MonthOctober 2017

Cognitive Biases to Watch Out For When Running a Business

Cognitive biases are everywhere and affect our daily lives in a huge way. They affect the way we think, the way we act, and the way we interpret information. A cognitive bias is essentially when our brain slips up and uses some illogical reason to come to (sometimes harmful) conclusions. These slip-ups are so common and so predictable that we can actually quantify, categorize, and test for them.

Today, I wanted to talk about a few cognitive biases that can specifically relate to the workplace, and describe how we might be able to get around them to produce better results and happier people.

 

Survivorship Bias

I put this one at the top because I believe it’s the one that we’re most guilty of in the games industry. Survivorship bias is looking at the successes without acknowledging the failures, and it comes from the fact that most of the people we see are the ones who have succeeded. The companies that failed, well, they aren’t around to tell you about how they failed. This is clear in the games industry when we go to conferences, listen to speakers, meet people at networking events, and so on. The people that we meet are the ones who were at least successful enough to be at the event, and that’s already a big step up on the majority of start-up studios.

There has been a recent trend toward listening to people’s failures, which I think is a great thing. People are becoming more open about their failures, and we’re seeing things like “failure workshops” at the Game Developer Conference which is a series of talks about what went wrong and why.

My first tip to avoid survivorship bias is to start small and dig deep. It’s harder to find stories about failures because people are ashamed about it or these stories aren’t visible on the platforms you’re looking at. So start small, by looking at slight failures. In the case of games, this might be a game that appeared to have great hype but only sold 2,000 copies. Why didn’t it sell well? What went wrong? This should be easy enough to find by looking at public-facing information: trailers, reviews, etc. Then, try to go a little deeper. Find some games that look like they might have had a chance, but have no reviews and no public statistics. Sometimes, you might have to reach out to developers directly and ask them what went wrong, and usually (in our industry at least) they’ll be happy to tell you.

For an interesting resource about failure, autopsy.io has a list of failed startups and the reasons why they failed.

The second tip is to strip it down to its core. If you see something that worked, don’t focus on small details or hang on to gimmicks; the game didn’t sell because the main character had a hat, the game sold because the main character was relatable and their motivation was easily understood. This still falls into the trap of looking at successes, but it’s both less likely to lead you down a false path and more likely to allow for pattern recognition if you can strip it down to the basic building blocks of the success. Replace “the art style was pixel art with watercolour painted backgrounds” with “the game had a distinct, captivating art style”.

 

Conservatism Bias

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’ve heard this a lot about companies; “stick to what you know, make small incremental improvements”, etc. Conservatism bias is rejecting new information and not being willing to venture into the new because the old way seems to work just fine.

I’d argue that this approach doesn’t work in any industry. I’d say toilet paper is probably one of the most basic products I can think of, where it hasn’t changed in years. But if you want to be competitive in the toilet paper industry, I would guess that you still can’t be afraid to push the technology, push the manufacturing techniques, or push the boundaries of marketing efforts.

In the games industry this is especially true. The technology is changing so quickly and the market is changing so quickly that we have to adapt with the times. Not only do we have to adapt in terms of the games we make, but we also have to adapt in terms of the way we manage our people, manage our workspace, and manage our lives.

There are two suggestions I have to help with this bias. The first is to keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t say no to ideas flat out, and listen to what other people are saying. The second suggestion would be to respect your peers. Your colleagues, partners, employees, and contacts often have more experience and knowledge in certain fields than you do. To step outside of the box, sometimes you need to trust in others.

 

Pro-Innovation Bias

This is the complete flipside of the previous point. Pro-innovation bias involves being overly excited about new technology or innovation without thinking logically about potential outcomes. A good (made up) example could be trying to make a game with photo-real 3D graphics for mobile using new technology that requires 8x more RAM than other games. While the technology might be cool, our phones aren’t ready for that kind of thing, and the idea might fall flat on its face… if it has a face.

This isn’t to say to avoid innovation… not at all. The key is thinking realistically and logically about the limitations and the potential of the new innovation and deciding whether or not it’s a path you want to go down.

The most important thing to do to avoid this bias is to do your research. Is the market ready? Is the technology there? Is there a demand? Can you create a demand? A cool idea is cool, but that’s not necessarily a good enough reason to commit significant time and money to it.

 

Outcome Bias

Survivorship bias and outcome bias can be closely linked in the field of video games. We often judge our decisions based on the outcome of the situation, even if it wasn’t necessarily the right decision. That’s the core of outcome bias, and it can be dangerous, especially when the sample size of your “experiments” are so small. For example, if you make a decision pertaining to one game and it works, you might be likely to think that that was the right decision simply because it worked. Another company may make exactly the same decision, and it doesn’t work out for them.  In fact, even your own choice that works once (yes, we definitely need a live-recorded trailer because we had one last game!) won’t necessarily work the second time around… you’re probably missing a piece of the puzzle.

I think that one way that we can try to avoid the bias is, as I said previously, do your research. If you can find cases where the same decision led to failure, while in your case that decision led to success, there’s probably another factor at work. Another important way to avoid this bias is to argue your decisions based on facts or logic. I mean, the whole point of avoiding these biases is that you make your decisions based on logic, but if you can defend your original decision based on logic and not based on evidence, you have a much stronger argument. That way, when you make the decision again, you won’t succumb to this bias.

These cognitive biases can be found in this neat little infographic (which has been re-posted everywhere). There really are a million of these, and we could talk about them for days… but here I chose to focus on a few specific ones. Another great resource is this talk from my friend Dan Menard from Double Stallion Games. Seriously, go watch it. But read the paragraph below first 🙂

An interesting little experiment to try involves going through a day questioning your own decisions and actions, and really trying to take a 3rd person observer seat of yourself to see what kind of biases affect your decisions. Everyone does it, but being aware of it will likely lead you to more logical decisions in the future. I hope this article helped in some way to open your eyes a bit to things to watch out for when in a leadership role, be it in game development or in any other field.

 

The Will and Desire of Corporations

It’s really easy to blame corporations. Corporations can be big, evil, and swallow up other companies in their wake. They can exploit, push down, discriminate, and do all of the things that we hate to see people or organizations doing. But why do they do it?

I’m of the belief that the majority of people aren’t evil, exploitative, discriminatory, or mean-spirited. I don’t even believe that the majority of people are greedy enough to manipulate people to get their way. So if people aren’t evil, and people make up corporations, how are corporations so evil?

AT A CERTAIN POINT, THE CORPORATIONS START RUNNING THE PEOPLE, AND THE PEOPLE STOP RUNNING THE CORPORATION.

Corporations have one goal: to make money. They will do everything they can to make money. They are not human, and they have no morals or feelings… all they have is numbers, productivity, efficiency, and profit. Is that bad though? Well, not necessarily.

This post was inspired by a cool game that I saw called paperclips. You can play it for free, online, here. The game is about making paperclips. First, you make one. Then you make more. Then you buy an auto-clipper, which makes paperclips for you automatically every second. Then more auto-clippers. Then you research to improve your auto-clipper efficiency. Then you research even more to make even more paperclips. I haven’t played a ton of the game, but suffice it to say that taking over the world isn’t even the end of the game.

The lesson learned from this game is that it’s not the people who are growing corporations to an insane degree, or being evil through their greedy business practices. At a certain point, a company becomes large enough that it has its own goals, and its own desires. As we can see from the paperclip game, the point where the spirit of the company moves from person to non-human entity can be pretty quick. The corporation then has the goal to make money, to grow, to take more market share (to make more money), to hire people, to fire people, to find cheap labour, to find new markets… it’s rare that all of these decisions are being made by one single person.

As early 20th century American writer Ambrose Bierce put it:

“CORPORATION: AN INGENIOUS DEVICE FOR OBTAINING PROFIT WITHOUT INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY.”

This isn’t to say that all of the people in corporations are wonderful and generous people, and it’s not to say that there aren’t some leaders of businesses who actually do evil things for their own benefit. But it is important to note that it’s easy, especially for groups, to make decisions “for the corporation” even if those decisions are not perfectly aligned with one’s own morals.

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As much as it’s easy to hide behind the guise of a corporation to make decisions that might be questionable, it also allows us to blame and hate corporations vehemently in an unreasonable fashion, and without feeling bad about it. It’s fairly well known that one of the easiest ways to justify feelings of hatred, anger or violence is by dehumanizing the person or thing that you’re mad at. People do this all of the time for corporations and might not hesitate to say that a corporation should be burned to the ground, destroyed, or dismantled without considering the human element. Dehumanization is a two-way street, and as much as you can hide behind the wall of anonymity in a large corporation, you can also hate unreasonably and without hesitation.

Companies, big and small, need to be mindful and careful to not get too carried away by the will of the corporation. Business owners, employees, and customers / uninvolved people need to be aware that this can happen, it can happen easily, and that it’s important for the people to keep control of the corporation. Our company is small, and doesn’t plan to become huge any time soon, but we aim to keep that human element and are always careful to be aware of it. If you stay human, the company will stay human, and people will recognize the corporation as having human values.

Cuphead Isn’t Ashamed of Being a Video Game

If you haven’t played the beautiful, 30’s era cartoon-inspired game Cuphead yet, then you should. It’s an extremely challenging platformer shooter made up of a slew of intense boss fights mixed with some run ‘n’ gun levels as well. You can check it out on Steam here, and I’ll put the trailer below for reference.

I’m not here to review games however, as there are a bajillion other people who can do that better than I can. What I wanted to talk about today was one of the many things that Cuphead does right, beyond its precision platforming, innovative art style and skill progression. One of the things that I noticed is that:

CUPHEAD ISN’T ASHAMED OF BEING A VIDEO GAME. THE GAME DOESN’T MAKE EXCUSES.

 

The game presents the player with an extremely clear, simple motivation right at the start and explains why you need to fight all of these bosses. Next, an elder (your grandfather, maybe? I don’t remember) tells you he can bestow upon you some super-power that makes you shoot from your hands. What?

The answer to that “What?” is that it doesn’t matter. At all. You know why you’ve bought this game and why you’re playing it. The developers know why you’ve bought this game and why you’re playing it. Why should the game need to go and make excuses about what it does and why? The game should also know that you’ve bought this game, and it should definitely know why you’re playing it.

An example of what might have been done in another game would be that you would be told some elaborate explanation of the lore and the justification behind these super-powers, or you might be sent on some sort of process to figure them out. Once you get this ability (to shoot), you’re sent to a tutorial, which pretty clearly states that it’s a tutorial. Again, no bullshit. You’re in a game, playing a tutorial. That’s it. You’re not playing through what is an obvious tutorial, while the game attempts to hide it by pretending it’s a a part of the story or making up another excuse as to why you can, for example, swing a sword at people infinitely but never die.

The final example of this is when an ability is unlocked or purchased. Forget the fact that you can buy new “weapons” even though it’s just your hands shooting stuff; it also tells you “Press Y to equip your new weapon” or something similar. Clearly, you’re in a video game and need to know how to play.

I won’t claim that all games should be this up-front about everything they do: motivation, control, tutorial, etc. Different strategies work for different games, and each game has their way of doing things. But it was a nice relief to see this kind of approach after playing many games which try to pretend that everything has to make sense within the world of the game, as opposed to admitting that they’re video games and that people need to understand how things work, even if it breaks the “immersion”.

Anyway, go check out the game. It’s doing amazingly well and with good reason, so give credit to the folks over at Studio MDHR.