What Can The Art of War Teach Us About Game Development? Part 2

The Art of War in it's original presentation: bound bamboo planks.

The Art of War in it’s original presentation: bound bamboo planks.

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.

You can read Part 1 of the series here.

Chapter IV: Dispositions

Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in hope of winning. (Chapter 4, Verse 14)

Contrary to what one might assume, Sun Tzu was not a bloodthirsty warmonger. He stressed that the aim of war was expedient victory, not destruction, and that the most skilled generals achieved it with a minimum of bloodshed on for any side, or no bloodshed at all. To win through pure violence was the hallmark of the amateur and the inept. Truly adroit generals win before the battle even begins. In modern terms, they set themselves up for success. How do you, the modern game developer, do likewise? Simple: do your due diligence.

Now the elements of the art of war are first, measurement of space; second estimation of quantities; third, calculations; forth, comparisons; and fifth, chances of victory. (Chapter 4, Verse 17)

For instance, when planning a project and stacking a backlog (or, when plotting out a longform waterfall road map, vaya con Dios), Sun Tzu provides a simple, but effective, calculation. Take a look at your proposed scope, and divide it by your team’s typical burndown rate, compare that forecasted timeline against your proposed project timeline, and, finally, weigh your chances of success.* If you don’t like the odds, either cut some scope or add some time. The same principle applies to P&L forecasts.

There is also a less literal application of Chapter 4: negotiations. The use of The Art of War in negotiations deserves a blog in and of itself and is beyond the scope of these posts. But, suffice it to say, the most skilled deal makers know how to set the pieces before they even walk in the room, play disorganized companies against themselves, and apply leverage to secure the desired outcome.

Anciently the skillful warriors first made themselves invincible and awaited the enemy’s moment of vulnerability. (Chapter 4, Verse 1)

Chapter V: Energy

Generally in battle, use the normal force to engage; use the extraordinary force to win. (Chapter 5, Verse 5)

In Chapter 5, Sun Tzu is chiefly concerned with the application of “normal” and “extraordinary” forces – foot-soldiers and cavalry. In an extension of chapter 4, he emphasizes how the positioning of these forces before a battle can have as much impact as their actions during combat.

To apply this concept to development literally, it can be useful to take a “strike team” approach in some circumstances: while the bulk of the production team is concerned with asset creation and feature implementation, one smaller group focuses on a subset of the game, such as multiplayer or mini-games. This sort of disposition can provide predictable development to the mainline production, while also allowing a cabal to stay flexible and think laterally while tackling some outstanding aspect of the project.

For these two forces are mutually reproductive; their interaction as endless as that of interlocked rings.  Who can determine where one ends and the other begins. (Chapter 5, Verse 12)

One could also apply this idea of coordination to cross-discipline teams. Overly segmented studio cultures experience communication failures between engineering, art, and design, and lack cross-disciplinary perspective. The result tends to be, predictably, a form of tribalism. Engineers feel put upon by the expectations of artists and designers. Artists and designers feel artificially constrained by tech budgets, and clash over functionality versus aesthetics. Much shit talking commences all around.

The best way to combat this tribalism is cross-disciplinary production. Team organization, project planning, and task execution should always be conducted in a cross-disciplinary setting. Goals should be expressed in cross-disciplinary terms. Artists, designers, and engineers should work together directly, and should never have to go through leads or producers.

Generally, management of the many is the same as management of the few. It is a matter of organization. (Chapter 5, Verse 1)

A military functions because of the distribution of foci. The generals at the top are concerned with the big picture, the long form strategy. Enlisted men focus on moment-to-moment tactical execution. Between them lies a gradual cross-fade, with responsibilities becoming increasingly strategic as one moves up the chain of command and vice-versa. The distribution of decision making and concentric layers of responsibility are what allows a small number of people at the top of the heap to successfully guide the efforts of thousands or hundreds of thousands at the base.

Well-run business units should function in this same manner. Those at the top should focus on the strategy and long term goals of a project. Those at the bottom should focus on implementation. Many developers – indeed, many businesses –  run into trouble when those at the top attempt to maintain tactical control as well as uphold their strategic responsibilities. This scenario manifests in micromanagers, team leaders who are unable to see the forest for the trees, and productions that become pedantic and myopic.

Chapter VI: Weaknesses and Strengths

And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy. (Chapter 6, Verse 28)

In chapter 6, Sun Tzu focuses on ways that the general can best apply his strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses through timing, deception, and location. But, at its core, chapter 6 is about responding to change. Attack when then enemy is weak, avoid him when he is strong. Adapt your formations to best exploit his openings. Use terrain to funnel him into position for a killing stroke.

As stated in the first part of this series, the “enemy” we typically face in development is not a mortal foe or corporeal form, but reality. Or perhaps, more specifically, circumstance. And while we cannot lure circumstance, nor can we count on it to be exhausted from a forced march, that does not mean we cannot apply what Sun Tzu teaches us.

Therefore, determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not; (Chapter 6, Verse 20)

Replace “enemy’s plans” with “circumstance” in the above quote and you will take my meaning. To be successful in development, to minimize waste and maximize quality, is to respond to change as it occurs, not after a port-mortem. If your launch window suddenly becomes lousy with competing products, work to find a new one. If your paper design is not practicable for your tech, adjust the design. If your in-house team is not producing assets quickly enough, outsource. But, above all, do not just plow ahead with blinders on and count on your team to make-up the difference through long hours and six day weeks.

Generally, he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary. (Chapter 6, Verse 1)

This also means putting yourself in a position where you can observe circumstance sooner and respond earlier. Test your mechanics as quickly and crudely as possible. If you have to fail, fail fast and fail cheap. Take those cheap experiments and apply the scientific method to iterate to something fun before you start mainline production. Start hammering away at your technical debt as soon as possible, ideally in parallel which your rapid prototypes. Review your backlog constantly, and make sure it always reflects your most up-to-date understanding of the product. Develop burn down estimates for story points and asset creation, and use that to forecast how much of your backlog you can complete over what period of time. If you don’t like the answer, it is better to know at the beginning of a project than at the end.

That you may travel a thousand li† without wearying yourself is because you travel where there is no enemy.

When we are “defeated” by circumstance, the result, typically, is crunch. Instead of finessing our way through an issue, we slog it out, make our teams live at the office, and buy them a lot of shitty take-out. To be an effective strategist and leader, and to avoid killing your team with crunch, is to always be prescient of circumstance: to “outthink” it, spot its encroachment sooner, and respond more effectively. Don’t muscle through obstacles, find creative solutions around them. If your route to a completed product is the “critical path”, then find the critical path of least resistance.

Thus, one able to gain victory by modifying his tactics in accordance with the enemy situation may be said to be divine. (Chapter 6, Verse 30)

And, really, who wouldn’t rather be a divine leader?

*To steal and idea from Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, it is important to treat this calculation in probabilistic, rather than absolute, terms.
†A “Chinese mile”, currently defined as approximately 1,640 feet, or a little less than 1/3 of a conventional mile. In Sun Tzu’s day, the measurement was more subjective.

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