So now I’ve told my story. It didn’t end with a bang, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I realize this might be a bit of a let-down for the reader. We had all of this buildup of stress and tension, only to have the story end without any fireworks. Not only did Chekhov’s gun never go off, but it turns out Chekhov pawned it halfway through the second act, and anyway it was just a replica. While this makes for a dud of an ending, for me it was a tremendous relief. I’m very glad I didn’t have to live through any fireworks.
But as a way of artificially creating a sense of having some kind of denouement, let’s try to figure out what I learned. These events left a huge impression on me, and that has shaped how I view business, leadership, and accountability. In turn, that has shaped a lot of the articles I’ve written over the years.
What Went Wrong?
Like most of the other dot-coms, the virtual mall guys built something nobody wanted or needed, and it went bust. I can’t say for sure what went wrong at the top, because I never had a clear picture of who owned what or which people were in charge of which others. I couldn’t see anything going on above my bosses.
But from my viewpoint in the trenches it seems pretty clear that everyone embraced a fundamentally flawed idea to put a layer of videogame on top of a regular web store, and then tried to do it in too much of a hurry. Lots of business types jumped in, thinking that their previous experience at running companies would see them through in this new frontier. Their weakness was that they were so uninformed about technology that they couldn’t see just how serious their knowledge deficit was. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.
I think the idea of shopping in a game world is a bad one for all the reasons I’ve talked about. But if you were going to do it, you would have needed a lot more time than anyone ever considered spending on it. Everyone thought the big challenge was to design the buildings and build the space, but that stuff was never that big a deal. I say this as the guy who was initially in charge of building it. The work I was doing was so much less important for success than the work nobody was doing.
The real challenge of building this sort of experience would be working out how to make it intuitive, reliable, and convenient for people. How can we make shopping fun? What can we do to entice people to enter the space in the first place? What parts of the experience will frustrate or confuse? How can we get people to engage with the space so they’re interested in showing up even when they’re not specifically looking to buy something? I’m usually not big on focus groups, but this is one case where using a focus group makes some kind of senseGood focus group: “Does this user interface confuse you?”. Bad focus group: “Do you like this character design?” Don’t asks focus groups for creative input. They’re not artists.. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in this context a focus group would count as R&D, and their feedback would be a company asset.
It would take a long time to gather this data. It would take months of speculation, experimentation, and observation to work out what the final product should look like. In the meantime, you’d need a stable cashflow to support the R&D. A good way to do that would be to open a simple web-based store and get that working. Get your databases, suppliers, and distribution networks in place so they’re already running when your virtual mall is ready for beta.
I realize that nothing I’ve said above is particularly profound. This is just a list of sound businesses practices. The bosses didn’t mean to abandon them. They just made the deadly assumption that they could figure this stuff out as they went along. They assumed that because they were good at running all these other businesses that they should be able to jump into this new industry and enjoy the same level of success. I’m willing to bet they tried to make a virtual world that worked like a conventional retail space because they came from a retail background and that’s what they understood.
While this experience isn’t the first thing that taught me to question the conventional wisdom of corporate structures, it is the most personally significant. If you’ve ever wondered why I’m so keen to criticize EA and Ubisoft or why I spent so many years second-guessing everything John Riccitiello did, this probably explains it. People tend to assume the people at the top know what they’re doing. Some people assume these seeming-idiotic moves must make sense from some higher perspective.
If they do something that seems foolish or destructive to us plebs, then it must be because of some wisdom they have that we don’t, right? It’s just too strange to think that someone might be at the helm of a company and be fundamentally unqualified for the job. But it happens. It’s possible for them to be so ignorant about what they should be doing that they don’t even realize they’re making a mistake at all. It’s like being the captain of the Titanic, except not only is his ship sinking, but he has no idea there’s anything wrong until he notices his shoes are wet.
The leadership of a company sets the values. They establish the company culture, decide who their advisers will be, and set the direction for what products they will make and how they’ll get made. You can’t do these things if you don’t understand the business you’re in. You can’t just tell your underlings, “We’re committed to making world class games!” and expect them to make that happen. You have to actually understand what it takes to create a world class game. I’m sure John Business was very dedicated to making a successful online store. The problem wasn’t a lack of commitment. The problem was that he didn’t know how to get there.
When I complain about games being EA-ified, a common defense is that, “EA didn’t make them do that! The developer chose to that for themselves.” Whether we’re talking about adding multiplayer nobody wants, or cutting out bits of a game to be sold as DLC, or streamlining out key features to make a game more like the standard tentpole shooters of the day, there are lots of decisions that come from the developers. This leads people to exonerate the EA leadership.
It’s true, the people at Maxis did indeed choose to turn their fundamentally single-player game into an online disaster. But they did so because their leadership had embraced an overly simplistic and wrong-headed model of how gaming workedThis links to my own blog. I’d rather link to the source article, but Gamespot’s links have rotted away. That’s fine. I’m sure they’ll get the hang of this internet contraption one of these days.. Yes, Maxis incorrectly thought that multiplayer would improve Simcity. But they thought so because that’s what their bosses told them. We tend to trust the smart, rich, successful leaders above us, so if they say everything will be multiplayer someday, it’s easy to assume they just see farther than the rest of us. When John Business says that virtual malls are the future, it’s easy to believe it because he’s got a track record of knowing what he’s talking about.
And even if you don’t really believe in the vision – even if you think that virtual malls are a bad idea or SimCity is a fundamentally single-player experience, you’re likely to go along with the plan out of basic self-preservation. If you deviate from the plan and the product does poorly, then management might punish you. But if you’re toeing the company line? It doesn’t matter how the game does. Your boss isn’t going to indict you for embracing his vision. If management doesn’t understand their knowledge deficit then bad ideas will live on, even long after they’ve been revealed to be bad ideas.
I’m sure lots of people at Ubisoft recognize that UPlay is a ridiculous liability. It’s a feature nobody wants or needs. It makes the product less appealing to the customer. It doesn’t benefit Ubisoft in any perceivable way. It cost money to create. It continues to cost more money to maintain and support. It’s a hassle for the end user in a domain where convenience is literally the most important feature, even more important than price. I’m confident lots of people at Ubisoft realize Uplay is a terrible idea. Perhaps even the people who built it. But someone at the top doesn’t understand the business they’re in and so this mistake drags on, year after year, long after it should have become obvious this isn’t a good idea.
I knew the can of beans design was ridiculous, but I built it anyway because doing otherwise would have required me to do battle with people far above my pay grade. During The Meeting, any of the other guys in the room could have asked me to elaborate on my concerns. But there was no way to do that without directly challenging John Business.
If the person at the top doesn’t know what they’re doing, then effectively nobody knows what they’re doing. Human nature is to push blame down through the ranks, but the truth is that systemic failures come from the top.
If you don’t know the business, then you can’t devise new products. Sure, you can hire people to do that. But when they bring you an idea, how will you know if it’s any good or not? If they bring you two, how will you choose between them? Will you hire someone to do that job, too? How will you choose that person? How will you know if they’re doing a good job? If a project fails, how will you tell bad luck from incompetence? If a project is a success, how will you tell dumb luck from visionary genius? Do you have a way to quickly correct mistakes, or do you have to wait for them to fail conclusively in public, and then discontinue them once the damage is done? If a product is in development, can you tell if it’s on the right track, or do you have to see the thing nearly to completion before you find out you just spent a fortune making something nobody wants?
The person at the top can’t know everything, of course. But they need to understand the business they’re in. They need to understand the customer’s needs and expectations, or they’ll end up making the mistakes that John Business did. His problem wasn’t just that he didn’t know how to build a virtual mall. The problem was that he assumed he did.
If there’s one idea I’d love to kill forever, it’s the assumption that the people at the top know what they’re doing by virtue of being at the top. I’d like to put an end to the notion that “knowing about business” is the key to running a company. Having an MBA isn’t the key to running a company any more than passing your driver’s test makes you a Formula One driver. That’s the first, most basic step, not the final achievement. Mastering (or correctly envisioning) a particular domain is the key.
I want to stress that I’m not saying John Business could have been successful if only he’d listened to me. Sure, I could have advised him on user experience and environment design, but it’s pretty clear those weren’t the only problems with the project. Those are just the parts I understood. If you put me in charge of running a store – virtual or otherwise – I’d be just as clueless as Mr. Business.
It’s one thing to see millions of people be wrong in some distant, abstract way. It’s another to sit across the table and watch them be wrong. It’s still another to look back a few years later and realize an entire industry was very wrong for years, and that billions of dollars were wasted as a result. In the dot-com craze, I watched large numbers of people – many more than appear in this story – do “obviously” dumb things and end up paying the price. John Business wasn’t some lone madman. He was one of thousands of sane but uninformed people who all made similar mistakes. This sort of thing happens.
This whole ordeal is why I’ve been so attracted to working for myself. I never want to find myself in another meeting where someone asks me to build them a cardboard ocean liner and they spend the entire meeting arguing about what color it should be.
So that was my adventure in the dot-com bust. It was a strange time that left a pretty big impression on me. I don’t work in the corporate world anymore. I work on this site. If you’d like to support that, you can do so on Patreon. If you’d like to continue the story of my life from here, then you could read The Twelve-Year Mistake.
Thanks for reading.
 Good focus group: “Does this user interface confuse you?”. Bad focus group: “Do you like this character design?” Don’t asks focus groups for creative input. They’re not artists.
 This links to my own blog. I’d rather link to the source article, but Gamespot’s links have rotted away. That’s fine. I’m sure they’ll get the hang of this internet contraption one of these days.
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