We know how to train Devs, Designers, Marketing and DevOps but how do you train someone to be a good Product Manager? It’s something everyone “kinda” knows, but let’s be honest: There is no “formal” and “structured” way to train someone in the product discipline. Afterall, to the best of my knowledge, there are no bachelor’s degrees for Product Management. Usually people jump on it from other disciplines and learn along the way, with varying degrees of success 😛.
Why is it important to train Product People properly?
Product people may not be the direct managers of people, but they are managing them as resources. Afterall, they decide what features the team will build. An average product person with 10 people with 50k average salary means that even a junior product owner can find themselves being responsible for half a million dollars budget in man-hours. That’s quite a lot of money, to let these people learn on the job!
In this blogpost I will try to give a structured answer on how to train your next product manager. You may agree or disagree with what I will propose, afterall everyone comes with their own experiences, what I am advocating here is that any kind of structure and conscious decision in their training is better than nothing.
The two main axes of training
In this example picture, I am training Pylo: An aspiring product manager, who is very eager but, alas, with zero experience in the field. Fear not, we are here to transform Pylo to an aspiring battle hardened Product Manager!
For me there are two main axes where a product is trained: What will the team build and when and stakeholder management. This is not an exhaustive list of what a product person does but you can easily build something around those two premises.
What will the team build and when
Broadly speaking, this is the gist of what product people do: We decide what the team will build and in what priority. Something along those lines:
So, what will Pylo do out of these in the beginning? None of the above! 😝Pylo will be told by his seniors on what he will build and in what order. Don’t forget Pylo has zero experience. The first thing he needs to do is learn the process.
But I used to be a dev/designer/qa I know the process!
Nope you have seen and experienced the process, doesn’t mean you know how to run the process. Put this another way: I have been working with devs for quite some time, I know programming doesn’t mean I know how to code properly. Simple as that! 🙂
Then, you slowly remove the training wheels. You let them run the process without oversight, break down their own small tickets and slowly but steadily you remove yourself from their daily lives. You gradually begin to directly intervene by exception rather than necessity. The end goal is for them to get to a point where they make their own budgeted roadmaps and approve/reject/iterate after hearing their pitch.
Here is a small roadmap (pun intended) on how that growth path could go:
Of course you have to treat this as milestones rather than fixed steps. There could be many steps in between each milestone. Some people may be able to learn some stuff, faster than others.
It’s important for you to decide together with the trainee the roadmap of their growth and have multiple meetings with them during the process. Not everything can be covered in 3 boxes with Bob Squarepants 😂.
The other important pillar of a product person is that while they are deciding what to build they need to communicate and manage expectations.
So, how does this work? Well, this is a bit simpler. I break it down into three main categories. Team, Internal and External.
Let me elaborate a bit on the order. Naturally, what a product person needs to do is know how to work with their team. Gain their trust and their confidence. Have nice chemistry with them and build a process with them.
Afterwards you slowly start expanding them to internal stakeholders. For example customer success, sales or maybe even an executive who needs an internal tool. You can even tell the executive before-hand that they will be part of a training process (in fact I recommend it). It’s important to check the following: Can they work with a stakeholder without friction? Can they stand their ground or do they always say yes? Do they know when to escalate?
Now, it’s pretty obvious why you want to training ground to be internal stakeholders: Mistakes are cheap. Even if something goes wrong worst case scenario it will cost you a couple of meetings to amend requirements and scope. Furthermore internal stakeholders are generally more available, rather than that CEO from that important customer!
Finally, you gradually introduce them to external stakeholders. You can start with something simple such as a feedback session, then slowly move to eliciting requirements. You should also probably start with someone lower on the food chain, such as users. You probably don’t want to book a 1-1 meeting with the decision maker of that big customer with your junior Product Owner!
Again, you can slowly remove the training wheel.
1. Take them with you to a meeting with a customer and tell them to just listen.
2. Have them lead the meeting with a customer and you being there as a fly on the wall.
3. Allow them to have meetings with customers independently.
Again, these are milestones rather than fixed steps. Take this as a guideline rather than a recipe. After All each person is different. I will also repeat: It’s important for you to decide together with the trainee the roadmap of their growth and have multiple meetings with them during the process.
There are specializations in the product discipline. You can be Technical, Growth, Marketing Product you name it. The above framework that I provided works pretty much independently of the specialization, but when you are training someone it’s worth having a conversation of what type of product they would like to become and make amends accordingly.
Even though we don’t have bachelor’s degrees and formal training on what we do, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find a systematic way to disseminate our knowledge and train new people. It’s my belief that people are too much of a central part of the team to be left to learn “on the job”. So, whether you agree or not with what I have written, I think it’s important to have the conversation. At the end of the day just like we build together with our teams the processes they we will use to build the product, we can work together with other product people to figure out the best ways to train ourselves 😀.
The most difficult thing about being a PM is having a plan that reflects reality. In order to get that you need honesty from your devs. To gain their trust you need to not be a dick. It’s that simple.
Here is a quick guide about how to not be a dick as a PM.
Your planning tool should not be used as efficiency appraisal tool
The problem with date deadlines is that they can be directly connected with whether someone is good at their job. If you tell me that something will be done in 10 days and it’s actually done in 20 days, then I have a measurable way of saying “your efficiency is at 50%”.
The moment you do that, it’s over. Devs will just tell you what you want to hear.
This is what I like about Story Points. It’s a way for me to say “I am a Product Manager, my job is to manage the product and plan things, not to decide whether you are good at your job”. I need to do planning, just tell me in oranges how long it will take you to do something. All I need is
How many oranges it will take to finish this work item
How many oranges you can output per block of time.
Essentially, I am obfuscating the precious data that I have about your efficiency. Why? Because the moment devs realise that I can use this data to decide their promotions and raises and what not they will change their input to cover their asses and I will not be able to do my job. When they ask me whether the devs are good my response is “that’s not my job, now fuck off”.
I am here to plan, NOT to ascertain whether you are good at your job. That’s someone else’s problem.
Deadlines are not the dev’s problem
“I don’t care about deadlines, but seriously how long it will take you to do something”. Facepalm.
Okay, from the top: We PMs do care about deadlines. That’s what I am paid to do. However, deadlines are not the dev’s problem. They are my problem.
The moment I am asking you “I need to get this done, by then”, I have fixed both the time and the scope of the question. Some people call that planning, I call it making my problems the devs’ problems. And being a dick.
I consciously don’t tell devs about my deadlines. I just ask them how long it will take to do something. In oranges. Because, I don’t want devs to tell me what I want to hear. I want honesty and a plan that reflects reality. Based on what they tell me, then I will make my plan. Worrying about deadlines it’s not the devs job, it’s my job, so in theory they don’t even need to know about deadlines.
Writing code is not a deterministic task
I write it like that, because the “embrace uncertainty” trope is so overused that it has become a platitude.
Listen up and keep notes: Devs don’t really know how long it will take to do something. If writing code was a deterministic and we knew exactly how long it would take, we would have had state machines to do the job. But we are not there yet, we are stuck with people, so buckle up.
Asking a dev exactly how long it will take something, is a one way ticket to getting bloated estimates. And being a shitty PM. This is why I like Fibonacci estimates. It has embedded in their design that we don’t really know everything. Some things will take longer, others will take shorter. And that’s fine.
If you cannot communicate uncertainty as a PM and manage expectations to the higher ups, then you are a shitty PM. And a dick.
Your fancy methodologies are probably shit
Look at this diagram. Just look at it
What the hell is? I have lost count about the things that I have read about “how to deliver software”. They are all fluffy waste, designed to make people look smart in interviews. Then happy PMs get to their teams after having read the a blog post titled “here is the latest trend in product managing” and bloat them with tons of terminology that no one understands or gives a fuck.
Listen up and keep notes:
“Are you confident that you will get everything right on the first try? If not, take that into account in your planning”
There. Done. That’s all there is to it. Waterfall, lean, agile, scrum , FLOW or whatever the fuck people call their process these days. Just throw it out of the window. And here is a thought: How about you form the process with your team? I usually tell my interviews “if there was a silver bullet to get everything right, I would have been replaced by an AI by now.”. Maybe this will happen one day, maybe it won’t, but for now here we are having to work with other people, so maybe we should take them into account.
You don’t look smart by impressing everyone with words. You look smart when you deliver software. So focus on the things that matter.
Your optimistic plan doesn’t make people work faster
“I am being optimistic in my plans and this will make people work harder”. Yeah, right…, that’s why 90% of the projects finish late. It’s a simple strategy really.
You tell the higher-ups what they want to hear for 5 months
When the project eventually gets delayed you only appear to be wrong for 1 day when you report the delay and ask for a new deadline.
You tell the higher-ups what they want to hear for 5 months
You can cover you ass with that method. But you will also be a dick. If you think everything will go well, then you don’t need me. I am too expensive for that. Just hire a university student or a floating temp. They will give you the BESTEST news and they will do it with a better smile.
As a PM your job is not to assume the best nor the worse. Is to make a fucking plan that reflects reality. Plans don’t change how people work. It’s the other way around. The fact that I put a nice estimate in writing on a powerpoint doesn’t make it true. That’s how Santa Claus work. And that’s easy which is why Santa Claus doesn’t get paid. But you do, so just get your job done properly.
If there is no mutual trust, then you are a shitty PM
The quintessence of being a good PM is having the trust of your devs and you trusting them. However, you are the one that has to start this cycle of trust. Not the devs. Why?
A dev’s job is to write good code and there is no need for mutual trust to get this done.
Mutual trust is needed however, to deliver a good product and guess who’s getting paid to get this done.
Don’t get me wrong, some devs are also dicks. And difficult to work with. I am not saying that lack of trust is always the PMs fault. I am saying that it’s your responsibility to fix it.
So, don’t ask them every day about how things are going. Just trust them. And, yeah, you will have some bad weeks and some shitty milestones. We all had them. Just operate on the basis that no one is getting out of bed every morning to consciously make your life miserable and you will be surprised by the common ground you will find.
Let me be clear: Mutual trust is not translated into a democracy. In democracy we all worry about the same things as citizens and we have an equal voice. Nope, that’s not how dev teams are being run. I will worry about my problems, you will worry about yours and we will trust each other that we will get the job done.
Recently, despite the lockdown many churches in my country decided to perform the Easter ceremonies. All around the world one of the institutions that has been most stubborn in accepting the lockdown has been the religious ones.
In Virginia, an evangelical pastor died of COVID-19 just weeks after proudly showing off how packed his Virginia church was — and vowing to keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.
In Korea most cases of coronavirus have been linked to a church that has coincidentally banned health masks. Famous patient 31 was also part of that church.
Why is that though? Is religion always destined to fight science? Many people say no. We used to say that nowadays religion is not opposed to knowledge and that knowledge and faith can co-exist, but here we are again, visiting a similar boxring.
I think it can be summarised to the following. That preacher in Virginia said ““I am essential,” he said when he decided to keep his church open, “I’m a preacher — I talk to God!”.
I am essential. This hits the nail on the head for why the churches aren’t closing. They want to feel essential and insist that they are; that they are special and different not just from other businesses but other religions as well. In the process, they make a global problem all about them.
You are going to wonder: Engineers, musicians, economologists, mathematicians, chemists, programmers, plumbers, bakerers no one can go to work and they can all make arguments about how they are essential to the well-being of society. They just accepted that right now there is something more important than then. Why is the church causing all that ruckus?
I will make an argument that religion has decided to die on that hill for the following reasons:
There is a natural competition: Religion, science and art, all claim to ease human suffering, provide happiness or be places where humans are looking for answers.
Religion acts like money as they are both faith based systems. Science and art is for religion the equivalent of counterfeit money, therefore it cannot easily tolerate them.
I will also make an attempt to identify against science due to core differences in their core DNA, as well as philosophies in life.
Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. It’s the willingness to admit ignorance. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.
One difference between religion and science is that science assumes humankind does not know the answers to many of life’s biggest questions. Religion, however, assumes that the important stuff is already known.
This is of the core distinction between religion and science. Science believes in progress, religion believes that we are already there. Science wants to explore, religion wants to stay home. Science is looking for answers in data, religion in the wisdom of a supreme being. Science believes (pun intended) that opinions should be scrutinised, current theories should be challenged and that people’s authority adds nothing: It’s only data that matters. Everything is accepted only after proof has been presented. Religion has at its core that the gospel shouldn’t be challenged, no proof is required only faith and it’s all based on the unchallenged authority of people who speak on behalf of God.
Pay attention, religion doesn’t say that we know everything. It claims that we already know everything we need to know. The rest is either out of limits or no concern of ours.It doesn’t matter whether your discovery directly contradicts the existence of God. Your sin is that by looking for more answers, you declare the gospel inadequate. Does it make sense now why religion was so adamantly against, phenomenally, innocent claims like Galileo’s? You want to say that Earth is round and not at the centre of the universe? This is not included in the gospels, are you saying you are better than them?
Okay, fine. There are definitely points of contest. However, people don’t have to look for answers in only one place. Science may not include God, but certainly does not contradict him. The fact that silver has value doesn’t make gold have any less value. Why can’t we all just get along? The problem with religion is that it doesn’t act like a rare mineral, but it acts more like money and science, as well as art, is equivalent to counterfeit money: It threatens all money.
Money, money, money
Take a money bill out of your pocket and have a look at it. How much do you think is actually worth? Right answer is nothing. Money has value only because we believe it has value. From one point of view, you may call it a giant conspiracy.
Religion is remarkably similar to money. It is important, because we believe it is important. They are both self-referencing systems. A church is a church, because we believe it is a church. It’s what makes us see a priest talking to god, instead of an old man talking to an empty room in archaic rhymes. If there is no faith there is no magic. Take a christian to a budhist temple. They may appreciate the intricacies of Asian art, take photos in front of a Bhuda, may even feel a sense of peace due to the tranquility that usually resides within these temples. However, they will not feel any of the devoutness or sanctity they feel in a christian temple. They will have respect, but no venerance.
Basically, all they will see is a nice place to have a lunch break, not a holy site. The faith is not there and thus the magic is gone.
There is a priest and a dentist who are friends going together in latin classes. One day on their way back home they time travel to Rome of emperor Tiberius in 20AD. The dentist was on his way to propose so he has an engagement ring in their pocket and the priest has some money. After the initial sock, they realise that at least they can speak the language thanks to their Latin classes and they try to make a living.
Very quickly they realise that thanks to their classes they can speak the language and they try to make a living. Soon, they realise a discrepancy in their ability to adapt to the new environment. The dentist’s engagement ring is made out of gold and a diamond, he is able to sell it for a hefty sum of drachmas. With that he opens up shop. Even though he lacks his tools, he is still able to offer his services. On a more basic level, but still it’s worlds ahead compared to what Athenians had available to them at the time.
The priest has more of an uphill battle. He has US dollars in his pocket. In 2020 they are the most powerful currency in 480 BC it’s just paper. He tries to preach but with very limited success. People already have their religion and the idea of a single God seems plain ridiculous. He doesn’t really manage and to cope he tries to ask for tax exemptions and for the government to pay his salary but he is met with laughter: Who is this charlatan speaking nonsense about something called christianity? Having a profession doesn’t mean you are forsaking your duties as a citizen – Athenians take these things seriously.
This is an example of how certain things have value, because they are rare or because they alleviate pain among others. Take religion out of context though and you are not left with much.
One fake money and ALL money loses value.
The thing with money is that there can be only one: You can’t have more in a country. Otherwise, it erodes the faith we have in our currency and, remember, money is all based on faith. Without it, all you are holding in your pocket are pieces of paper with complicated patterns.
One of the most severely punishable offences is making counterfeit money. It’s one of the few ones that you get punished whether you are rich or poor. States don’t joke around with that. Stealing money, just means money changes hands in an illegal way. The money is still there. Making counterfeit money though, means potentially all money could lose its value.
That’s the key: Money can’t afford to allow the existence of other money. It’s not euclidean geometry which has no issues with non-euclidean geometry, or statistics not having friction with jazz music, painters getting along fine with photographers. All of the above have merit on their own. Money doesn’t. It’s all based on faith and just like religion it cannot afford to make compromises.
Hang on you will say: There is not one type of currency in the world. There are around 150 countries that give or take each have its own money. How do different currencies co-exist? Short answer is that they don’t co-exist. Not really:
From the point of view of the average citizen – remember this is a faith based system – each country acts as its own separate bubble, where the currency is not really challenged. Just like a Christian pastor in Dakota, is not really bothered by a Muslim Imam of Cairo. They don’t compete over the same congregation.
On the international level, these different faiths recognise the superiority of one currency supreme: The US dollar. So, it’s not like they are co-existing; it’s more like you worship Hermes, I worship Athena, but we all recognise the authority of Zeus. There is no religious equivalent to that since religions don’t have to trade, but if it did , there would be a similar pecking order.
Just like for governments money should come only from official authority, religion claims that knowledge should only come from the gospel. If anyone can print money, then our trust in them starts eroding, money stops being special, the line between currency and pretty paper becomes dangerously thin. So, there can be only one…
In the end is all about beating the competition
Hang on you will say. Can’t all this be resolved if religion simply reduced its portfolio? Nowadays there is still value in messages about compassion, empathy and communication. Humanity’s needs for a moral compass hasn’t really changed. Can’t religion say something like: I am here to give spiritual guidance and leave the material questions for the rest.
Well, it’s not that simple:If you have made claims that you have all the answers and nothing else is important, then anything else is a challenge to your authority and, let’s be honest, to your income.
Furthemore, how would you present changes in the dogma? You have already written yourself into a corner by claiming holy origin to your gospel. What happened, God sent a follow-up? And in the end what would be your motive? If people are looking elsewhere for answers, it also means they are spending money in other places. Money that could have spent on you?
In the end it comes down to money and power. Beating the competition. When the Taliban invaded Pakistan they banned music, TV, dancing and education. Anything that can potentially ease mankind’s suffering or make them think about other things is a distraction. A potential competition.
There is this old greek movie, where a doctor arrives in a remote village where, up until then, a woman who was something of a local witch has set up shop. There is a natural conflict between them, even though in theory there shouldn’t. However, each recognises its natural competition.
Hipppocrates scoring 1-0
Since this text started about Coronavirus, we can wrap it up with Coronavirus. This pandemic signified a huge milestone for mankind. For the first time in its history, all humanity globally turned to doctors for its saving. The vast majority of governments declared that churches should close, but hospitals should remain open. After millenia of litanies, exorcism and prayers this is a big step forward for humanity.
In the past, the best minds of the day worked on finding ways to give meaning to death. Today, our best minds work on preventing death. It took quite a long time but it seems that humanity finally realised that the ones who can save them are the ones dressed in white, not the ones dressed in black. Just like in the movies. It also means that after many, many centuries, that guy from Kos island scored Hippocrates scored a much, much deserved point.
Today I would like to talk a bit about the “extra mile mentality” and doing what is right. Recently, I was on a trip to Milos island where there was this beach where people were swimming alongside boats. It was an accident waiting to happen. When I inquired about it to our organisers, they brushed off my concerns with a laugh: Don’t worry, it will be fine.
We do that: There are often things that have, let’s say, a 2% chance of happening. For example, a swimmer gets hit by the propeller of a boat. For this to be prevented through some precautions need to be taken: There needs to be a net protecting the swimmers, boats need to avoid entering the bay altogether and they need to keep their distance from the beach.
There are certain actions that we take an extra 30 seconds effort that prevents rare bad outcomes from happening. These actions, however, usually require some organisation, a little bit of coordination, a certain amount of effort and let’s face it, more often than not we are trying to duck away from them. We don’t want to go the extra mile to shield ourselves from something that has a 5% chance of happening and we leave it to luck.
Even worse, this ghastly lack of consideration often gets twisted into a testament of skill. “I don’t need to wear a helmet, I am a good driver and this kind of protection is for the newbies”. I was watching a video from some old tapes in Greece where people were not wearing seatbelts and they were proud about it. If you wore a seatbelt you were not deemed worthy to be called a driver. It was as if the moment the sound of the belt clicking was heard, your street cred as a driver was washed away. If you are taking precautions against something, it means you are afraid and if you are afraid it means you are not good enough.
This is a wider issue. It has to do with the ability of people to see beyond what materialises in front of their eyes. We don’t build our cities to be protected against flooding or protect our houses against earthquakes, because “weeeell… this happens very rarely, who cares”. It’s a very greedy approach of “ let’s just survive till the next day” mentality, which is summarised very beautifully in a Greek saying loosely translated as “Don’t worry about tomorrow, until then who knows who’s gonna be alive and who’s gonna be dead”.
In Greece’s defence, we have a very unpredictable and uncountable government. When you don’t know whether you will make ends meet on an average day you don’t really care about hypotheticals. You only worry about what’s in front of you. That doesn’t make it less wrong though, it only makes it more difficult to convince people otherwise.
There is a pattern in this kind of decision making which is the heart of risk management: Usually on one hand you have something solid, countable and concrete that costs money and/or time: Wear a helmet, put on your seatbelt, spend money to make a building seismic proof, don’t allow houses to be built on places that may be dangerously flooded.
On the other hand we have a hypothetical worst case scenario, that has a very low chance of happening. An earthquake, a boat accident, someone getting drowned on a beach without a lifeguard, a forest fire.
In the middle you have people who have a natural disdain for unfortunate hypotheticals. This is one of the core challenges in risk management: Convince people to do something countable to guard themselves against something uncountable. Do something real to prepare for something hypothetical. Spend real money and real time on nebulous conditionals. Change their everyday routine to prepare for the extraordinary.
There are a variety of factors that can amplify or weaken this logical fallacy.
Probability of the risk occurring.
Frequency of occurrence.
Whether the risk has been encountered before or not.
Whether people have seen the risk management strategy working before.
How often does that happen?
A risk’s impact is probability * severity. This means that even if something that’s happen that often it can still have a huge impact, an accident over a nuclear plan for example.
Here comes the kicker: The slimmer the probability of occurrence of a risk is the more difficult it becomes to convince people to take actions against it. Especially if they have never experienced it before.
Sometimes a risk occurs frequent enough to convince people to take action. For example, leave some time free in a sprint in order to have contingency plans. This is something everyone is happy to play by, they see sprints get derailed every 2 weeks. Interestingly though once it moves up to the milestone level, people are less willing to accept the option of failure. Maybe it’s a combination of a larger time scale, which puts the consequences in a more nebulous future and the severity of the risk being greater (a milestone failing is a major setback), which puts that risk in the convenient “let’s pretend this will not happen and lets name this mentality optimism and confidence”.
It’s not gonna be me…
You tell people that they should wear seat belts, you show them pictures from accidents, however the impact fades aways from their own everyday experience of not crashing the car. This creates a fake aura of confidence and, more important, leads to the fallacy that something is entirely within your control. If I am driving carefully, there is no way something bad will happen right?
People, in general, tend to have an innate dislike for taking precautions against their own failures. I remember in Sony, the Technical Director was trying to convince programmers to adopt testing in their coding routine. Coders just couldn’t adapt to that.
Arguably, it’s quite arduous for people to change their everyday routine, even in the simplest manner. However, I cannot help but think that at some level, people didn’t really want to include a routine in their everyday life which was an admission of potential mistakes being made.
Sometimes it takes time for results to show….
The biggest issue to convince people working out is that results take some weeks to show, but the pain is right there, since day one. Systems that lack immediate feedback are the toughest ones to convince people to take action on.
We like the quid pro quo type of deals. Doing something, with no immediate and obvious return, not so much. It will take some time for the code base to be significantly improved after testing has been implemented but during all this time coders will have to take their extra time writing the tests.
…and only if everyone cooperates.
Lack of immediate feedback is the first element of the unholy trinity when it comes to risk management strategy. The other one is when everyone needs to cooperate in order for something to happen. This is one of the most difficult risks to manage. It’s the equivalent of a mass prisoner’s dilemma where every single one of the prisoners must trust that everyone else will do their part.
This type of problem has applications in a surprisingly wide variety of issues beyond traditional project management, from paying your taxes, to convincing someone to vote. However, there is a third element which can make some risks exceptionally tough to handle and which completes the unholy trinity.
The problem is not related to your previous experiences.
We treat our bodies as if it’s easy to get a replacement part, but why? Well, it’s simple: Everything else in our lives can be replaced. Window broke? Buy a new one. Laptop not running efficiently? Replace it. Car not working? Pay a mechanic and fix it. We tend to make things replaceable and fixable. It’s practical to make them this way. The fallacy starts when we think that our bodies operate this way. We are surrounded by human constructs and, thus, we think everything operates like that.
Point me one human construct around us that once it breaks down, it cannot be replaced but can only be fixed slowly over time. I am gonna add the cherry on top: You can’t live without it.
This is the reality that hits most people, when they are told they have cancer, or heart diseases or that their over excessive drinking did irreversible damage to your liver. Yeap, you are not a FIAT.
To put it in a more generic way: We tend to extrapolate our own experiences, even though we shouldn’t do that and to systems that behave completely differently.
And now let’s combine everything to understand the coronavirus crisis. As you can see the
It’s something that doesn’t happen often. People can’t draw from their past experiences to understand it. Furthermore the system was unprepared against it.
Quarantine works only if everyone cooperates in a n-person prisoner’s dilemma.
The logic behind this risk is not related to human constructs and it’s practically alien.
Right, so what do I mean by alien? Well the obvious answer is that a virus is not a human construct. It is something that evolved quite on its own. However, the “alien” factor there is math related. Let me introduce you to the exponential function.
It’s a positive feedback function and that’s why it’s so scary. The more it advances the more powerful it gets. My brother yesterday asked me: Let’s say water lily filles 1% of the lake and every day it’s population doubles. If the entire lake gets filled in 6 days, how many days does it take to fill half the lake?
I know right? Only 5!
We avoid using it even in game design. Why? It’s just so difficult to control. Let me frank: Almost nothing in your everyday life that is constructed by humans performs according to the exponential function. The way the gas tank empties in your car is linear. The way the salary gets deposited in the bank every month? Linear. They way your mobile phone’s battery gets spent? Linear.
Social responsibility is an ethical theory, in which individuals are accountable for fulfilling their civic duty; the actions of an individual must benefit the whole of society. Which at its heart is the essence of risk management.
Admitting that things can go wrong.
Taking precautions is not pessimism not it means we are incompetent.
Not everything works with the type of logic we are used to.
I have worked in quite a few multi-million dollar projects and I can attest to the fact that true risk management is not an action-esque emergency plan, that involves explosions and one guy magically saves the day. It’s more about little every day actions that accumulate to something great.
“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” petition,14 February 1887
Recently, I visited Tate Modern and I didn’t understand almost any of the exhibits. They looked to me like a pretentious, self-praising, pompous waste of time.We all, at some point in our lives, came in contact with weird and experimental art. Whether it was the Holy Mountain or whether it was something like that:
Let’s be honest, we have all wondered “why is this called art?” or “what is this good for?”. I am not going to get into the what-is-art argument, but I am here to tell you this weird/experimental/underground art does serve a purpose: It keeps the rest of the Art healthy preventing it from suffering a death by stagnation and I am going to use A.I in order to prove that: They are the exploration nodes of the human intellect.
Exploration vs Exploitation in A.I
There are a lot of A.I algorithms designed to solve vastly different problems, but a running theme in all of them ( or most of them, I haven’t seen all of them to be certain), is the choice between exploration and exploitation. Exploitation is when the A.I is choosing to do something, because it believes it’s the best thing to do. It’s the “I am doing this because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the best move to make” mentality. Exploration is when the A.I is choosing to do something randomly, because ,who knows?, maybe something will come out of that. It’s the “Let’s do this random thing and see what happens” mentality.
Here is a simple example:Let’s say that you have some free time in your afternoon. You have two choices either do what you always do, which is watch Netflix, or try something new ( you don’t know what, but it sounds exciting!). The first option is the exploitation ( you are basing your decision based on what you know) and the second one is the exploration.
To get more technical the simplest method to implement an exploration vs exploitation is the -greedy method, where the agent chooses the action that it believes has the best long-term effect with probability, and it chooses an action uniformly at random, otherwise.
Now, the natural response is, “wait I thought that A.I was supposed to be all about thinking smart, what do you mean, they make the A.I random things?”.
Artificial Intelligence scientists have realized that only using your current knowledge to perform actions is not the best way to solve a problem. This will lead you to be stuck in a small area of the solution space. A healthy system needs to have a small element of randomness. Just like in our own example: If you only decide to spend your evenings Netflix, you will have an okay life, but you may be missing opportunities a lot of opportunities to have a great life. For example maybe you should have accepted that invitation to try an escape room, or to go out with some friends: Maybe this would lead you to discover a new passion in your life, or meet someone exciting and interesting.
In other words occasionally you have to try something new.
The tricky part in A.I is to find the balance between exploration and exploitation. You don’t want to get stuck in the same routine, but don’t want to force yourself to do something new every day either, your everyday life would lose consistency and meaning. It’s the same with A.I . Too much exploration and the A.I agent will just end up doing random insequential things. Too much exploitation and the A.I will be stuck in a local maximum. It’s the balance that makes an agent able to discover the best solution available for a problem.
Exploration vs Exploitation in Sciences
The same principle applies for art and human thought. Quit often I hear the argument, “why do I care about CERN or the God Particle?”. I am pretty sure some wise-ass told Newton in England “why is is useful to know how fast the apple is falling if I get hit anyway?”. The real answer is : You don’t know. However, just because you don’t know the immediate results or implications doesn’t mean that it’s not worth exploring. Einstein’s theory of relativity, when published, seemed an obscure hypothesis concerning only Physicians closed in their libraries for far too long, completely disconnected from our everyday lives. Yet, today we use this theory every day in our phone’s GPS systems. This is why it’s important to have research in Universities and not only funded by companies. Whereas, company funded research is important it will tend to be a little more short-sighted and geared towards profit. It will not venture into the unknown or try to think outside of the box. Again, we have exploitation vs exploration concept.
Exploration vs Exploitation in Art
So, back to art, next time you see a very weird art-piece remember 9 out of 10 times it will be just something utterly meaningless, self-entitled piece lacking any substance. Anyone having visited Tate Modern in London can attest to that. These 9 pieces though serve as the incubator for that tenth little gem which will become a catalyst to progress a whole medium and for us to see things a little bit differently. They are the exploration factor of our system and they prevent the rest of the system from becoming too narrow-minded and parochial. They prohibit it from getting stuck in a local maximum. Do they sometimes overdo it? Yeah, most of the times, but yet again maybe it’s alright for Art to do that, since it always represented the less orthodox and logical parts of our thinking process.
This is why ,although art almost never has practical applications it is equally important it does not become stagnant and lifeless. Art affects human thought and it is a source inspiration and influence for the rest of us. The Catholic Church used art in the form of the Baroque theme to fight the Protestant reform. If artists were not experimenting we would still be having only Greek Drama for theater and Church music on the radio. Our paintings would still be about red hands on caves.
So, next time we see a weird piece of art remember: It’s the exploration price we have to pay in order to remain vibrant and alive , the ticket toll in order to ameliorate the standards the medium as a whole.
Recently, in Greece we had snap elections that were caused when the opposition party SYRIZA refused to vote the government’s nominee for the President’s position. Greece has a semi-presidential system (it’s a system where the government is run by the prime minister and the head of state, the President, is more of a ceremonial position). Parliaments are elected with national elections every 4 years and Presidents, in turn, are elected by the Parliament every 5 years. There are 300 MPs. To promote stability first party gets a 50 seat bonus and the rest 250 seats are distributed based on the number of votes. In order to form a government you need the majority, at least 151 votes. Every 5 years whoever is in government must elect a new President. You get 3 chances to elect a new President. At the first two ballots you need a supermajority of 200 votes from MPs and in your third shot you need 180. If the government fails to elect it’s nominee the parliament gets disbanded and we get snap elections. Confused? Let’s have an overview again:
Parliaments are elected every 4 years
You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
Presidents, a ceremonial position, are elected every 5 years by the parliaments
Prime minister names a nominee.
You need 180 votes out of 300 to get a president elected.
If you fail, government falls and we get snap elections.
First thing the new government must do is name a new nominee for President.
Repeat until a president is elected.
What happened in Greece, a few months back, was that the government formed by a coalition of the political parties New Democracy and PASOK and lead by prime minister Antonis Samaras failed to elect their nominee Stavros Dimas as a president. We had snap elections which were overwhelmingly won by the opposition party SYRIZA led by the current prime minister Alexis Tsipras.
The leader of the Opposition Alexis Tsipras won the snap elections he caused over the Presidential election on 2015.
The interesting part was that there a wide criticism towards SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras for toppling the government and causing snap elections and instability over a ceremonial position. Many argued that perhaps it was time for the constitution to change, so that government wouldn’t have to be held “hostage” every 5 years by the opposition ( in Greece, even though the leading party gets a bonus of 50 seats, a majority almost always has less than 180 seats in the parlament , thus the opposition’s consent is required in order to elect the president). They argued that SYRIZA got elected by exploiting an over sighted flaw in the process and it was time for the system to change. The critics included lawyers,judges and constitutional experts.
Is, however, the system really flawed? Let’s have a look from an unusual perspective, that of a game designer.
Let’s examine it a little bit differently…
Game design is, essentially, system design. Our job is to create systems that, generally, provide entertainment. These systems always include rule sets that humans must abide, so in a sense we are also law makers, at least when it comes to the game world. One difference may be that we tend to have a holistic view of the systems since we are interested in the performance of the system as a whole, rather than each rule separately.
So here we have a game with two players, the government and the opposition. Government wants to elect a President, the opposition wants to stop them.Let’s take a step back here and look at the rules a little more carefully.
You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
To elect a president you need 180 votes.
Hmmm the requirements are a little bit weird aren’t they? You need 151 votes to be granted executive and legislative power over a country, however for the president , a ceremonial position with no real power you need 180. For game designers weird rules like that are red flags. Either the law maker was high on drugs when he was making this system or something else is up.
Have you ever heard of the term “the dictatorship of 51%”. It’s a term used to describe a potential abuse of the Democratic process. If everything is decided by majority then,in theory, half of the population may be ruled by the other half, sine the law of the majority is absolute. It’s a sign that healthy democracy can’t be something as simple as ” let’s decide by a raise of hands”. So what does the presidential election have to do with this? Everything. You see presidential elections are a safeguard against that very “dictatorship of 51%”. Remember that odd 180 vote requirement? Bingo. By demanding 180 votes, the law maker is telling the ruling party that they can’t completely ignore the opposition. They can’t afford to burn all the bridges, because every 5 years they will need their consent to elect someone, in an otherwise useless and completely powerless position.
Democracy is something more complicated than “rule of the majority”
Furthermore, the 180-presidential vote balances out the 50 seat bonus that the first party gets in order to form a government. So, from one hand the law-maker tells you “right, I recognize the need for stability that’s why I will give 50 extra seats to the first party”, but then he comes back and adds “Buuuut this is not exactly fair is it? We are practically rigging the elections with this 50-seat bonus. So, every 5 years I am going to ask you for something morethan that”. Essentially, since the 50-seat bonus is adulterating the consistency of the parliament, the presidential elections gets transformed into the real vote of confidence to the government! Naturally, the question that pops up in your head right now is “if that 50-seat bonus is causing so many headaches, why not simply reduce it or remove it?”. Right, time for some Game Design.
Rigging one system to achieve a result is something very common when making games. You create a game mechanic and then you realize that you need to tweak a certain aspect of it. This usually causes a chain reaction as pushing a system beyond its normal means has consequences. However, you can’t just undo the change, since it provides with a very special effect that you want. To counter-balance it you change another game mechanic accordingly, so that the system as a whole becomes balanced again.
Confused? Here is an example with over-clocking. With over-clocking, one pushes its CPU, beyond the normal parameters. As a result you get extra processing power, but as a consequence you also get extra heating. Simply undoing the over-clocking is not a solution ( you need the power) , so you change another system, ventilation, to counter it instead. Thus, the whole system becomes normal again. Well, not exactly normal since these changes tend to stack, but it’s better than nothing. Now, back to our presidential election. The law-maker couldn’t just remove the 50-seat bonus, because he needed the stability, so he added the presidential election as well. The 50-seat bonus is your over-clocking of the winning party, the 180-votes for the president is your ventilation. Simple!
The counter-argument to all of the above is “Yeah we get all that, but that doesn’t mean that the system can’t be abused. The opposition can still overthrow the government every 5 years duh…”. No, the opposition will not do that. As a proof this rule has been in place for 40 years before it got used to overthrow a government. How come for 40 years the opposition never used it to cause snap elections? Don’t they won’t to become government? Of course they do, but there is something stopping them. This “something” are a set of special unwritten rules operating in a system. There is no documentation of them and they are not official, but they are just as powerful. Due to their “unofficial” nature lawyers tend to ignore them, but Game Designers have a name for them: Metagaming.
Let’s see what wikipedia has to say about metagaming:
Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.
We will take that definition, because it’s simple,understandable and accurate. Metagaming can take many forms:
The evolution of chess openings.
That adc heroes in League of Legends need someone to support them.
All forms of “fair play”. For example in football when a player is injured, any team having the ball will get it out of the game, so that nurses can attend the injured.
Good game designers will always take meta-gaming into account. There are quite a few games that have a good ruleset but bad meta-gaming ( I am looking at you Helldivers ) and vice versa ( my name is Settlers of Catan I have a simple rule-set and a VERY deep meta). Games that involve human multiplayer tend to have a very deep meta-gaming. Politics is such a system. Maybe it’s THE meta-gaming system, since in politics is a system that abounds with unwritten rules. Any attempt, to examine a political system without taking the meta into account is going to lead to false conclusions.
So what’s the meta-gaming in our case of presidential election? Political cost.
Remember, every Government practically needs the Opposition’s vote to elect a president due to 180 votes requirement. However, if the Opposition decides to cause snap elections by refusing to vote for the Government’s candidate, they do technically overthrow a legally elected, even unpopular Government. And that never plays well in public opinion. It’s not written anywhere, it’s not official, but it is an iron-clad rule. What’s makes it worse is that snap elections are caused over a ceremonial position, so the Opposition can never mask their intentions in any way.Makes more sense now, why this absurd number of votes is required for a position with no real power huh? This way no one can use “political differences” as an excuse. If you cause snap elections over the Presidential elections, you caused snap elections for the sake of it and everybody will know.
This means that any Opposition causing snap elections over the President, must be absolutely certain, that they are going to win, even after receiving the penalty for overthrowing the Government. If such conditions exist it means there is, truly, a dissonance between people’s will and the elected Government, thus it’s time for elections. Suddenly the reason why no-one has abused the rule for 40 years makes sense: No one could handle the political cost. The meta-gaming was holding them back.
Even if you are still not convinced after all the above arguments let’s have a look at a case scenario where the Opposition did try to overthrow the Government, but it ended up blowing in their face.
American democracy is a full-presidential democracy, where the President is also the head of state. President holds the executive power while the legislative power rests with the Congress. The interesting thing about American Democracy is that tge executive branch and the legislative branch have different elections. It’s a little bit complicated, but to simplify it President’s get elected every 4 years and a big portion of the Congress get elected every 2 years. This difference in elections means that you may have Democrats controlling the executing branch and Republicans controlling the legislative branch and vice verse ( it’s the dreaded Midterm elections that American politicians are scared of) .
Now, imagine those who criticize the concept of the Opposition being able to cause snap elections over a president, to stomach the Government controlling one branch of the government and the Opposition controlling another. No country would ever accomplish anything with a system like that! How can a system like that work?Well, not only it works, but judging by the fact that USA is the strongest country out there, I guess it works pretty well. What makes it work so well? The meta gaming.Yes, in theory, the Government can get stranded by a stubborn Opposition. However, let’s see what happened last time when the Opposition tried to pull a trick like that:
Republicans believed that they had the public opinion supporting them, and they probably did. However, a strange thing happened: Public opinion turned against them. This whole stunt turned out to be a major PR disaster for the Republic Party. President Obama may not have been a popular president at the time,but he was an elected President and to people’s eyes it looked like the opposition was pulling a coup. A whole lot of Republican Congressmen, tried to exploit the written rules and they fell into a meta-gaming trap that was set up decades ago.
The Republican fiasco as it was depicted in newspapers
Systems involving humans
So far we’ve see how Politics can benefit from Game Design, but what about the opposite? Designing games involving humans can be tricky. Humans exploit the rules, are always attempting to find loopholes and, sometimes, are really hard to entertain. Furthermore, game designers are struggling to predict their behavior , especially when it comes to interactions between the players such as trade, alliances etc. Sometimes games try to completely ignore that element, by “freezing” the relationship to a certain state, for example “Axis and Allies” or Starcraft 2. Others are applying the same rules for diplomacy that exist between humans and A.I, like Civilization 5, but this approach usually fails to express the complexity of negotiations between human players.
I think that the best approach is neither. Players don’t appreciate it when they are restricted in the ways they can interact or ever worse when they cannot interact at all. In the end finding the best way to deal with human interactions in games can be a hard to solve riddle. Notice that the politicians were faced with a similar problem, having to deal with a system that involved humans , perhaps on of the most complicated ones as well. So, what did they do when it came to rule-making? We haven’t directly expressed it so far, but I guess you must have figured it out by now:
They didn’t make a single rule :P. They left it completely to meta.
Surprised? Don’t be! Remember: The bonus of seats awarded to the first party and the presidential election are a formally expressed rule. However, the balancing mechanics are all meta-gaming. Same situation with the American Congress. Separation of Powers is a formal rule, but the political cost of abusing them? Meta. And it works precisely because it’s meta. Meta-gaming is not expressed, it’s not written, it just… exists. This means that there is no “official” conditions of where the rules apply and no one is certain of how it works. This, not only serves as a form of protection against exploitation, it also prevents “certain to win” strategies, gives the game depth and makes it last in time.
In other words the best way to incorporate human interactions in your game design is… don’t. Just set up the game setting and let the humans, figure it out themselves.As a final note to convince you, remember one the most famous games that revolves around human interactions, yet it doesn’t have a single rule about them. There is no safe-way to play it but, like in real-life politics, you just have to be ready for the back stab.
Recently I tried watching Sense 8 on Netflix. I had such high expectation. With the creator of Babylon 5 on one hand and the writers of Matrix on the other this was going to be the next big thing right?
What a disappointment:While the series started really strong then it felt…. flat.
There are many people criticizing Sense 8, because “there were too many homosexuals in it”. They are generally right, but they are also a little bit off the mark. The problem is not the presence of homosexuals in the story, rather that the story focuses too much on their personal lives. I spent episodes, upon episodes learning about the love life of the characters, their every day life, their dreams and fears. The show was trying to make me care, but I couldn’t really make myself care. On the contrary, I found myself despising the protagonists because not a single one of them tried to discuss their new power with the other seven, or wonder about it, or even experiment. At least not for the first seven episodes.
This is what I call the “Burning Questions” issue.
The “Burning Questions” Issue
The “Burning Questions” issue is when a story drops a bomb in the scenario and then focuses on something completely different, like the protagonist’s love life, thus leaving the audience “burning” with questions.
In Sense 8, we start with 8 characters who suddenly each sees and feels what the other 7 see and feel. These characters are spread throughout the world and are living different lives. Pretty interesting huh? I am sure by reading just this sentence right now you are already thinking one thing:
-How did this happen? Why?
This is our “burning question”. The heroes had something completely abnormal happened to them and we need to know how and why. Notice that our main questions does not have to do anything with the characters themselves. We do not, at least not immediately, care who these people are or how is their love life. Sure it may be interesting, but DUDE YOU CAN MAGICALLY FEEL WHAT OTHER 7 PEOPLE FEEL AROUND THE GLOBE, YOU CAN TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND SOME OTHER TIME.Don’t get me wrong, at some point I would like to know more about the characters but the story structure these TV Series are following… It’s like seeing a guy getting out of an exploding car, being chased by aliens and then you ask him, “So how are your marriage problems?”.
Now, it’s okay if the series does not answer these critical question right away. We wouldn’t want the scenario to unfold immediately. However, it is a problem when the heroes seem to ignore these questions as well. I don’t really get what is the point of having a huge blast in the story and then have the scenario focus on the characters instead. This is a problem many science fiction or fantasy shows, like Battlestar Galactica, Last Resort, Dominion, Stargate: Infinity.
This is happening what was clearly meant to be a plot-driven story is treated as a character-driven one.
Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Stories
Generally stories are being divided into two categories. Character-driven and plot-driven. Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change. Plot driven writing is focused on the events. To borrow a definition from Gordon Dorrance:
Character-driven – [..] character-driven writing focuses on the inner conflict of the characters that you’ve created. [..] your reader will spend time thinking about the characters and their attitudes, personal evolutions and decisions, and how those, in turn, change the shape of the plot and the story as a whole
Plot driven – Plot-driven stories, on the other hand, place a larger emphasis on the actual plot itself. Factors such as plot twists, action and external conflict are what make up the focus of this style of writing. In most cases, the goals of the story are more external in that they are focused on the development of a situation.
In other words when it’s a plot-driven story we ask questions about the events. If it’s a character-driven one we ask questions about the characters.
Plot driven story example?
One good example of a plot-driven story is “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a story where actions take priority over characters. It’s not that we are not rooting for the hero, but think about it: How much information do you really know about the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf was a mystery, if someone wants to know about him he must read the Silmarilion. Same goes for Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir and name me one thing about the 4 hobbits’ background, besides “being related to Bilbo”. Frodo, for example, the protagonist decides to undertake a life-changing, dangerously hopeless quest, because… wait, why does he do it indeed? I mean a decision like that , we must spent at least some pages analyzing the motives of the hero right?
Oh right, he is one of the good guys. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. Right…
See, this is the magic of the plot-driven story. You still root for the good guy even though you don’t really know anything about him. The story is made like that. You are not supposed to really care. They are the bad guys , we are the good guys, get over it and pack your things we are going on an adventure!
Character driven story example?
If you want to see character-driven story done right go watch “12 Angry Men”. The story of the movie is that twelve jury member get inside a room to discuss whether they will condemn a young man,accused for murder, to the death sentence. Eleven of them are in favor of the execution. One is not.The movie depicts their conversation. That’s it. No explosions, no aliens, no spaceships, no out-of-this-world events (please take a not of that, it’s important). Just twelve men, with their personalities, their egos, their prejudices, their views upon their world trying to reach a decision about a fellow citizen.
This is how you do a character-driver story. In fact there is a whole murder in the story and we don’t even care about the crime ( the movie never really tells us whether the accused was guilty or not). What we really care is the characters. Why do they behave they way they do? How does their personality and lives affect the way they view the very same events? What makes them decide someone is guilty or innocent?
Let me, however, state something up front: This is not exact science. Nor there are formalized definitions of which is which. Here I am giving some extreme example but it doesn’t mean that every story is either strictly plot-driven or character-driven. Some are a mixture of both and this is not a necessary bad thing. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that every story is suited to have elements of both. Science fiction tends to be better-suited for plot-driven stories.
It’s basic showmanship
You remember before when I said that in 12 men there are no out-of-this-world events? There is a reason for that: When you have big explosions and spaceships on on screen it’s really hard to convince your audience to focus on down-to-earth events like character development. An event that breaks the laws of reality, is bound to steal the attention. Simply put, you are off to a bad-start. As I said in the Burning Questions part in the beginning “WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND,HOW CAN YOU FEEL WHAT OTHER PEOPLE DO???”. Every performer will tell you the same thing: “If A is more flashy than B and you want people to focus on B you never put A and B together on stage”. FIFA knows this very well: In the Olympic Games the big stars of football teams do not participate in the event. Football popularity is so big that will erase everything else from the map. However, in the Olympics they want people to focus on other sports , they have Mundial for football. Thus, they remove flashy A from the scene, so that the audience can focus on humble B.
Character development in TV series also has one more thing going against it: TV is a medium that favors visuals. In a book we can use our imagination to give equal importance to events and to character’s thoughts. On TV though where explosions are explosions and character’s internal monologues get translated into just a 2-second close up in their eyes , the deck is stacked against you. So, yes, spaceships, aliens and paranormal activity on TV series is your Mundial and character development is your Olympic Games. They can equally be entertaining but put one next to the other, and the Olympics don’t stand a chance.
Not the best place for character development…
Let’s face it, stacking spaceships on your screen will not make the audience wonder about the inner-workings of your characters. By definition you are moving the focus elsewhere. On a book you can make it happen, but on the screen is almost impossible. There are exceptions like Solaris or STALKER but notice how both movies keep the special effects to a minimum. Especially in STALKER the paranormal element was… a room. An empty room where wishes come true. In the movie Sphere the plot is very similar, it’s just that the wish granting device is an alien golden sphere in an alien spaceship at the bottom of the ocean. It is clear which movie wanted to question human behavior and which movie aimed for the “wow” factor.
Then why? Why do writers do this to themselves and keep trying to shove character development in a story that is clearly not fit for it?
Lack of imagination: It’s easier to do a little bit of both
You know who was good in writing good characters? Dostoevsky. Read Crime and Punishment You get drawn in by the main character Raskolnikov immediately. You put the book down and you keep thinking about the character. It shows how bad spoon fed TV-based character development is ( this is a scene where we show you that the character is cruel, this is a scene where we show you that the character is also sensitive -> character development complete). Yes, good character development is that hard.
Having said that, character writing plot-driven stories for fantasy universes is just as hard! You need to set up a whole universe, rules, lore, story and I am forgetting some. Do you think writers from the Start Trek Next Generation are easy to find? Or that every book has a well-structured universe like Middle Earth?So what do you do? If doing either really good is hard, to compensate you do a little bit of both. This way you avoid to either have a very good structured and imaginative universe or to have deep and well written characters, since the focus of your viewers is divided. The fallacy they are falling into is that these two elements are not additive. A story with half-character development and half-plot development usually does not equal one which is exceptional in either fields.
Essentially putting character elements in a plot driver story, is an attempt to “cheat” the system. And it usually fails.
Oh Battlestar Galactica why?
If you want me to give you an example of how hard it is to write proper science fiction you can have a look at Battlestar Galactica . I knew from episode 3 that the series was going to be lame. Why? The first alarm was the intro ( more to that later) ,but I was truly convinced when I saw episode 3: It was about a prison riot. Yes a prison riot. Here you have a show revolving around mankind’s last battleship, in a desperate fight against evil robots from the future and we get… a prison riot episode.
I knew that if the writers can’t come up with some different on Episode 3 and they were already running out of science fiction ideas, then we were off to a really bad start. In the end the show proved me right: They writers had no clue what they were doing, the story was all over the place and after 4 seasons , they had to release an extra movie to explain what happened in the ending ( because 75 episodes are, obviously, not enough). When a science fiction TV series has a prison riot for its third episode, just turn around and keep walking. It’s a waste of time. The reason they did episodes like that? They are easy to write. Anything to avoid answering the “burning questions”, anything to prolong the plot for as long as possible using the least imagination needed.
You can find plot devices like that in almost every TV show: Stargate Universe had the “long-range communication stones” which allowed people’s conscience to travel back to earth, thus allowing writers to write episodes with down-to-earth plots like love-triangles. Last Resort, a show which started with a nuclear war and the mutiny of a submarine with nuclear warheads, had episodes about… dating. Why? Well do this simple test: Ask yourself what would really happen if a nuclear submarine went rogue. You can’t really think of an answer straight away can you? Well, neither could the writer. He probably did something like this in his head:
“Wait what would happen in case there was a captain with some nuclear warheads at his disposal running wild? Uhhhh you know what? I am going to write an episode about a date. Easier”.
A prison riot, an unfulfilled love,a love triangle, someone standing up to a bully or to this boss, these are all events that to a greater or lesser extent, we have all been exposed to over the course of our lives. It’s easier to write stories about something familiar. Writing about the impossible, about civilizations different than our own, about the wonders of a fictional universe is hard. It requires a resourceful imagination and a rare talent to create memorable and lifelike universes.
And last but not least, let’s not forget the king of “Burning-Questions-let’s-focus-on-some-flashbacks” Lost. Again the same concept: Story starts with a blast, a deserted island where weird things happen, then it start focusing on character flashbacks about their lives ( actually Lost took it to a whole new level by introducing flash-sideways and flash-forwards ).Narrative-wise, that series was such a mess, I would probably need a whole post, just to analyse that show. However, Lost did one thing right: It always introduced a new “Burning Question” every 2-3 episodes, which made the audience completely forget the previous plots and focus on the new story. Of course, by the time the story ended, the piled “Burning Questions” were so many that no one could even connect everything with one explanation. In fact the writers didn’t even try to do that. Here is a video to help you remember how bad this , very successful show, was in this area:
Again and again and again it’s the same story: Good story set up, followed up by focus on the characters.
This is a point where Japanese story tellers put American ones to shame. Japanese writers are masters of setting up complicated universes with strict sets of rules and then basing a story by exploring this set of rules. In fact their whole TV show structure is revolving around how to properly introduce an audience to a new universe. I will make a post just for that at some point, as well ( too many posts pilling up).
Fantasy and Science fiction is about the “Call to the adventure”
I think that on some level these shows don’t really believe in their fantasy. A part of them treats science fiction as childish, so they are trying to make it more mature by adding character development. In the end I think this is the reason that these shows are failing to deliver an entertaining experience. The problem is not the addition of character-driven story elements. It’s the reason of adding them.
In it’s very heart science-fiction and fantasy is about amazement and wonderment. It’s about what they call in storytelling the “Call to the adventure” moment. It’s about forgetting this world for 2 hours and jumping into another universe which promises mystery, excitement, danger, action, bewilderment and wonders the likes we have never seen. Every single element of the production is tuned to amplify this notion.
When focus is shifted on characters in order to procrastinate your story progression or , even worse, to make your show look more mature, it’s where things are starting to go downhill. This is when the TV show is giving you this “I take myself more seriously than I should” vibe and completely misses this adventurous element. To get you an idea have look at Battlestar Galactica Intro
and this is the intro, but with the music from the original Battlestar Galactica on top. Notice how the vibe of the show changes, just with a single music track and also notice how the element of adventure suddenly re-surfaced.
It’s all about the narrative
To make a conclusion it’s almost never the events of the story: It’s the narrative which is at fault. No, it’s not the homosexuals in Sense 8, it’s not that Starbucks in Battle Star Galactica, came back to life inexplicably, nor the fact that in the end Lost was about magic wine holding evil at bay. You don’t mind how Ray learned how to fight with light sabers so fast, Luke Skywalker gave his ,battle-hardened veteran galaxy-wide known pilot, Darth Vader a hard time flying in Episode 4, even though he was just a farm-boy.
If you start arguing about how something in Science Fiction is unrealistic then it means that the writer failed to trigger your suspension of disbelief. If you are bothered by the protagonists’ sexual preferences it means that the writer failed to make you interested in something more important than that.
I will close with how easy it is to make people care about your characters without huge budgets. I started watching a TV series recently on youtube to pass time. The story is this:
“A musician, a lawyer on a loosing streak, a journalist and a failed private detective, all former classmates, re-unite by chance and decide to fulfill their childhood dream of opening their own radio-station”.
Interesting and weird assortment of people? Check
Rooting for the characters since they are trying to fulfill childhood dreams? Check
Making you curious about how will all this turn out? Check
This is how you properly set a character-driven story. Notice how you immediately get interested about the characters. Who are they? Why do they want to open a radio station? More importantly you identify yourself with the characters and you feel connected with them, something really hard to do in Science Fiction where characters generally find themselves in unnatural situations.
Maybe it’s better treating some video-games interfaces like web-browsers, rather than traditional video games’ interfaces.
I had been meaning to write this for more than a few months now. I have made 2 drafts already and had 3 diagrams in Gliffy. I didn’t like either draft I made, but today I decided that enough was enough: Crusader Kings 2 , it’s you and me baby.
First of all let’s establish some foundation for this post:
Crusader Kings 2 is a great game.
Crusader Kings 2 is a reminder that hardcore can be popular.
Crusader Kings 2 reminds me of an old car.
Yeap you read right: An old car. Before you re-read a third time let me explain myself and the “old car effect”
The old car effect
In my family we have an Alfa Romeo 146. I adore that car, but , just like all Italian car it has issues with its hydraulics: In order to get the first gear on you have to get the stick through… the second gear. It sounds and it looks weird. but if you don’t do that, you can’t really put the first gear on to start your car.
It’s old but you still love it!
I do this procedure automatically now but if anyone else tries to drive that car he will have serious issues. Doesn’t matter what they tell me though: I still love that car.
See, almost all old-car owners have a certain number of tricks that they employ when interacting with their cars. Tricks that are hard enough for anyone else unfamiliar enough to perform. The car-owners however perform them automatically and they even ignore any inconvenience that it may cause them. It has become like a second-nature to them. They even love their old cars despite these pitfalls : That’s the “old car effect”.
Crusader Kings 2 in many ways reminds me of this effect.
Back button : The ignored hero of our browsing experience
You all know the “back button” on browsers right? Here is a back button as a reminder :
Back buttons are important for every node-like structure. Let’s say that the internet is a node-like structure: Pages are nodes , links connect the nodes.
The back button allow you to add temporary vertices between the nodes, based on your history of traversing the diagram.
Let me put it in a less mathematical way: Try to browse the internet without the back button for 10 minutes. You will realize that even familiar web-sites feel weird and clumsy.
How do you get to the song you were previously listening on youtube?
How do you navigate to page no 2 of reddit from a specific post?
How do you get from 1 specific news article to another without navigating to the home page of a news website?
You will realize that don’t know how to get to every page, from every page. Sometimes there is simply no way to do that, at least not directly and ,even if there is, sometimes the way is not a common one: Sometimes the link to the youtube video you were previously watching is on the top of the recommendations sometimes is on the top.
So what all that have to do with Crusader Kings 2? Bear me with me we will do one more detour…
How is Crusader Kings 2 different than other strategy games?
Strategy games on their core are decision making games. Generally all strategy games try to put all the information needed for a specific decision on 1 screen. For example this is the city management screen from Civilization 5:
All the information needed in 1 screen!
On the other hand when you play Crusader Kings 2 you see something like this:
This is a character sheet.
Crusader Kings 2 is a rather uniquegame: Its main element is its characters (Kings, lords, wives, bishops etc) , their traits and their relationships. In a sense it is more of an RPG than a strategy. And what you see here is a practically a character sheet with all this information provided.
Each icon on the picture that you see is practically a link which leads to another character sheet. It’s a structure that reminds us more of the internet node-like theme rather than your average strategy game.
Crusader Kings 2 node structure
You know what else Crusader Kings 2 has unique compared to other strategy games? You need to look on more than 1 character sheets to make up your mind. Just like you need to look in more than 1 page when you are browsing the internet. What does this mean in other words?
The information needed to reach a decision is not on just 1 screen.
Crusader Kings 2 looks like this information-wise
So now we have established that:
Crusader Kings 2 is different than other strategies
The information needed to reach a decision is not on only 1 screen.
Crusader Kings 2 has a node structure like the internet.
Back buttons are important for anything that has a structure like the internet.
I am pretty sure by now you will have guessed what the issue with Crusader Kings is right?
Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t have a back button
TADA! FINALLY. After 800 words we have reached the heart of the problem. Crusader Kings doesn’t have a Back button. And it needs it. It badly does. Sure there is the equivalent of the Home button which is your character and there are some shortcuts but they cannot replace the functionality of the back button.
You don’t believe me? Load the game and try to get information on people participating on a conspiracy or a faction.
The weird thing about this is that I have never seen anyone else mention this. Crusader Kings players admit that there is a hard learning-curve with the game but I beg to differ: Once you have gotten you mind around inheritance of the game the rest is easy. It’s the interface the main enemy of the new player. The fact, you have to memorize every route between the nodes to get the information you need.
This is why I mentioned the “old car effect” at the beginning of this post: Crusader Kings 2 players remind me of these car owner. They have gotten used to the game’s inconvenience that by now they don’t even notice them. If you ask me it’s a shame: The game will become so much more user friendly with this tiny interface addition. Or maybe these inconveniences are what makes the veterans love the game even more: They make it unique.
I will just leave this picture here as wishful thinking XD
I wanted to write only one post about Bit Coin Millionaire but when I started writing I got sidetracked when I discovered the connection between Game Design and behavioural psychology. We barely scratched the surface but It’s not a subject that can be analysed in a blog spot anyway. Well, it’s not like we have a few things to talk about in this post. Idle games, incremental games, appointment mechanics, retention, growth curves…. *sighs* we have a lot to talk about.
Games like Bit Coin Millionaire belong to a broad category of games called Idle Games. Adam Clare, in his blog post names them, “idle game is one that runs in real time in which the player advances by upgrading/building things. It’s called idle because the browser-based games usually need to run in the background to work.”.
As you can see all these concepts are relative new, there is no bibliography and definitions control phrases like “you build things” :P. To be honest, I prefer that from the neurochemical nonsense, they tried added with the Compulsion loop. Adam Clare went a step further ahead and calls them Incremental Games since “core game mechanic is literally incremental growth.”
You will be surprised by how many games are under the Idle Games category. Clash of Clans, FarmVille are all employing principles of Idle Games. The core-loop usually is:
Spend all your money
Log out, return in a few hours.
Yeap, believe it or not this had idle-game principles embedded in it.
The thing with idle games is that most of the times they are not in the spotlight. Anthony Pecorella from Kongragate in his presentation about idle games had to dedicate a couple of power point pages to explain why he bothered making a 50 minute presentation about them. You can find the presentation itself here ( a very interesting read). Simon Perking when writing about them named his article “The rise of games you mostly don’t play”.
Both pure-idle games like BitCoin Millionaire and game with idle-like elements like FarmVille share some elements. Low pressure experience, constant positive growth and feedback. These elements are probably what makes these games appealing to the femail audience but… I am getting side-tracked again. Both games also have a rapid growth in costs and power/rewards which gives a sense of progress which can be psychologically fun and exciting.
Furthermore frequent check-ins can help shift up the progression curve. In both genres you get rewards when you are not logged in, but the grow linearly while the costs grow exponentially. An example of that is in clash of clans where the resource production follow an arithmetic progress of where , while the cost follows a geometric progress of. In order for the player to keep up, he must either login to raid other players or wait for longer periods of time. Same happens with bitcoin millionaire where you have some limited amount of profit while you are not playing, there are various mechanics that ensure that your main income comes during your game sessions.
You have to login constantly if you want to keep up!
Of course there are a few distinct differences. For example in pure idle games we have Presting. Essentially the player may decide to reset his game to gain a boost on his next play through. However, the most important difference I think is the lack of appointment mechanics. These are mechanics that reward the player when, for example, he logins once per day ( in a way he doesn’t miss the appointment). Since the pure-idle games are more based on progress without interaction, a forced appointment mechanic, simply doesn’t rhyme well. Perhaps this casual nature is also the reason why they have minimal social elements. They are there just to be open in other tab, not to bother us, until we want to. It is a game genre, that contrary to its close relatives, allows you to set your own pace. They are supposed to be something insignificant you do while working, studying or just chilling. As Extra Credit put it
“They scratch our multitasking itch. Idle games play to the need to use our minutes optimally. They are basically big Skinner Boxes, who play to our modern need for constant progress”
Coockie Clickers are games with the most basic and elegant core-loops. Clicking on the screen gets you money, which allows you to buy items, which allows you to get more money. It sounds self-referencing doesn’t it? It is. But then , if you think about it doesn’t Diablo also have a very basic loop like that?
The fun comes from a sense of completion, progress and fulfillment we experience by completing these basic tasks. Video games further enhance this feelings with positive feedback, like an increase in score, sound, images anything to convince you that what you are doing is worth your time.
You have other factors weighting in , for example unique items that are hard to get by, which give the player social status in the virtual communities but this subject is so big that I am going to have to tackle with it in another post entirely. For now, I will stick to the basic reward loop.
All these are based on Skinner’s box. Skinner’s box is an experiment carried out by B.F Skinner and demonstrated that a mouse, or any lab rat, would decide to perform an action e.g to push a button if a reward was included. This is called operant conditioning. Interesting huh? What’s more interesting is that the machine learning method of Reinforced Learning was based on this principle. It’s funny how different fields tend to be connected. Most of the Game Design field is based on the principle of that reward cycle. If you are more interested in this subject, have a look at this 5-miinute video by extra credit:
Game Designers made an attempt to name this video-game variant of the Skinner Box the “Compulsion Loop”, which is defined as
“Compulsion Loop: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.”
Bear in mind, this is nothing formal or official but it’s quite practical and handy as a definition.
Now that we have gotten around our basic background we can now get back to our original subject. BitCoin Millionaire and Coockie Clicker’s success initially makes no sense but if you think about it they are the quintessence of this Compulsory Loop and their success was not random at all. It’s in this games that you can see the Skinner’s Box principle applied in such a clean, and terrifying, way. I tried the game out of pure curiosity but in the end I got hooked for days. To that it helped the fact that you can play the game while watching a movie or listen to music. The constant tapping can have a surprisingly soothing effect. I was planning to analyze the game mechanics of BitCoin millionaire but once I started reading about this games I was surprised with the connections I found with the world of behavioral psychology and it affects Game Design in general. To anyone dealing with Game Design I suggest them to give it a shot. Even if you are not hooked you will be able to get a glimpse of the basic principles of Game Design in their most elegant form.