do in so many unknown variables; yet it's a perfectly natural position for my boss' boss to take, since unlike programmers they must contend with the rigors of the market.

The market, as I understand it, is nothing like the weird computerized landscapes I cultivate when I make videogames. It's more like, say, the demon offspring of a pinball machine and the Old Testament: a place of frantic, jubilant, overstimulated chaos where bad things happen to good projects even as some derivative pile of muck rockets its way to obscene wealth. It's a shitshow—indeed, the oldest and grandest of all shitshows—whose rules change so quickly that even the cheaters scarcely know what they're cheating at. Every creative business comes to feed that great roulette wheel in the sky, spinning it faster and faster as many fortunes bounce madly along its frets. This is no place for wise old computer programmers;  in truth, it's been known to drive them insane.

If a deep knowledge of our craft comes increasingly to diminish our sense of absolute certainty—and if, indeed, money values certainty above all else—then our knowledge becomes, in a very practical way, the sworn enemy of commerce (just as knowledge is the enemy of casinos across the world). For those intent on using creative work to amass larger and larger sums of capital, this simply will not do; and so arises the need to (indeed, a market for) replacing that feeling of 'knowing everything' which years of careful study stripped away from us. And here is where our second intellectual tradition comes in.

This second tradition is not about making things; we creatives have that covered already. This tradition is all about making belief. For belief, as your boss' boss could tell you, is the mighty engine on which the great wheel accelerates. Belief in the invisible hand, like some Old Testament god, simultaneously cruel and benevolent; belief in the value and fundamental morality underlying all the currencies we accumulate; belief in beating the house and walking away rich, as every gambler dreams. Belief is the reason why consumers choose your product—and why investors choose to fund it—despite all the competitors aiming to supplant you. Creatives measure value by ingenuity, and a little ingenuity is vital; yet executives measure it by belief, as does everyone you hope will pay you.

(This is to say that if money is in love with certainty, one cannot entice the former without first instilling the latter.)


There are very few ways to discover the truth. How fortunate, then, that there are so many ways to make people believe that you did. Tell me, reader: have you heard of “the book everyone in Silicon Valley is talking about”? Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, calls it “A must-read for everyone who cares about driving customer engagement." Stephen P. Anderson, author of Seductive Interaction Design, raves: “You’ll read this. Then you’ll hope your competition isn’t reading this. It’s that good.”

The book in question (whose heaping praise I quote directly from its very own website) is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. This book presents a how-to guide for creating services that ‘hook’ consumers, in part by ‘triggering’ them to perform the ‘simplest possible behaviour’ in anticipation of a ‘variable reward’ that is ‘fulfilling, yet leaves them wanting more’. (In the midst of all this the consumer should ‘perform a bit of work’ that ‘increases their likelihood of returning’, like how a points card motivates you to buy more Starbucks, or a bear trap motivates you to stop for a picnic.)

At first this struck me as a very good strategy for, say, selling cocaine. But then I learned it's actually a strategy (or rather, also a strategy) for selling iPhone games.

Pictured: The gyre, widening as we turn.

Having taken at least one introductory course in game design, I can tell you that despite its 'revolutionary' posturing Hooked smells strongly like a tech-flavoured rehash of very popular, very well-established, very old ideas (long employed, as one example, in casinos). I can tell you its rhetoric rests largely on psychological research originated by people like B. F. Skinner, giving it that 'sciency' sheen of objectivity. Yet Google could tell you that its author, while holding an MBA as well as an advanced degree from "the school of hard knocks", is not (and, to his credit, carefully avoids claiming to be) any sort of scientist.

This is all for the better, as no scientist could claim in good conscience to provide a series of "actionable steps for building products people love"; such a claim is too vague even to parse, let alone test. The scientific method shall never reveal which "actionable steps" guarantee something like a hit videogame (nor, for that matter, a flop); what little we can verify using experiments shall never generalize in that direction, since the variables of the market remain innumerable and uncontrollable. At best, books like Hooked present a sketchy post-hoc thesis about why past business models have succeeded or failed. They make non-falsifiable claims on purpose because their intent is not scientific; instead they intend to persuade you, through the ethos of Skinner and Zuckerberg and Jobs, to view the dynamics of the business world through one particular historical lens. This makes them works of criticism more than anything else, which despite all the 'science' talk is precisely what we artsy hipsters like to write.

Why is it, then, that your boss' boss hates foofy works of 'artistic critique' even while imploring everyone around them to read biz crit like Hooked? It's because of our two intellectual traditions. Most arts crit wants to complicate our beliefs: to expand them, twist them, refract them and even destroy them. The best of it charts radical new courses across the creative landscape, thereby enhancing our capacity to explore. Most biz crit, by contrast, aims to galvanize our beliefs: to make us certain of ourselves, and to help us inspire certainty in others. Both things are necessary for creative commerce. Yet neither offers us truth, neither predicts the future, and neither guarantees us success.


Today, in the epoch of startups, self-publishing and agile development, the notion of a Draper-esque 'pure creative' seems hopelessly out of date. Everything bleeds together now; people of every profession work elbow-to-elbow in one large room, wearing every hat at once, turning work in on Tuesday morning that hits the market by Tuesday afternoon. If ever there were a wall of separation between creative types and biz types—or between creators and their audience—that wall has all but evaporated; now the great wheel spins, like an enormous buzz-saw, mere inches from everyone's face. The intended consequence of this arrangement (which some imagine to be its upside) is that money travels literally at the speed of light. One less-intended consequence is that visual artists get to attend meetings in which their peers drone on for hours about 'Key Performance Indicators', pausing once or twice to grill them on how their idea for a new character design is supposed to improve '7 Day Retention'.

Our preoccupation with these sorts of instruments is very suitable to biz folk, who've trained themselves to transmute any fact or figure into a bulletproof case for whichever choice they prefer. Yet it's deeply incompatible with the intellectual traditions of our craftspeople, forcing them fight on unfamiliar terrain for the space they need to go off and do their best work. The closer we stand to the marketplace, the more certainty we must project in order to be heard. Yet if we spend too much time projecting a facade of certainty before problems about which we should never be certain, we lose the capacity to be honest about our creative process. Once that happens, we have lost the capacity to collaborate.

Of course, in the videogame industry we've created an entire genre of training materials to help us construct this very facade (along with a corresponding corporate infrastructure to extract profit from its construction). We call this genre 'Best Practices'. The idea is both simple and insidious. Follow these enumerated tips, dear game developer, and feel confident that you'll end up with a well-crafted thing, a hypothetically-profitable thing and, most importantly, a thoroughly justifiable thing! Kindly discount the fact that most videogames fail to find an audience despite "everyone in Silicon Valley" following exactly the same tips we now present to you; please ignore the possibility that the instruments you're using might bear no causal relationship whatsoever to your project's success! Reassure your boss' boss that you followed proper procedure; bludgeon your coworkers into submission using these authoritative projector slides! Feel certainty that your Practices are, in absolute and final terms, Best.

I've read Best Practices for subjects as broad as "software engineering", which is sort of like declaring "Best Practices for alien language". I've been reading Best Practices for virtual reality games since before you could even preorder a headset, which always struck me as a tiny bit premature. I've read a thousand Best Practices for 'monetizing' my 'content', most of which directly contradict one another and none of which are very likely to make me money. These ideas are the rhetorical cousin of those banner ads that read "One Weird Tip For Reducing Belly Fat" in that they seek to present an air of complete authority, yet they draw that authority from some hidden remote source. It would be one thing if they labelled themselves 'Insomniac Games' Design Process', or 'Jonathan Blow's Opinions About Game Programming'; yet the term 'Best Practice' insists on its own freestanding correctness, independent from any particular context. This tactic obfuscates more than it clarifies and, as a result, presents a very dangerous basis on which to make decisions.

Now, while it's true that Best Practices are manipulative, non-predictive of quality or profit and, for these reasons, essentially fraudulent, that's not even the worst part. The worst part is the way they've managed to 'hook' so many of my fellow craftspeople. When I attended talks at this year's Game Developer's Conference I saw folks clamoring for Best Practices. 'What are the general takeaways?', they demanded to know. 'Do you have any Best Practices for this or that subject? What is the One Weird Tip to distance me from the spectre of failure—to justify, with absolute certainty, the thousands of dollars my employer paid to send me here?'

Should you make the mistake of giving a talk without offering some of those sweet, savory Best Prax, you might hear about it in the anonymous reviews GDC collects from its attendees. And if those reviews rate you poorly enough, GDC might even elect not to invite you to give a second or a third talk. The Best Practices must flow, it now appears. And since they who control the Best Practices control the universe, this has become the role of GDC as an institution: to act as an assembly line, moulding oblique discussions about craft into an arsenal of weaponized belief.

The assembly line, in turn, furnishes a story our industry always wants to tell itself about itself: that everything, from our designs to our plotlines to our visual art, improves with the same clockwork consistency as the microprocessors through which we pump our data. It's what philosophers call a teleological metanarrative: in other words, a belief that our world moves ever forward towards a state of sublime perfection, never backsliding or deteriorating or going sideways. It persuades us that the market is a meritocracy rather than a shitshow; that The Wheel works in mysterious ways, but Good Games will always prevail in the next life. It helps mask the cyclical nature of everything; it papers over the fact that the ideas "everyone in Silicon Valley is talking about" also appeared in my 2009 Intro to Game Design course (and in critical essays long before that). Indeed, it resells those ideas at regular intervals for a tidy profit. The rhetoric's all contemporary, but the dynamic is as old as money itself: we prospectors go broke digging for gold while the provisioners sell us pickaxes to pay their mortgages.

This is how we make our industry into a perpetual frontier; this is why we suffer the afflictions of a perpetual wild west.


What can we learn from stories like this? How can we reconcile these different ways of knowing, and cross the gulf between them? I categorically refuse to offer you a set of Best Practices for doing these things; yet if you work in a creative industry and you find yourself struggling to cope, here are some things to keep in mind.

Some people possess the ability to present any opinion as the truth. Perhaps you count yourself among them; if so, I envy you for it! But have you considered when, why and on whom you ought to employ that ability? Certainly your boss' boss is always looking for a little certainty; but what of that visual artist over there, sketching in the corner of the meeting room? They express themselves differently from you: probably with finished work, and probably over a certain period of time. You can crush their rhetoric with your own, if you so choose; but the choices you then compel them to make might not be as wise as the ones they'd discover through their work. People will resent you for that.

If you're fortunate enough to be the boss' boss, consider that you pay the majority of your staff to be uncertain about most things most of the time. They need your help representing them in the biz world—you have the power to shape belief in their favour—but they also need you to provide insulation from the chaos of the marketplace. They probably cannot say exactly how much money they'll make for the company, nor when they will make it; this doesn't mean you need to start issuing orders.

There is no such thing as a true 'Best Practice', but there are styles and sensibilities in which people place their convictions; this, in itself, is a beautiful thing. Reading criticism is good! You should read each and every one of my critical essays, and then share them with all your friends. But never mistake criticism for some kind of philosopher's stone, no matter how many sciency footnotes you find at the end of the chapter. And always be extra wary of alumni from the "school of hard knocks".

Lastly, take heed of we artsy hipsters once in a while. Perhaps you believe in the justice and fairness of the free market. If so, I suppose I admire your resolve. But can you make this belief into a positive force? Or will you flare out in frustration, as you struggle to become 'justly and fairly' deserving of success? It's common wisdom in the game industry that projects must be 'good' before they become successful. I think this is a lie. To refute it I need only cite the ancient problem of evil: bad things happen to good projects, and vice versa, more often than not. If in spite of this you insist on making good projects anyway, ask yourself: Why?

Maybe when you make things you seek more than some prerequisite for market success. Maybe you want your projects to be good because you like making good projects; maybe that's enough. The Wheel is a cruel instrument, built for money rather than people. The good is more important, we arts critics believe, because it was built for us. We think this is the only sane belief you can have about creative work. After all, who except a gambling addict seeks providence from evil machines?

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