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2, Issue 3
November 24, 1999
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Beaker Wyckoff is a game designer, not a level designer,
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