Since reading A Theory of Fun for Game Design, I’ve been thinking a lot about the games I grew up playing and their impact on how I think, learn, and work.

I feel like sharing some appreciation for a few of the most influential, and to kick things off, I’d like to take a look back at The Incredible Machine. For those not familiar with the game, here’s a longplay video. If you watch the first three levels, that should be plenty.

Define the Goal

Each level of The Incredible Machine defines a concrete and unambigous required outcome. “You must pop all the balloons.” Without this, we could spend a lifetime moving toys around our sandbox, never knowing where we are going, why we are going there, or whether we’re even moving in the right direction.

My most successful teams and projects have been those in which someone takes the time to clearly define a set of requirements and acceptance criteria without jumping ahead to “solutioning”. In the same way that no one could prepare a map and directions for a road trip without knowing the destination, we cannot begin to evaluate the proper tools and architectures (or even the ideal team structures and organizational processes) without understanding the essential problem.


On starting a level, we find ourselves in the midst of a playground still under construction. I love how the initial state for the first level clearly demonstrates a single concept, “gravity works here.” Press play, and the ball falls.

Ok, so now what? I’ve written on this before, but sometimes we need to just try something and see what happens. This is a playground. It’s a safe space to experiment. If it doesn’t work, we will still gain something (namely, understanding which will accrue toward intuition).

Learning From Failure

Well, we have a toolbox over there on the right hand side. I wonder if I could use a ramp to divert the first falling bowling ball such that it collides with (and hopefully pushes) the next one. Ah, but then it would roll to the right and fall down as well. At some point I need to gain elevation to move the basketball. This is not going to work.

Wait, what is this hamster? If I put it in the middle of the air, nothing happens. Another failure. Thank you, failure!

At some point I may try putting it under the falling bowling ball and notice that it makes the hamster start running.

Components, Capabilities, and Systems


Now I understand a few components. The ramp component can direct the flow of an object. The ball component can fall, roll, and impact other objects. The hamster component can spin a wheel, but only if it is first impacted by another object.

Take a moment to think on that last one, especially the “but only” part. I have found it hard to articulate the thought that keeps buzzing around my head on this, but I’ll try: The hamster component will be more useful to us in our future work, and our intuition around when to use it (or not) will be stronger, if we take a moment to play “what if”.

If we want to succeed as the levels become much more complex, we owe it to ourselves to fully, truly, deeply understand how the components in our toolbox work. Beyond seeing it work in one situation and limiting ourselves to repeating that specific usage only, let’s rather give ourselves the gift of peeking under the hood, testing our assumptions, exploring the conditions which influence its behavior, and building a more complete picture of how this component can serve us.


Components are better together! The falling ball component combined with the hamster component gives us (for lack of a better term) a rotational drive capability as the wheel begins to spin. The spinning wheel combined with the belt gives us a capability to transfer that rotational drive to another “thing that can spin”. Combined again with the conveyor, we have a capability to get the converyor moving as well. In turn (no pun intended), we gain the capability to set objects on the conveyor into motion.


Skipping ahead to Puzzle 5 (3:17 in the longplay video), we can see a wider variety of components combined to create a wider variety of capabilities which in turn create a fully functional system. As we continue to play this game, we will see that components can be used in many different ways. The weight of the falling bowling ball can be used to set a hamster in motion or to launch other balls from seesaw levers. I can best explain why this feels important to me through the following metaphor.

The Young Cook

Please feel free to skip to the Literal Interpretation if analogies and metaphors don’t work for you. Thank you, KC Davis for highlighting and modelling this opportunity to accomodate different learning styles!

Once, a young man desired a homecooked hamburger. He performed a quick search and found a plethora of recipes with grocery shopping lists, and he chose one that seemed to balance simplicity with quality. He acquired the ingredients, followed the recipe to the letter, and enjoyed a delicious hamburger.

The next week, the young man hungered for a homemade grilled cheese. As with the hamburger, he found little trouble in finding a recipe, obtaining the groceries, following the steps, and enjoying his melty, crisp sandwich.

The third week, the young man craved a BLT. And so, as with the previous meals, he searched for a recipe, went shopping, and followed it to the letter.

Finally, excited by his progress, he invited his parents for dinner. “Mother, Father, I can make hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and BLTs (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato)! What would like?”

“I would like a bacon cheeseburger,” said his father.

“I would love a grilled cheese with lettuce and tomato,” said his mother.

“I’m sorry, I do not know how to make these,” said the son, and sent them home hungry.

Literal Interpretation

I asked Bing Chat to do this for me, partially to see whether my parable said what I intended and partially for convenience. The following is the reply from Bing Chat, and I approve of this message:

One possible interpretation of this parable is that it illustrates the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the ability to acquire and apply information, such as following a recipe or performing a search. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge creatively and adaptively, such as combining different recipes or improvising with available ingredients.

The young man in the parable has knowledge, but not wisdom. He can make three dishes by following instructions, but he cannot create new dishes by using his knowledge in novel ways. He lacks the flexibility and insight to satisfy his parents’ requests, even though they are simple variations of what he already knows.

The parable may also suggest that knowledge alone is not enough to achieve happiness or fulfillment. The young man may be proud of his skills, but he fails to connect with his parents or share his joy with them. He may also miss out on the opportunity to learn from his mistakes or discover new possibilities.

The parable may invite us to reflect on our own relationship with knowledge and wisdom. Do we rely too much on external sources of information, such as search engines or recipes? Do we challenge ourselves to use our knowledge in creative and adaptive ways? Do we seek to learn from our experiences and share our insights with others? Do we value wisdom over knowledge, or vice versa? 🤔

Thank you, The Incredible Machine. Thank you, Alton Brown. You have inspired me, my friends, and my colleagues to see beyond mechanical repetition and break free from doing only what we have seen done before.

Make It Work, Make It Better

I feel that this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll briefly end with this. I always loved that The Incredible Machine doesn’t care how we make it happen, just that it happens.

Once we meet the goal, we are free to replay it to experiment with other solutions, earn additional bonus points, etc. We can overcomplicate it, kludge something together with bubblegum and duct tape, or move on to build our next great feature.

In Conclusion

I always wondered whether “The Incredible Machine” referred to the contraptions built within the game or to our minds which bring them into existence.

Play. Grok. Create.