Monday, January 16, 2006

How a Game Industry Institutionalizes

I got interested in systems design something like 25 years ago, and I continue to be fascinated by it. (It's fun to discover similarities in apparently dissimilar things.)

In all this time of looking at things as systems, and seeing some basic principles that seem to apply to almost every system, there's one in particular I find especially fascinating. It's that systems, when they're delivered, tend to create constituencies that, because they benefit from that system, don't want it to change. Unless the system's controller is able to fight this effect, eventually that system will cease to do what it originally did because its priority has shifted to self-preservation.

This effect shows up in a lot of places.

1. Any programmer can tell you what happens when you finally ship a product. If it's good enough that people want to use it, those users become a constituency. They become proprietary about certain parts of the program and won't let you change those parts in any meaningful way, even if you can clearly demonstrate that some significant change would actually make the product more useful for them. At this point, the only way you'll be able to make the major changes will be to replace the program entirely. In a way, because the old program could not adapt, it had to die to make room for the new one.

2. I stopped worrying about monopolies when I realized that they're a great example of this effect. When you get so big that you have no competition, you stop growing. You cease to adapt... and then technology changes, and some upstart company sells people what they really want while you're still trying to sell them what you happen to be able to make. Basing your product development plans on who's king of the mountain today is not a strategy for success when today's mountain can become tomorrow's molehill.

3. Government is another great place to find this systems-effect. Agencies are brought into being to solve a problem. If they do so to any degree at all (or if their PR is good enough), they develop constituencies, not just of the members of the public who are served but of the civil servants, bureaucrats and other apparatchiks who staff that agency. Once this happens, the agency's focus inevitably begins to shift from performing its stated function to preserving its current form. Systemantics by John Gall points out this process with devastating effect.

4. James Grier Miller's Living Systems Theory describes the multiple functionalities an organism must have to be considered "living." By his definitions, not only can individuals be said to live if they have certain functions, such as decider, encoders and timers, but group organisms from city councils can be considered to be alive. Accordingly, these systems also demonstrate the ability to adapt to changing environments, and the need to continuously adapt in order to survive.

5. The most powerful exploration I've seen of this tendency toward self-preservation over problem-solving can be found in Carroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations. Quigley observes this same effect operating on civilizations. As he put it, civilizations come into being when a producing society develops an instrument of expansion. However, the forces that enable this to happen because they benefit from it eventually divert more resources to themselves than to the civilization. Quigley called this process "institutionalization" of instruments of expansion, and presented evidence that when it happens, a civilization has exactly three choices: it can reform the institution back into an instrument of expansion; it can circumvent the old institution (which now cares only for its privileges) with a new instrument of expansion; or it can proceed to becoming a Universal Empire which, after it consumes its reserves in a final Golden Age, falls apart and is absorbed by a neighboring civilization that has an instrument of expansion.

What's the point of all this?

It's that chasing established constituencies is usually a dead end. Even when you do wind up being the successful copier -- the so-called "second-mover advantage" -- what you get for your effort is a fading constituency. The consumer can ignore your offering, thinking "Everybody knows that so-and-so already did X right, and I've already got X from them, so why should I get it again from you?"

So I modestly propose a couple of suggestions:

1. For MMOG developers, stop chasing World of Warcraft. After a market or genre is done right by a successful second-mover, there's little point in copying them unless you're satisfied with leftovers. Instead, be like Microsoft, who, after failing in the early 1990s to copy Novell's highly successful NetWare for local area networks, looked into the near future to see what would be likely to be the next technology controlling access to information and discovered this thing called the "Internet." Result: Novell tried to preserve itself intact by catering to its LAN constituency, but became a footnote in history when that constituency was circumvented out from underneath it by someone offering a clearly more powerful new technology.

2. The same lesson applies to computer game development generally. Instead of looking for what's popular today (existing genres) and refining it to its ultimate form, circumvent constituencies by a) looking for gameplay capabilities that are likely to be available in the near-term future, and b) building a game that will be ready to exploit those new capabilities when they hit sufficient penetration among consumers. Maybe that game will be a blend of two old genres. (Who's up for a turn-based strategic simulation game besides me?) Maybe it'll be the first game in a new genre we haven't even imagined because the technology to support it wasn't yet imaginable. Either way, as soon as you've done it, everyone will say it was obvious. ;-)

No, this approach won't guarantee success. "New" doesn't imply "good." But given that copying the most popular games in a well-mined genre is no guarantor of success, either, why not try the more revolutionary alternative?

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