Premortems: a great tool we use that can improve ANY project

Premortems: a great tool we use that can improve ANY project

Nick Bentley Nick Bentley

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Welcome to this week's behind-the-scenes post.
It's about a design tool we’re using to make our new version of our game Trekking the World. If there were a Mount Rushmore of design tools, I’d nominate this one:

The Premortem

To create a premortem for any project, you imagine a future in which the project has failed, and then you write down how it failed. 
Later, as the project progresses, you regularly update the list of possible reasons for failure as your understanding deepens.

How I came to know its power

The first time I made a premortem for a project, I didn’t take it seriously enough. It was just a thing I’d read in a book. I tried it without expectations, and I don’t think it affected my decisions enough.
That changed when, after the project did poorly, I discovered a couple of the reasons had been on the original premortem! I even have audio recordings of myself discussing them early in the project.
If I’d taken that premortem more seriously, I might have either done the project differently or (more likely) not done it at all, saving me and my company from pain.

An Example

To illustrate how I’m using a premortem in game design, and to hold my feet to the fire, I’m posting my current premortem for our new version of Trekking the World publicly. 
If you have anything to add to it, or suggestions for avoiding the problems mentioned in it, please reply with them. One good suggestion at this stage has the potential to forestall much heartache.

The current Premortem for Trekking the World 2nd Edition

Here it is:
Gamer Bias: Our games are made to appeal to both gamers and non-gamers. The new Trekking the World has simple rules but a bit higher decision complexity than our previous games. We could lose more audience than we gain from this. We're committed to this approach, with limited hedging options. A potential solution is adding a "family version" to the rules, but time constraints and the game’s nature may hinder this.

Opaque Strategy: An element of the game - Suitcases - yield about half the points you score, if you know what you’re doing. But new players can underestimate their value, and this can make gameplay less interesting for them. If that happens for too many players, it could lead to poor online ratings and sales. I’m currently trying to address this by being clear/emphatic about their value in the rulebook, and by including more powers that help you discover it.

Redesign Problem: The new version is a big redesign. This could confuse/disgruntle existing fans, to whom we’ve sold 130,000 copies of 1st Edition, possibly impacting word-of-mouth. A symptom: we’ve struggled with what to call the new version. We think folks coming to the game for the first time will be least confused if we call it 2nd Edition, but that wouldn’t imply a redesign to 1st Edition owners. We’re currently addressing this by communicating to our core audience directly in emails and social media posts.

Reskin Expectations: customers might assume the new Trekking the World is a reskin of Trekking the National Parks. It's a risk because Trekking the World 1st Edition was similar to Trekking the National Parks. This could cause two problems: 1) Players who want an experience like Trekking the National Parks might be disappointed that they got a different experience; 2) Players who want to experience new mechanics might not look into the game. We currently don’t know how to address this problem. Ideas welcome.
Math Errors: The game’s math is complicated. It’s possible there’s an undetected flaw in our math models, leading to a broken strategy that someone uncovers after publication. My current solution is to be obsessed with the math, but I don’t know what I don’t know, and we don’t have much time left to uncover more things we don’t know.

Reduced Screwage: Existing players could dislike the removal of blocking in the game. In playtests involving players who know 1st Edition, nearly all testers say they prefer the new version. But recently I had a player tell me she preferred 1st Edition, specifically because we removed the blocking and screwage, which was her favorite thing about it. This is another bet we’ve decided to make, because many players who say they prefer the new version cite reduced screwage as a factor. However, playtester sample bias could mean this isn’t true in the market at large.
It’s important that, after each project is over, you try to understand the ways it succeeded and failed (a postmortem), and compare it to predictions from your premortem. You can learn surprising and powerful things this way, either by confirming something you suspected or uncovering a problem you didn’t.
After the new Trekking the World goes to market, I’ll report back about which if any of these factors caused problems for it.
Please don't hesitate to share your opinions in a reply, positive or negative. I read all your replies (and reply when time permits) and it helps me understand what we're doing right and wrong.
Nick Bentley,
President, Underdog Games Studio

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