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Games and Business Objectives

A few months ago, one of my co-workers introduced a group of us here at Seilevel to a game called Cookie Clicker. The way the game works is that you can “bake” cookies by clicking on a giant picture of a cookie on the screen, just like the title says. You can use the cookies you’ve built up to buy various auto-clicking helpers and bonuses, and after a while of this it doesn’t make much sense to spend your time clicking anymore because those bonuses are so large. There’s not really a way to win or lose the game, but it’s fun to build up quadrillions of cookies.

A few of us got hooked on this game the day we found out about it, and somebody decided to hold a competition: whoever had the most cookies at noon the next day was the winner. Also, whoever had the least cookies had to buy the winner – what else? – a box of cookies.

Now, when we made this bet I had the highest CPS (cookies per second) by quite a bit, so I thought I’d have a pretty easy win. At the end of the day, though, I had about 20% less CPS than the other guys. At this point, I should make clear that I probably think too much about strategy when I play games. I was content to just cruise when I was ahead, but the fact that I was way ahead and suddenly feel way behind made me determined to win.

In all of the hectic cookie-baking and clicking it was easy to just keep buying things when you could, to get the highest CPS possible. Normally, since there is no “winning” at Cookie Clicker, this would be fine. However, for the purposes of our competition, winning was defined as having the most cookies, not the highest CPS. I decided that the best way to win was by constructing a spreadsheet that calculated the payback period of each item available for purchase, along with the number of seconds left until our deadline. I used this spreadsheet to make sure each “investment” would pay back the number of cookies I spent before our competition ended – otherwise I would actually harm my chances of winning. For example, an item costing 5,000 cookies that only returns 2,000 cookies in our allotted time is not worth buying, since it ends in a net loss of 3,000. The spreadsheet was all straightforward algebra, but my wife still made fun of me.

I ended up having around twice as many cookies banked as my competitors (although I never got the box of cookies I was promised). The moral of the story here is to be aware of what business objectives and metrics actually matter, and focus on optimizing those. It is common for companies to focus on metrics that are convenient rather than useful, such as page views or revenue instead of profits or cash flow. Of course, the usefulness of a metric heavily depends on context: is the company trying to be profitable for immediate self-sufficiency, or take as much market share as possible for a long-term gain? Business objectives may vary widely depending on markets and strategies.

Do you have any stories about choosing business objectives wisely, or poorly? Feel free to share them in the comments.