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Vol. 2, Issue 3
November 24, 1999
Beaker's Bent:

On Vision

by Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff

Over the summer I finally started to read some nonfiction that was related to my job. Frankly, I've had trouble finding any non-fiction that could hold my interest for long enough to finish them, and there just are no worthwhile serious books about the business of game design and publishing. There are the industry histories out there and there are some "learn to make games books," but compared to the work which has been written about the general software industry, the games-specific books are lightweight.

I finally decided to sample the more general software books in the hopes that I'd find information that would be relevant, and I'm glad I did. As it happens there are eye-opening books about both design and general business out there which are as fascinating as the best novels. In my reading so far, I've had beliefs I've held with little justification confirmed and I've been introduced to ideas I previously had never considered – pretty much the point of reading, I guess.

One of these rather startling ideas is that there is such a thing as a large, visionary company. As many of my personal bad experiences in the industry have come directly from the management bungling which seems endemic to any organization larger than a single team, I had formed the opinion that big corporations are by their nature bad. This was until I read Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras.

Honestly, I didn't even want to read this book at first though it was given to me by perhaps the best boss I've ever had. I was sure that no company could actually be anything I would consider visionary, and I thought that it was going to be some sort of "how to" book founded on principles I wouldn't accept. Instead, Built to Last is a scientific study of around twenty companies that have lasted for over 100 years and are the most well regarded and usually best performing in their fields. The point of the study was to determine what elements were common in all these companies: thus, what constitutes a visionary company. They make an argument that is compelling enough and founded in enough evidence to completely change my mind, at least.

Each of the visionary companies is paired with a comparison company which has existed for a similar amount of time and is in as similar a line of work to the visionary company as possible. As an example, some of these pairs were Sony (visionary) and Zenith, Hewlett Packard (visionary) and Texas Instruments, and Boeing (visionary) and McDonnell-Douglas. Many of the visionary companies had wild differences in their histories and organization, but despite these differences, the authors make a convincing argument that there is an underlying similarity between them all.

This column isn't intended to be a book review, but rather an explanation of the applicability of this book to the computer game industry. The book can be boiled down into an assertion that it is a myth that great companies are distinguished by the specific individuals who run them and are purely profit-driven. Instead, it turns out, the companies which are widely regarded as visionary do not rely on the presence of any specific CEOs nor do they focus on money-making above all else. Yet despite this, these visionary companies in the long term have often outperformed their comparison counterparts.

  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.

Finally, even games companies that have company-wide ideologies and the strong indoctrination processes to create the cult-like atmosphere Collins and Porras describe still need to set themselves big hairy audacious goals. Audacious goals of visionary companies described in Built to Last include Boeing's project to make a commercial jet even though the airlines had gone so far as to say they wouldn't be interested. Boeing did anyway at great financial risk, and within a few short years all the airlines were phasing out their prop planes almost entirely.

It is possible that id's decision to make Wolfenstein 3D when action games were entirely 2D counts as a BHAG, and likewise the invention of deathmatch for Doom, but it is unclear from an outsider's perspective whether these were treated as BHAGs or just naturally evolved. In recent years, id's decision to postpone the indoor/outdoor Trinity project and make another indoor, deathmatch game could be seen as somewhat less than visionary. Indoor/outdoor in itself may not actually be that audacious of a goal anyway, as the 3D engines which were popularized largely by Wolf 3D are slowly evolving into it as hardware and software technology develops.

The previous examples of applying the ideas in Built to Last to the games industry are largely conjecture on my part. The important point, as noted by the authors themselves, is that this book pretty readily disproves most conventional business thinking, and our developing industry is in real need of thinking that goes far beyond the conventional. It is unlikely that more than a handful of companies in our industry could ever become true visionaries – one piece of information the book does not provide is how many other companies they would consider visionary beyond the 18 they studied. My guess is there would not be very many, and this book sampled from many industries. However, even if no games companies managed a full transition to visionary status, the very attempt to analyze their internal practices could be helpful.

The games company is not going to go away at this point, and companies which hope to last need to do more than just follow trends and acquire licenses in an attempt to maximize profits. The fact that the book's title is Built to Last is not coincidence: these are companies that have found formulas that enable them to survive and in the long run to prosper. Game developers come and go so quickly that some don't even publish a game before their principals find themselves looking for a new job. Any ideas to reverse this trend should be studied closely.

- Richard “Beaker” Wyckoff is a game designer, not a level designer, damnit!


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