We might work on a game that gets horrible reviews, design a feature that ends up being the worst part of the game, or pour years of our lives into a game that gets cancelled or a company that goes bankrupt. Or, it might be something as small as introducing a bug that ends up breaking the build.
In some cases, we can recognize these problems and smooth things over, but sometimes the damage is irreparable. In cases like these, all we can do is quickly learn what lessons can be learned, and be on the lookout for our next chance to apply them.
It's really ok to move onWhen your balloon escapes, you don't start climbing fire escapes to chase it; you buy a new one and tie it to your wrist. When you drop an ice cream cone, you hopefully don't eat it off of the ground; you learn not to eat and dance at the same time.
One of the hallmarks of a veteran designer is spending less time and energy lamenting mistakes, and more time and energy on preventing those problem from recurring.
People who chase missed opportunities rarely succeed at recapturing them. Without a time machine, we'll never get a chance to catch that winning touchdown pass we missed, and in real life barging into weddings usually doesn't get us a second chance with the one who got away.
What we can do is analyze what went wrong, build a pattern in our mind that will allow us to recognize our next opportunity to make a similar choice, and move on with our lives. This is the essence of learning, and it's what we ask our players to do all the time in our games. Even in games that let players rewind, those who can't learn from their mistakes will be trapped forever, in an endless failure loop.
Luckily, this kind of learning is one of the things that humans are best at. It's the essence of science, interpersonal communication, and especially playing games. In fact, some people think that this kind of learning is the entire reason that games exist. Making games is really just a very elaborate metagame itself, so it's no great stretch that we should ask ourselves to learn from our mistakes.
Player retention vs re-acquisitionHere's a good example of how fixing problems can't change the past:
Now that we've used a black box to fix the problems a game has, we can go out and get all those old players back, right? Well, maybe, but not necessarily. If it takes 10 times as much effort to get a player as it does to keep a player, it might take 50 times as much effort to get an old player back, once they've decided our game is crap. Some players may have had a bad enough experience that they'd never come back if we paid them.
What'd we waste all the time fixing the problem for then, if it can't actually get our players back? Improving our player retention gives us another chance to succeed with new players. We need to work on making sure the players have are sticking around, because retention is more important than acquisition. If our player acquisition is not good, then now we'll need to work on fixing that too, but only after we've made sure that our retention is high enough.
Maybe after a while, good word of mouth might spread to our old players, and then we'll have another chance to bring them back, but maybe those players are lost to us forever and we'll have to focus on making our new players happy. If drastic amounts of players have left the game, and the new players coming in are very different from the old ones, we may find ourselves with a whole new set of problems to solve.
Worse consequences, stronger lessonsThose players we lost may actually be a better lesson to use than if we had managed to get them back. In a way we spent or consumed those players. They taught us how to fix the game, but now they may be contaminated or otherwise invalid to us. Next time we'll be sure to be more careful about those particular kinds of problems.
Maybe the game lost so many players that it ends up dying, but in that case we'll be sure not to make those same mistakes again on our next game. If we do, then maybe survival of the fittest should apply, and we shouldn't be making games in the first place.
This learning process is very important to being a good game designer, and is one of the main assets that experienced designers possess over the most talented new designers. Properly analyzing mistakes and recognizing opportunities to apply that knowledge is a skill of its own.
Becoming better at learning from our mistakes and knowing when to apply those lessons is the best shortcut there is to becoming much better designers, much more quickly.