Best Practices

The last conference I went to was very strange. I was on several different panels, but I said essentially the same things that I’d said in the years before, and the same people took notes while I was speaking, and the same people must have lost those notes two days later judging by their later online performances. I wasn’t affiliated with a studio, but no one seemed to mind. Also, I was sober.

I suspect the latter is why I got so frustrated at “best practices” panels that contained no such critters in any of their powerpoints.

On some level, I am aware that these conferences are not really intended to be educational. We’re supposed to network, be seen pontificating, and show up in sufficient numbers that the conference hosts can present themselves as a “but you gotta” stop on the trade show circuit. Furthermore, I suspect that anyone who tries to write down their best practices comes to the conclusion that they have no CLUE how they managed to beat the odds and succeed. And if they have some idea, they certainly don’t want to share the recipe.

I don’t see the harm in sharing the whats, because if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last decade, it’s that copying doesn’t compete. You can copy a feature, or a plan, or a method all day, but you’ll only score a shadow of the originator’s success unless you understand why the pioneer did it that way. Take interface design, for example. Say Game X has a widget that helps players do somersaults. The designers of Game Y look at it, and say, “Oh, WE need a somersaulter!” So the copycats plug in the feature, and they put it on their box as a selling point, but yet it never quite grabs anyone. Why? Because the original product developed the feature for a purpose. Its existence evolved organically from the requirements and circumstances of the game. A copied feature feels cut and pasted, and never really works.

Or take “polish,” an oft-cited reason for WoW’s success. “It feels polished.” We can talk about what that means all day. Heck, even Pardo tried to talk about what it means.  But when I heard him speak, all I heard was “planning, communication, scaling, depth, solo-friendly,” and more stuff that every armchair quarterback online had already committed to their blog.

What I wanted to know was how much time did they allow for the building, testing, and editing of each quest? How many quests were there? Did they take completed but lame zones and rework them, or was it more efficient to start from scratch? How did they determine if content was solo friendly, did they really play through each class from start to seventy? How many playtesters did they hire if so? How did they avoid hiring or promoting the kind of manager who’s out for himself, and would rather get people fired than admit he failed? Did they manage their communication without daily meetings?

The answers to those questions are “best practices.” And sharing those answers doesn’t guarantee that the audience will properly apply them. The manager one alone requires the guy who did the hiring to admit he was wrong. And without also copying the corporate culture, and the studio vibe, simply copying the techniques will be like putting a sheep’s fleece on a chicken and expecting it to lay mutton flavored eggs.

If I were putting together a conference, I would have rules that said anyone using buzzwords, or euphemisms for “beats the hell out of me,” would be hit with cream pies.

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6 Comments

  1. June 30, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I’m guilty of slinging around buzzwords, but on the other hand I would enjoy a good cream pie fight. Count me in!

  2. Joe Ludwig said,

    July 1, 2008 at 4:03 am

    Funny, I almost never hear “beats the hell out of me” in those panels. I generally hear more pontificating about how that’s not really a problem because of XYZ, or maybe an answer to a question nobody asked. Or maybe that’s what you mean by euphemisms. 🙂

  3. UnSub said,

    July 1, 2008 at 5:46 am

    One issue is that a number of MMOs (and companies, for that matter) succeeded for reasons beyond their control. But no-one likes admitting that, since ‘be in the right place at the right time’ won’t fill a keynote address, a lot of thought gets put into other reasons that may or may not apply.

    Don’t worry – it doesn’t stop with MMOs. I’ve been to a number of conferences hearing businesses talk about why Product X stormed up the charts (“commitment to excellence”, “intuitive understanding of customer needs”) that tells you nothing much, or how Products A through W were all abject failures.

  4. Ashendarei said,

    July 1, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Y’know, the reason that they probably never say “beats the hell out of me” is on the odd chance that there’s a psychopath fan in the crowd that takes him literally and whales on him with a baseball bat and a golf club in the back alley later 😉

  5. July 5, 2008 at 12:04 am

    […] has a post about “best practices” talks at conferences. She mentions that she has a sense of deja vu: saying the same thing to the same people taking the […]

  6. Kinada said,

    July 16, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Mmmm pie, can be a speaker?


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