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Too much concern with your place in the hierarchies created by your game blinds you to decisions that could make the game more successful.

Alfred MacDonald, Blogger

January 29, 2012

5 Min Read

Suppose you're a guitarist in a progressive rock band known for its technical proficiency. The songs you make are known for being 7-8 minutes in length each, with guitar solos that can last 60 seconds or more. There's a strong chance that, as this kind of guitarist, you're heavily invested in asserting its superiority over other styles of rock guitar.

Now suppose that you've dropped all of this and aim to create a major rock record label. Part of this means making your songs ADHD-friendly, in the most pop-sci sense of that acronym. You will probably have to drastically reduce the average length of your tracks from 7-8 minutes to 3-5, and cut all of the guitar solos that used to demonstrate your virtuosity.

If you are perfectly rational, this is an easy decision. However, few people are perfectly rational. 

Instead of heeding the wisdom of your business sense, what's likely to happen is that your senses are muddled from competing in one hierarchy -- the hierarchy of progressive rock -- so transitioning to a larger hierarchy will be difficult because your senses of what is good/bad are programmed to what puts you at the top of that smaller hierarchy.

This is hierarchy myopia, and it's a pervasive roadblock to progress in long-term game development. Once someone becomes invested in being good at the game they develop for, they risk developing the game according to what continues to make them good as opposed to what makes the game more successful.

The music game subculture, an area of games with which I am extremely familiar, was drowned with examples of hierarchy myopia. In the time from 2004-2006 Konami's Dance Dance Revolution series was on a notorious hiatus from development, so games like In The Groove, DanceTraX and Neon FM arose in response, spearheaded by players who were invested in the community. Problematically, their investment in the community meant that the game's development became a means of their community advancement, not the game's advancement.

I'm sure you know how Dance Dance Revolution works. You step on arrows to music. In The Groove, DanceTraX and Neon FM were like Sonic The Hedgehog to DDR's Mario. What was common to all of these games -- because I knew many of the developers who worked on these games -- is that they were most concerned with questions like "is [x] cheating?", "how hard should our hardest level of play be?", and "how should our arrow patterns be designed?".

Those are legitimate questions, but the degree of significance assigned to them is crucial to whether a game prospers or flounders. More important questions are those like "how do we market this game?", which will naturally lead into questions like "what makes this game entertaining to watch?". To someone invested in the hierarchy of this game, these questions will be secondary, if considered at all. This person would consider the game interesting and fun prima facie, with no need to spend much time making it appealing.

This hierarchy myopia occurs because internal labels (labels we give ourselves even though we're not consciously doing so) are a source of self-esteem, and psychologically, it's problematic to have your self-esteem overwhelmingly in a small number of domains. Someone who dedicates their life to violin is going to work extremely hard to preserve the label "good at violin", but someone who is moderately good at violin, tennis, piano and cooking probably doesn't care if the label "good at violin" falls into question. Because competitive games involve an industrious time commitment to the detriment of other self-esteem domains, there's enormous incentive to keep the hierarchy such that it allows for the retainment of the label "good at [x]."

In other words: buyer's remorse applies to time as well as money. To someone who has invested substantial time into earning the "good at [game]" label, developing the game is simply another means of propagating the hierarchy so they can continue to be good at that game.

Application of this idea encompasses much more than the gaming industry. The tech industry is inundated with examples of programmers doing what gives them stronger programmer street cred rather than what brings a profit, of graphic designers doing what's cool to other graphic designers at the expense of coherence, and of web developers too concerned with being cutting-edge at the expense of usability.

In fact, hierarchy myopia doesn't have to apply to profit obtainment at all. It's entirely possible to conceive of a college run by a former A-student who, against the interests of giving his students a better education, retains the structure of exams and/or grade calculation that led to his obtainment of A's in classes. I am not just confident but certain this kind of hierarchy myopia has been the source of backward examination policies atsome university somewhere.

But hierarchy myopia is particularly important  to the game industry because games frequently contain some kind of ladder system and employment in the gaming industry is increasingly on the part of gamers themselves, meaning that gamers are employing other gamers. If said gamers are part of an online community for that game, it can be doubly troublesome.

Most companies will not have to worry much about hierarchy myopia, because single-player games have a limited amount of potential involvement. Unless Bethesda or BioWare for example go out of their way to involve members of the modding community for their respective games, they aren't at risk for someone kicking and screaming with every major gameplay change.

Those companies that do have a competitive aspect, though, will be wise to pay attention to  how involved they are in their respective communities. If your own staff has a contingent that is concerned with how good it is at playing the game you develop, you could run the risk of loud, organized dissent once it comes time to make significant or dramatic changes to gameplay.

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