Monday, May 11, 2020

How to Get Things Done

I recently read an interesting article titled Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem. It tells the story of how 3D Realms, a video game company in Texas, developed Duke Nukem Forever, a 3D first-person-shooter game that they hoped would set new standards for the industry.

The development was started in 1997, just a year after the company released the wildly successful Duke Nukem 3D. Sadly, the company eventually shut down the project in… 2009. That’s 12 years of failed development! It sounds like a nightmare project to be in. Devoting so much time to a single project (as compared to the typical two to four years for game development) and yet ended up in failure. This is not to mention the estimated 20 million dollars wasted on the project.

But why did it happen? What turned the project into such a nightmare? The story contains a lot of lessons on what not to do to get results. These are expensive lessons for those involved, so hopefully we don’t need to go through such experiences to learn them.

Taking the moral of the story, here are four lessons I learn on how to get things done (along with relevant quotes from the story):
1. Avoid perfectionism
Broussard simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of Duke Nukem Forever coming out with anything other than the latest and greatest technology and awe-inspiring gameplay. He didn’t just want it to be good. It had to surpass every other game that had ever existed, the same way the original Duke Nukem 3D had.

But because the technology kept getting better, Broussard was on a treadmill.
You, of course, should try to be the best that you can be. But there’s a difference between wanting to be as good as possible and being obsessed with perfection. The truth is, you may never achieve the level of perfection you want. This is especially true in the story because technology keeps getting better all the time. By the time 3D Realms got close to the perfection they wanted, technology already evolved that raised the standard once again. This, at the end, turned the project into a never-ending one.

You should be careful not to let perfectionism get into the way of delivering results. Be as good as possible, but understand that you can never be perfect. At some point, you need to sacrifice something in order to get the product done. Don’t forget that your responsibility is to deliver results.

2. Have realistic expectations 
Mike Wilson, a former games marketer with id Software and 15-year veteran of the industry, suspects that Broussard was paralyzed by the massive success of Duke Nukem 3D. “When Duke came out, they were kings of the world for a minute,” Wilson says. “And how often does that happen? How often does someone have the best thing in their field, absolutely? They basically got frozen in that moment.”

So you had been successful before and you want to reach the same level of success in the future. That’s good, except for the fact that it could give you unrealistic expectations.
The truth is, you can’t always be successful. Even the best athletes in the world still lose every now and then. Is it realistic for an athlete to expect to always win the competitions he participates in? No, of course. So you need to have realistic expectations. Don’t let your past success paralyzes you.

3. Change the way you work
But in the years that Broussard had spent tweaking Duke Nukem Forever, games had become bigger and bigger…
They were still designing “with a 1995 mentality,” as one former employee told me — trying to produce a modern, massive game with a stripped-down little group.
Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it works in the present. The world changes, and if you don’t change you risk being obsolete.

The problem is many people expect the same level of success they had before but don’t change the way they work to match the world around them. How can they expect to get the same level of success if they work with five-year-ago mentality? How can you expect it if you don’t keep up with the rest of the world?

4. Set limits
“When it’s done” became their defiant reply whenever someone asked when Duke Nukem Forever would be finished.

The story is an extreme example of Parkinson’s law at work. Parkinson’s law states that:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

In the story, there is no deadline which means that there is unlimited amount of time available. According to Parkinson’s law, it means that the work will expand infinitely.
The situation was made even worse by the fact that the company had so much money in the bank.
Broussard was also cursed with money.

Normally, game developers don’t have much cash… 3D Realms was flush with cash.
Yet the truth is, Broussard’s financial freedom had cut him off from all discipline. He could delay making the tough calls, seemingly forever. “One day, Broussard came in and said, ‘We could go another five years without shipping a game’” because 3D Realms still had so much money in the bank

When you have practically unlimited resources for a project, you have a lot of room to waste them. So, if you want to deliver results, set limits. Give yourself a short deadline and a tight budget. That’s how you get things done.
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