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Christine here. Nice to e-meet you all!

While I’m an Innovation Consultant in Melbourne, spreading the Lean Startup message (amongst other methodologies), my brother Cameron, is living Lean Startup in his Seattle-based games company, Against Gravity.

Apart from being one of my favourite people on earth, he also recently managed to release one of the highest rating games on Steam, Valve’s digital distribution platform. The Virtual Reality game, Rec Room, went from concept to ship in just 99 days.

I spoke to Cameron recently about the strategic decision that he and his co-founder, Nick Fajt, made to adopt the Lean Startup methodology.

Cameron explained to me that he and Nick had read Eric Ries’ seminal book, ‘The Lean Start-up’ whilst on “vacation” (we have to forgive him here – he’s been living in the US long enough to forget the word “holiday”).

While the examples in the Lean Startup focus on website and app-based development, the common sense nature of the approach aligned with Cameron and Nick’s instincts and they ended up giving a copy of the book to all the Against Gravity founders. They now consider it to be their ‘playbook’ for the world where you can “build things out of software”.

Following Lean Startup meant that rather than sticking to a rigid design phase, Against Gravity decided to iterate and develop “in public” and have gone as far as to have ‘<em>Ready, Fire, Aim</em>’ as one of their company principles.

As Cameron explains, the Lean Startup approach is more “heat seeking missile” than “sniper”. That is, the missile tracks the target whilst it’s in flight, rather than using all available resources to prepare for one super precise shot.

The point that may resonate with many who are contemplating Lean Startup methodology is the misgivings that Cameron initially had. Whilst he found the Lean Startup approach to be sensible intellectually and strategically, his creative designer side, the side that always wants to “polish everything to a mirror shine”, found it difficult to let go. Whilst logically it is much less risky NOT to put years of effort into perfecting something that nobody wants, releasing the game in its incomplete ‘Minimal Viable Product’ form felt “embarrassing”. Even so, with the world of VR being entirely made up of ‘early adopters’ who are ready and willing to help optimise the VR experience, it made perfect sense to get early adopter feedback as fast as possible. This meant tolerating the vulnerability of releasing a rough, early-version work in progress. And, as it turned out, there was no better way to learn what users valued. Today, pre-release discomfort is taken as a signal that they’re on the right track.

Here are some of the Lean Start up lessons learned at Against Gravity:

1. Choose your innovation battles

In Rec Room, users can choose between sports such as Paintball, Disc Golf and Paddleball, but the team had to decide whether to take days to code an innovative 3D menu interface or simply use a 2D menu that users would recognise from their mobile phones. It was tempting to want to innovate every aspect of the user interface, but ultimately this would have meant slowing progress down. Instead, items such as the menu were envisaged more as ‘scaffolding’ that assisted users to get to the more innovative interface experience. As it turned out, the 2D menu worked intuitively and users have had no complaints.

2. Community commentary + data = action

One of the most challenging aspects of development has been working with the telemetry and analytics. That is, working out what questions to ask the data and how to ‘listen’ to the answers the data provides.

For example, after a couple of users reported issues with customising their avatar, instead of rushing into a knee-jerk fix, the data was analysed and showed that only a tiny proportion of users were experiencing any problem.

Conversely, some players were quitting the game early in the experience without giving feedback. The hypothesis was that the level of social interaction the user experienced early in the game was predictive of quitting behaviour and return rates. Upon investigating, Cameron found that they weren’t collecting the data they needed to check that hypothesis.

Although it took an extra three weeks to adjust the analytics to collect the right information, it was worth the time. Firstly, the data supported the hypothesis, which meant that a fix was needed, and secondly, they now had a baseline to measure whether the fix resolved the issue (or made it worse).

Cameron aims for “really crisp, unambiguous insights” from analytics that measure user behaviour, and the team won’t rush into fixes based on community commentary without a clear signal from the data.

3. Vanity metrics are difficult to resist

Rec Room has players in 130 countries, but is this a useful metric? According to Cameron, probably not, but it does sound impressive. He points out that you could be just as successful with highly engaged players in five countries. He believes that if you fall into the trap of allowing vanity metrics to dictate decision making, you waste valuable time and resources pursuing questionable goals such as ‘get players from more countries’.

Only time will tell what will happen to Rec Room: the VR game that is growing up in public like so many celebrity offspring. Whatever happens, we can rest assured that even in the virtual world, Lean Startup works.

On a final note, I can report that Cameron remained lighthearted for the duration of the interview (he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother). Sorry. I couldn’t resist!!

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