May 24, 2009

Learn Your Lesson and Let it Go

Like everyone, game designers make lots of mistakes. We might lose players because of bad design decisions, or water down our game by trying to appeal to too many kinds of players at once. We might make a bad impression on someone who can influence our career, or vouch for someone who turns out to be untrustworthy.

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 on

When 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-acquisition

Here'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 lessons

Those 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.


Tesh said...

Nice article. :D

Tangentially, this is also why you don't ask subscribers if they would be happy with different monetization programs. People who are happy with the status quo aren't going to give you very useful feedback.

Mike Darga said...

Thanks, but I'm not sure I see how the two are connected. Can you elaborate?

Tesh said...

Hmm... I might have conflated two posts that I intended to make. Still, I had some idea how it was tangentially related. Hmm... *facepalm*

Mostly, my comment was based on the notion of retention and acquisition (those you're trying to acquire aren't necessarily those who like how things are at the moment), and the notion of feedback.

If we're trying to learn from our mistakes, asking those who were happy with the mistakes isn't going to be as useful as asking those who saw them for the mistakes they were.

Of course, this can extend to our own perceptions. If we don't think we made mistakes, but rather that someone else didn't understand us, we're not likely to see what we need to change. (We're happy with the status quo, so see no need to challenge it.) If we can admit that we made mistakes, we can better pinpoint what went wrong and why, and find ways to avoid making the same mistakes.

We don't have metrics for everything, and for those we do have metrics for, interpretation can be a flexible thing.

Mike Darga said...

Ah, ok. It is a difficult balancing act. I believe we have to make those players who have stuck with us happy above all, and honestly those players usually notice the same problems too, they're just more forgiving or tolerant of them.

This is one reason we need to trust the numbers and not what people tell us. If players say they're happy, and our concurrent users are decreasing, then they're not really happy or we're not asking the right people.

There's always a way to find out, and honestly it's never very surprising what's wrong with the game. Chances are there will be someone on the team who's been campaigning to fix that same issue for a year, and will glare at everyone when it turns out to be the problem causing players to quit =)