Planning and the Unknown Unknowns

Last November, I gave a talk where I described the story of our video game Ultimate Chicken Horse from early conception to release and beyond. My goal was to amalgamate the answers I’ve given to people when they asked about different parts of the story: “how did you get funding? How did you get your game on PlayStation? How did you find your partners to start your company?”, etc. The format was to stop the story at each point where I felt I learned a lesson, and share those lessons with the audience.

One of the lessons that I drew from the chronological story of this journey was to try to think of everything. It seems obvious of course, but it seems like you couldn’t possibly know what you weren’t thinking of, because obviously you weren’t thinking of those things.  So given that “try to think of everything” is a bit hard to act on, I now use a new phrase: plan for the unknown unknowns. you don’t plan, you end up with half-built things.

This phrase is taken from a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman called Thinking: Fast and Slow, in a section where he describes the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is used to describe plans and forecasts that “are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios” and “could be improved by consulting statistics of similar cases”. The result, of course, is that plans take longer than planned, costs go way over budget, people get unhappy, products under-perform, and everybody loses. Sound familiar? Game development, and surely most other fields of work, are plagued by the planning fallacy.

I’m going to focus today on three proposed ways to mitigate the planning fallacy:

  • Establishing a baseline
  • Taking the outside view
  • Planning for the unknown unknowns

Establishing a Baseline

Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky did a lot of research into many topics in behavioural economics from a psychology perspective, and eventually won a Nobel prize for that research in 2002. After coining the term planning fallacy, they offered a solution of how to solve it by establishing a baseline.

The idea is to avoid the common tendency to neglect the statistics of similar cases to yours. To use game development as an example: “Most MMOs take four years to make with a team of our size, but we have industry veterans and we’re really well organized, so it will only take us two years”. That’s obviously not a very forward thinking mentality, but it happens to all of us whether we realize it or not, for small tasks and large ones alike.

This idea was eventually formalized and given the name reference class forecasting, and it works in the following way:

  • Identify a fairly vague appropriate reference class (indie games, platformer games, online games, games made with X people, games made with Y budget, etc.)
  • Obtain statistics from the reference class (how long did these other projects take? How much did they cost?)
  • Base your predictions on the stats from the reference, then use specific information about your case to adjust the baseline prediction

You might only realize that you’re the little duck after establishing your baseline

Often, you may find, that you might have to stray away from the baseline prediction by increasing it, not decreasing it. What are your resources like? Does your team have experience with this kind of project? Are there new technologies that can quicken the process? Are there new technologies which need to be learned, which may slow it down?

It sounds so obvious to look at statistics from our surroundings, and yet we all forget to do it and rarely catch ourselves forgetting.

Taking an Outside View

The next thing to do is to take an outside view, and to step back from our situation. We naturally take an inside view by focusing on what we have, what we’re doing, and the experiences we’ve had with regards to the situation. We extrapolate from what we know, we reason using small bits of data, and we get caught up in emotion when making decisions about ourselves and our plans.

The easiest way to get around this, and the way that has worked for me and for my company in the past, is to ask others. Find people who will give you straight up, no-bullshit feedback about your plans and ask you the tough questions that you’ve likely been ignoring.

Asking others means you’re no longer forecasting based on information in front of you, and gives you a more complete picture.

Planning for the Unknown Unknowns

Remember the example about the MMO that was only going to take your studio two years? We already discussed that it’s not the smartest thing to assume that it will take you less time. But most people will take an extra step and actually plan; they will thinking of all of the things they can, take an outside view, ask others, and even look at comparative projects to make their estimates. Once they’ve done all of this, they will sum up all of the things they think they need to do, assign times to them, plan using current and future expected resources, etc. After this whole process, they’re still left with a little over two years in their plan for this MMO project.

This is because they didn’t think of the unknown unknowns. These are the things that can come up mid-project: bureaucracy (and boy do we know about that one in game development), illnesses, divorces,  technical delays, dependencies on contractors, change of personnel, people moving, etc. etc. etc. As I mentioned in the introduction, you can’t know what you don’t know, so it’s hard to plan for it.

This is why we add contingency in our budgets, and why we should add a hell of a lot of contingency time to our plans when starting projects or agreeing to deadlines. We also try our best not to promise anything before it’s ready; many companies (and individuals) run into problems when they can’t meet deadlines for deliverables, but often these dates are self-imposed and do not need to be so fixed. There are, of course, cases where a client is dependent on you, or a project needs to reach a certain milestone because of timing with a season or sale, but I’ve seen many self-imposed deadlines set up by the “suits” for no apparent reason, and this can cause unnecessary stress and perceived failure due to missing those deadlines.

Beyond asking other people what unknowns you might run into (as was the case when taking an outside view), you can also study other projects or companies and see what kind of issues they ran into. Even if you don’t expect to run into the same exact issues, there’s a good chance that it will inspire you to think of potential issues for your own situation.

So first, think of everything you and all of your peers can think of, and then plan for the things you haven’t yet thought of.

Why is this Important?

This is relevant to anyone in a management position or anyone who is making decisions about planning.  In video game development, every single project I’ve ever heard of in the history of games has been late. If it wasn’t late, it was shipped at a way lower quality than it should have. I’m not sure if other industries are as notorious for delays, but I imagine it’s a common issue across the board.

While none of these suggestions are hard science or give you concrete steps to take to ensure success, they should help guide you in a way that can help prevent failure. As I read this section of Kahneman’s book, I realized the direct application that this psychology could have to the game development world and thought I would share, so I hope you enjoyed reading.

If you have comments, please feel free to leave them on the Gamasutra article here.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Note: the idea of “unknown unknowns” is originally attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, as Kahneman states in his book.

Daniel Kahneman: Beware the Inside View


An Introduction to Stoicism

Hey all!

I wanted to share some information about what I’ve been reading about recently, and see if I can pull out the most important points in a coherent, understandable fashion.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who lived from 121 AD to 180 AD, and is said to be one of the most influential people toward our modern day understanding of Stoicism. I picked up his book, or rather a collection of his writings, called “Mediations” (the Gregory Hays translation) and have been making my way through. It’s essentially an amalgamation of the scrolls on which he wrote his own personal notes, kind of like a diary. The book has no specific order, division of chapters, or anything. Simply small sentences or paragraphs which he wrote at some point to himself, for some reason. It’s inspired me to learn a bit more about the philosophy, and I quite enjoy it.

The greatest thing about Stoicism, in my opinion, is that two of the most influential texts on the subject were written by a slave (Epictetus) and an Emperor (Aurelius)… but the principles still apply. I can’t imagine a better justification for how a philosophy could be applied by all people than the idea that a slave and an emperor can share the same ideas.

So what is it?

Stoicism got its name from the Greek word “Stoa”, meaning porch, because it was taught by Zeno in Athens in a (kinda porchy) place called Stoa Poikile. A philosophy grounded in logic and ethics, Stoicism has many tenets, but the few that sum it up for me are the following:


Don’t try to control what is our of your control.

Frustration comes from trying to control things that you can’t control. Accept that things have happened and that you can’t do anything about them now. It would be illogical to get upset or angry at something that you can’t affect, so live in the present.


Deconstruct things and see them for what they really are.

A great example of this, which I heard on an episode of the Kevin Rose podcast, was a Louis Vuitton bag. If you strip away all the surrounding stuff (name brand, socio-economic status symbol, etc.) you realize that it’s still just a few pieces of leather that holds some stuff in it, sewn together in a sweatshop in China. It doesn’t matter if it’s Louis Vuitton or a no-name brand, be aware of what the object is.

This doesn’t, however, mean that Stoics try to live without any material objects. From what I gather, the idea is that you set your baseline as the bare minimum that you need. If you need a car, any car that gets you from point A to point B will do. Once that baseline is set, if you have the money for it and feel like it, you can buy a Lexus. But, if ever that was taken away, you’re still above your baseline and should still be equally happy.


Make decisions according to the universal logos, follow reason and logic instead of emotions.

The Stoics believe(d) that there is a universal logos, which has been defined many ways, but I believe is properly summed up by this definition in Merriam Webster:

‘Reason, that in ancient Greek philosophy is the
controlling principle in the universe.’

There’s also a strong link between this logos and God, the gods, nature, and other terms. Basically their idea is that there’s a natural flow or order, and that there is universal truth in all things.


Eliminate unnecessary speech and action.

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.” This quote from Meditations can be a helpful reminder to stay away from useless activity, as it won’t help you and it won’t help the people around you.

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or rather, do less but do it better.”


Perception is the most powerful and most dangerous tool humans have.

Your reaction to people’s actions is what decides your happiness, things can’t affect you if you don’t let them. There is very little that is “good” or “bad” in the world; most things, actions, circumstances, etc. simply exist, there’s no need to label them. With this kind of objective approach, it’s easier to see things clearly. Humans are very capable of deciding their reaction to situations, feelings, and emotions, but we are also extremely affected when we let our emotions get the better of us.


I think that this book, and this philosophy in general, has a lot to teach. I don’t agree with every single point that I’ve read about Stoicism, but I do believe that everyone could learn something from reading about this philosophy. Especially in times like these, with the world seemingly so divided in thought and unable to have discussions about their differing opinions, we could all use a bit of emotional control in our thoughts and reactions.

Some other suggested books on Stoicism (which I’ll get to) come from Seneca, and Epictetus, and there have been a number of newer authors who write about Stoicism as it applied nowadays, such as Ryan Holiday’s very successful book The Daily Stoic.

See you soon!


Satisficing vs. Optimizing, and Understanding the Usefulness of Both

Hi friends!

Today I want to talk about satisficing vs. optimizing. Yes, satisficing is a word. Sort of.

This is a subject that was inspired by a talk I saw at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this year. The talk was by Tynan Syltvester, of RimWorld fame (pretty famous and successful indie game). One of the things he brings up in his conference talk, on the subject of task selection, is the idea of satisficing vs. optimizing.

2017-03-28 Balance

Satisficing means to choose the first acceptable choice which matches the criteria. The word combines “satisfying” with “sufficing”, in a tongue-twistery way that second-language English speakers would probably be unhappy with. The term was created by Herbert A. Simon, a psychologist, sociologist, computer scientist, and all-around genius in the cognitive psych world.

Optimizing, on the other hand, means choosing the best possible choice with respect to those criteria after looking at all of the options (within reason, usually). This word is less confusing sounding, and comes from the Latin word ‘optimus’, which means ‘best’.

Wordy trickery aside, in the task-selection world for work purposes, it’s important to be able to optimize. The idea is to be able to choose the best option when considering added value vs. cost vs. whatever else you need to keep in mind in your industry or for your product. But I want to talk a bit more about life and a bit less about business here.

2017-03-28 Decision

I’m an optimizer. This isn’t something I necessarily put a label on before hearing this talk, but it’s very true. I like to know that I’ve checked all of the possible options before making a decision. When it comes to important life decisions, I’m proud of this trait because it means I rarely make hasty decisions that I regret. On the other hand, when it comes to choosing a soup or salad with my meal, it’s unnecessarily stressful. I’ve always been bad a small, meaningless decisions because I always think about what I might miss out on.

What I’ve come to realize over the last few years, and this thought is being reinforced by the understanding of things like the comparison between satisficing and optimizing, is that sometimes it’s better to just choose the option that’s good enough for my needs and be happy with it, especially if it’s more or less inconsequential in the long run. If the T-shirt I want is overpriced by $3, or I didn’t check the reviews of the restaurant to make sure we’re going to the best one in a new area in town, the world won’t end. I don’t need to compare price-to-value for the $3 difference on a shirt, and I can be happy so long as the food I’ve gotten is good, regardless of whether or not there’s a better place for the same price nearby.

2017-03-28 Puppy

Another way that understanding this distinction in decision-making helps is in understanding why people choose the things they choose. A good personal example of this is the Apple vs. PC debate. Being a PC person, I could never understand why people would choose to buy Apple computers (or products in general). I just didn’t get it. I looked at the specs, looked at the price, looked at the performance. There’s no question that, looking at the components and functionality and price of a computer, one could rationalize getting a Mac over a PC.

But, before you start yelling at me, hear me out. I now understand the distinction between satisficing and optimizing, and the choice to go with “the thing that just works” is no longer such a mystery. Without labeling this, I’ve had these thoughts for many years. As a baseline, Mac computers just work. They do what you need them to do, they fit all of the criteria, and they can’t do more. PC computers, often, take more work before they do what you want them to do, but they have the potential to do much more for the same price. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who took the time to research different PC specs and who purchased something with more potential don’t use all of the things they’ve optimized for. So depending on the type of person you are, you might simply choose the option that “works right out of the box” and that doesn’t make you have to think too much.

2017-03-28 Grandpa

This brings me to a major point, which is that I believe that the majority of people are satisficers. That doesn’t make them bad people, I just don’t think I’m one of them. For most people, they need the right thing for the right purpose, and beyond that it doesn’t really matter. They won’t spend as much time looking into details before making decisions about material things, and that might even extend to immaterial things too. What that leads to, I might hypothesize, is a simpler but more satisfied existence than someone who tries to optimize for everything and might not be able to appreciate the simple things without questioning the “what if”.

This is starting to ramble on and get introspective so I’ll cut it off here, but I think it’s useful to bring this distinction to the front of your mind once in a while to better understand why you make some of the decisions you make, and why other people might make decisions that you don’t understand.

It’s Easy to Hear What You Want to Hear (i.e. Confirmation bias is everywhere)

Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconception”¹. In wake of the recent goings-on in the U.S. with the fake news and skewed perceptions of reality due to our tiny little Facebook bubbles, we’re seeing this kind of thing come up again and again.

2017-02-10 Confirmation

I won’t get too much into that stuff because it’s literally everywhere now, and someone has probably written it better than I will. So, I wanted to broaden the discussion of this and warn against this in general, not only when it comes to news or American politics.

As you probably know, I work in game development. One of my colleagues has been trying to convince our team to get into VR (Virtual Reality) stuff for a little while, and showed me a demo of his setup at home a couple of weekends ago. I thought it was awesome, but still had my questions: will the tech become cheap enough, is it too immersive, will the technology advance fast enough, etc. I started looking a bit further into it and watched some talks about the future of VR and the technology related to games and other things, and am slowly starting to be convinced.

2017-02-10 VR

But what happened to those questions? They’re still as valid as they were previously, and nothing that I saw even attempted to answer those doubts. But after about three videos of 40 minutes each, I felt convinced. Thankfully, I was able to stop myself and realize my bias: I had completely forgotten about one side of the story because I was inspired by the other side.

That brings me to another point, and one that 2017-02-10 Blindersrelates back to the politics thing. When something is emotional or inspiration or heated or you feel like it directly affects you, not only are you more likely to find sources that confirm your ideas but you’re even more likely to believe them. I could easily hop on the VR train now and keep watching stuff, keep getting inspired, and completely forget (or worse, ignore) some of the very relevant counter-arguments.

By the way, I’m not claiming that my colleague is missing the other side of the story, I think he just thinks the risk is lower than the reward might be for going into that kind of thing… and some of us aren’t convinced yet. But the fact remains that it’s easy to dive in and confirm all the things you thought or wanted to think or were inspired to think and black out the rest of the world without noticing it… so keep your eyes open and your field of vision wide!

One day I’m going to do a post about what I find are some of the most important cognitive biases but… I’ll do it later.

Could Routine be a Replacement for Motivation?

People often say that they don’t want to work a 9-5 job or that they hate routine. As much as we hear this over and over, we still see the majority of people doing exactly that. Humans are creatures of habit, we tend to eat the same thing for breakfast at the same time, in the same place, get our coffee from the same Starbucks, do the same activities each week, etc.

I’m going to propose something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, and it might be a bit counter-intuitive. Usually, we imagine motivation and drive (in business, in relationships, in life) as actively thinking about how to do better or how to do more. But maybe, just maybe, routine can act as a replacement for long-term motivation.

2017-01-23 Routine

What I mean by this is that if you can ingrain certain things into your daily routine and make them habit, you won’t need active thought to try to get such things done. For example, going to the gym every morning before work (which I don’t do but I should) is something that can become so second-nature that people will feel worse if they miss it. Even if you hate the gym, doing it enough times at the same time will make it become part of the routine and you won’t think about it more than you’d think of eating breakfast or brushing your teeth.

When you see people who are “super motivated” because they’re going to the gym every morning, you might be overestimating their motivation; they might have only needed motivation for the first two months. I won’t argue that you can slip into a good routine or healthy practices without any motivation at all, but that down the line, establishing good routines can help lead toward the same results as “being motivated all the time”, as some people seem.

Routine is something that should be avoided if the routine leads to bad habits: eating right before bed (though I believe the science on this is questionable), smoking when you drink, forgetting to put the toilet seat down when traveling with a female, etc. BUT, in some cases, you can probably develop some great habits that can come to the rescue when you say “I should go to the gym, but I’m feeling kinda lazy and I’m hungry and tired”.

Fun fact, that was my excuse and now I’m here writing this. But don’t follow my example!

2017-01-23 Healthy

Another decent example is eating healthy. I already mentioned the idea of not eating before bed as a good habit to get into, but it can even extend to buying food. If you’re lacking the motivation to eat healthy, getting into the habit of buying healthier food will break that. Of course the first time avoiding the soda and chips aisle might be painful, but eventually it becomes second nature.

This might seem obvious, but the key point I’d like to make here is that finding motivation to do healthy things and make good choices can be hard, but baking it into routine (with a bit of initial motivation) will save you from constantly needing to find (and feel bad about not finding) it later.

The Art of To-Do Lists

I was going to name this article “The Joy of Checking off Little Check Boxes”, but I figured this was more appropriate. Checking off little check boxes is only joyful if the list on which you’re checking them is well-made, and if the boxes actually mean something.



Making a to-do list isn’t difficult. Simply write all the things you need to get done on a paper or on your notes app on your phone. Right? Welllll… sorta. Have you ever had the feeling where one day you’ve worked a ton but you got nothing done? You know you did a lot, but you have nothing to show for it and your to-do list certainly doesn’t look like it’s getting any shorter. That’s probably because your list wasn’t well made.

A good to-do list needs to have two things.

First, the tasks on it need to take more than a minute. If the tasks take less than a minute (or a few minutes), you can probably lump them into one bigger task. For example, “confirm lunch with the marketing person” and “thank Maria for sending over the shipment” can both fall into one task called “Answer immediately relevant emails” or something similar.



Second, the tasks have to be short enough that you don’t feel like you’re working on them for more than half a day. The reason it feels like you’ve “been working all day but didn’t get anything done” is because the tasks you’re working on are just too big. For example, “research different artificial sweeteners” can be broken into

  • “determine which artificial sweeteners to research”
  • “find some sources on sucralose”
  • “find some sources on aspartame”
  • “find some sources on Acesulfame K”

and so on.

If the tasks on your list are not too long and not too short, and are actually meaningful toward reaching your goal, you’ll feel more productive when you accomplish those tasks.

I think that while it’s really important to know what your goals and tasks are, it’s equally important to feel like you’re actually reaching something when you work. It’s taken me a little while to get to the point where I feel that most days, my lists are well made and my work is productive, but now I feel confident about it and I’m going to go check off “write an article about to-do lists” from my to-do list.  ?

Sometimes, You Can Just Move a Little Faster

I’m assuming you’re expecting some long elaboration on the title of this article… maybe I’m talking about work, production processes, maybe fitness? Nope.

This is something I realized, not sure how, not sure why, and I’m not really sure when I actually implement it. But sometimes, just sometimes, I realize that I’m just not moving as quickly as I could be. Emptying the dishwasher, for example. Going down the stairs to put the garbage out, or even just getting ready in the morning. Sometimes if you just take a second to realize the speed at which you’re doing stuff, you’ll realize that you could be going a hell of a lot quicker, and there’s simply no loss. It’s not even more difficult most of the time!



I get the feeling that a lot of people will read this and think “uhhh, yeah no sh** dude” but I find that it occurs to me at random times, and when I do speed up, things go impressively quickly. Then I imagine what life would be like if I just did all of my monotonous tasks quicker than usual, and I think about how much time I would save. Anyone who knows me knows I’m huge on efficiency and doing things the right / logical way, and this is just an example of my realization that we simply don’t move as quickly as we could.

Counter-argument, you say? I’m tired! I’m lazy! Yes, those are valid arguments. But the biggest thing that I’ve noticed, is that it actually doesn’t feel like it takes more energy to speed up just a little bit. Just enough to give you those extra five minutes in the morning, enough to let you take an extra minute at the coffee machine (do people have watercoolers anymore?), enough to get you to bed just before that time where you look at your clock and you say “Damn! Past ___ o’clock again! I really need to go to sleep earlier.”

So, my friends, my message is simple. Think about it a couple of times when you’re doing simple, generally monotonous things, and just speed up. Juuust a lil bit. Try it sometime… either I’m a bit OCD and a productivity-freak or maybe it actually makes sense.