The Project Quality Conundrum

In the early 1980’s the video games were seeing their first round of widespread acceptance.  The growth of a technology with such rich visual feedback had captured the attention of a wide range of investors and analysts.  It also caught the attention of visionary producers in other mediums among them Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  In 1981 the pair released Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The movie grossed over $389 million at the box office.  Lucas had set an example in the industry with regards to marketing that did not go unnoticed by other producers.  As Raiders was clearly establishing itself as a hit with audiences Atari was finalizing the rights to adapt the film’s story to a video game for it’s 2600 series console.  The assignment was handed off to Howard Scott Warshaw.

Warshaw’s titles up to that point included the highly popular Yar’s Revenge where the player operates as a bug that has to shoot through a barrier to destroy an enemy creature.  The graphics are simplistic by today’s standard but both the graphics and gameplay are now considered a classic of the genre.  The title’s popularity put Warshaw in good enough graces that when a programmer had to be assigned to Indiana Jones he was selected for the task.  When Raiders was complete it was presented to Spielberg who repliedepi “It’s just like a movie. I feel like I just watched a movie.”  

Spielberg was impressed.  

A marketing norm was beginning to be established.  From now on movies (and at least Spielberg movies) would be accompanied by a video game release.  Spielberg’s next film was E.T. and executives wanted to capitalize on its popularity for the 1982 Christmas shopping season, but negotiations for the licensing of development to Atari ran longer than expected.  By the end of July the legal framework was in place, but there was no game, no code, and no design.  Impressed with the complete but as yet unreleased Raiders game, Spielberg requested Warshaw take on the task of game design.  Warshaw accepted.

799px-atari2600aThere of problems with this project.  The largest among them was that in order to get the game code loaded onto the hard cartridges for the Atari 2600 console the code would have to be complete by 1 September 1982.  This gave Warshaw only five weeks to write and test the code.

In project management one of the early steps involves identifying the requirements of the project deliverable.  This requirements form the checklist to be completed.  According to our earlier definition, if the checklist is complete then the project has achieved its necessary quality.  Warshaw did everything on the checklist.  He designed and programmed a game that resembled the characters of the movie.  It had a plot that resembled the basic struggle of the film; help E.T. build a communication device so he can phone home.  The concepts were novel, the execution of those concepts made for poor gameplay.  Warshaw had completely fulfilled all the requirements with Spielberg calling him a “certified genius” in the process.  Spielberg was right.  What Howard Warshaw pulled off was absolutely remarkable and he deserves to be credited with the  praise reserved for champions.   Unlike the movie though, the game was a flop.

The term epic fail has been traced to video game inspirations, but not this one.  Zak Penn, who grew up with an Atari 2600 during this time period remarked his surprise that somehow after 1983 the Atari system, that was king of the industry, all but disappeared.  In 2014 he would tell his story and complete a quest to explain what was known as the Video Game Crash of 1983.  E.T. the game received a lot of the blame for the crash.  The New York Times summed up the sentiment about the game with a quote from an unidentified ten year old, “it wasn’t fun.”  The game sold a few copies, but far below the predicted expectation.  If ten year olds weren’t buying it, then who was?  Atari themselves answered that question, grandmothers.

Why were grandmother’s buying something typically associated with a much younger and much more male audience?  The answer to that question ties directly into the real meaning of quality.

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman gives a brief history of Aristotle’s understanding of physics contrasting the Greek’s perspective with Newton’s.  One of Aristotle’s arguments was that “continuation of motion depends on continued action of a force.”  From an observational standpoint this makes perfectly good sense.  Push a box and it moves until you stop pushing the box, but it flies in the face of Newton’s first law: objects in motion stay in motion until moved upon by an outside force.  Aristotle’s explanation for this part of the physical world remained the dominant theory for nearly 2,000 years of human history.  It would not have survived past his lifetime had it not been contributing to some part of humanity, but Newton’s laws clearly contributed more as they increased the accuracy and application of physical concepts.  Few of our modern conveniences would exist were it not for the adoption of Newton’s law’s over Aristotle’s.

Each one of these great men created ideas that were perceived to have value to those that consumed them.  This is our definition of quality.  

Quality is “the level to which the stakeholders value the product or service produced.”

The quality of Aristotle’s work was perceived to have value by those who consumed it.  Newton’s laws were also perceived to have value and such a higher state of value that few schools today teach the heritage of physics as a discipline and skip right to Newton’s contribution.  If it’s true that the apple hitting his head truly inspired Newton, then it wasn’t just a natural occurrence.  It was the start of a revolution of ideas that changed the world.

800px-atari_e-t-_dig-_alamogordo2c_new_mexico_281403609779229In our E.T. example we saw the completion of the project, in conjunction with the epic fail of the project’s output and the epic fail of an $3.2 billion industry.  Understanding the failure is as simple as understanding the difference in perceived value by the stakeholders.  Kids weren’t buying the game, or they were buying it and returning it because it wasn’t fun to play.  The value perceived by the kids was in the gameplay.  The value perceived by the grandmothers was in providing a gift for their grandkids that contained all the marketing material of a movie extremely popular with children.

A project’s checklist should translate to stakeholder perceived value.  After all, the checklist is likely the very list of requirements the stakeholder requested, but we can see from Atari that this doesn’t always match up.  There are other dimensions at work in the process of creating value.  When a PM begins the project it’s important to clearly define his or her scope of authority.  Do they have the ability to conduct the project to improve quality for the customer or just deliver on the checklist?  

That’s the sort of question that lives as a double edged sword, but it’s a sword that can’t be avoided.  Talking about change and value earlier on make a big difference in project quality and the quality of the process for delivery.  As a PM your name is directly associated with the success of the project.  It’s a good idea to take charge of your legacy.

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