Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Bellic School of Management Training

I haven't been blogging much this summer. Mostly it's because all my free time has been spent engaged in an important research project called "What Would Niko Bellic Do?" I've been enrolled in a high-quality Management Scenario Simulator with the unconventional name "Grand Theft Auto IV", probably some sort of inside joke, and I've been going through all its Developer Management training courses.

You know how these corporate training videos go, right? They set up some contrived scenario with actors you're supposed to identify with, and the actors have inane discussions about sexual harrassment or bribing government officials or stealing company equipment, and then you're asked to answer questions about whether it was OK for Bob to grab Sue's ass in that particular edge-case scenario.

Seriously, I just took one of these courses at work. You'd think they're a joke, but no, they're considered Important Employee Training.

Well, this Niko Bellic course isn't much different, just more fun. I finished the final management training session a couple weeks ago. And by truly amazing coincidence, right after I finished the final training mission, my blog made it into the Top 100 Blogs for Development Managers (Q3 2008).

I personally thought that was a little weird, seeing as I've never written explicitly about software development management. Unless of course you count that one time where I wrote about how you don't need them.

BUT, now that I've finished all the Niko Bellic Advanced Management Training courses, I'm officially a Certified Expert Dev Manager, capable of not only handling unforseen tricky management situations, but also teaching others about them! So now I think my blog being in that list is totally justified.

All the training in the simulator was top-notch. A lot of it was ground I'd covered before in my days as an actual dev manager. I already knew how to react, for example, when my mafia boss told me he'd been betrayed by my previous manager, and I had to take him out. I'd already gone through stuff like that at Amazon dozens of times, so I breezed through those missions.

But even though a lot of the training was pretty obvious stuff, which you come to expect from these corporate training courses, I was pretty impressed by the final Management Training Mission, in which I had to make an Important Management Decision about an employee in my care. I'm sure many of you have also completed this course.

In the missions leading up to the finale mission, the "Grand Theft Auto" training software gradually unfolds a background story in which you and this other employee used to work together but had a disagreement that never fully reached closure. You have some trouble arranging a meeting with the employee to discuss it. But as luck would have it, after doing some especially fine work for one of your internal customers, they manage to convince the employee to meet with you, by gagging and handcuffing him and stuffing him on a plane in St. Petersburg and dropping him off at the docks in Liberty City. I had to admit, the simulator really nailed the value of building strong relationships with internal customers.

You can imagine how hard it is to write an online corporate training seminar — I mean, you have to get all this material across but keep it entertaining so people actually remember the lessons. The fine folks at the consulting firm "Rockstar" have done an admirable job of presenting the content. They cover all of the HR-sensitive topics an aspiring manager needs to know about: conflicts of interest, employee drug abuse, bribery, sexual harassment, stealing company property, I mean the list goes on and on. It's amazingly thorough. These guys clearly have real-world software industry experience.

And they managed to make it fun! They did this by using certain metaphorical devices, purely for dramatic effect. For instance, in the final mission, you're given a choice: you can either let the employee walk away, allowing bygones to be bygones, or you can execute him by shooting him in the head as he begs for his life. This playful enactment is obviously a metaphor for deciding whether to take the "next step" in dealing with a problem employee: whether or not to put him on a Performance Improvement Plan, or if that's already failed, whether or not to terminate employment. By generalizing it to a back-alley execution scenario, they've given you a way to apply the lesson across many similar situations. It's actually quite brilliant, and I'm sure other firms offering management training courses will take note.

As you know, in many management situations there's no "right answer": it's a personal decision, and different managers will make different choices. Hence, the final mission, unlike all the other missions, has no "success" outcome: you just pick a course of action and you have to live with it, just like in real life. Regardless of whether you choose to forgive him for displaying a moment of weakness, showing that you understand he's human like the rest of us, or you pop a cap in his motherfucking partner-betraying ass, you goddamn mother fucker *blam* *blam* *blam* *blam* *BLAM* *click* *click* *click*, the other actors will empathize with you and feel your pain, since no tough decision comes without a few regrets.

As it happens, the simulation software is remarkably open-ended. When I did the mission, I decided to let the employee walk, but then I accidentally ran him over with an 18-wheeler as I was driving out of the parking lot, killing him instantly. Oopsie! I confess I may not have been paying strict attention to some of the simulator's more obscure traffic rules by the end of the training sessions. Fortunately they weren't grading me on little driving slip-ups.

The game chose to interpret my accidental crushing of the employee beneath the wheels of my semi as intentional termination. I like to think of it as modeling the "passive-aggressive" approach, in which you don't fire the employee personally; you have someone else do it, such as HR, or perhaps your boss. Some managers prefer the passive-aggressive approach.

To illustrate why it's popular, I'll use an analogy from the restaurant industry. Have you ever noticed that at restaurants, your waiter doesn't bring your food? Other waiters always bring out your food, during which time your waiter is nowhere to be seen. This is so that if you become infuriated because you specifically ordered tartar sauce on the side, and after a 45-minute wait the chef seems to have emptied the entire bottle of tartar sauce on your fish sandwich in some sort of twisted artistico-culinary attempt to make it look like he threw up on it, then you don't blame your waiter. Instead, you unwittingly direct your anger at the person who brought your food, who makes sympathetic noises ("Gosh, I'm so sorry - I can't believe they messed that up!") and runs away, never to be seen again. After it's eventually resolved (by still other people bringing replacements out), your waiter finally rematerializes and apologizes for the kitchen screwup.

Studies have shown that this yields higher tipping on average. That's why your waiter doesn't bring your food. Now you know.

The passive-aggressive employee-discipline approach is a bit unusual, but some managers feel it's better to have the employee mad at "the company", since then the manager will then get better manager reviews from the employee. I'll write more about this technique in my upcoming "How to Be an Evil Manager" handbook. Should be quite popular! Maybe it'll even bump me up the Top 100 list.


Now that I've finished those training courses, I have all these half-written blogs I need to finish up. Tons of cool stuff to talk about. Unfortunately they're all stalled in various stages because I spent the summer playing video games and doing a lot of bike rides. Sometimes you've just gotta do that, you know.

GTA IV was a really good game, so after I finished it (which required some time before I got tired of experimenting with 5- and 6-star warrant levels), I started looking around for an equally good game. GTA IV was basically the best game I'd played since Oblivion, which was two years ago. I don't play games that often (just a few each year), so I figured there must be something good out there.

I looked and looked, and by golly, the best game out there was still Oblivion. Not only that, but in the intervening 2 years it's sprouted all sorts of mods and expansions like the "Knights of the Nine" and the "Shivering Isles". Neat.

So after lots of searching (and not finding) a good follow-up to GTA IV, I stumbled on a used copy of the Game of the Year edition. Since nothing else out there today looked anywhere near as good, I started playing Oblivion again.

Remember how a few months ago I finally turned off my last Windows box? (I switched 100% to using Mac clients and Linux servers: at home, at work, and on the road.) Well, technically to restart Oblivion where I left off, I was going to have to turn my XBox 360 back on, which felt like cheating. But the used Game of the Year edition I found was for the PS/3.

Decisions, decisions...

Actually it wasn't much of a decision at all. I'm on a low-Microsoft Diet, meaning I avoid Windows whenever I possibly can. Given that I'd gone for 3 or 4 months or so without interacting with a single Windows installation, I really didn't want to turn on my XBox. Plus it's summer and I don't need a space heater yet.

So I went for it. Even though my previous character had finished the main quest and was waiting for her imperial dragon armor, I decided to start from scratch and play the whole thing over again on the PS/3, but this time continue on to the expansions after finishing the main quest.

I tell ya: if Oblivion had come out today rather than 2+ years ago, it would still win the Game of the Year. It's just the best game, period.

To be honest, I kind of miss Morrowind (the previous game in the series). I find myself missing it even when I'm playing Oblivion. I think it may have actually had more personality than Oblivion. But I'm into the Shivering Isles expansion now, and it's way better than Oblivion on personality; I'm enjoying it even more than the main game.

I still find it weird that they don't re-make classic games. Don't you? I mean, they re-make classic movies, so why not games? Sure, we've got game franchises like Zelda and Mario and Donkey Kong — Nintendo is awesome at building character brands. But even Nintendo doesn't re-make great old games; they just carry forward characters and ideas and themes. But that just makes me miss the old games!

For instance, Zelda 64: Ocarina of Time — my God, that was a fantastic game. One of the best ever. Ditto for Final Fantasy X. You could argue that was the best game ever, and I wouldn't try to pop a cap in your motherffffffffffff — sorry, sorry, management training getting the better of me. Let's just say I wouldn't try to argue with you. It was a uniquely great game.

But both of those games, great as they were, could stand a make-over: updated graphics, updated game physics and mechanics, updated for newer platforms, etc. They'd be playable and (presumably?) popular today, and it would surely be a lot easier than trying to design a new game from scratch, so studios could release these remakes in "dry spells" between flagship game releases for extra revenue.

It seems like it'd be better than releasing crap games that they know suck. Which is most of them.

I don't know. Maybe people just prefer new games, and that's that. Maybe I'm different. But nearly 40 years as a gamer has convinced me that truly great games only come along every few years, and the rest are all just filler. I'd rather go back and re-play a favorite game, and get that rush of nostalgia, than fill the void by playing crap.

Ultima IV — now there was a game. Once or twice a decade a truly extraordinary, groundbreaking game comes along, and I remember when Ultima IV was that game. I would love to play it again, except this time without having to swap the City Disk with the Wilderness Disk and listen to my Commodore 64 crunch away for minutes on end.

One of the really key elements to the overall atmosphere of a game is the music, and most great games were great — in large part, I think — due to their music. Zelda 64, Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Ultima IV, they all had great music. Sometimes the composer was limited by the sound system - in Ultima IV's case, very limited. But I have all of Ultima IV's music on my iPhone, converted from MIDI files. Dead serious. I love those tunes. They remind me of the old Quest for the Avatar days, back in the Navy when my 3 roommates and I manned the console 24 hours a day in shifts, trying to find mandrake root.

Someone please make an updated Ultima IV! I want IV back, dammit. The sequels never even came close.

Not likely, though. Maybe in a generation or two. It's usually at least a few decades before they remake a classic movie, so maybe I'm just not waiting long enough.

If they remake a classic game, I think it's really important to have the same music. This is where remakes (if you can call 'em that — they're usually either sequels or unrelated new games with similar elements) tend to screw things up. The music should be updated by a competent composer, but it should be the original themes. The Mario franchise does a pretty good job of this, actually. Zelda, not so much. I haven't heard the "Gerudo Valley" theme in any Zelda game since Z64, which came out ten years ago, and along with the title theme it's one of the two best Zelda themes ever.

Remember Metroid? It had really cool music all around. I didn't play any of the Metroid franchise after that, until last year when I played Metroid: Prime on the Wii. The music sucked! Actually the game kinda sucked too. The controls were phenomenal, and made me want to play all games like that, but the game was boring. Sigh.

It's also kind of important that remakes Not Suck. I guess franchise sequels aren't really remakes, though, so apparently it's OK if they suck. That seems to be the standard. There are exceptions. Mario Galaxy's music was Top 5 of all time. But if you can't afford that Japanese guy, it's OK to reuse old music! I'm serious! I give you my explicit permission!

Anyway, I'll probably keep playing Oblivion until New Castle Wolfenstein comes out. I just don't see anything else all that compelling on the horizon. Just counting the weeks until Bethesday's next Elder Scrolls release, I guess. Morrowind to Oblivion was a 5-year wait, so I'm gonna have to find something to do for the next 3 years.

Excuses aside, I should really blog more often. I was pretty amazed at how much email my last entry received. To be perfectly on the up-and-up, I haven't read the comments. I'm sorry, but I've been too busy trying to find a Daedric Katana to enchant. Priorities first!

But I checked my GMail account on Friday and it was completely swamped with dozens and dozens of new emails, many more than usual. People seemed to feel it made us buddies, which meant they could email me just to say "hi", and ask if I wanted to "hook up." I don't know if that's good or not, but I tried to answer all their mail.

Oh wait, that was Niko's account in the Corporate Email Training simulator. My bad.

Anyway, today's blog entry was just procrastination. I'm supposed to be getting some work done, so I'll get back to it. Maybe this bandit will have a katana.


Blogger db48x said...

Since you like Oblivion, you should try Planescape: Torment.

11:53 PM, September 28, 2008  
Blogger Laxori666 said...

I became disenchanted with Oblivion after realizing that leveling up doesn't actually matter - everything becomes harder to kill as you get stronger - and that the magic system is extremely broken (you can make a "Weakness to Fire 100%" spell, a "Weakness to Fire 95%" spell, one for 50%, 40%, etc, and they will all stack, causing your fireball to do incredible damage). And, the more I played, the more I realized the AI really kinda sucks in the game.. it just lost its charm.

11:56 PM, September 28, 2008  
Blogger jmags said...

You aren't interested in Bethesda's take on the "Fallout" franchise?

12:08 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger tonystubblebine said...

There's an open source version of Ultima IV available for non-Windows platforms.

12:20 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

If you're looking for a very high quality game, I have two to recommend.

I can't imagine that you haven't played Portal with the never-ending jokes and references to it, but there's a reason it has such a passionate fan community.

You should also check out Braid. It's only on the XBox right now, which is a pain, but it's a game without peer as far as I'm concerned.

Neither game takes more than a handful of hours to finish, and both are fun because the joy of playing them is the joy of discovery and figuring out a tricky problem.

Also, don't bother with the Braid demo, Microsoft forced the creator to keep it so short that you don't get a good feel for the game.

12:41 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Roman Werpachowski said...

"I became disenchanted with Oblivion after realizing that leveling up doesn't actually matter - everything becomes harder to kill as you get stronger"

I can be turned off by installing some mod.

12:44 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger muro said...

... since then the manager will then get better manager reviews from the employee. I'll write more about this technique in my upcoming "How to Be an Evil Manager" handbook....


I would think this is a born-in trait of managers. There is no need for such a book. Managers usually have it hard-wired and non-managers see it even without having to read a book about it.

12:49 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Dmitri said...

Mods aside, there is no Daedric Katana in Oblivion. The Ebony Katana is a Deadric Shrine quest reward though, and it's pretty sweet.

I can't imagine playing Oblivion without lots of mods, so I use the PC version. Then you can have a Daedric Katana or a Kitten Launcher or whatever you want.

2:18 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Bill said...

Stevey, I believe what you are talking about is already beginning to happen

There is a revamped vesrion of NES classic Bionic Commando on the ps3 called Bionic Commando Reloaded

On the wii the game Super Paper Mario (awesome) is basically a 2D Mario sidescroller

also the new Megaman game being released (i think its number 9) has been made to look and sound exactly like it was made for the NES

3:40 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Sam Russell said...

The good news is that Fallout 3 will soon be out, and it's built on the Oblivion engine. Fallout 2 is probably one of my favorite games of all time and i think it's generally rated very highly. Might want to give it a try when it comes out in a month or so...

4:54 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Justin Mason said...

I can strongly recommend "Mass Effect"; I've been playing stacks of XBox360 games recently, including GTA IV, and this is the best game I've played in years. It's a first-person shooter crossed with an RPG, but has a fantastic plot -- I'm entirely sucked in.

"Assassin's Creed" is very good, too, despite some bad reviews. The cliffhanger ending is a bit of a pain though.

5:58 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Greg D said...

The remake that I most desperately want to see (with music intact!) is M.U.L.E. I haven't visited the planet Irata in nearly two decades, it's due!

10:16 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Chris H said...

Perhaps you should play old classics, rather than waiting years for someone to write a decent new game?

The PC is great in this respect, because such golden oldies are often available on budget labels, and will usually run fine on Windows XP (can't comment on Vista, but you can probably use a Virtual PC to run XP on your Mac).

A couple of truly great games that you didn't mention:
* Thief 2 (better than 1 or 3)
* Deus Ex 1 (better than 2)

Since you clearly like big open-ended/free-roaming games, Deus Ex should really suit you.

Thief does not give you such freedom (outside of it's very large levels), but it's so atmospheric (and the plot is so good) that I really have to mention it.

10:23 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Nathan said...

Steve, you have clearly been living under a rock, because company re-release and remake games all the freaking time. Nintendo released Mario 64 for the DS soon after it came out, and SquareEnix recently remade Final Fantasy IV for the DS as well (by my count there are no less than five different versions of Final Fantasy IV floating around, and that's not even counting fan translations). Konami remade Metal Gear Solid for the Gamecube. I can guarantee you that at some point, Square (the king of remakes) will remake FFX, one of the examples you mentioned (in the meantime it certainly wouldn't kill you to play some other installments in the series, since I think X is middle-of-the-road).

11:22 AM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger cjb said...

Steve, you should take a look at the Nintendo DS catalog. There are lots and lots of remakes on that platform. No Ultima IV to my knowledge, but plenty of technological updates to classic Nintendo games.

2:37 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Michael Neale said...

One thing I learnt from GTAIV is its better to fail PROPERLY (ie guns blazing, or slamming into a gas pump to make it explode) rather then surrender. Waking up in a hospital with only a slightly wallet, warrants cleared, and all weapons intact is much nicer.

Also proving that smoking is bad for you (via the nurse on the ciggie break outside) with a baseball bat is a nice way to start the day.

4:06 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Sitsofe said...

Some games do get remade. I believe (if you are into long wordy dialogue ; ) Metal Gear Solid 1 which was originally released on the Playstation 1 has been remade on the Gamecube. Hard to say whether you would like it if you are into GTA though (I'd argue GTA3 was more of a remake of the original GTA too).

In fact isn't Doom 3 also a technical remake?

4:28 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Sitsofe said...

Oh I believe Sid Meier's Pirates was also updated and aren't games like Sim City also remakes?

4:31 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Russell said...

if you're looking for NES nostalgia, here's a band that plays some old NES songs:

7:00 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Brukewilliams said...

“I became disenchanted with Oblivion after realizing that leveling up doesn't actually matter - everything becomes harder to kill as you get stronger - and that the magic system is extremely broken (you can make a "Weakness to Fire 100%" spell, a "Weakness to Fire 95%" spell, one for 50%, 40%, etc, and they will all stack, causing your fireball to do incredible damage). And, the more I played, the more I realized the AI really kinda sucks in the game.. it just lost its charm.”
Viral Marketing

10:18 PM, September 29, 2008  
Blogger Matt said...

Ultima IV is still available. The fan group Ultima Dragons was given permission to distribute the DOS version for free (as in beer).

It's been over a year since I went back to it, but I'm pretty sure I played it in an emulator with no problems, and no swapping disks.

11:09 AM, October 02, 2008  
Blogger oillio said...

Ninja Gaiden was remade as Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Best game ever made in my opinion (except for the ridiculously booby Rachel).

4:23 PM, October 02, 2008  
Blogger Chris said...

The Witcher has been the most enjoyable RPG I have played since Oblivion. Supposedly there is a new version with extra content and the annoying glitches removed. It also has an awesome sound track. It offered 80 hours of stimulating game play based on classic Polish novels. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

8:23 PM, October 02, 2008  
Blogger Allen said...

movie remakes are horrible, please don't encourage it for video games

7:06 PM, October 03, 2008  
Blogger phil varner said...

You should also try Stringer Bell's Business Growth and Management Training seminars.

11:05 AM, October 06, 2008  
Blogger Matt said...

You might want to check out Mafia - that had a pretty decent storyline and a really good atmosphere.

Otherwise, KOTOR and KOTOR 2 (Knights of the Old Republic) sound up your alley.

8:19 PM, October 07, 2008  
Blogger secretGeek said...

freakin hell stevey -- stop playin games. see that green goo that's oozing out the door and into the street? that's your life fleeing.

your podcast-chat with joel spolsky and jeff atwood was nice and entertaining.

5:30 AM, October 14, 2008  
Blogger Dorje Sangye said... you have the talent to get my blog some exposure to the wealthy who need to spend money to be truly happy? I am a poor old ex programmer from way before punched card daze and wanna be on the beach with my gorgeous young wife...but(too old for you) so I gotta sell somepf my beachfront in costa rica...and it's worth some bux 2 u (magic words in my kingdom...interested? I need a hot shot like you, so either put up or shut up...and do this job or I'll cap your left ball.

2:07 PM, October 15, 2008  
Blogger curi said...

Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 are coming, probably next year.

12:02 PM, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Tartley said...


For the record, I liked Thief 1 much more than either of the sequels.

It has such an amazing story, which starts out unpretentuously and develops with brilliant psychological switchbacks along the way. It is *so* atmospheric, with the audio and the mostly-brilliant voice-acting playing a huge part.

My predominant memory of Thief 2 (which I played through twice) is of stupid clockwork robots chasing me around armed with steam powered canonballs. Not very atmostpheric. The story was pants compared to Thief 1.

I guess this just goes to show that there's a lot of subjectivity in it.

We are in agreement about Thief 3 though. Totally revamped, and I just don't like it, curmudgeon that I am.

2:48 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger Andrew said...

Google for a newish little game called "World of Goo". It is truely fantastic, and available on Mac and Wii.

It is short, but that is reflected in the low price.

As for Oblivion, I agree with Laxori; what's the point of leveling? It does take some of the grind element out of the game, but maybe the game designers need to reconsider what they're aiming for...

8:57 PM, November 22, 2008  
Blogger Dorje Sangye said...

attention fellow fingers...this above is a very important post...for a momentlets forget the games and concentrate on the audiences... basically our USA relationship with Japan...mark my words...the maintenance of our true friends is more important than any gaming...especially in a real time economy...

9:42 AM, March 20, 2009  
Blogger danudan20 said...

Since you like Oblivion, you should try Planescape: Torment.

4:27 AM, June 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter said...


11:39 PM, May 22, 2011  

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