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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Cursed with Money": Financial Freedom Can Fuel Failure

Deane Barker at Gadgetopia gets me thinking about capitalism and success. Barker points to a Wired feature on the death of Duke Nukem Forever, the sequel that never was to the groundbreaking 1996 shoot-'em-up video game Duke Nukem 3D. Game creator George Broussard and his 3D Realms team spent 12 years designing and redesigning the proposed sequel, only to call it quits last May and face a lawsuit for failure to deliver.

What went wrong? Poor management and unrealistic perfectionism appear to be the main problems. But woven into the fabric of this failure was too much 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....

So when Broussard and Miller began work on Duke Nukem Forever, they decided to fund its development themselves....

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.... [Said Broussard] “It’s our time and our money we are spending on the game. So either we’re absolutely stupid and clueless, or we believe in what we are working on.”

Yet the truth is, Broussard’s financial freedom had cut him off from all discipline. He could delay making the tough calls, seemingly forever. “One day, Broussard came in and said, ‘We could go another five years without shipping a game’” because 3D Realms still had so much money in the bank, an employee told me. “He seemed really happy about that. The other people just groaned” [Clive Thompson, "Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem," Wired, 2009.12.21].

Hmmm... so sometimes wealth kills successful entrepreneurship. Maybe that's South Dakota's stoic Lutheran labor secret: we don't dare pay teachers and other workers what they're worth. They'll feel too successful. If our wages grow too fast, South Dakotans will stop trying so hard!

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