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The Mistakes of the Past

As the game industry matures, we need to heed the lessons of other industries.

Quick, what do you think will happen if someone jumps from a 20 storey building? Did you say that this person would splatter all over the pavement? That is definitely the most probable outcome.

If the game industry were a person to whom I could pose this question, the answer would be different. The industry answer would be something along the lines of “Let him jump, and then I’ll let you know. You see, there was this Russian stewardess who fell out of an airplane and survived so there is a distinct possibility that this guy could survive.  I’ll wait.”

The industry seemingly has a reluctance to accept past experience in making decisions regarding the future opting instead to react to, and sometime even uphold, the potential of success in the face of improbability. Oh, sure, it has the ability to look back as far as the stone age of the past console generation, but further than that is far too archaic to be of any use.

What I’m referring to are the lessons so painfully learned by companies and even complete industries over the past century and then some. From these mistakes have come luminaries who’ve shed light on why those mistakes happened and how to avoid them so that future businesses and industries can avoid those pitfalls.

We are so keen on comparing ourselves to the film and music industries, but what about the car industry, or underwear, or breakfast cereal. We make a product in so much as we make entertainment. The lessons learned in years of marketing and perfecting a brand of laundry soap for instance can be directly applied to a game franchise. Understanding and cultivating your market and then expanding upon it will follow along the same basic principles.

Also, in this time of economic turmoil, it is painfully obvious that many companies have turned a blind eye to the lessons and conventional wisdom of the past. The games industry, although arguably insulated, is not immune to this lack of reverence in regards to best practises.

It isn’t an explicit and determined attempt to learn its own lessons; it is ignorance through lack of expertise. Most developers are run by a game developer, which seem an obvious choice, but these guys are all too often ignorant of historical business principles. Also, in the fever pitch to keep up with the pace of gaming, they often do not have the time to learn these principles.

Concurrently, the business types in the industry are often similarly under informed in regards to proven business principles and they comfort themselves behind this notion of games being a new industry. As the reasoning goes, what “works” for the games industry must be learned and understood as if somehow the industry and its audience is made up of a new type of being that is immune to all that came before.

Simple principles such as setting goals are foreign to many. The set aspirations rather than formulating strategies and although related, these acts are not interchangeable. An aspiration is the desire for a goal. A strategy sets a goal and creates a road map towards achieving that goal. We often here of a company’s desire to achieve a certain goal, but all too often there is no clear plan towards the achievement of that goal.

Sadly, there is often a lack of understanding in the steps required to even set up a plan to reach a goal. Fredrick Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889) “My formula for happiness: A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.” That line embodies a strategy. Set a goal, create a path towards that goal, and commit to the decisions required to follow that path. However, even Nietzsche was reiterating the knowledge of many before him. There is also a laundry list of businessmen throughout the last century who went on to expound the virtue of proper strategies.

How do you like me too software? You know the game that’s an obvious attempt to emulate the success of a competitor’s product? Quite often, those games are a reactionary tactic of a company without a strategy for that same segment. It’s akin to seeing a lottery winner and then banking on a lottery win for your retirement.

If you look at the top rated game publishers out there, you will see a correlation between executions of strategy over the employment of tactics as you move from the top to the bottom of the list. One thing I can say about a company like Electronic Arts for instance is that they do like their strategies. They don’t always have one, but they do have one often enough to keep themselves near the top of the heap.

Look no further than the dreaded crunch time debate to see ignorance of the past at work. So often have there been ambitious projects. Those who led those ambitious projects were often lured to push their workers to achieve more in less time, but in the vast majority of those cases the strategy of overworking yielded damage to the project. Ever here the idiom “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Have you ever actually thought about it? Imagine an ancient stone carver being whipped at 03:00, chipping away at a section of column...by candle light. Do you believe that this section of column would have the precision and structural integrity to hold up the weight it will bear? I’d bet that column would cause a collapse. Is there an obvious bug in your game that causes you to puzzle about how such a blatant mistake can be made? Well, now you know.

There is a saying (especially) in the auto industry that there are three keys to success: Product, product, and product. In gaming, there is a current movement toward quality because the Metacritic top ranked games reads like a who’s who of industry sales success. However, why is this a current movement? Why is it that none of the business types pressed for this years ago?

The movement towards condemning ratings is seen by some as a lack of understanding within the gaming culture to grasp the workings of the industry. In other words, the vocal community is disregarding what makes the wheels of the industry turn. However, the community is almost unconsciously reacting to the lack of direction in the industry. They see that, on many counts, decisions are being made to superficially emulate the success of others rather than providing good products and allowing credit to be a side effect of this.

For each example, I can find many more. The ultimate lesson here is that many have learned the hard lessons already. As an industry, we would be well served to have a look at other industries to see why they do and learn from their successes and failures so that we avoid the pain ourselves. In this industry of easily attainable information, it seems like the best course of action.

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