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The Obstacle is the Way
Continuing my theme from last week where I talked about just doing the job, I wanted to briefly discuss the ways in which sometimes, laborious work can be more effective than a creative solution.
A few years ago when I was working on a remaster (as opposed to a reboot) of Chimera on the PC and Mac, I found the data for the rooms in a listing. I had scanned images of my 1985 listing and OCR was proving to be a failure. There were a number of things I could have tried, and I wasted a day thinking of clever ways of getting the data into a modern format, before I realised that had I just spent a few hours typing the data in, I’d have it in exactly the form I wanted. So that’s what I did, I just typed the data in and it took a lot less time than I imagined. After all, back in 1981 I was typing in listings from magazines. In hex.
Then in 2011, when working on a plan to build PlayStation’s relationship with indie developers, a few smart people, seeing the results we were getting wondered how we could scale our approach. The fact was, that at that point, trying to scale would have been a colossal mistake. It’s how you get to a situation where a corporation seems faceless. The trick was in creating a solution that was intensive for the people at PlayStation who took it seriously. It included hyper-availability, hyper-responsiveness and a commitment to personally smooth over every contract discussion and every milestone payment, with an emphasis on developer satisfaction that was about people and values, not databases and forms. The fact is that we (or rather Lorenzo) tracked everything we did in Excel.
Reed Hoffman talks about this in his Masters of Scale podcast, when discussing the original growth strategy of AirBnB. Then, the founders would personally visit customers, take photos, ask them what was working and what wasn’t working and let’s face it, that was not a scaleable approach. That came later, once some customers were incredibly satisfied. Word of mouth helped to do the rest, and that’s what happened with us at PlayStation. Word of mouth created unstoppable momentum.
Sometimes, creativity, or the drive towards creating a scaleable, efficient solution is slower, though initially sexier, than just doing the hard work that’s required. Many game development engineering problems are like this, and our job as developers is to learn to recognise when this is the case and not get caught up in our desire to create a clever solution that might not be required more than once, or even at all. Needless to say, this isn’t an argument against creativity or innovation, just an argument for not filling ourselves about its efficacy in every situation.