What Can The Art of War Teach Us About Game Development?

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, Japan

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, Japan

Note: This entry was based on Samuel B. Griffith’s translation of The Art of War, specifically The New Illustrated Edition (Copyright Duncan Baird Publishers 2005). All quotations are Griffith’s translations.

Part 1: Estimates, Waging War, and Offensive Strategy


Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was written approximately 500 years before the common era. Despite its age, the work still has relevance to modern warfare. And, as it turns out, game development. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, there are parallels between those two fields. Both are expensive and prolonged endeavors. Both involve the coordination of large, segmented groups of people and diverse talents toward a common goal. Both feature frequent examples of a disconnect between the perspective of those at the top of the organization and the experience of those dealing with day to day operations. And both are largely concerned with managing risk.

The Art of War is divided into thirteen chapters, on subjects ranging from estimates to espionage. I will be exploring groups of chapters over a series of entries. It is possible that nothing in these posts will be a blinding flash of revelation, nor will anything in Sun Tzu’s writings alter the course of the industry. I would only suggest that there is something for the modern game director, producer, or publisher to gain from thinking about Sun Tzu’s philosophy about combat, and how one could apply it to business.

Chapter 1: Estimates

Therefore in laying plans compare the following elements, appraising them with the utmost care. (Chapter 1, Verse 10)

Sun Tzu believed that a martial outing should be considered in terms of five “fundamental factors”: moral influence (what he described as the harmony between general and troops), weather, terrain, command (the general’s leadership ability), and doctrine (how well the army is organized and managed).

If we put these concepts into game development terms they would respectively be (with examples):

  • Morale
    • Is your team excited about the upcoming project?
    • Are they currently in or coming off a period of crunch or a death march?
    • Are they invested in their work?
    • Are you facing a talent drain or a mutiny?
  • Unknown Risks
    • What is the potential for unforeseen technical issues with your engine or tools?
    • How much bandwidth could be consumed by found work?
    • Are your mechanics proven, or will you need to find the fun?
    • What is the potential for bureaucratic or political interference from outside parties?
  • Known Risks
    • What is your feature and content scope?
    • How much technical debt will you need to resolve?
    • How aggressive are your milestone, certification, and launch dates?
    • What is the your post launch support spec?
  • Executive Competence
    • Have studio leaders made smart choices when dealing with important decisions? What about the publisher?
    • How accurately can they estimate the amount of work that can be completed over X weeks/months/years?
    • How good are they at managing outside interference?
    • How successful have they been in negotiating fair compensation and reasonable schedules for projects?
  • Operational Effectiveness
    • Do you have an effective method for tracking burndown and managing found work?
    • Is your decision making process centralized or distributed?
    • Do you have predictable pipelines for asset creation?
    • Can you quickly and effectively outsource emergent tasks if they exceed your operational capacity?
    • Is crunch your only contingency plan for production issues?

Before starting on a new project or venture, make sure you have taken an honest stock of these concepts. Such analysis does not guarantee success, but will help you forecast progress and gauge the overall practicability of a project.

Chapter 2: Waging War

Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed. When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted. (Chapter 2, Verse 3)

The second chapter of The Art of War focuses on the cost of sustaining a campaign. In Sun  Tzu’s view, a protracted war has two main consequences: it causes severe financial strain and it exhausts the army, reducing overall effectiveness. The same can be said of the 18 to 48+ month production cycles of modern triple-A game development. Long development cycles are expensive and grind even seasoned teams down to a pulp.

In Sun Tzu’s view, the most successful campaigns are the ones that are not only victorious, but also brief, minimizing expenditure and loss of life on both sides. Prolonged campaigns lacked adroitness or finesse, and were instead overcome by brute force:

Thus, while we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged. (Chapter 2, Verse 6)

Granted, there is only so fast a triple-A production cycle can be: prototypes have to be tested, assets generated, codebases developed, and due diligence performed. But as our products become more sophisticated, the typical industry solution has been to throw more bodies, more money, and more time at the problem, rather than develop more elegant production methods. As teams continue to grow larger, the effect on our industry has been palpable: publishers double-down on sequels, new IP gets harder to green light, and the bite of used games becomes more painful.

Under these logistical pressures, the mantra of “When it’s done” is eroding the financial stability of our industry. We’ve taken the Miyamoto quote “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad” to the point of fiscal irresponsibility, and treated it is as a license to pay lip service to launch dates. Yes, on an infinite timeline, a game will inevitably be good, much as those monkeys will eventually type Shakespeare. But we do not live in a reductio ad absurdum universe. Time is money, and there is a finite timeline in which our production budgets become financially irredeemable.

We should not short-change our ideas or ship crap to make a date. But, we need to pay more respect to the massive costs we incur and the increasing difficulty of turning a profit as a production drags on. At some point, the value of our artistic ambitions is far outstripped by the damage our budgets do to the solvency of the industry. Our goal should not just be to make great games, but to manage well executed productions. We should take as much pride in having an effective process as we do in having a compelling product.

Chapter 3: Offensive Strategy

Therefor I say: ‘Know the enemy and now yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.’ (Chapter 3, Verses 31-33)

In game development, our “enemy” is reality. Reality trumps our predictions, tempers our ambitions, adds entropy to our otherwise tidy planning. The “peril” manifests as crunch, half-baked products, or project cancelations. Our success as developers, our ability to complete projects on time, to minimize crunch, and to maintain our vision, boils down to our ability to out-maneuver circumstance.

How do we counteract the negative impact of an unwelcome reality? As Sun Tzu says, know yourself. Know what your strengths are. Know what your team’s burndown rate is and know how long, on average, it takes to generate every type of asset you will need. Know your team’s inertia, and how quickly it can pivot and change focus.

On the flip-side, be aware of what your weaknesses as a studio are, and be painfully aware of what you do not know. Do not assume that a design which sounds fun on paper will actually be fun when built. Do not assume that your experience with one platform, engine, or genre grants you prescience into the risks and pitfalls of another.

Finally, do not ignore reality, respond to it. The Marine Corps has a saying: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” Reality will never change to suit your plans. Your plans have to change to fit reality. Organize your teams around what is, not what you wish would be.

Consequently, the art of using troops is this: when ten to the enemy’s one, surround him;

When five times his strength, attack him;

If double his strength, divide him;

If equally matched, you may engage him;

If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;

And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him, for a small force is but booty for one more powerful. (Chapter 3, Verses 12-17)

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Good leaders plan well. Great leaders throw those plans out as soon as they become outdated, and plan anew. Shitty leaders stick with a plan regardless of circumstance, ham-fistedly pounding a square peg into an increasingly round hole.

So, which are you?

Part 2 of this series can be viewed here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s