How Product Management is like … StarCraft?

I anticipate that this post will bring out the PM old-guard. This may come as a shock to those of you over 30, but many of the skills necessary to be a successful Product Manager can be learned by playing video games. Lots of games could be applied to this analogy, but I’ve chosen one that I honed my skills on (about 10 years ago, gulp!), called StarCraft.StarCraft is a sub-genre of the video game world called a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. RTS games are usually conflict based, and the player is pitted against one or more human or computer foes. The goal: to survive. The last player standing is the victor, and RTS games like StarCraft creates a ruthlessness in their players to destroy the virtual enemy. You survive by creating troops, but it is not as easy as clicking “make soldier.” RTS games have complex resource management systems that must be kept in strict balance to create fighting units.

For example, in StarCraft there are 3 basic units of resources that must be kept in check: raw materials (crystal), energy (gas), and “control” (you need to add chiefs to add indians). If one of these resources falls out of order, the production of fighting units can grind to a halt, forcing the player to take critical time away from the fight to survive to shore up the shortage.

StarCraft and other RTS games encourage quick decision making and resource management

Managing these resources teaches tracking multiple deliverables in a time-sensitive environment, and appropriate allocation of work to meet a goal. If you know you are going to need a certain type of resource for a future goal, you need to get to work early or risk missing your “ship date.”

Fighting units are also a concern. Low cost units like grunt soldiers are cheap and fast to create but are limited in effectiveness. High cost units like tanks and aircraft carriers are expensive but can turn the tide in battle.

And you usually can’t create just one type of unit and expect to survive – like a real fighting team, you must maintain a mix of units to form an optimal squad.

This teaches future PM’s to weigh the net present value of one unit versus another, and teaches them of the long range implications of their decisions. Make too many soldiers in a rush to win the game right now, and you can easily fail in the long run.

Finally, and most importantly, games like StarCraft teach us about the cumulative value of research and development in high technology. All RTS games have a “tech tree,” which shows the R&D path to enlightenment. For example, you can’t research stealth airplanes until you’ve researched flight itself, and so on. This research costs time and resources and creates a valuable learning effect

  • You can’t have everything right away (without cheating)
  • You must place your R&D resources appropriately
  • You must keep an eye on the long term goal, spreading your R&D widely across the tech tree has little benefit.
  • Once you make a significant technological advance, you must exploit that gap immediately and with prejudice against the enemy.

I use the tech tree in my day-to-day job with my executive team (who inevitably want the shiny object at the top of the tree). The tech tree helps them to understand that you can’t jump straight to the shiny object without some prerequisites. It also fosters a more strategic discussion of how the underlying technologies that get us to that shiny object at the top of the tree can become products in their own right and solve more immediate revenue needs, holding us off until the high concept product is done. I’ll write more about the tech tree in another post.

You probably don’t need to add questions about RTS games to your Product Manager interview list. Something to consider however, is how have the experiences that the PM holds contributed to his or her worldview? How well can they translate that to their job?

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4 Comments

  • Reply Product Beautiful » Blog Archive » The Games We Play October 2, 2006 at 12:16 am

    […] Every PM plays The Game. Every Development organization plays The Game. This time it’s not StarCraft. […]

  • Reply Andrew January 10, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    Try Master of Orion 2. Turn based games may not have the frantic clickiness of RTS, but the problems you ignore early or don’t realise are there come back to haunt you time and time again.

    Plan ahead, consider all the angles, pace yourself, build risk strategies, keep an eye on the competition but don’t just copy, and overall remember what you are trying to achieve and focus on it.

  • Reply elizabeth January 25, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    While I’ve been a fan of resource management games for years (StarCraft, MOO2, SimCity and all its variants), I never once drew the connection between my vocation and my amusements. It makes perfect sense!

  • Reply The Most Important Trait a Product Manager Needs – Product Beautiful: Building Product Management by Paul Young March 3, 2016 at 11:58 am

    […] of these I’ve covered in other posts (Communications Skills and Leading without Authority, How Product Management Skills are like StarCraft). All of the above are necessary traits to becoming a successful Product Manager. Necessary, but I […]

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