the biggest threat facing your team, whether you’re a game developer or a tech founder or a CEO, is not what you think

Doc Burford
64 min readMar 31, 2024


If you are running a business, your goal, generally, is to make money. A lot of people go to business school to learn how to do it, and those people — maybe you’re one of them, takes those newly found lessons to work at large corporations.

One of these titans of industry, a guy by the name of Jim McNerney, came into power at a certain business around the year 2005, where he operated on the principle that companies “overvalued experience and undervalued leadership.”

The idea is absurd from the outset. No person of even remote intelligence would say “yes, let’s get rid of people who know what they’re doing to hire people who don’t know what they’re doing but have a lot of authority.” We’ve all worked for idiots before, we know what that’s like. What good is someone who doesn’t know anything?

But it’s a common trend in every industry, from David Zaslav to, well, Jim McNerney’s successor, Dan Calhoun, who’s going to resign from Boeing under allegations that his corporation had a whistleblower killed after multiple mishaps and hundreds — literally hundreds — of deaths that should see McNerney locked up in ADX Florence until the day he dies.

Think about it: because of Jim McNerney’s direction, Boeing’s ‘leadership’ was responsible for more deaths than the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Pictured: a terrorist bombing, one of the worst in American History, that killed less than half the people Jim McNerney’s leadership did.

When you’re done with this article, I think you should read the one where I got the ‘overvalued experience’ quote from.

We are faced with a very, very stupid world. I am here to help you figure out how to overcome some of its challenges, at least as it pertains to your business.

Look, I’m gonna come at this from the thing I know well: helping people get 8–9 figure projects across the finish line, making sure their 10–11–12-figure (yes, that’s 100 billion dollar) corporations make a lot of money. I’m very, very good at what I do.

If you’ve played AAA games in the past ten or so years, you’ve almost certainly played games I’ve worked on. I know the business pretty well, and I know product really well. I know how to help businesses make money. I’m currently in the process of convincing people that a business led by me will make a great deal of money, and so far, the publishers currently invested in my studio look like they’ll be making a whole lot of money off my work because of the amount of money they’ve put into us.

If you want to make a lot of money, you should definitely fund Mischief.

But, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably someone running your own business, or someone frustrated with business and you want to know why. Awesome. This is something you’re going to want to read. While I’ll be talking in the context of game developers, this applies to any business at all. If you want to make money, I’m going to tell you all about how, at the very least, not to lose that money.

It Starts With…

One thing, I don’t know why, is the idea that running a company makes you inherently special. McNerney refers to this as leadership, but there’s no actual leading occurring. The idea is that if you are classified as a leader, you… possess some… innate qualities of such. This is far from the truth. Having the position and being good at it are two different things, right?

If you hang around Silicon Valley or LinkedIn enough, you’ll hear people use hushed, reverent tones to describe “Founders.” Founders, in their minds, are heroic visionaries who, through no insignificant effort, manage to carve a tremendous, powerful vision out of nothing.

Of course, Sam Bankman-Fried going to jail for twenty five years for committing ten billion dollars in fraud and being required to pay back eleven billion is a great example of why maybe just ‘founding’ something doesn’t matter.

I’ve helped people found companies. I’ve founded companies. It’s easy. You can go to a website and punch in some information, and boom. Founder.

In other words, being in the position of founding a company doesn’t mean shit. A lot of people in Silicon Valley want to view themselves as the next Steve Jobs. They try to get magazine covers, they try to develop their own kind of fashion (the only person who’s actually managed to pull this off is Jensen Huang), they try to build a profile as a new, big up and comer.

And, like Elizabeth Holmes, you go to jail for 11 years, or Sam Bankman-Fried, you go to jail for 25 years, when you invariably do everything in your power to set up a business that doesn’t fucking work and loses a lot of people money, especially when those people include The Walton Family, Henry Kissinger, and people like that.

Where each one of these people failed is that their businesses didn’t create anything of value. More specifically, many of these businesses have no product or model. There was a lot of money floating around, an idea, but no actual serious business occurring.

Bankman-Fried allegedly impressed people by… not taking them seriously. He would play League while talking, do what he could to convince people he was some sensitive, stable genius, but when you read the court cases and the evidence, it’s obvious he was just some fuckin moron who was good at fast talk trying to hustle investors out of their money, and they were stupid enough to get conned by it.

Remember when I wrote about NFTs? Or when I wrote about them the second time? What did I say?

The core problem with NFTs is that they didn’t have actual good use cases. No one could argue for a product or service any customer would actually want. The ideas being put forward were being put forward by people who did not understand how the product in question functioned.

What happened?

Well, a shitload of people lost a shitload of money. A shitload of businesses lost a shitload of money. How much money did A16Z lose on NFTs? Wouldn’t surprise me if it was a lot, what with the massive overnight collapse of the market. Nobody ever wanted NFTs, except a very small group of Beanie Baby or Tulip speculators who were hopeful that a lot of very stupid people would show up and hold the bag. Those very stupid people did not materialize.

No one wanted to be a customer for such a useless fucking product as “a receipt saying you own something that, through its very nature, is infinitely duplicable.” An NFT is a note that says “I promise to pretend I can’t copy this when it’s literally effortless to do so.” It’s stupid as shit. Always was.

As it turns out, exclusivity doesn’t motivate people as much as you think. In fact, exclusivity actually drives people away. Look at how Bungie’s Destiny is collapsing horribly and has been since they started emphasizing exclusivity.

I mean, as best we can tell, an artist named Beeple kicked this off. If you don’t know who Beeple is, he was a dude who would make a piece of art every day by grabbing assets from other artists and putting them together. Usually it would be of, like, Trump shitting himself or something.

Beeple, apparently, had a friend who ran an NFT marketplace. They organized a showcase at a Christie’s auction where they artificially pumped up the value to make people think it was desirable — that there was a market here. There wasn’t.

And we kept seeing people do that. Time and time again, someone would put up an item, an accomplice would try to drive the value up, and then the people running the marketplaces — who get cuts of every transaction — would say “look, see, there’s a market here.”

There was no market because there were no customers.

If there are no customers, then you have no business, and eventually, the fraud comes out and you end up being ordered by the judge to pay eleven billion dollars to your creditors, despite the fact that you’re a vegan and you’ve repeatedly told everyone how ethical you are. I don’t know why Bankman-Fried’s lawyers keep insisting his veganism is why he shouldn’t go to jail for one of the largest financial crimes in history, with thousands of victims, but they really do think being vegan makes you moral. The worst people I’ve ever known were vegans. Some of the best people I’ve ever known were vegans. Veganism is not a moral determiner, Sam.

The point of all this is that for a business to function, you need two things:

A product.


Well, where do you get those?

When This Began

I had nothing to say. Poor quality control was resulting in bad things happening? That’s not really surprising. That’s the life cycle of a business in late-stage capitalism.

Someone builds a business. They have a product and they have customers. That business makes money.

Someone with more money, almost always disconnected from that specific business, goes “if I buy this business with all this capital I’ve got, it can essentially run itself and make me even more money. I gain more capital.”

At this stage, the businessman is thinking in businessman terms.

You know the phrase “buy low, sell high” being used to describe the stock market (the place that all these businessmen care about, even more than their businesses?). Another one is ‘maximize profits, cut costs.” Basically, these guys think in exactly one way, and it’s this:

In a businessman’s head, you want to have few costs and maximum profit, so you lower the cost and raise the price, and as a result, you make record profits. It’s a very… childish way of looking at the world. I did not feel the need to concern myself with this, buuuuuut… then I got to thinking about it.

In our Uni Econ and Biz classes, teachers would explain to us things like “you can’t raise the prices too much or people won’t buy the product.” So there’s a limit to how much you can raise prices.

In a capitalist economy, the way this business is supposed to work is that you start a company, you run it, and when you want to scale up, you either use your profits to do so (risky) or you have an investor put money into your company (now they are shouldering the risk with you).

From an investor’s angle, they want to put money into a company, then that company makes a profit, and then they make money as a result of putting that money into a company. You buy a share of it, and you expect that share price to increase from what it was previously.

(there’s additional complexities to this, but that’s the general gist)

But, because time is linear, and human lives are not, an impossible request is implicitly made:

The share price must increase infinitely.

The problem with this is that infinite value is not possible because there’s only so much money in the economy. Thing is, since the company board’s responsibility is to deliver a return on the investment, the company becomes fixated on one thing and one thing only: costs.

But you can only blow a balloon so big before it pops, and when that balloon pops, a lot of people suffer.

So, these perverse motherfuckers modified the now-illegal Corporate Raider tactics of the 1980s into situations where they get a whole lot of money for doing very little, invariably destroying a great deal of value while extracting as much as they can out of it.

They’re fracking the economy, in other words, and the only thing coming out of it is a great deal of suffering. The people who are doing well are so irrelevant that in data science, we’d call them statistically insignificant outliers.

But those outliers are the problem. Because of them and the extractive system they support, all of us live worse lives, with less innovative tech than ever before, because they’re chasing after a goal that’s impossible because they’re operating in a system that was so poorly designed, no one thought to ask “well, infinite growth isn’t possible, so… what do you do?”

A profitable business that makes products people want, like Pyrex or Instant Pot or Toys R’ Us, gets completely fucked because a bunch of thieves and pirates extracted what they could from the company, like it was a bank vault they could legally plunder, destroying the business, and moving on.

Value is being removed from the economy.

But you probably know this part already. This is important setup, but it’s also the most obvious stuff. I write my articles with the assumption that you, reading this, are a neurosurgeon. You’re very, very smart, great at what you do, and probably an amazing person to chat with over dinner. As a smart, curious person, you want to know about this, but you may not be familiar with the jargon. So I do a lot of setup and case building in these pieces not because I think you’re dumb, but because I think you want to know this stuff and I know that dumping jargon on you is a stupid way to fucking do it.

Consuming, Confusing

This lack of self control I fear is never-ending. A bunch of guys who have a very, very simplistic view of business take over a company. They say “cut costs, raise prices,” and then they fuck with the numbers as much as they can so that the stock market goes up.

These people are not in the business of running the businesses they actually run. Jimmy didn’t run Boeing, he ran a side game where he plays with numbers a lot and hopes that will increase the value of his company’s stock.

But Boeing is not a “stock market go up” company. Boeing is an airplane company. It exists to make vehicles that transport people and objects from one location to the other. People will not buy Boeing’s products if those products kill hundreds of people at a time.

The stock value comes from the fact that the company makes a product people want. End of discussion.

Sure, you can be like Elon Musk and attempt to use Twitter to drive up share prices until the SEC tells you they will fuck up your entire life if you try that shit again, rather than, say, selling cars and not fucking it up with bad leadership.

I mean, check this shit out:

Managing Elon was a huge part of the company culture. Even I, as a lowly intern, would hear people talking about it openly in meetings. People knew how to present ideas in a way that would resonate with him, they knew how to creatively reinterpret (or ignore) his many insane demands, and they even knew how to “stage manage” parts of the physical office space so that it would appeal to Elon.

The funniest example of “stage management” I can remember is this dude on the IT security team. He had a script running in a terminal on one of his monitors that would output random garbage, Matrix-style, so that it always looked like he was doing Important Computer Things to anyone who walked by his desk. Second funniest was all the people I saw playing WoW at their desks after ~5pm, who did it in the office just to give the appearance that they were working late.

People were willing to do that at SpaceX because Elon was giving them the money (and hype) to get into outer space, a mission people cared deeply about. The company also grew with and around Elon. There were layers of management between individual employees and Elon, and those managers were experienced managers of Elon. Again, I cannot stress enough how much of the company culture was oriented around managing this one guy.

How much money could you save — how much money could you make — if Elon Musk was relegated to the simple role of courting potential investors and nothing more? If actual engineers were in charge, doing the actual work? How much of a drain on the company’s ability to be profitable is Elon?

When McNerney says he wants to get more ‘leadership’ and less ‘expertise,’ he’s not saying the company actually is directionless and needs better steering, he’s referring to classes of people. He’s saying he wants more managerial overhead, but less people to manage — less people to tell him what to do.

In other words, he wants his job to be easier.

He wants to spend time doing the caveman-brained “fuck with the numbers to make value go up” bullshit. Anyone can do that. It’s not hard. There’s a reason why every smart person I know with an MBA considers their MBA worthless.

Sure, if you’re a short-term thinking, selfish, greedy asshole, maybe you’ll get lucky and live out your days pretty wealthy. Or you’ll end up like Bankman-Fried and Holmes: in fuckin’ jail.

It’s a similar issue we’re facing in Hollywood — around 2008–2011, when the business types started taking over and thinking they could use sabermetrics (the movie Moneyball was about this) to make all their decisions.

See, the thing about being a “leader” in reality, and not some delusional cloud cuckoo land for fucking MBA morons, is that you actually have to lead people, and that’s the opposite of what fellas like David Zaslav do (he just deletes things to play money games for a merger that was stupid as shit and hurt the shareholders of both companies — this should have been enough for people to vote him the fuck out with some really, really strict penalties).

Warner Brothers should make products that people want and then buy those products. Instead, HBO rebrands to Max (HBO was the brand that mattered, no one cares about ‘Max’), loses subscribers, tries to kill the properties people actually go to HBO Max for, kills properties as tax writeoffs, tries to prioritize the shit that killed the Discovery Channel… like… at no point does the core business of being fucking Warner Brothers, a company with an infinitely valuable portfolio — actually seem to come up.

Instead, Zaslav is one of the pathetic losers who lost to a bunch of average fuckin’ joes last year when those people went on strike.

At no point are these men actually providing leadership. They’re just in the leader class. They’re really no different than the Silicon Valley ‘founders’ that put a lot of value on ‘starting’ a company, whose entire business model is “the customers are idiots who invest in us and give us lots of money until the company collapses, we sell out, and we leave.”

Hell, Zaslav is a weird creep who doesn’t even understand his own product. He comes off as a fucking loser even in an article that’s clearly public relations puff to try and make him seem like he isn’t a greedy creep who sucks at his job.

In July 2019, the Zaslavs were on Geffen’s yacht, sailing around the Mediterranean with a crew that included Winfrey, King, and Lloyd and Laura Jacobs Blankfein. One night, they decided to screen the award-winning BBC comedy Fleabag, which was made by a production company that Discovery now owns but which Zaslav hadn’t gotten around to watching. A minute into the first episode, the group found itself in the midst of a hot and heavy sex scene. Pause! “So I put my hand up,” recalls Zaslav. “I go, whoa! So they stop it. And I said, ‘Okay, here’s the strategy. We either shut it off, or we put it back on and everybody only looks forward. We don’t look at each other until it’s over.’ ” (They opted for the latter.)

In fact, they’re thin-skinned morons who draw jeers and who lost a brutal PR battle and were genuinely shocked that nobody fucking likes them because they’re inept leaders. A real leader has his finger on the pulse of his people. A fucking incompetent shitsack is the one who’s taken by surprise. Everyone thinks they’re incompetent. No one with any serious understanding of this business thinks these people are good at their jobs.

In fact, the shareholders are starting to take notice, which may result in punishing Zaslav heavily as Warner Bros.’ stock continues to decline.

And yet…

They have aspirations of being Steve Jobs, but Steve Jobs, for all his bullshit, was obsessed with making products that actually worked and selling them to people who wanted them.

It’s telling, I think, that while a lot of modern business types I’ve spoken with, read interviews with, whatever, have obsessions with being Steve Jobs and the fantasy that being Steve Jobs provides, his biopic only made $4.4 million dollars, because nobody actually gives a shit about Steve Jobs, they just want to be as successful as he was.

Steve Jobs made Apple one of the biggest companies in the entire world by making sure that his devices were pleasing and easy to use, were must-have lifestyle products, and he catered, very heavily, to artists.

In fact, as the new boss, Tim Apple, as they call him, has pushed Apple towards being a luxury brand, Apple has begun to falter, finding itself embroiled in regulatory discourse (because rather than innovating on making valuable products, they’re trying to innovate on ‘new and exciting ways to create literal garbage by forcing you to constantly buy new shit’ with things like proprietary cables and non-replaceable parts). Apple users never really had respect (because no one respects a person for simply buying a product advertised to them), but Apple users are now actively disrespected for buying stupid, moronic shit like a $3500 VR headset that kind of sucks ass and is massively embarrassing.

Apple was better when it was focused on making things people actually wanted. While its stock is going up, its profile is beginning to crumble, and every single time that happens, the stock follows.

The executive class talks a big game about leadership and innovation and all of this goddamn shit. Bob Iger claims that his movies are suffering because of not enough executive control.

…there wasn’t as much supervision on the set … where we have executives there really looking over what’s being done.

He further argues against people who actually know how to do the job doing the job, saying:

Creators lost sight of what their №1 objective needed to be

I get it, you’re butthurt about losing your own personal Vietnam, dude, but you do not have a right to speak, not when…

Feedback on dailies and sequences comes from all over the place, including executives and producers that aren’t in explicitly creative roles, H said. “I’ve had entire sequences get blasted apart by someone who shouldn’t even be a part of the feedback process. Like, why do you get an opinion on this?”

Sam’s had similar experiences. “You get producers that say, ‘I want to be involved in the artistic process,’ and you’re like–” he makes a skeptical noise, “I don’t ask to look at your spreadsheets, man.”

Read enough about Disney, especially Marvel, and a recurring theme keeps coming up: execs come in, demand lots of changes that are stupid, time-wasting, and make no sense.

They don’t figure stuff out early enough. So they rewrite, redo, and fumble in the dark for a long time while we are doing the VFX.” This animator recalled a whole portion of an action sequence that hadn’t been storyboarded before postproduction. “It was just, ‘This hero avoids many things for this amount of time.’ Everything was blank. Basically, the studio said to the VFX artists, ‘Figure it out. Make it look cool.’ They had no idea what they wanted to do. Since the movies work so well, people think, Oh, well that’s the way to do it. That’s the hard part. There’s a better way that’s less stressful on the artist and less expensive for sure.

We’re getting stupid reshoots and fucked-up planning because of this shit. I know of an executive note that once expressed confusion that one character was larger than another. This was because the executive did not understand that objects closer to the camera appear bigger than objects further away. These are not exactly the brightest bulbs in the box.

These people don’t even suffer the consequences as much as they should. For instance, Victoria Alonso was singled out as a massive reason why Marvel’s production pipeline was so toxic. She got fired, not for making Marvel less money than ever, not for harming countless lives, but for breaking her contract with Disney by advocating for a project over at Amazon that she was trying to build her own brand on.

While Bob Iger and his friends were taking vacations for months at a time (not working or doing anything of value) and talking about how the industry needs more executives, he was losing his shareholders money by insisting on not ceding to the demands of people to be paid fairly, while he himself was massively overvalued considering that he really only diminished Disney’s value, as opposed to growing it.

Bob Iger’s own ego meant he couldn’t even do his actual job of making shareholder value go up, much less his ostensible job of running Disney. This is a man who isn’t just not valuable to Disney; this is a man who actively harms its value, a man so disconnected from reality that he’s described as shocked that people don’t like him when he says “we’ll never pay you fairly.”

I had a boss once who threatened to fire me because I stayed working late to help a teacher get some work done at the teacher’s request. I cost them nothing. There was a worry that their insurance might not cover me if I got hurt somehow while photocopying syllabi.

Meanwhile, dipshits like Bob Iger costs his company billions. Seems like he shouldn’t just get the boot, but people should be doing everything they can to tear him apart. If he was actually smart, he’d shut the fuck up, cut back as much managerial oversight, and let people who know their shit do their actual fucking shit.

Why the fuck does he still have a job? He can’t get the shareholders what they want. That much is plain. Instead, he’s out there trying to threaten writers with “we will crush you and you won’t have a home by Christmas” while losing worse than America did in Vietnam.

Which is really funny, because, you see… all these stupid motherfuckers keep falling prey to the exact thing that cost America Vietnam: The McNamara Fallacy.

Hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not pleasant, but like… think of me like a busker. I’d rather play a song on the street and get a few coins in a hat than just run a gofundme or something.

I, personally, can only do this with your support; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to get a second job, and as disabled as I am, that’s really not great. I have to spend between $145 and up to an entire Nintendo Switch’s worth of my income on medical care every two weeks. Seriously, it was $300 not too long ago. That’s an extremely difficult burden for me.

So it’s either do this or get a second job, and a second job would not be ideal given my current disability. So when you send me a tip, you’re not just helping a disabled writer like me, you’re helping tons of students, disabled people, and others without access. Thank you.

@forgetamnesia on venmo

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I wanna know the answers.

No more lies, executive class. I’m tired of hearing about how the world would be better if it were possible to give you more control than you already have. You’re at 100%, and the world is worse than ever before, to the point where you’re noticing it and calling your own problems “a full-scale depression.” You want to be essential by putting yourself in everyone’s path, but instead, you’re just in the way.

Let me tell you a story.

There’s a businessman, we’ll call him, uh, I don’t know, David-Bob Zaslav Iger, who’s been hired to run a farm. “Alright,” he says, “well, I’m going to maximize profits.” How does he do that? Well, he looks at the data. Data, after all, is scientific, right?

And Davey-Bobby here, he sees that people love buying soybeans. Last year, well, that’s what they made a lot of profit doing.

He looks out at the field and notices that one of them is currently not being used. “Well,” he says, “let’s plant some soybeans in that.” Then he says he’s gonna dig up the other fields, trick the government into giving them money by calling it a tax writeoff, and making some more soybeans over there too.

Seems like a good idea, right? People show they want soybeans, and they don’t show that they want the other stuff, and why would you let one of your fields lie fallow like that? They should all be making soybeans all the time, since that makes them the most profit.

Well, Robert McNamara thought the same thing. If he could make everything data-driven and scientific, it’d help the United States win the Vietnam war.

But when the McNamara discipline is applied too literally, the first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. The second step is to disregard that which can’t easily be measured or given a quantitative value. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. The fo[u]rth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

If you want to lose the Vietnam war, the first thing you do is discard what cannot be easily measured.

As you may note, the United States did not win. Nor did it win in Afghanistan and Iraq when Donald Rumsfeld tried the same thing in the early 2000s.

Why is that? Shouldn’t data help you make better decisions?

Well, there’s the obvious problem: Bungie, for instance, is an obsessively data-focused company. They make a lot of decisions based on data. I, for my part, am an expert in the field of making games. Bungie made a lot of mistakes when it came to the data, and you can see player dips after a lot of them.

For instance, there was a time when they decided players were picking one grenade too much, and they wanted players to pick the other grenades the same rate (why? because they decided, with absolutely no reasoning, that using something ‘too much’ meant it was strong, saying:

The Tripmine Grenade has been a dominant grenade choice for a while. It’s possible that this because it was the grenade that did everything: set a trap, stick it to an opponent, miss an opponent and end up setting a trap anyway. The original intent with this grenade was to be used as a trap, not a sticky, so we moved it back in that direction.

“it’s possible.” They didn’t know why it was popular (it’s fun, has good hit feedback, and is the only grenade that seems to actually do much — the others are less exciting and not nearly as fun to use), so they decided it must be too strong and good at everything, so it needed to be nerfed. Rather than asking if the other grenades sucked, they just assumed strength, so it got a nerf. The game got worse for no real reason.

The explicit, specific fun of that grenade was “unicorning,” where you throw it in a group of enemies, it sticks on a guy, he runs around, you watch it count down, and boom! It blows up. You know, one of the most fun things about the series that made Bungie big in the first place: Halo. It was just like Halo’s plasma grenade!

This was far from the only time Bungie would fuck this up; any time something became popular or interesting, it got a nerf. People would find the next most fun thing, and it’d get nerfed too. Bungie made so many decisions based on data, and look where they are now. They’re on track for a 45% revenue miss. Marathon isn’t just delayed, its director was replaced with a guy trying to turn it into a hero shooter, a failed-genre dominated by… well, basically just dead games these days. But, hey, it’s better than the previous Marathon pitch, at least. The upcoming expansion is in bad shape too.

Now, not to toot my own horn, but a while back, after Destiny 2 came out to crushingly-bad player response, I wrote a two articles for the now-defunct USGamer about Destiny. In these articles, I laid out what Bungie would need to do to succeed. When Forsaken released, wouldn’t you know it, Bungie did about 9 out of 10 things I asked them to do — though I’m sure they didn’t read my articles and make decisions based on that.

I’ve written about Destiny since then. And again. And again. Big Youtubers sent their fans my way, angrily telling me Bungie could do no wrong, but in the end, I ended up being proven correct.

Bungie, notoriously data-driven, keeps making decisions designed to keep players around while losing players. Me, notoriously research-driven, offered advice, and when they took actions that lined up with my advice (because, again, I do not have any evidence that they used me as a resource, only that when their decisions matched my unsolicited advice, they did well), and when they did not, they did poorly.

You see, a guy running a farm, like Davey-Bobby, looks at the data and thinks he sees the full picture. The problem is, he hasn’t got the expertise.

I often talk about that one-paragraph short story by Borges, the one where they made the most accurate map of the world, because as it turned out, a map like that would be useless because, in being so accurate, it must necessarily be the exact same size as the world it covers, making it impossible to be read or followed.

It is difficult to compress all the data you have into a map that is perfect, so you must rely on people to fill in the blanks. You know, expertise, the thing that mister Jimmy “at my direction, my company killed more people than Oklahoma City” McNerney of the Boeing company so vociferously rejected. We’re talking about a man who literally had an enemies list and it was all safety inspectors level of cartoon stupidity here.

So, if you were running a farm and decided to “make total use of our resources,” what you’d find is that, oh, maybe people don’t want soybeans that much — you didn’t see the whole picture — or maybe you’d find that a pest that likes soybeans eats all your crops. Or, worse yet, you’d find that none of your fields are growing because you didn’t let them lie fallow.

You see, one of the most important things, which is true of both plants and people, is that you’ve got to let them lie fallow for a while. A field cannot support the same crop forever. You must intentionally let the field lie empty, producing nothing… because fields are more like batteries. A field ‘charges up’ with nitrogen and other nutrients, and then, when it’s ready, you begin using it by planting crops in it. When you’ve used it up, you let it lie fallow, let it rest, and then you come back to it.

People are the exact same way.

A constant wave of tension

On top of broken trust, these fuckers see their brands as properties to be leveraged. “If people like superhero movies now, they’ll like superhero movies forever!” Instead, what we’re seeing is that people get tired and they abandon these brands, because brands are not property with value that goes up forever. Brands are fields that must lie fallow.

For a while, everyone wanted to make cowboy movies. Then they wanted to make war movies. Then detective movies. Eventually, by the 80s, they wanted to make Star Wars copies, because they were chasing trends, but very few of them actually found the success that Star Wars had. I mean, look, I love The Black Hole, but that was no Star Wars, you know?

To get the most out of a property, you don’t salt the earth with it — that’ll just kill your fields (the market). You be smart, like George Lucas was. He made three good Star Wars movies, then slowed it down. He let culture handle it — posted low-profile merchandise and books and expanded universe content that only the hardest of the hard core would care about, and then, fifteen years later, he brought Star Wars back, and it was huge.

Then he let it lie fallow again, sold it to Disney, and they immediately brought it back, again, about fifteen years later. It didn’t do so great because Disney froze it in time, but that’s a bit of a different issue, not really relevant to the current article.

but, since it’s interesting, here’s the brief idea: JJ Abrams made something that more or less copied the older movies. It was deliberately designed ‘for the fans.’ We can see this with the other unsuccessful side movie, Solo, which literally tells us why he’s called Han Solo and where he got his blaster from and everything else, and we can see this with Rise of Skywalker. Lucas’ success was because he was making something new every time. And that’s why the most successful Star Wars movie Disney made was, yes, The Last Jedi, which was fucking huge on home video by an obscene degree. Some jerks on the internet got mad (and were buying bots to leave negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes lol) but in reality, The Last Jedi was the most successful Star Wars property.

Audiences do not want the same thing for very long. My co-writer and dear friend Phillip Bastien, who is an expert in marketing and audience sentiment, has pointed out to me that nostalgia sits on a ten to fifteen year clock. Successful reboots tend to take time. Lots of time.

There’s a gag in The Simpsons where a disco-loving character named Disco Stu points at the data, claiming that as of 1976, disco record sales were climbing, and projected to keep climbing… forever. As some of you may know, Disco was all but dead by 1980, hence the joke in the episode, making fun at Disco Stu’s expense.

Executives are a lot like Disco Stu. They see numbers going up, and they expect it to go up forever.

A smart executive would say “okay, Marvel needs to take a breather. Star Wars needs to take a breather.” They’d look at their work and they’d go “okay, what blew up, what went wrong?”

They’d want to factor in the Sequel Latency Problem—a work tends to perform based on the previous work in a series. A strong opening work will release in a bigger sequel, but if that sequel isn’t as good as the original, then the third entry will perform worse.

But you can’t do this if you have to make more money every year.

If you put all your eggs in one basket and you drop the basket, what happens? Well, you don’t have any more eggs, that’s for sure. They’re splattered all over the fucking ground. Best leave ’em for ants, I guess, cause you sure as hell ain’t getting to eat ‘em.

There is no “people love soybeans and they will never stop loving them” when it comes to media. As Phil has also pointed out to me, while nostalgia operates on 15 year cycles or so, a brand can only last about ten years. After that, the brand starts dying.

When did Avengers: Endgame release? 2019. When did Iron Man begin the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 2008. Just about ten years.

And now, they keep releasing movies, and the movies keep underperforming, unless a very strong creative like Sam Raimi is at the helm, which is why he made the only truly huge post-Endgame marvel movie. Why? Because Sam Raimi is a fucking expert; you may be tired of superhero movies, but Sam Raimi is that kind of expert that the ‘leaders’ are jealous of — he knows the craft and he can do an amazing job with an amazing movie.

That’s the same reason why Top Gun: Maverick did so well that same year — it was an excellent movie made by people at the top of their game. As you may be aware, the latest Mission: Impossible did not do as well as Top Gun: Maverick. Why? It’s a respected brand, a reliable moneymaker, and it had Tom Cruise attached, so why did it fail where Top Gun succeeded?

Easy: Tom Cruise isn’t the brand, Top Gun isn’t the brand any more than Mission: Impossible is, but a really good fucking movie made by good craftsmen will get the audience, as long as you do a good job marketing it.

Mission: Impossible is following a stupid trend of “we are making a really bloated entry in the series and splitting it into two parts” started by, what, the last Harry Potter movie? Twilight? The Hunger Games? The Avengers? As you might be aware, this trend worked for adaptations of already existing stories that people already know about, but it does not work so well for, say, Mission: Impossible.

Those stories need to be stand-alone. If Top Gun: Maverick had released as Top Gun: Maverick: Part 1: The Chronicle of Goose’s Kid or whatever, nobody would give a shit.

It is essential that you only ever do this with a series if you’re adapting a heavily-anticipated work (Dune!) and not if you are creating new material in a property you own (Top Gun, Star Wars).

Okay, so far, here’s where we’re at:

  1. a business’s purpose is to make a product or provide a service…
  2. …to customers, who are human beings, who will make decisions based on their desires.
  3. And since humans are not simple machines, their reasons for buying your product are extremely complex, especially when it comes to entertainment, a business that will always make money and is fairly recession-proof, but won’t work if it isn’t entertaining.
  4. And humans get tired, like batteries drain and fields need to lie fallow. You cannot extract from them infinitely by inputting a predictable “entertainment value.”
  5. But, unfortunately for us, a lot of stupid motherfuckers are obsessed with ‘data’ and they keep making decisions that fuck them up because, as it turns out, that’s not how data works or should be used. It’s how we lost Vietnam, and why the board of Boeing has to step the fuck down.

There is only one way to run a successful, sustainable business, rather than one that burns too bright and burns the fuck out. There’s a way to succeed without disastrous consequences, to make more money than these fuckin’ bozos ever dreamed of: and that’s to make something people want to spend money on instead of fucking around with balance sheets and trying to convince yourself that makes you good at what you do.

You can’t just make the same thing over and over and over again and become successful, buddy. You gotta try new things.

Alright now, wasn’t that fun?

Let’s try something else. You’re probably sitting here going “But, Doc, in video games, the most valuable corporation is Valve. Valve does exactly what you say a company can’t do, and they’re one of the wealthiest corporations in the business.”


Someone else pointed out to me that FIFA and Madden are perennial best sellers that no one ever seems to tire from. Isn’t that also proof that my argument is incorrect?

Nope. But we should probably talk about why those things work, alright?

Let’s start with sports, because it’s shorter. The issue here is exclusivity — people are playing sports games for the fantasy of playing their favorite teams. A team is different than entertainment; when I tell you the story of She-Hulk winning the legal case of the millennium, that story has to be good as hell, because it’s entertainment.

With sports, your identity as a fan is tied to an institution. Maybe you’re from Philly, so you’re an Eagles fan, or, like me, you’re from Kansas City, so you get a sense of hometown pride when the Chiefs dominate the Super Bowl, right?

There is an ebb and flow; your identity is tied to the team’s success or failure, and the game is played by live, human actors, improvising on the spot. You’re following actual, real humans — Mahomes, Jordan, Pele — and watching them win or fail but always try their best.

This form of entertainment is exciting because you have no idea what is going to happen. In sports, a bunch of people in real time are putting everything on the line to try and outdo the other people. There is no storyteller. It’s real.

So… for most people, a fake football league playing the game does nothing for them. The joy of playing FIFA is that you’re playing real teams that compete in FIFA. It’s aspirational. We know Luke Skywalker is going to win, so the artist must go all out in conveying to us why Luke Skywalker is entertaining. In sports, we’re just hoping the people on ‘our’ side win.

So, since EA has all the licenses, people buy the games from EA. There is no competition — the NFL was furious that 2K Sports was discounting NFL games (because they were yearly releases) at $39.99 instead of the industry premium of $49.99, so they pulled the license and gave it to EA, who realized they could do that with everyone. EA’s goal is exclusivity via licensing.

Of course, look at how EA’s Star Wars games have been… lackluster compared to their sports game sales. With sports games, they’re the only people in town — everyone else has to use fake sports teams. With entertainment properties… people already know we can do better.

Sure, the awfully-written Star Wars space dogfighting game was kinda fun (though it didn’t hold a candle to Ace Combat, which outsold it by absolutely batshit insane amounts — Ace Combat is freakishly successful, apparently, shocking Bamco after its lengthy hiatus), and Jedi: Fallen Order did great (because who doesn’t want to play a not-as-hard-as-Souls swordfighting sci-fi adventure rom?), but the next Jedi game had such bad PC performance, apparently it’s not doing nearly as well.

Battlefront never had 4-player co-op, and the less said about the loot box debacle, the better.

The most exciting looking Star Wars game on the Horizon? Surprisingly, it’s Ubisoft’s Star Wars: Outlaws. Lucasfilm made a very good decision in taking exclusivity back from Electronic Arts. That kills competition. EA is just lucky to have a license that no one can really, like… challenge. I can’t prove to the NFL or FIFA I can make them more money than EA, because I can’t make a sports game that will succeed as well as a game with branding I’m legally not allowed to use, right?

And then there’s Valve.

Valve was, once upon a time, considered the best fucking studio in the whole world. The graphics wars of the early aughts were something that had to be seen to be be believed. For the longest time, Half-Life 2 (which was absolutely the best-looking game at the time, though I’d disagree that it was an exceptional shooter for a whole heck of a lot of reasons that I think most people would agree are fair if we had that discussion) was considered to be the best game ever made by magazines like PC Gamer. If Valve made a game, it was considered quality.

Now, I want you to know something: I fucking love Valve. Buuuuut… I am going to be critical of Valve here. I am a guy who would love to tour their offices, talk to Gabe Newell about the business of games, learn everything there is to learn about Valve. I like a lot about Valve. You might not think it after reading this, but I really, truly do.

I do, actually, like them. But I am trying to explain problems, and right here, right now, I am trying to explain to you why you, who may be asking me “why can’t I just be like Valve” cannot be Valve. So I’m going to sound critical here, but please don’t take me as a hater. Yes, I don’t love Half-Life 2, but so what? I think Half-Life and OP4 are two of the best games ever made, Portal’s a stone cold classic, Steam is a library I have 3500 games on, and the Steam Deck is one of the best things in gaming today.

So I’m going to talk about problems, but please don’t take this as me being unfair. I’m trying to explain why you can’t be like Valve, which means talking about problems you’d have to overcome to, well, be like Valve.

And unfortunately, even though Valve is wildly successful, and we’ll explain why in a minute, their star is waning too.

It’s just… they won’t die, even if they never made another game.

Now, I don’t really do sentiment analysis as much these days, but I do still have an eye for trends, and I’ve noticed over the past decade or more, as Valve broke the promise of Half-Life 2: Episode 3, as they said “Portal 2 might be the last single player game we make,” and as they suffered the company equivalent of brain drain (which should just be called brain drain, but that term explicitly refers to people leaving nations for other nations to become talent there, and not corporations), with remarkable people like Clint Hocking, Viktor Antonov, Kelly Bailey, Kim Swift, and Marc Laidlaw leaving… you can see as the public respect goes down. People… don’t respect Valve as much these days, outside of Valve-dedicated circles, but those are far smaller than you think.

Sure, Valve still has fans. Most of ’em are pretty rabid. While Valve hasn’t really done much to support modders (someone on Twitter once pointed out that was a very short period of time, and we’re further then from the entire length of time that period lasted), and has, in fact, done a lot of weird things against modders (arbitrarily changing how much you get if your mod gets in loot crates, trying to introduce paid mods where the people who do the work get the least cut, etc), there’s still a vibrant culture there, kept alive by studios like Facepunch.

When people want to start up a competing store, Steam fans do everything they can to lie about that store and tear it down. Look at how many people made up shit about Epic, like “it’s bad because it doesn’t have a cart” (it has for some time, and also, the Switch didn’t, but these people didn’t complain about that), “Epic sends your telemetry to China” (a racist redditor tried to say that partial investment by a Chinese company meant that any telemetry Epic sent was automatically spying for a foreign power).

Fun fact: someone did the work and found that Valve actually sends more telemetry about your computer to itself than Epic ever did. I see people still claiming Epic moneyhats exclusives (this isn’t true. Epic, for a period of less than a year, funded some games that were on Kickstarter as exclusives, and the issue there was people backed those understanding they were coming to Steam. Epic ceased that behavior. They have spent more time doing their regular publishing stuff, but that’s no different than any publisher out there).

The point I’m making here isn’t that there’s a problem with Valve — they can’t control their fans — but if you want to set up a store, well… you’re going to have to contend with that fanbase.

But that’s the fanbase for the store. If Epic can’t do it, if Microsoft can’t do it, if EA and Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red can’t do it… then you probably can’t either. So if you’re sitting there believing that you can run a company like Valve, you need to understand: Valve can afford this because it makes money on Steam. Do you have a Steam equivalent? Probably not.

You could release the best store in the world right now and most players would not switch because… the switching costs are high. Your saves are there. Your friends. Your screenshots. Most people would not give up a library they’ve invested decades of years and thousands of dollars in to rebuy all those games elsewhere.

So if you don’t have a Valve amount of money rolling in every day, you can’t make games like Valve does.

That said, after Valve’s Portal 2 announcement of “we probably won’t make more singleplayer games,” people don’t really expect Valve to be able to make amazing games anymore. No one’s holding their breath for Half-Life 3. Half-Life Alyx, made in part by members of the Firewatch team… came and went. You know what I hear about that? More people saying “we’re never getting In The Valley of the Gods, are we?” and not “you need to play Alyx.” One of the most storied series in gaming and people aren’t frothing at the mouth for it? Say it ain’t so. You could say “oh, well, that’s because VR isn’t big,” and you’d be right. So why’d Valve do it?

Pretty simple:

Valve makes money because they own the store. Valve is bigger than Playstation, Xbox, and Nintendo. They have more average users per day, week, month, and year than either ‘first party.’ They take more of a cut — commonly considered to be about 33% — than anybody else does, and they can do that because… what can you do? They offer lower rates to big clients — like Activision — but everybody else? You and me? The small indies? We’re stuck with a third of the entire game getting cut even before taxes.

We can’t take our ball and go elsewhere — Valve is around 80% of my sales for the simple reason that they were there first, and as we said above, most people have invested time and money into Steam that they can’t just switch on a whim, and why should they? There’s no reason to. Valve is the monopoly (“buh-buh-buh technically it’s a — “ shut the fuck up); you can’t do business in games if you aren’t releasing stuff on Valve.

Epic is the next-biggest store for us, but even it’s closer to 5% of sales than 50%. It’s good to be there — we make more money per copy of the game sold there because Epic has great rates — but we can’t exist as a company without being on Steam, and we can’t negotiate with them at all. As some indie friends put it to me, “you have to hit a specific, not-listed financial target before someone from Valve pays attention to you internally.” There’s a lot of unwritten rules like that.

But as a customer? Valve was there first, did a great job with Steam, and now they’re figuring out how to grow beyond that. That’s why they’re getting into hardware — so they can be the default there too. It’s smart business. I completely understand why Valve would want to do this and I can’t fault them for that.

Talking with a bundle site recently, I was informed that Valve was actively going out of its way to prevent indie developers from releasing their games in bundles. That’s… not good! It costs Valve nothing to let us generate keys; if we’re doing it, it’s because we need to make money. Trust me, I would never want to put my game on a bundle site if I could help it, but once a game reaches its end of life, that’s the best way to get one last hurrah out of it.

But Valve has a few other ways to make money; the obvious one is “video games. You make a game, people buy it, and you make money off of the sale. But because Valve owns Steam, and Valve distributes their games through Steam, Valve can… invent entire systems to support their games’ ability to make money. Some of those ways are… uh, uncomfortable to me, personally.

For a long, long time, Valve’s microtransaction system gives you a treasure chest you can’t open, and when influencers create gambling sites to lure children into spending money to buy loot directly, Valve finally had to stop it because it was enabling literal worldwide fraud. Even EA’s Battlefield key system wasn’t resulting in that. Valve put together an entire economic system and gamified it to get people to spend far more money than random loot boxes.

See, I might not want to buy a loot box in Genshin, but if I “win” a loot box in a Valve game… then it’s just sitting in my inventory, useless. Inviting. Waiting. Encouraging. “You wanna buy a key, right? You wanna know what’s inside…”

For a while, they were offering loot boxes that had assets created by random developers around the world — not employees, but kids with hopes and dreams of making things for games. They gave people a cut, and at one point, I recall a bunch of those modders being pretty upset when Valve dramatically reduced their cut, the number of times they could come up in loot boxes, and Valve gave itself a higher cut.

That’s not great! I don’t know the ins and outs of that, obviously, but I think someone should talk to Valve about that stuff. In an ideal world, it’s fine because there’s competition. Valve has no competition. Game devs cannot function without Steam unless they’re like… a well-established Japanese studio making small games for the Playstation and Switch only. But even that’s changing — more and more teams are bringing their games to Steam.

Gabe Newell said, at one point, that Valve would, ideally, turn Steam into an API where every single person in the industry could buy a game from any store — the labor and costs of hosting and running that store would go to the people doing the store part. You’d buy a game, and that would automatically unlock it on Steam (they even did it for a while on Humble — you didn’t buy keys, you bought a button that you could click to unlock the game on Steam).

Valve would become the ultimate tollbooth, taking a cut of every game ever, outsourcing a lot of work to other people. It’s what Silicon Valley tries to do these days, how Google and Facebook took over the ad economy. It’s the way to become the biggest business: become the default.

It’s just, 2003 was a different time. It’s harder to do that these days — the internet’s been fully corporatized; there’s no more land rush.

Now, okay, I don’t really like that on a personal level, because I believe a company that does that sort of thing gets lazy and falls apart, because nature always tries to find the simplest course of action to function, and humans are natural creatures.

This is what we call “perverse incentives.”

Back in the 1800s or so, when the British had no right to be in India but were nevertheless, the British decided that snakes had to go. They just weren’t big fans. Heck, the story “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is literally about a heroic mongoose that kills snakes during this time period.

So they said “okay, hey, anyone who brings us a dead snake gets a reward.”

Well, a lot of poor people went “okay, so… the more snakes we give you, the more we profit, right?”

The British, being idiots, said “yes, absolutely.”

And the people they were paying went “ALRIGHT, SNAKES, GET TO FUCKIN’.”

And they started breeding as many snakes as humanly possible. The goal was to reduce the amount of snakes. The result increased the amount of snakes in the world, because people wanted money.

Remember how we talked about how business types try to reduce everything to the simplest available metrics and data, and how that was bad? Well, one of the things these guys love the most is “how much money did you make for us?”

Now, the thing about Valve is that Valve actually bases your ability to stay at the company by ineffectively stack-ranking them. I read a few years ago that the predominant determining factor in stack-ranking at Valve is “how much money do you make the company?”

A few years ago, Valve’s employee handbook ‘leaked’ and made Valve sound like an amazing place to work. That said, I once worked with this dude on a project in about 2016, who insisted that we follow Valve’s handbook because that would make us “so much better.” What he actually wanted was to do whatever he wanted with no accountability. He abused some people on the team, left, and then spent years trying to start whisper campaigns about us. As you can probably guess, I’m not a big fan of flat management; it lets assholes hide abuse because there’s no chain of responsibility.

Descriptions of any flat management studio from people who’ve worked there and reports on their efficacy indicate that without a proper managerial framework, cliques form. The science on this appears to agree, from what I’ve read so far (I’m studying this topic because I want to do what’s best for my employees). In a flat structure system, if you’re in the clique, you’re good. If you’re not, you’re out. If you make them lots of money, you get to keep your job, so people tend to work on the things that are guaranteed to work.

Valve should be the studio taking the most risks because risks don’t hurt them at all, but all the news we have from the inside, as exemplified by the PC Gamer article, indicates that they shy away from risk to make sure that they’re considered making valuable contributions to the company.

One of the most interesting ways you could see it seeping in was when people specifically did riskier projects near the beginning of the year,” a former Valve employee told People Make Games. “And then they’d go back to the more well-known ones as it gets closer to review time because recency bias would make people focus on that stuff.

When McNamara was told he wasn’t considering what the people he was literally bombing may have felt about his actions, he wrote that down, then erased it, and said that since the feelings of the Vietnamese people couldn’t be measured, they didn’t matter.

In Hearts and Minds, the best Documentary on the Vietnam War that I’ve ever seen, the most heartwrenching scene occurs near the end, when a farmer is grieving, breaking down at the misery inflicted upon him.

“Take it back to the United States,” a farmer pleads, “tell them what happened. My daughter is dead.”

“I can’t measure it,” said McNamara, “so it must not be important.”

Fuck you, McNamara. May you and Kissinger burn forever.

Now, obviously, I’m not saying that what Valve does is as bad as the Vietnam War, but I think… when I look at every business that does this, and I look at the human cost, every person who loses their job, who suffers, all because people are saying “if I can’t easily measure it, it must not matter,” then I think… I think we can at least learn from the most extreme example. This is how bad it can get if unchecked. Do I think Valve will firebomb children? No. I do not. Do I think the entire industry — all of us — could prosper if Valve handled things differently? Oh yeah, absolutely.

This is very much one of those “I think the best way to figure this out would be to actually run an experiment inside of Valve” things but I don’t imagine that Newell and the rest would want to do something so fuckin weird as satisfy my scientific curiosity. They’re making billions every year; why should they change?

Metrics are McNamara Fallacied to hell. Money can be easily measured, so there’s no reason to try to measure things that can’t be measured, like “what is people’s sentiment around Valve?” or “how can we get people to trust Valve to make quality games?”

So, the way the picture has been painted, repeatedly, over the years, goes like this:

“I’m told that Valve would almost certainly have shipped more games, not necessarily better ones but definitely more, had it adopted a traditional company structure that doesn’t allow employees to walk or roll away from projects as easily,” Bratt says. “But ultimately Steam’s success has meant Valve’s income has not been dependent on the next game it ships in a very long time.”

I said something similar when I wrote an article initially titled “Why We’ll Never See Half Life 3” but then some dude yelled at me and made me change the title because “if they do make it, Kotaku will look bad.” Well, that was nearly a decade ago, and we’ve still never seen Half-Life 3. In fact, the core point of my article — that Eli was the primary driver of Half-Life 2’s plot — was sidestepped by Valve telling a story before Eli died.

I explained it like this: the reason narrative mod projects almost never ship and competitive mod projects ship a lot is because competitive products are fairly easy to make without a lot of leadership. People can just kinda do whatever they want. Make this or that weapon, asset, level, and people will make it work. As long as you understand the core rules of the game, that’s easy.

At corporate scale, you get Valve, a company that no longer makes the classics like Portal and Half-Life. Instead, Valve only really has competitive games where the creative heavy lifting was done by the mod teams (Valve’s big three games: Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, and Counterstrike 2, are all games that fans initially created themselves, and Valve picked up and turned into commercial products) and those pair really well with Valve’s management structure.

Every new idea we hear about — Stars of Blood, for instance — dies, canceled and forgotten, because making projects is extremely hard work, and it’s much easier to work on a project where you have the ‘rules’ laid out and you’re just building content for it, which is why Valve is more known by some as “the studio that makes hats” than a studio that makes games.

Through its management structure, it appears Valve optimized itself out of making anything other than multiplayer games. When we get the occasional “Aperture Science test game for Steam Deck or VR” or Half-Life Alyx… they don’t really do much for the industry anymore. It’s Valve using its existing branding to try and advertise other things — notably hardware.

(Also, just throwing this out there: let’s say you’re working at Valve and you see hate speech. You start banning people. Well, that’s costing Valve money, right? Someone at Valve might suggest you’re a negative value add to the company. You can’t really measure how many people are driven away by hate speech being on your store, but you can measure customers who you boot, right? It’s hard to measure, but I have seen data that indicates that yes, in fact, chasing bigots away actually makes you more money overall. But how do you prove that? It’s very hard!)

Some people argued with me; they said “but Valve does VR, Valve does the Steam Deck. That’s innovation! You can’t argue with that!”

Fuck yeah, dude, and I love that shit. Again, I am discussing issues I see that may be harming Valve. I am doing this not to shit on Valve, but because man, I’d love to talk to Gabe Newell about this and see if there are ways we could actually make Valve a better place. I like Valve again, remember? I’d love to ship a game with Source 2. There’s a lot of amazing people at the studio!

I envision a world where Valve is living up to its full potential, and it excites me. I want that! I want to see a Valve that’s successful. And they are successful, because they have Steam, but I want to see all that massive potential that’s just sitting there making profitable multiplayer games try the kind of things that attracted talent like Viktor Antonov or Kim Swift in the first place.

And… well, that’s the thing. Valve has fallen into the Blizzard trap of “we’ll release it when we’re ready,” but Blizzard is more a game developer than a storefront; and they’ve been fallling apart, their games suffering, fanbase suffering, employees suffering — because of this approach. Blizzard can’t do it, and Valve can only because they never have to worry about running out of money. Is it actually good for Valve? How do you measure it?

Valve has Steam. Valve gets 1/3 of every game that goes through there, and they make, I guarantee you, millions every single day.

So Valve can sit there, and they can claim they’re following the data and McNamara Fallacying the whole time. Valve can go for years without new game releases because the games might make money, but Steam will keep them going.

You cannot be like that guy who tried to take over the game project I was on and say “emulate Valve.”

Valve is… like Destiny. Destiny is a game that is wildly successful (or was, until they started datafucking it to death), but every other game that copies Destiny’s loot system dies a horrible death. Why? Because that loot system hurts Destiny too (it was the core reason of a massive exodus a few years back), but Destiny has other reasons that it’s successful. It’s the monkey on Destiny’s back, not an asset. Everyone who copies that design fails.

And if you copy Valve, you will die too, because you don’t have Steam.

Like we said before, that’s why Valve’s getting into hardware. It’s smart business; Valve wants to be the first to market in VR and handhelds too. Become the default so that all the purchases pass through you and you get a cut.

Make so much money that you can fail forever and never have to worry a day in your life. Waste all the potential you’ve got to make amazing things because you don’t have to worry about quality.

Blizzard and Valve have both, at various times, had employees say the secret to their success is that they will spend lots of time trying to find the fun. The reality is, they have lots of money and will make games that are a lot like what other people are doing, but with way more polish because they had a very big warchest full of money to ensure they can keep developing stuff.

As you’ll notice, as soon as both studios started saying they could do that… they did… and stopped shipping games. And when they did, sure, sometimes those games do pretty well, but… it’s certainly not the games that built the brand.

“We’ll release it when we’re ready” is a thing I’ve heard big studios that succeeded say, but they always say that after a project that had actual deadlines shipped, on a project that had those actual deadlines.

Then, invariably, the team that does that wastes inordinate amounts of time polishing games with no significant benefit, and the game comes out on the strength of the game that shipped on a deadline (Diablo 2) and the game that releases — the “we’ll ship it when it’s ready” game — ends up a mess that needs rebooting (Diablo 3). It’s a fantasy, a post-hoc explanation for success that isn’t actually true. Shipping on deadlines works. “We’ll get to it one day” rarely results in a game that matters to the players.

Would any of Valve’s big multiplayer games be big if they didn’t have Steam? Hard to say. Steam is built to funnel players into playing those games. Steam gives those games advertising space that other games don’t get. Nothing wrong with that — it’s their store and their right — but it does mean it’s difficult to tell if just making identical games that aren’t on Steam would give that level of traffic.

Nothing can hurt Valve, so Valve can make as many mistakes as it wants. It can McNamara Fallacy itself to death, and it can never really die, because too much money courses through it, because it is, in fact, the best store out there.

It’s not really possible to compete.

So, if you want to datafuck your way through this McNamara bullshit, you can, but to do it, you have to have a way to never, ever fail.

One person responded to a twitter thread of mine saying “well, you could just make a new Steam.” I said that would be impossible. They said something like “nah, you’d just have to have all the features that 20 years of R&D provides, you’d have to be able to import everyone’s existing library and saves to Steam…” and in their second tweet, they started faltering. So I gently asked them “realizing it’s impossible, right?” They went “yeah, if I’d written the third tweet, I would’ve said I get your point now” or something.

It’s not really possible to make a new now. Amazon controls the market. Their business model designs on undercutting you. To get into that space, you need far more money than the $300k that Jeff Bezos took out to grow his company. He had the timing right.

Valve is the same way.

You cannot be Valve. To be Valve, you have to own Steam. Unless you can own Steam, the McNamara Fallacy will be a problem you face. There’s just no way around it.

Valve focuses a lot on data, like a lot of other companies that aren’t really out there shipping amazing games regularly. Valve gets to do that because they have Steam. Blizzard got so top heavy that Microsoft bought it and had to kill yet another one of their “we spent more than half a decade on this game with no end in sight” projects. Blizzard’s most successful new IP was just a direct rip of Team Fortress 2 after the much more ambitious Project Titan died.

Bioware’s in the same boat, a once-legendary studio with an insane run of Baldur’s Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age… and then they started hiring fans, started doubling down on their worst tendencies… and you can see the cracks start to form.

Mass Effect 2 feels good until you realize the plot’s a loose rip of The Dirty Dozen (right down to the fact that there was an extra room on the ship for the final character in the ‘dozen,’ Kasumi, a DLC character) and the cutscenes are shot-for-shot rips from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek 2009. The writing takes a nosedive — the people leading Mass Effect like Drew Karpyshyn were working on The Old Republic, an MMO that… really, really struggled on launch — and then Dragon Age 2 releases in a disastrous state. Mass Effect 3 was… okay, but had an ending so bad that gamers pressured Bioware to literally rewrite the ending in an expansion.

Dragon Age Inquisition sold extremely well, but… Dragon Age 4 has entirely fallen apart, people like Laidlaw, Knowles, and Gaider are gone. Mass Effect Andromeda was a fucking mess (talking to someone who was working on the gameplay at the time, a few months before ship, he told me “we should have never used Frostbite, man”), and Anthem was a disaster (that, hey, copied Bungie’s loot system! Like I said, no game that copies that system succeeds because nobody else is making gameplay on par with what Bungie can do).

It went from a studio constantly making new, amazing things to a studio that just. Kept. Making. The Same. Things. And they started losing the experts who knew how to make things and started bringing in people whose job it was to simply make more of the thing.

They didn’t let their fields lie fallow. They datafucked themselves to death.

I can(’t) tell you how to make it

No matter what I do, how hard I try, it all comes back to this: a lot of people got into the business to do the business. They found the numbers that were easy to follow, easy to measure, and they started chasing that. They bred snakes to make snake-death bounties, but the result was just creating more snakes than ever.

Boeing killed more people than Timothy McVeigh. Bob Iger and David Zaslav are destroying Disney and Warner Bros. Valve has stopped innovating at making games, instead preferring to find new ways to make more money because that’s apparently how you keep your job there. Blizzard basically only exists because Microsoft saved their ass by buying them out and because of their old WoW Warchest.

At Naughty Dog, before The Last of Us II released, a senior animator who’d recently left (and they tried to violate labor law by withholding his final check because they were trying to make him sign shit he didn’t have to sign) said “a more senior team would have shipped this game a year ago.”

With all the news lately about how Sony’s development practices aren’t sustainable because of insane costs, it’s ridiculous to hear that inept fuckwits like Neil Druckmann are going around demanding changes and barely managing to put together games with bloated budgets and ridiculous timelines.

I heard nothing but nightmares about working at 343, largely due to management’s lack of respect for what few employees it did have. Someone told me a name management had for its contractors. I can’t remember what it was now, but it was derogatory. That shouldn’t happen. Jesus Christ, that shouldn’t happen.

A common refrain in every failure, from Marvel to Warner Brothers to Boeing, was this: “Leadership doesn’t know what they want,” and “leadership doesn’t trust the people who know what they’re doing to do their jobs.” It’s a deadly combination — people who try to use easy data to justify making decisions when they don’t know the first thing about a product, because they’re too busy numberfucking and datafucking to try to make number bigger, results in every one of these companies getting worse.

It’s not that games are worse, it’s that leadership fucking sucks.

Jimmy McNerney got one thing right: there is an issue with not enough leadership, but the problem is, these fuckers think that having the position is what makes you a leader, not doing the actual leadership.

Fun fact, a long while ago, Boeing actually did a study, and they found that it takes four years for a new hire to get up to speed. Four years. Granted, making an airliner is one of the most difficult tasks in human history, but still, it takes time.

One of the worst guys I ever knew in games, a big famous wholesome games guy who hated disabled people, once told me that I should never hire any employees. Just contractors. Change ’em ever project, that way we could cut costs.

His games… don’t really make money, and their reviews aren’t so great outside of the people he’s conned into thinking he made a bunch of original ideas (they’re mostly pitches other people made while he was in the room. I know because five of them are mine). He sees people as machines that build programs for him to make a profit off of. He’d read an article about a guy who made a ton of little arcade games and he figured, hey, if I can just pay people to do that for me, I can keep growing until I have a hundred games on Steam all making me a little bit of money. Maybe I can make a hundred grand a year.

Me? I’m talking to people about millions of dollars for my next projects. Why? Because I keep people around, I help build their expertise, I make sure we share our knowledge, I am building a cohesive unit.

Because that’s the secret of it all. You may not be able to measure it, but… I mean, you read my piece on auteur theory, right? While guys like Bob Iger actively try to get the press to argue against it and claim that valorizing one specific person is a bad idea — you’ll note auteur theory never applies to people like Bob, only creatives, and I mentioned Bob literally shit talking creatives here, claiming you need more execs to babysit them, even though all the information we have shows that the fewer executives involved, the better — but if you actually read about auteur theory, do you know what you learn?

You learn that auteur theory is a response to a question, which is “why can I recognize certain artists in their work?” and the answer to that question, at least, the one auteur theory provides, is this:

You can recognize an artist because they like certain topics and because they tend to work with the same people.

You see, an auteur is an organizing force, an actual leader, and one people like to follow. Until she died from heatstroke on a hike, Sally Menke edited every one of Quentin Tarantino’s films. Thelma Schoonmaker edits all of Martin Scorsese’s. I’m not a big fan of him, but Chris Nolan tends to work with a lot of the same actors because they like working with him.

An auteur is a person people like to work with, because the auteur treats them well and leads them well. An auteur is both leader and expert. “Leadership” isn’t a role, it’s a task that must be performed, and guys like Iger and McNerney aren’t fuckin’ doing that shit, which is why I think McNerney and every Boeing CEO since has more blood on his hands than just about anyone alive today.

James Scott, the director of agrarian studies at Yale, a specialist in things like “why humans do shit” and how domesticating grain is why we have last names (it’s a long story, that’s what the book Against the Grain is about), told a story in one of his books about how a bunch of European scientists went to Africa.

The scientists said “hey, we know more than you. We have the data, the intellectual property, whatever. We know that if you put plants like this, you can grow effectively.”

The African farmers, who knew their biomes and microclimates much better than the scientists, said “that won’t work.” The Europeans forced them to do it the European way.

The farms all failed.

Why? Well, as it turned out, the plants in Africa that the farmers had been growing had symbiotic relationships. The little ones grew really well at the roots of the big ones, and somehow — it’s been a few years since I read this — faciliated the growth of the big ones too. Some soil exchange shit if I recall correctly.

The Europeans more or less wanted “more farmland to make things we can ship back home.” There was no market for the African plants. But the African plants were suited to that climate, and the European plants were not. The arrogance of the scientists, presuming they had the data, led to a McNamara Fallacy Event of disastrous proportions.

(Scott talks a lot about how people like to use grids to organize and control structures that might not best be organized in grids. But it’s really good for collecting tax revenue)

That article I linked at the start of this piece? Suicide Mission? It describes a similar situation:

Boeing had come under the spell of a seductive new theory of “knowledge” that essentially reduced the whole concept to a combination of intellectual property, trade secrets, and data, discarding “thought” and “understanding” and “complex reasoning” possessed by a skilled and experienced workforce as essentially not worth the increased health care costs.

All of these people chased the data. They said “we don’t need anyone, we’re playing a different game” because they were.

It’s… a bit like destroying your manufacturing facilities in an RTS so you only have the high-level facilities that manufacture more expensive goods. It sounds like a great idea at first, getting more of your land back so you can use it to build more advanced facilities… but… then you run out of the materials needed to build the expensive shit.

Short term, number go up. This is good. Long term… you run out of shit to build. Planes fall out of skies, people stop using your service because you keep making eight episode shows. The shows get worse, less entertaining, less desirable because now that the shows are reduced cost, you’re not giving writers chances to grow into being showrunners, a massive crisis facing Hollywood right now. If you have no showrunners, you have no actual leadership — the people who do the actual job, not executives.

David Simon, of The Wire, one of the greatest television shows ever made, a show that made HBO what it is today, had this to say:

SIMON: Of course. I can entice somebody who is a good writer, who knows how to write dialogue and move pages and can write for a television show that is complex and sophisticated and, you know, can sustain itself narratively over 12 episodes, if I can offer them some decent employment. But if a studio comes to me and says, look, we’re just going to have a mini room, you know…

SHAPIRO: People might not be familiar with the term mini room. Explain that.

SIMON: The preproduction room that might go six or eight or 10 weeks or maybe only three weeks. And they say, give us all your ideas and, oh, by the way, then go off on your own and write a script. Or they might not even say write a script ’cause there’s money in the script fee, too. They might say, thanks for your ideas. We’re not hiring you, but thanks for participating in our room. Go with God. Nobody who wants to make a living writing television is going to be able to be sustained that way. You can’t live on three weeks’ salary. That’s what’s happening now. When I came on on “Homicide,” a network show that had 22 episodes, I had 30 weeks of employment. I can live on that. I can have a career. I can actually seriously consider writing television for a living. I offer what’s available on these shorter-run shows now to writers — I can’t sustain them.

SHAPIRO: So you’re arguing writers should be paid by the time commitment rather than by the episode.

SIMON: Good news — it’s called term employment, and that is what this strike is about. It’s saying, look, hire people for a certain amount of time to do the work and have them there on set and afterwards in editing when writing is happening. Some of the most fundamental decisions about writing are in editing or in reconceptualizing a scene because you’ve lost a location or because an actor is struggling with a line. That’s writer’s work, and we do it on set. It’s why television was able to get to the place of sophistication that it did.

So you need people, and you need to keep working with those people. Scorsese’s best movie isn’t his first with Thelma Schoonmaker, you know? He keeps getting better, because people are gardens. You have to nurture them, tend to them, help them grow.

You can’t datafuck this, not if you want to succeed.

The only people who can survive repeated failures are the people running platforms and stores. If you aren’t doing that — and it’s impossible for you or I to go into our garage and start a new Apple, because instead of competing with nobody for the personal computer or games console, we’re competing with the biggest, most stable companies in the world, with research and development fortunes that will smother us alive.

I want to build a new computer? Tough shit, Apple bought all of TSMC’s chipmaking time, so I can’t even source the chips I need to get started.

There is no such thing as an inherently valuable media property. You cannot simply make a Mass Effect right now and have it make the social and cultural impact that it did back then. It must be one of the best games ever made, or it’ll be another Andromeda, viewed as a failure that nearly killed the series, because Andromeda was an attempt to stuff more Mass Effect down the audience’s throat when the audience needed a fucking break.

Same thing with Marvel. Unfortunately, Endgame is a really good endpoint (I mean, not really, it’s a shitty movie) for most people. The story feels ‘done.’ There’s very little ache for more. These movies are now making way less than they need to in order to be successful. It’s been ten years — the brand’s time is up. The field must lie fallow. It must recharge.

It might have gotten additional life if the people who knew how to make it got to make it, but they got sidelined and treated like, well, dogshit:

The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation all around. One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself — just the sheer number of movies it has. It sets dates, and it’s very inflexible on those dates; yet it’s quite willing to do reshoots and big changes very close to the dates without shifting them up or down. This is not a new dynamic.

I remember going to a presentation by one of the other VFX houses about an early MCU movie, and people were talking about how they were getting “pixel-fucked.” That’s a term we use in the industry when the client will nitpick over every little pixel. Even if you never notice it. A client might say, “This is not exactly what I want,” and you keep working at it. But they have no idea what they want. So they’ll be like, “Can you just try this? Can you just try that?” They’ll want you to change an entire setting, an entire environment, pretty late in a movie.

Gizmodo presents a similar problem:

Hector has seen massive sequences scrapped within a week of delivering shots that took two or three weeks to build out. “The entire vision will change completely,” he said. “And I get that. You want your directors to have control of the final product. But from the artists standpoint, you need a direction to go in. And Marvel has this very harsh way of communicating with the vendors where they’re very cynical and very, very rude. As if you should be lucky to be receiving constant revisions and notes from them.”

Sources also stated that this constant vision shift feels driven by the egomaniacal ability to demand changes and see them acquiesced to, rather than considering the kind of changes that will actually affect the story. “Nobody is holding Marvel accountable,” H said. “So they don’t care. They’re like, ‘Fuck you guys. We can make as many changes as we want and you just have to deliver it.’” These changes can be major: Sam described an incident where an actor was filmed in a practical suit and the studio decided it was the wrong suit. “And you have to replace their entire body and just leave their head in every shot.”

All this is done without adjusting the bottom-line of the bid, which means that studios usually can’t hire more artists during crunch time or else risk that single-digit profit percentage going into the red. Continually asking for adjustments, changes, and edits to the shots is called getting “pixel-fucked,” because the edits to shots become more and more minute until artists are literally editing a single pixel in a shot and sending it off for re-approval. And every time an artist gets pixel fucked, it usually ends up costing the VFX studios money.

The erratic direction of Marvel movies leads to erratic results. That’s why you see incredibly sharp and realistic VFX work in one scene, and then two minutes later, the VFX work looks choppy and rushed. Because in a lot of cases, it is.

So… what should you do?


Forfeit the game

before somebody else
takes you out of the frame
and puts your name to shame
cover up your face
you can’t run the race
the pace is too fast,
you just won’t last

Every single section of this article was a linkin park joke. Title and first sentence are lyrics from various Linkin Park songs. I did this because I always try to have a little fun with an article, and my NFT articles were explicitly a Jay-Z/Linkin Park reference, and I wanted to have a bit of a callback to that.

But, jokes aside, seriously, that’s the answer. Forfeit the game, execs. Because, you see, every single time an exec comes in and says “we’re going to do what McNamara did to lose the Vietnam War” because they’re focused on short term growth and not long term sustainability, it invariably fails. Sometimes they get off. Other times, they go to jail for 11–25 years.

When Boeing made money, it was run by engineers. It made good product, and customers knew they could trust the brand. Now that Boeing’s run by businessmen, all it ever does is take more human lives than terrorism does. What good does any businessman offer? All they do is mismanage companies chasing after the perverse incentives. They’ve lost the plot.

The world would be so much better if the people running the companies understood that products people want are what matters. If you’re a businessman and you can’t do that, you’re not even good enough to walk through the front door.

Hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar. Obviously the biggest thing would be to just give me several million dollars to get more games off the ground.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not pleasant, but like… think of me like a busker. I’d rather play a song on the street and get a few coins in a hat than just run a gofundme or something.

I, personally, can only do this with your support; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to get a second job, and as disabled as I am, that’s really not great. I have to spend between $145 and up to an entire Nintendo Switch’s worth of my income on medical care every two weeks. Seriously, it was $300 not too long ago. That’s an extremely difficult burden for me.

So it’s either do this or get a second job, and a second job would not be ideal given my current disability. So when you send me a tip, you’re not just helping a disabled writer like me, you’re helping tons of students, disabled people, and others without access. Thank you.

@forgetamnesia on venmo

$docseuss on cashapp



Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.