Lessons from the Video Game Industry: The Folly of Pushing For the Perfect Product
In my last post, I talked about how a NASA Administrator pushed his rocket scientists to speed up testing of the famed Saturn V rocket. In this post, I want to present a case study on what happens when product development cycles continue in a prolonged (and doomed) mission for perfection.
How Do You Create A Winning Sequel? Don’t ask 3D Realms
The case I want to present is that of 3D Realms, a video game company that had pioneered the “shareware” model and risen to success. By the late 1990s they were riding high on the smash hit video game “Duke Nukem 3D.” The game had been a runaway hit and won numerous awards. Fans were demanding a sequel and 3D Realms started work on “Duke Nukem Forever,” promising it would be ready by Christmas 1998.
What fans didn’t realize was that an arms race was about to upend the entire video game industry.
By the late 90’s the processing power of computer chips were increasing exponentially. This allowed programmers to develop ever more complex game “engines” that drove the video game graphics that allows for a more interactive gaming experience. Similar to the growth in CPU processing power, the development of new video game engines proceeded at a torrid pace.
Innovator’s Dilemma: Release a Quick Iteration or Push for Perfection?
As a result of the rapid development pace, 3D Realms found their award winning Duke Nukem 3D engine was already antiquated just one year after they released the game. They faced a dilemma: Do they create their own new engine or perhaps license one from a competitor? Time was of the essence, as they wanted to capitalize quickly on the popularity of the game and build out a franchise around the Duke Nukem brand.
In December of 1997, at a cost of $500,000 they licensed a brand new “engine” from their competitor. By May 1998, they had enough to provide a sneak preview of the game. Critics were bowled over and anticipation for the game’s release reached a fervor pitch.
However, a competing company came out with an even better “engine” that outperformed what they had built their current game on. A few weeks after showcasing the sneak preview, 3D Realms stunned the gaming industry by announcing they were abandoning their current engine for the new one. It would require them to start from scratch.
This would being a troubling pattern. 3D Realms became engrossed in utilizing the latest, greatest technology. Years passed on, delays piled up, and eventually they alienated their fan base and became a running joke in the gaming industry. If you look under Continuous Obsolescence in Wikipedia, they use Duke Nukem Forever as an example.
In 2009, 3D Realms finally called it quits. They had run out of money and were not ready. Another company bought the intellectual property and completed Duke Nukem Forever. Upon its release the game was roundly panned by critics and gamers alike. Unsurprisingly it was a mish mash of several years of development and was a stale product.
So what happened?
4 Product Development Mistakes to Avoid
1) Loss of perspective: Like any company, to build a brand you need to keep releasing products. Hollywood is quick (maybe even too quick) to release a sequel to capitalize on the brand recognition of the original movie. In 3D Realms’ quest to outdo themselves they lost sight of the most basic goal: Increase Sales and Build A Loyal Customer Base.
2) Getting distracted with “shiny” objects: The shiny object in this example is new gaming “engines.” Progress is the name of the game in technology. The goal should be to make each iteration/release better than the previous one. 3D Realms repeatedly disposed of their prior work and pushed back deadlines, all in the quest to build the “best game ever.” Of course, if you alienate your customers and industry critics, there might not be anyone around to play the game once you finally complete it.
3) Failure to Iterate Quickly: Critics had been impressed with the first sneak preview and lauded it as setting a new standard. 3D Realms could have simply channeled that excitement and released the game quickly. If the company wanted to push an even higher standard, they could have tried to do so, but with a new game that built on the success of Duke Nukem Forever.
4) Lacking the Eye of the Tiger: If you are a fan of the Rocky movies, there is a scene in Rocky 3 where Apollo Creed takes Rocky back to his roots. He shows him young eager fighters who have that drive and hunger to succeed. The point was to show Rocky he’d lost the “Eye of the Tiger” — success had made him complacent.
My point is that with the success of the original Duke Nukem 3D, the company had gotten too complacent. They had a hoard of cash to burn through, and without the pressure to produce, they were able to get lost in pipe dreams. In the end, they became their own worst enemy.
What other examples can you share of product development teams getting stuck striving for a “perfect” product?