Main illustration: Matt Yow
Growing up, I was surrounded by video games. In my house, we had the NES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy and a bunch of PC games. I would play video games for hours on end, only stopping for the odd toilet break.
But as my love of gaming grew, it became obvious that I wasn’t drawn to the typically popular action or racing games.
I would get lost in those worlds as I designed environments and overcame crises, managed resources and organized priorities. I found it to be the most compelling form of escapism, at once demanding and yet also relaxing.
It is only recently that I realized how much these games resemble my role as a Product Manager. Looking at these games now, I can see how the traits that I enjoyed so much in those games – strategy, planning, responding to emergencies and so on – also exist in product management.
1. Developing strategy skills
The first game I remember being drawn to for the strategic skills it required was Theme Hospital – there was just something about planning, building and running a hospital and then dealing with patients suffering all sorts of surreal diseases and disorders (think extra long tongues or bloaty heads), that I couldn’t get enough of.
Those sorts of challenges were also the real appeal of SimCity and The Sims (okay, without the bloaty heads). They demanded a keen sense of strategy and forced you to constantly think about what sort of challenges you might face in the future, so that you could prepare now.
That sort of strategic thinking is at the heart of good product management – you need to constantly think about the future. What will the product look like in 6 months? What will we be able to ship in the next 3 months? What needs to be prioritized now in order for it to have a long lasting impact for customers? How will what you do in the near term affect the medium term and the long term.
Figuring out how to do, say, customer research or market analysis today so you know what to plan for in the medium term. It’s the opposite of instant gratification and simulation games not only taught me that, but also taught me how to enjoy it.
2. A balancing act of competing priorities
Strategic thinking is only one piece of the puzzle for both simulation games and product management.
Strategic thinking is only one piece of the puzzle.
One of the most important responsibilities of a PM is to ensure the team resources are invested in the most impactful work. The entire genre of product management books, articles and podcasts is basically focused on telling people how to manage competing priorities. I just got a head start with all those games!
Some people never learn how to handle priorities and weigh up trade-offs, but if you play simulation games as much as I did, you can’t help but learn the importance of carefully allocating your resources.
In SimCity or Theme Hospital, your main resource is money and every decision is about making sure you get the most impact and benefit every time you spend it. In SimCity, you have to determine how much to invest in policing to avoid a downturn of a popular neighbourhood, say. In Theme Hospital, you have to figure out how much to spend hiring, training and retaining high quality doctors. In both cases, you have to correctly prioritize the resources that are available to you.
In my current role as a PM, the main resource I have to consider is my team’s time and attention, but the underlying challenge isn’t all that different.
As well as managing your priorities and resources, there is a wider game at play – as the saying goes, ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,’ so when it comes to being PM, that means you need to be able to straddle the fence between strategy and operations at all times.
One of the most challenging aspects of product management is finding the balance between balancing your short term and long term goals, between the need to execute and the need to think strategically, at the same time. You have to be on top of the here and now, while still maintaining the long term vision of a product. But no matter how much you plan ahead, there are always the unpredictable events that are totally out of your control. And how you respond to them is the true test of whether you can play the game.
3. Handling crises and emergencies
Why does it seem like unpredictable emergencies always kick off at the worst possible time?
A good product manager will be resolute.
Well, in simulation games, emergencies arise because the game designer is making things interesting, keeping you on your toes, testing your abilities. A game without unforeseen challenges isn’t even much of a game – the drama is part of the attraction. Indeed, how you react to the unforeseeable is a big part of the appeal.
In real life, however, it doesn’t quite feel like that. You will always find yourself putting out some fire when there are a million other things to do. It can feel like all your best-laid plans are only there to be disrupted at the last-minute.
For example, a last minute bug found during QA can sometimes delay a well planned beta for weeks.
Recently a new feature contained a query that destabilized a databased and caused downtime. We were forced to divert engineering resources into redoing the query instead of focusing on a new feature. Simultaneously, leadership asked us to help another team on a strategic initiative. We had to reshuffle resources to accommodate.
It is the responsibility of the product manager to assess if these events are indeed critical and require the team’s attention. A good product manager will be resolute, keeping the issue contained, protecting the team from unnecessary distractions and solving the issue in an efficient manner.
That lesson has stood to me – instead of panicking when faced by a last-minute crisis, I realize it is all part of the role and I need to be able to respond and even relish these moments of unpredictability. Just like in video games, as in life – how we react to the unforeseeable is kind of the point.
4. There is no end, there is no winning
The biggest difference between simulation games and most of the other popular game genres is a fundamental one – there is no end, there is no finish point. You can’t even win, in the sense of defeating the big boss in the final level. Instead, playing the game, not winning it, is the point.
Not having an end is actually a core part of the appeal – the process, the growing, the learning, the ever-expanding nature of the challenge, all represent the reward. The sense of achievement is entirely different from seeking to “conquer” or “master” a finite game.
There is always room for improvement and that’s where the motivation lies.
For product managers, releasing the product to the public is not the end goal, it’s not the final level of the game. Instead, there is a constant need to improve the product and to better satisfy and address the needs of the customers. There will always be more bugs, more feature requests, new scalability issues, new benchmarks, old features that need to be killed, the list goes on.
This might sound daunting to some, but it’s part of what attracted me to the role.
You hear a lot about “gamification” these days – applying aspects from video games to non-game contexts to increase engagement. It can sound a bit manipulative, but it’s much more than a gimmick to keep people’s attention.
For me, the demanding aspects of product management, the constant changes between strategic mode and operational mode, between one context and another, is enjoyable in precisely the same way as playing SimCity or, more recently, a game like Don’t Starve. It’s the same sense of demand and reward.
All those childhood hours in front of the computer playing The Sims or Theme Hospital seem like time well spent now. Obviously, there is something inherent in them appeals to me, but I think it’s a case of more than just sharing traits. I realize now that those games actively prepared me not just for the challenges of my job – more importantly, they trained me to enjoy those challenges.
After a few years as a PM, it strikes me that the biggest difference between games and product management is that in games, you get a second chance to start afresh and do it all over again.