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Harnessing Regret

I know this is a development newsletter, but stick with me for a moment, and let's please talk about an old friend I have had to discuss a lot with various clients over the last year: regret.

Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail
8 min read
Harnessing Regret
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

Feelings are a deeply under-discussed part of game development, and an even more deeply underappreciated part of entrepreneurship. We get so lost in ideas of "hustling" and "keeping up" that a lot of people lose track of themselves and their feelings. I had been running a studio for half a decade before I learned the term emotional intelligence, and even now -a decade later- researching, studying, and getting guidance on the topic teaches me new, more effective, and more honest ways of looking at myself, my leadership, and my creative practice.

As a whole, the industry slowly but certainly continues to explore the topic of emotional intelligence - there are increasingly potent discussions about deeply underdiscussed but acknowledged feelings & afflictions as anxiety, burnout, and safety. Talking to studio leaders, team leaders, directors, and indies I have come to believe that at least the topics of responsibility and regret really should be added to that list of topics.

Regret (like other fears) is rarely a directly visible cause for issues at a studio, but I've established regret and fear of failure as a root cause for leadership issues in independent studios quite frequently in the past few years. Regret brings out feelings of shame and anxiety, and people who are experiencing negative emotions (for example, post-launch depression, a project failure, or personal issues) often experience regret more strongly. In a leadership context, regret can cause indecision, unnecessary pivoting, uncertainty, and misplacement of responsibilities - leading to creative stagnation & loss of resources, process, motivation, focus, and/or direction.

The feeling of regret is far more common than you'd think: a commonly cited study suggest that people feel regret for about 30% of their choices, but "[anticipate] regret for almost 70% of  future decisions". In other words: regret is more common than we think among others, but it is also less frequent than we predict it to be for ourselves.

Science also suggests that the possibility of regret is disproportionately increased by an increase in choice. That is particularly damning for creatives and (creative) entrepreneurs, as we're often working in a borderline infinite opportunity space, and often have to resolve our issues by surfacing as many options as possible, then taking a bet based on a combination of pooled knowledge, experience, and gut feelings. More often than not, the amount of variables affecting our choices is nigh-infinite, and the illusion of making informed decisions is only retro-actively applied.

If you're in charge of a company, team, or game - you'll face regret frequently, and learning to manage both the effects of having regret and the effects of anticipating regret will play a part in managing your emotional well-being and your projects' continuation. If we're not going to be able to avoid regret, the goal becomes to harness it: to use its ability to show us where we could improve, to warn us of potential mistakes, to turn it into motivation to be better, and to use it as evidence of our growth.

  • Your opportunity in anticipation of regret is that anxiety for future regret -a fear- can act as a canary in the coalmine, an early warning that your subconscious sees risk of failure even when your conscious mind does not. The feeling can help slow you down when other momentums wish to pull you forward, and give you additional time to consider mitigation.
  • Your risk with fear for future regret is that that it can exacerbate choice paralysis, and slow your momentum beyond a healthy point for someone in leadership. And the more you slow down beyond that point, the more you end up feeling like you have to justify the delay, and you end up over-analysing to the point where you become overly critical of any ideas that aren't fully-formed solutions yet. As no idea is ever a full-formed solution, these standstills are usually only broken by necessity, and in the meanwhile waste valuable opportunities and resources.
  • Your opportunity with experiencing regret is to explore your regrets and learn from past events. If explored in a healthy and non-judgemental way, regret teaches us a lot about a specific sequence of choices and outcomes that might or might not be relevant at a later point in life.
  • Your risk with experiencing regret itself is that it can be debilitating and anxiety-inducing. Not processing and dealing with your regrets in a healthy way can cause unreasonable levels of self-doubt, resulting in a loss of your ability to lead or act successfully. If you find yourself struggling with regret, reading about the topic can help a lot, or -if financially viable- consulting with a therapist to explore your regrets and how regret fits into your life's journey.

The two core lessons that have always helped me with regret in my business dealing are simple: The only bad choice is an uninformed one and people always make the best choice they can.

No human ever looks at two choices, and picks the one they believe to be worse. If I'm going to offer you a choice between option A and B, you're never going to pick the one you think is worse. You might learn later that another option was better, but the version of you that made that choice made the best choice they could.

In a way, regret is your mind and subconscious evaluating the costs of integrating new information, perspective, experience, and knowledge - but your mind judges the old you from its new perspective. Humans are infamously bad at imagining ourselves in the past without having our current self, with all of our newly found knowledge and perspective, falsely bleed into those memories - hence the millenia-old complaints about "kids these days".

Regret then is not something to avoid, it is something to accept and embrace: an opportunity to explore & reflect on the processes that got you to a decision, and to honestly evaluate if getting to the now more obviously correct decision was feasible at all. You'll often find there was no way there without experiencing the choice you regret: iteration is an inherent part of life & creativity, and so is getting it wrong. We know this in game development, in code, in art, in writing - you can't get it right on the first try. We don't fear refactoring, or redoing a sketch, or re-writing a paragraph or even a chapter - nor do we find failure in it. In leadership and business, the same should apply: you should allow yourself the space to fail, learn, and iterate.

I've found that slowly integrating (and continuing to integrate) these ways of thinking into my practices over the years has helped me become a better leader, and I've taught this way to many. Creative fields often involve navigating a vast landscape of possibilities, making fully informed decisions incredibly uncommon. It's important to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty and make peace with the fact that decisions are made with the best available information at the time.


  • Prioritize understanding your emotions for better decision-making your creative career. This is a topic far beyond the scope of a single newsletter article, but emotional intelligence is a topic worth reading about, researching, and especially in leadership positions, I'd recommend working with a therapist even if you're doing well.
  • View regret as a chance to learn and improve. Analyze past choices without self-criticism, and whenever you feel regret, try to instead see it as a journey of learning and understanding. What new insights have you gained that allow you to feel this regret?
  • Accept the uncertainty in creative fields. Game development, like any creative field, remains a craft of iterative nature. The more you fight this and try to get things right the first time, the less good your work will be. Regret is an inherent part of this cycle, but the more focused and agile your iterations are, the less resources you'll have lost.

❓ Question, Answer

Every edition of Levelling The Playing Field, I take one audience question from the comments, my mailbox, and my social media DMs to answer. This week: don't roll the credits just yet!

"We are developing a roguelike, and we've just done our first semi-public playtest. A lot of players are finishing all six levels on their first few attempts and complaining it's too easy. We didn't expect this, we don't have a lot of money left, and we really need to stick to our release date, so we can only add a few new levels. What can we do?"

Hi, roguelike developer!

First of all, I'm sorry to hear about your situation, and can imagine it causes a lot of stress. I don't want to rub salt into a wound, but it would be remiss not to start by saying that I hope this shows the importance of playtesting much, much earlier in the process. I don't know how long you've been developing, but if you're running out of money I'd assume you've been going for at least a year. This honestly is way too late to be realizing your game has such a fundamental issue - and the best way to prevent this on your future projects is to ensure you playtest earlier.

So, without knowing anything about the game, it might surprise you that my answer is not necessarily "make it harder". My answer is "do not roll the credits, not yet".

It is obviously not a bad idea to make the challenges harder (ie. more enemy health, higher enemy damage, more enemy spawns, etc.), but that's kind of a band-aid and might not actually achieve the goals you want to achieve. And if reaching the end is that easy, just adding more content is unlikely to get you to the finish line (hah!) - content is expensive, time-consuming, and if you increase the difficulty of the new content relative to the content before it, it'll feel like an unsatisfying spike - you'd have to rebalance everything against that - which costs even more time.

Sometimes the answer isn't so much in "what can we add", but more in evaluating whether there is other ways to look at what you already have. That can be particularly difficult, especially if you've been looking at something from one perspective for a longer period of time - but taking a step backwards can lead to more overview and a clearer path forward.

Instead, or preferably additionally, it's important for you to think about what you mean with "finishing" the game, and what you want that to mean to the player, and how you communicate that & set those expectations for the player. Rolling the credits generally communicates that the player is "done", and if I got credits after twenty minutes of playing a roguelike I paid for, I'd be pretty annoyed too. The genre expectation is that you'll be playing for a dozen hours or so before you get to anything that resembles a definitive ending.

As a genre, roguelikes and -lites are mostly about overcoming a lack of knowledge and experience, and offering meaningful milestones on that journey: reaching a new world, unlocking a new character, getting access to interesting items, enemies, enemy behaviours, weapons or tools, modifiers, or challenges. These, lets call them modifiers, are also relatively cost-effective to create as they recontextualize existing content, allowing you to add additional sandbox & context without creating entirely new spaces or objects.

My suggestion then is two-fold: first, I suggest you add some content, and rebalance accordingly. Secondly, and more importantly, to think about how you can recontextualize what you currently see as the "finish line" for both yourself and the players - how can you make what currently is communicated as "the ending" such that it does not feel like the end, but an step on a journey, or an entry to the "real" game?

Can you nest or layer content and modifiers in interesting ways, allowing players more difficult, more interesting, or more personal approaches to the game? What about an item that kills the player if they get hit? Or a challenge that sets a time limit between killing enemies? Can you change the enemy behaviour after that point so that the game feels like it got "serious"? What reward can you place against the player progressing through these challenges or achievements? I'm sure you can come up with different ideas in the context of your game that really shakes up how it works and plays.

And, finally, where do the "credits" or "the ending" go in this new approach to your sandbox? When do players "complete" the game? When do you want to give the players that high-five of "OK, as developers of this game, we've seen enough. You win. Congrats! Feel free to play more, or don't, it's not up to us anymore."?

Best of luck on this last stretch,

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Rami Ismail

Gamedev. Exec.Director of & creator of presskit(). Speaker, consultant, helps devs globally. 33% of the The Habibis podcast. Traveler. Was 50% of Vlambeer. He/Him. Muslim. Dutch/Egyptian