Video Games and the Art of the Fail

They say success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. But I say failure has dubious parentage but everybody sure wants to stare at the ugly little bastard. 

I have had my fair share of exposure to cancelled games, aborted projects, shutdown services, less-than-spectacular releases and thunderous earth-shattering meteor impacts. And make no mistake, failure is a spectator sport.

The only thing people like better than a rousing come-from-behind win is a spectacular soul shattering crash and burn. And when the great Fail Whale rears his ugly head, there's inevitably a crowd of Ahabs who are all too happy to opine about which harpoon you should have been using.

Generally I'm not such a fan of the post-mortem confessionals that inevitably pop up around game development failures. It's one thing to talk about failure in the interests of promoting understanding and learning among your peers. It's another thing for someone to crave being the center of some online drama and needing the spotlight. Or worse yet, to just have a nasty axe you want to grind - and plant in someone's back.

But more fundamentally, I don't think you can really assess what went wrong on a game project until you've gotten some distance from it. Or, to put it another way, if you're so damn insightful, where was this prescience when it could have actually done some good? Why weren't you keeping the ship from hitting the iceberg in the first place?

Which brings me to my point: when there's spectacular failure, everybody points fingers. There's plenty of people to blame: the idiot managers and the clueless investors and the feckless developers.

But people rarely point the finger at themselves. Those that do are the extraordinary exceptions.

Being a part of failure means we all have to take our share of responsibility for it.

I have to take my share of responsibility for the failures I've been close to. Maybe not all of it - maybe not even a significant majority - but definitely some. I have to ask myself, what should I have done better to prevent the failure. Sometimes, the answer isn't pretty.

It's amazing to see people with the words "Lead" or "Director" in their title pointing fingers and placing blame. Sure, it's easy to look to the people with "Chief" in their titles - and well you should as they share responsibility - but as a manager or senior developer (you know, the people who day-to-day were running the ship), you don't get to just shrug your shoulders and say there was nothing to be done about it.

If you weren't supposed to keep the ship from hitting the iceberg, then who the hell was?

It rarely easy to look our mistakes in the eye whether in our professional or personal lives. But its how you get better at life. If you're fortunate, you have someone who you trust who will give you the unvarnished truth. If George Lucas had that person, we would have been spared the second trilogy.

And game development is a team sport so we all have a role to play - and take responsibility for. Everyone's efforts matter.

It used to be the city of New York wasn't so far from a post-apocalyptic prison (but with fewer well endowed sassy sidekicks). So they started going after the broken windows. Why would you waste resources policing broken windows when there are murderers running around? Because when you leave a broken window or graffitti on the subway, it sends a signal. The signal that it doesn't matter. And so why not toss garbage on the street? Or engage in vandalism. Or theft. Or assault. And so on.

Little things matter. The kingdom is lost for want of a horseshoe. And so when you find yourself in the middle of a development process, you have to ask what you personally are doing to prevent failure. Ask if you could make the meeting a little more productive. Could you raise a concern in a way that gets attention. Did you bring your A-game to the day.

Your efforts, no matter how small, matter.

It is the sum of all those efforts that make life's inevitable bitter pills a bit more palatable when you have to swallow them.

- Sean Dugan is The Boss Monster’s founding editor and all-too-frequent contributor.

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  1. Interesting read... I think I know what your on about and if so, very true. By the way first time I have read your blog! Hope all is well on your end, as not spoke since dooms day. :)

    -Mikey (now in LANDAN)

  2. Enjoyed reading the post!! Thanks for the information!