What companies can learn from great game designers

November 26th, 2023
Antoine Merour


“ You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. ” - James Clear

TL;DR To change negative teams or employee behavior, don't start by trying to “fix” the people, focus instead on changing the system that shapes their day-to-day decisions and actions. When you hate the outcome, don’t blame the player; change the game.

Why we tend to focus on the wrong problem: people over system

Because of a major blind spot created by a little known cognitive bias: the fundamental attribution error.

This error means that we often attribute the behavior of others to their personality traits (e.g. lazy, selfish, clumsy), and forget or downplay how their situation affects them (e.g. workload, unclear expectations, stupid processes, conflicting priorities).

Because of that blind spot, when we don’t like how employees act, we usually focus on the obvious solution: fix the people (or find better ones). We double-down on:

  • Hiring supposedly “better” people (who supposedly don’t have those flaws)

  • Training people (to fill the knowledge gaps)

  • Evangelizing through company events, and culture change programs (to inspire and “awaken”)

  • Throwing new incentives through performance management 

This all can be valuable, but it’s useless in isolation

Asking people to “shape up” and “try harder” (the weak force), doesn’t work  unless we change the system that shapes their day-to-day decisions and actions (the strong force).

“Fixing the people” without “changing the system” is a losing game. Focus on the system first. 

When you notice:

  • Teams/people drag their feet to make decisions -> change the system

  • Teams/people dodge responsibility -> change the system

  • Teams/people don't collaborate effectively -> change the damn system

  • Teams/people throw away money like it’s confetti -> change the system

  • Teams/people don't feel a sense of urgency -> change the system

  • Teams/people aren't proactive -> change the dang system

  • Teams/people don’t give a crap about customers -> change the frigging’ system

Game designers know they can’t control players

They can only control the game. 

While they try to “recruit” players and influence their actions in the game, they know that players ultimately hold the reins. They decide which games are worth playing, for how long, and how to act within the space and constraints defined by those games.

This, by the way, is also true for companies, even though it might sound counter-intuitive. 

Companies like to believe that they have control over who joins their ranks, and what they do once they are in. The truth is, companies control employees as much as games control players; meaning, not much

In fact, companies only have an illusion of control.

Sure, we hire people, but we don’t control who decides to apply in the first place. Once employees are inside, we might set goals and performance metrics, decide who to promote, etc. but employees ultimately decide how much effort they want to put in, and whether to stick around.

You can pay people to show up to work, but they volunteer the best part.

Game designers know they don’t control players, so they obsess over building a great game system.

How game systems shape player behavior

At the heart of every great game, there is a great system, which is critical to the long-term success of the game.

The game system determines the environment, rules and mechanics that influence which actions can be taken by players within a game.

Game systems create the environment within which players evolve. That space has its own distinct logic (some call it physics), with clear interaction rules between the players and its environment.

Game systems define the range of all possible actions that players can take within the environment. This includes the consequences of those actions (for the player and the environment), including how to interact with other players.

Game systems define the specific mechanics through which players can carry out those actions.

Game systems help players learn how to have fun and be great at the game.

  • By making the game system visible (e.g. physics, rules, structures, algorithms)

  • By teaching them about the possibilities that exist within the game (range of actions)

  • By teaching them how to carry out those actions

  • Be enabling continuous discovery and progression (mastery) of the game environment and its mechanics

So when game system designers want to change how players feel about the game (e.g. Is it fair? Is it fun? Is the community toxic?), and behave within the game, they focus on changing the game system.

Great game systems designers don’t blame the player, they aspire to make the game system great.

By contrast, companies’ operating systems are usually an afterthought 

Because of the blind spot (fundamental attribution error), and because companies believe they have more control over teams/employees behavior than they actually do (illusion of control), they tend to miss the crucial role their operating system plays in shaping the day-to-day actions and performance of their teams.

As a result, most companies’ operating systems are not designed holistically, they are not explicit enough, not transparent enough, not “employee centric” enough, and are often outdated. At the extreme, they create more problems than they solve.

On top of that, risk aversion tends to push companies to design their operating system with the primary goal of deterring negative behavior (e.g. lack of financial discipline), at the expense of promoting positive behaviors (e.g. initiative taking and creativity), especially at scale.

Common flaws include:

  • Lack of clear direction or focus

  • Unnecessary complexity

  • Inconsistency and lack of coherence

  • Neglecting feedback and adaptation

  • Failure to reward progression

  • Ignoring core values

  • Limiting team agency

  • Lack of transparency or fairness

Great game systems continuously evolve

Because evolution is the key to survival.

Great games that have thrived for more than a decade (which is VERY long in video games years), have also continuously evolved for over a decade.

World of Warcraft, Minecraft, EVE Online, League of Legends, and Runescape are incredible games whose long term success is rooted in their ability to adapt and evolve.

They evolve to continuously expand and improve the player experience and leverage or adapt to changing trends in player expectations and technology.

More importantly than why they evolve, how they evolve is the key to long-term success:

  • They ask players for help: changes to the game system are informed by player feedback based on real experiences, evolution is co-creation.

  • They change often: every two weeks has become a baseline player expectation

  • They try things out to learn: they experiment, observe and learn. They know that a game is a complex, non-deterministic system, so they are curious and keep an open mind.

  • They look at the data: they collect and analyze player behavior, engagement patterns, and other gameplay data to pressure test their intuitions and make informed decisions 

  • They communicate transparently: they communicate upcoming changes, updates, and the rationale behind design decisions, fostering trust and understanding among players.

Some games even go as far as giving direct control to players who will take the game in new, non-obvious, and sometimes very successful directions. 

Great companies need more than great people to thrive

Great companies start with a few extraordinary people. But as they grow in size and complexity, they need more than great people. They need a system that enables ordinary people to flourish individually and perform collectively.

To build a great system, companies can learn from game designers how to create and evolve a holistic operating system that promotes creativity, performance, engagement and healthy collective dynamics.

We believe that leaders should always prioritize building a kick-ass system over hiring great people, simply because when you put superstars into a shitty system, they will perform shitty or leave. However when you put ordinary people into a great system, they will collectively deliver extraordinary results.

Written ByAntoine Merour

CEO & Co-founder at Outcome. Obsessed with helping companies get better as they get bigger. Former exec at Philips, Riot Games and Samsung.


Suggested reads for you

  • September 5th, 2023

    Manifesto: Why do companies suck at evolving?

    Outcome Founders
  • November 27th, 2023

    Why we should develop orgology: a serious science of organizations

    Vignir Gudmunds

Subscribe to our blog