Efficiency Replaces Autonomy

I’ve been pondering the rise of metrics-driven game design — from the sites I follow it sounds like the game industry at large has been as well. The makers of retail games are realizing they can make more money with less risk by careful analysis of how they directly charge gamers in the free-to-play (F2P) model.

Game designer and thoughtful critic Ernest Adams (his Designer’s Notebook column at Gamasutra is good reading) mused about an F2P developer’s presentation:

Zhan Ye explained in his lecture that in F2P game design, every feature must be measured by two metrics: is it fun, and does it make money? The designer is no longer free to concentrate purely on creating a fun game; the designer must be a businessperson. [...] The F2P business model seems a bit weird to me -- it distorts what I think of as the designer’s main role -- but it’s not wrong in and of itself, just different.

This reminded me a lot of a complaint from a graphic designer leaving Google a few years ago:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions.

The industrial revolution - and especially the concept of scientific management - replaced the concept of craftsmanship with the efficiency of repeatable production. You can’t manufacture the creative work of ad copy, game design, or graphic design, but metrics allow businesses to know with industrial precision what works and doesn’t.

Every formerly creative decision is now an opportunity to be unambiguously wrong. Efficiency replaces autonomy.

Where it used to be possible to design things for design’s sake to meet a designer’s personal standards for quality, it’s increasingly easy for businesses to analyze the effects of even very small aspects of those designs. The designer is used to relying on personal taste, gut instinct, or professional standards to deal with the thousand small questions that crop up in every design, and it feels good to intuitively know the right answers.

The first thing everyone writes about metrics (like A/B tests) is that you’re going to be surprised how often your intuition is wrong, even on questions that seem obvious and easy to answer. The new (or newly accessible) metrics are immensely frustrating to designers for three reasons:

  1. Analytics tools are one more damn thing to learn
  2. that often reveal experience to only be assumption
  3. and transform personal decisions into business decisions.

The valid argument I see against the intrusion of metrics is that they’re short-sighted, eg. a green button may increase sales 8% now but introduces an inconsistency in overall site theme that won’t be measured in the future. That’s hard to make when the web’s cheap distribution can give you millions of new opportunities for revenue in a matter of a few days or hours — or allow you to earn more than you thought off the very few you do have.

Designers are going to have to live with metrics trumping their professional experience and personal taste, at least whenever they work for a boss or investor. it’s not that this is a new awful trend, it’s that capitalism is redefining what it means to do design. The pursuit of profit isn’t strangling creativity, it’s changing what it means to be creative from achieving a singular artistic vision to experimenting and improving iteratively.