The Bellic School of Management Training

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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.

Obliviating

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.

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