Super Metroid Lessons: Focus on Abilities Instead of Obstacles

My favorite game of all time is Super Metroid.  It wasn’t always that way, though.  When I was young, I had a pirated copy of Super Metroid.  Yes, you could pirate SNES games.  No, I don’t pirate things anymore.  One quirk of my bootlegged copy was that it would launch straight into the intro of typing out text and run at 10% framerate, completely unskippable every time.  For this reason, the first year I “owned” Super Metroid, I just thought of it as the stupid game that typed text slowly and made my angry.  One fateful day, though, I was patient enough to leave the intro on while making and eating a meal of macaroni and cheese.  About fifteen hours later, I had completed a gaming experience that has remained unrivaled to this day in my life.

The reason Super Metroid is my favorite game is the fact that it is the first game I played where you could focus on the your abilities and look for the obstacles.  Most games are comprised of abilities and obstacles.  The obstacles are the challenges presented to you and the abilities are what you use to get past the obstacles.  In every game that I had played before Super Metroid, I felt like I was presented with a singular obstacle and spent my entire gameplay experience looking for the ability that would let me get past that obstacle, whether the ability was in myself as a player or in the character.  As was the case in early game design, when you did finally overcome an obstacle, the prize was generally a disappointment (ie. your princess is in another castle) and you’d be forced to focus on the next obstacle at hand.  In other words, you focused on the obstacles and were constantly searching for abilities to overcome them with and by the time you overcame the obstacle, the prize was already gone.

Super Metroid was different.  It would give you an incredible ability and present you with a multitude of obstacles.  Overcoming some obstacles would lead to nothing.  Overcoming some obstacles would lead to something small.  Overcoming some obstacles would actually give you the ability to overcome even more obstacles.  Because of this simple structure, the experience of the game isn’t that of hitting an obstacle and getting frustrated when you fail or being disappointed when the prize wasn’t worth the effort.  The primary thought process of a Super Metroid player was not “What abilities can I use to overcome this obstacle?”  It was “Which obstacle is the best obstacle to tackle right now given my abilities”.  I think the difference between these two mentalities is subtle, but I believe that difference is also fundamental to the core of my being.  By seeing how much I enjoyed Super Metroid compared to other games, it really told me something about myself and what algorithm I used to live my life, even at a young age.

In my life, I’ve met so many people that primarily focus on the obstacles.  They think they’re not happy because they have a crappy job or they think they’re not happy because they’re single.  I also see this mentality applied to start-ups.  They think success will come once they hit critical mass or they think they’ll find success once they catch their big break or they’ll find success once a VC invests in them.  I’m not saying this perspective never works out because sometimes it obviously does.  I think it simply takes a lot more determination, discipline, and luck than what I will call a means-driven perspective.

There are three reasons why I prefer a means-driven perspective over a ends-driven perspective, even in the results-focused world of business.  The first is experience.  When you make an attempt at a goal, the results are either success or failure.  As much as success is nice, failure is not, and it only takes a string of these failures to really damage the confidence and morale of a team.  When you focus on the means everything is just something you do because you can.  If it leads to something good, that’s great.  If it leads to nothing, then you’ve learned that this particular ability wasn’t useful for this particular application.

The second reason is momentum.  When you’ve succeeded in accomplishing a goal, it’s great.  Nobody can take that way from you.  Doing something successful does have long term value in itself in building credibility onto your team.  However, unless you’ve accomplished that goal in a sustainable way, that credibility will waste away very quickly if you can’t repeat the success.  If instead, you are focused on what you can do and you progressively build up knowledge about how to combine your abilities, you become stronger as a team with every new ability you acquire as well as every new way to apply an ability or a set of abilities you already possess.

The last and probably most important reason that I prefer to focus on means rather than ends is that nobody can predict the future.  You may look at the current market and make a guess at where you need to be, but if you ever set that in stone, the next time that the world takes an unexpected turn, you’re fighting your way into a castle with no princess.  If you focus on what you can do now and what next steps those abilities can afford you, you can pilot simply by speed and direction rather than committing to turn by turn directions for the foreseeable future and beyond.  There are so many great success stories of individuals and companies who hit it big with something that wasn’t what they set out to do.  It’s important to focus on your abilities and always be looking for opportunities to apply them rather than to focus on a single goal and let some of your greatest strengths go to waste.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Zero Effect:

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

    • Gavin Clifton
    • February 22nd, 2010

    I totally agree. I think most startups would naturally go straight for the thought process of ‘what to we want to achieve’ first and then gather the things needed to get there. It does make sense to think about what you actually have the ability to do right now and then do something with that. It’s especially true for independent ventures where resources can be limited. It’s definitely a way of thinking I’ve come to naturally after attempting overly ambitious projects. You’re right in saying it’s a subtle difference in thinking, but it’s an important one.

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