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Get Some Perspective, Son
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Floor 13: Deep State
You might be aware that I’m the Producer on Floor 13: Deep State, a beautiful and timely reimagining of the cult classic, by my good friend David Eastman. With a super-talented team, we’re close to finishing, and I’m excited to tell you that there will be an announcement about this game very soon.
Tips I’d Give the Kid Who Ported Jet Set Willy in 1984: Part 2 of 5
In last week's newsletter, I lightly glossed over the role of the Dunning-Kruger effect, without really touching on Impostor Syndrome, which I'm only going to refer to tangentially this week. Impostor Syndrome has been widely discussed, sometimes by people who haven't yet become good enough to suffer from it, and are therefore closer to being legitimate impostors than they realise.
Sometimes, if you think you're not good enough, you're really not. That has certainly been the case for me, but rather than call it impostor syndrome, I was happy just to say that I wasn't good enough and needed to learn more. There is no shame in that.
That's all the time I'm going to give Impostor Syndrome really, because it's not valuable to you. You're somewhere on the spectrum between Dunning-Kruger, as I was from 1982-1985, and Impostor Syndrome, which is probably where I eventually got to during my time at PlayStation when I led the Strategic Content team from 2011 to 2015.
It's only now, with considerable perspective, that I'm able to look back at that time and realise just how suited I was to that task, how good I was at it, where my mistakes were made, that some mistakes were not just inevitable, but par for the course, and that everything I'd done in my career up until that point had been preparation for the success we achieved with that team. Most importantly, some ideas are just ideas whose time has come. I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Call it luck, fate, destiny, I don’t mind.
So it's perspective now, to which I turn. Perspective is something you get when you're far enough away from something to achieve some sense of objectivity of the true proportion of a thing in relation to everything else — not just of what you're far away from temporally, but a tool you are then able to apply to what you're embarking on right now. As such, it's one of the most valuable thinking tools you are ever likely to use.
You're late with your milestone. The world isn’t over. The client isn’t going to kill you. You won’t die. It’s just a video game.
Gaining some experience in life and in business relationships has allowed me to learn this important lesson. Perspective is important because it's a tool that allows you to stay calm in the face of a problem. A problem held close to your face feels life-threatening without perspective. With perspective, you learn to step back and realise it’s just an obstacle, and you have tools for surmounting obstacles.
What are some practical take aways from the lesson of perspective?
You'll learn never to react emotionally to an email.
You'll learn that text is a terrible way to communicate, particularly when tension is high and when inexperienced people are involved and are likely to take the dimmest possible view of a text-based communication. You'll learn that as soon as egos are involved, you will increase the bandwidth of the communication. If communication over a text-based medium, be it Slack, email or a direct message isn't working, you'll switch to voice. If that isn't enough, you'll switch to video. When you're face to face with someone, it's very hard to say the things you might have said to them in an email. Some people think this is a bad thing, but during the course of a project, it almost never is. Things are probably not as bad as you think. What's being said is likely not as catastrophic as you fear.
My boss at PlayStation, Tony Clark, was sensationally good at this. I’d ask him for a minute of his time if something that seemed to me like a catastrophe had just happened. He initially flared his nostrils and widened his eyes in empathy at my initial outburst. He said nothing. Then he’d take a deep breath, and calmly start to ask me questions. It’s a technique I picked up from him osmotically and it became transformative. When I started Strategic Content, I was a hothead because I was so passionate about what we were doing. Initially, this was fine in some cases, as the team around me got to see just how much this meant to me. Tony turned me into a leader.
When faced with a problem, demonstrate empathy, then breathe, then ask questions. Suddenly, you have the facts and a roadmap to a solution begins to emerge from the initial murkiness. Thank you Tony.
While I was working on Jet Set Willy, I was too young and inexperienced to do anything but take the word of those I was dealing with at face value. The client, Software Projects, had a drop dead date to ship the game of 4 weeks. I didn't question this, and it was a lack of perspective that led me to accept the end date as a fait accompli. I had not learned to question everything. I might have asked “Why 4 weeks and not 8? Or 2? What is the dependency? What are the costs? What are the consequences? What’s your fallback plan?”
Availability and rapport are as important, if not more so, than ability and reputation.
Software Projects used me in desperation, not because they thought I was great. Perspective has taught me that decisions are often expedient, and rarely arrived at through considerable thought and planning.
Availability and rapport are as important, if not more so, than ability and reputation. I had originally visited Software Projects to try to get them to sign "The Faces of Haarne" — you can google that, but expect to be crushingly disappointed. The only thing that made that game different was that everyone else was doing 4-step sprite animation and I was doing 16-step animation. Perspective has taught me of course, that this meant nothing to Software Projects. What counted was expedience.
There I was, a C64 programmer, with a project they would publish, and I was available. Their problem was that the person working on the C64 port of Jet Set Willy was, according to them, not very far along after 6 months and £10k spent. Ask me why I accepted £3K (with a £1K bonus if I finished in three weeks) and I'll just say "Well, with perspective, I probably wouldn't do that now." That said, it was expedient for both parties. For a kid raised mostly by one parent on a racist council estate with no money and hand-me-down clothes, it was a life-changing amount of money.
I was a nobody, and doing a port of Jet Set Willy would have made me a somebody. It was the game everyone was talking about, and I thought I was up to the job. I was, eventually, and only just, but it nearly killed me.
So, perspective has also taught me to be a lot more conservative when estimating my ability, and a lot more liberal when estimating the time it will take me to complete a job. On my latest project, I allowed myself four months. I thought this would be plenty of time. It was not. Yesterday was the deadline, and I am going to be a little late.
Perspective also gave me the confidence to remain in touch with the client throughout the process, reporting any changes to the plan, and ensuring that lateness would not have an impact on their plans. Thankfully, the only impact some lateness will have to this project is to my company's bottom line. I can live with that. I want to do a good job more than I want to do a profitable job. Perspective has taught me to prize reputation above all else.
"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently." — Warren Buffett
My contact with Software Projects was over the phone, and when things got tough, I went up to their offices and worked there. I slept on the couch in the office. They didn't put me up in a B&B, and I didn't get fed, but I was a kid, what did I know? Today, all of this would be in the contract. Though today, there would be no need for me to travel either.
In 1984, given that Software Projects said they were already six months into somebody else's conversion, there was probably more at stake. Every week lost was expensive. They eventually sold over a million copies from what I remember. I made £4K. Hey, that's capitalism. Sincerely, I don't regret it, they gave me the biggest gig in video games in the UK at the time and I was a kid. That's perspective. I’ll always be the kid who did the first port of Jet Set Willy, and today, I’d have done the gig for free. There’s no way I’d be able to convince that kid of the value of doing the gig for free though… and perhaps the kid would have been right in this case.
Back in 1984, if I got sick, I worked, I was terrified of letting Software Projects down. I felt threatened and vulnerable. Last Friday, I had some bad news, I let the client know, the client was supportive and receptive, and I took the day off. No fuss, no drama, back on the case after a good weekend. That's perspective.
Perspective taught me what Jim Ryan once crystallised for me in one, cogent piece of advice that I will never forget. I asked him to counsel me in leadership. He thought about it for just a second and said simply, "Be honest and straightforward".
Perspective has also taught me to use levity, but sparingly. Earlier in my career, I used this trick perhaps too much. Later, I would deploy it at strategic moments, because the perception of me generally was that I was very serious.
Sean Murray and his lawyer visited PlayStation towers to meet me and our lawyer for the first round of face-to-face discussions around the physical distribution of No Man's Sky. It was a serious meeting, and I could sense some tension because of how important it was to everyone that we got this right. So I walked in, plopped my phone down on the conference table and blasted out Olivia Newton John singing "Let's Get Physical". It got some wry smiles, and I don't regret it.
I’d tell that kid in 1984 to understand that this is video games. It’s not medicine. Nobody needs to die. Nobody needs to have their career ruined. There will be other projects. This is not the making of you. This is not the beginning, and it’s certainly not the bloody end. If we all talk, if we are all honest and straightforward, things will work out.