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Free range software developers: Are they cost effective?

July 14th, 2013 No comments

I have just been reading an eye-opening article by Ramin Shokrizade about the techniques that online game designers use to extract money from players. Playing computer games and writing software have a great deal in common, two important characteristics they both share are being immersive and very enjoyable.

Reward Removal

From the article: “The technique involves giving the player some really huge reward, that makes them really happy, and then threatening to take it away if they do not spend.” Hmm, this sounds familiar. Beginner programmers are very resistant to deleting any code they have written, whereas more experienced developers are much less resistant to deleting code but they often put up a fight if an attempt is made to remove a feature they are responsible for creating.

“The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect.” Wot! Remove this feature? What if somebody somewhere is using it?

“… uses the same technique at the end of each dungeon again in the form of an inventory cap. The player is given a number of “eggs” as rewards, the contents of which have to be held in inventory. If your small inventory space is exceeded, again those eggs are taken from you unless you spend to increase your inventory space.” Why are there no researchers with this kind of penetrating insight investigating how to make software engineering more cost effective? We continue to suffer from the programming is logic by other means world view, promulgated by the failed mathematicians that populate so many computing departments.

Premium Currencies

“To maximize the efficacy of a coercive monetization model, you must use a premium currency, …” [a premium currency is in-game money that is disconnected from real wold money]. The lesson here is that if you want software developers to make decisions relating to real world events you need to provide a direct and transparent connection to the real world. Hide the connection under layers of abstraction or vague metrics and developers can be easily fooled into making poor decisions.

Skill Games vs. Money Games

“A game of skill … ability to make sound decisions primarily determines … success. A money game … ability to spend money is the primary determinant of … success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, …. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.”

I think most developers consider their job to be one of making skillful decisions rather than one of making money for their employer, rationalizing that these skillful decisions result in their employer making money. Hmm, how much time do developers spend in skillful activity for what appear to outsiders as obscure coding issues; skillful activity is enjoyable while doing what makes most money for one’s employer can result in having to do lots of really dull and boring tasks. I cannot help but think that skill here is playing the role of a premium currency.

The big difference between playing a game and writing software is that in most cases a game has a well defined ending, a path exists to get there and players know when they get there. One of the reasons that managing software developers is like herding cats is that the ‘end’ is often very fuzzy and ill-defined. This does not mean that factory farming techniques are not applicable to software development, just that we have not yet figured out which techniques work.