A New Year's Business Resolution: Ship Early, Ship Often and Fail Quickly to Succeed Fast

Must-read article in the January edition of Wired Magazine: “Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem”. The theme of the monthly magazine is “failure” and there’s a lot to learn from this article chronicling the development efforts around the Duke Nukem 3D sequel, Duke Nukem Forever whose development at 3D Realms started in 1997 and was recently shut down without any game being released.

Why did it happen? Excerpts from Wired:

[George] Broussard [co-owner of 3D Realms and the man who headed the Duke Nukem Forever project for its entire 12-year run] simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of Duke Nukem Forever coming out with anything other than the latest and greatest technology and awe-inspiring gameplay. He didn’t just want it to be good. It had to surpass every other game that had ever existed, the same way the original Duke Nukem 3D had. But because the technology kept getting better, Broussard was on a treadmill. He’d see a new game with a flashy graphics technique and demand the effect be incorporated into Duke Nukem Forever. (…)

It’s a dilemma all artists confront, of course. When do you stop creating and send your work out to face the public? Plenty of Hollywood directors have delayed for months, dithering in the editing room. But in videogames, the problem is particularly acute, because the longer you delay, the more genuinely antiquated your product begins to look — and the more likely it is that you’ll need to rip things down and start again. All game designers know this, so they pick a point to stop improving — to “lock the game down” — and then spend a frantic year polishing. But Broussard never seemed willing to do that. (…)

Broussard was also cursed with money. Normally, game developers don’t have much cash. Like rock bands seeking a label to help pay for the cost of recording an album, game developers usually find a publisher to give them an advance in exchange for a big slice of the profits. But Broussard and Miller didn’t need to do this. 3D Realms was flush with cash; on top of the massive Duke Nukem 3D sales, they had other products that were selling briskly, including several add-on packs for Duke Nukem 3D that they’d outsourced to another developer. (…)

Other game developers envied the freedom that Broussard and Miller had, at least at first. Developers and their publishers, indeed, are often at war. It’s like many suits-versus-creatives relationships: Developers want to make their product superb, and the publishers just want it on the shelves as soon as possible. If the game starts getting delayed, it’s the publisher that cracks the whip. Broussard and Miller were free to thumb their noses at this entire system.

What it means: even though the article is from the videogame industry, the lesson learned is good for Web development as well. All developers and product managers are eventually guilty of waiting too long to ship a new product or feature. Add on top of this conservatism when you work for a big brand and you create a recipe for innovation disaster. Perfection in Web development doesn’t exist and you get more value and feedback when you submit your product to real consumers. I always like to point people to some early examples of successful startups to prove my point. See Digg in 2004, Facebook (still called TheFacebook!) in 2005 or Twitter in 2006. I’m convinced these guys were not 100% satisfied when they launched the first iteration of their product. It had bugs, they certainly had to abandon some functionalities in version one and they had some user interface compatibility problems with Internet Explorer 6 (!). But they shipped and improved quickly afterwards. As a new year’s business resolution, we should embrace the following mantra: ship early, ship often and fail quickly to succeed fast! Happy 2010 everyone!

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