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Beaker's Bent - On Vision

By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
Vol. 2, Issue 3 
November 24, 1999 

The common feature of visionary companies is actually a strong, company-wide commitment to a core ideology. And these ideologies are never "to make money," or even as simple as just "to dominate our market." No matter how a visionary company comes about or what it makes, they all have an ideology that is more than just a meaningless mission statement pasted to a wall and then forgotten. Collins and Porras document instances where visionary companies have lost focus on their core ideology, and those companies faltered until they renewed their commitment. The visionary companies rarely faltered just because of a change in management, whereas the comparisons tended to live or die on the strength of a CEO. The ideology of the visionary companies is held by the institution, not any individual.

Because these ideologies are more than just meaningless words and are a strong part of the structure of the entire institution, they have a noticeable affect on the character of the company. Most noticeably, visionary companies are very careful when they hire people. The authors use words like "indoctrination" and "cult-like" with full knowledge of how loaded the terms are, because they accurately describe what goes on at these companies. Visionary companies have comprehensive training and orientation programs that go beyond the 20 minute PowerPoint benefits explanation or mandatory and boring sexual harrasment meetings that are the norm in other corporations.

Also linked to the core ideology is the idea of the "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" as Collins and Porras put it. Visionary companies continually set goals that would seem too risky to attempt to other companies. BHAGs don't always work out, but when they do, they result in phenomenal progress into areas that competing companies didn't even see as possibilities.

There's a lot more to Built to Last, but these three concepts are perhaps the most important, and what interested me about them was how directly they can be applied to game companies. First and foremost, it is clear that very few companies in the industry have a core ideology or have one that they actually stick to, from the CEO down to the playtesters. The few large companies in the industry are the results of so many mergers that it is unlikely they are thinking much beyond trying to make their next run of titles sell more than any of their competitors, and the many startups are formed by developers looking for freedom but with little experience in the realm of management. A good sign of a lack of core ideologies would be a company suddenly expanding into types of games it has no experience or internal desire to produce just because the management decided that it wanted to capture that market. This kind of unfocused thinking has been the end of many developers.

If a company is to have a strong ideology, it is also clear that industry-hiring practices have to change. Over the years I've talked to or even interviewed at a lot of different developers, and in very few cases have I heard anyone try to evaluate me in terms of their ideology. Interview questions for designers focus on your skills and your ideas, but rarely do people describe their culture or attempt to see if you will fit into that culture. For my first job at Looking Glass, I had two different day-long interviews, by the end of which I felt that I knew almost everyone at the company, so that when I finally did walk in I felt like I was already a part of the crowd. Since then, however, it is rare that I have even talked to more than one or two members of a team I would be working with. Looking Glass's intensive interview process was definitely an unofficial indoctrination when I started there, and the general atmosphere of the company acted as a continuing indoctrination. However, the company had no clearly stated ideology that would act to make this indoctrination more official, and during the time I was there new hires were being screened less and less thoroughly, leading to a definite change in the overall character of the company.


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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it or we'll sick our lawyers on you. Muhahahahahahahah. ph3ar our [email protected] l3gal sk1lz y0.