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What We Can Learn From the Gaming Industry


Video games have far surpassed the notion of just being a more technologically advanced hobby for introverted kids and geeks and instead established their status as a highly influential, as well as respectable art form and industry alike, much contributing to contemporary forms of entertainment. Yet, despite their growing popularity, chances are you don’t know the next thing about gaming. 🕹 A bummer, really, since this vibrant realm of creative and technological problems requires game developers to apply extraordinary solutions to extraordinary problems, thus demanding to actively think around the corner. 🧠 A valuable skill we can all learn from!

Accordingly, we’ve prepared different analogies as well as general lessons coming from the gaming industry, based upon selected insights by Mark Brown (Game Maker’s Toolkit) and Masahiro Sakurai, not only to exemplify the modern relevancy of video games, but also to give you a different perspective on how to actually solve problems and get s#!t done when nothing else seems to work.

The Game Maker’s Toolkit: How to Solve Problems

Optimising Properly: Dying Light

Dying Light is an open-world survival horror game (go where you please and try to stay alive) where players assume the role of an undercover operative, navigating through an infected landscape while trying to fend off zombies with different weapons.

Now, here comes a problem, that the gaming developers turned into gold: Common within survival games–as this provides an element of difficulty, strategy and realism–the weapons used to defend yourself have limited durability. And in Dying Light’s case, these broke way too fast during combat, disrupting the pacing and fluidity of the gameplay, leaving the players frustrated.

Now, the most obvious solution would be to simply increase the durability of weapons, but this runs the risk of rendering the mechanic mostly obsolete while negatively impacting several gameplay system which are interlinked with said mechanic. Instead, lead designer Mazyar Kousha opted for a different solution entirely, after tracing back that very hurdle to its core: the actual problem of weapons breaking stems from fights being too long, after all, so he reduced the enemies' hit points, resulting in a more rewarding gameplay experience.

The lesson for project managers is evident: identifying and addressing the root cause of a problem leads to sustainable solutions. Dig deep to deliver lasting value!

Narrowing Your Horizons: Civilization

Sid Meier’s Civilization is an icon of gaming history in its own right; a strategy game, where players manoeuvre different cultures from ancient to modern times. Though the series includes six titles as of now, the first one especially ran into a very drastic change, just one month before release.

Meier noticed that the game felt too stagnant and slow, resulting in a gameplay experience that was neither interactive nor interesting. Creating different distractions that would keep the player engaged were considered, but ultimately scratched due to repetition. Meier had a different idea entirely: as a last-minute change, he cut the map in half.

His intent was to inject a sense of urgency and strategic depth into each move, thus creating an environment where players had to make impactful decisions within a more compressed timeframe—every decision carried weight.

Meier made a bold decision that most game designers and project managers alike would probably shy away from: scrapping most of the work already done to provide a better end result, transforming the game in its entirety. You must be able to acknowledge limitations as well as work completed without focus to exceed expectations.

Reverse the Formula: Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight is a beloved 2D platformer, made in the tradition of classic NES titles such as Super Mario Bros., Mega Man and many more. Players embark on a heroic journey as a valiant knight armed with a shovel within this fantastical realm of adventure. 💎🤺

In order to make such an old-style game palatable for contemporary audiences, changes had to be made of course, ranging from colour palettes to aspect ratio and other conformities of modern entertainment, while simultaneously maintaining that retro charm so many players are fond of. This evidently requires breaking tradition in itself—and the creators of the game indeed dug up a groundbreaking change that has not been unearthed before. 😉

One of the core mechanics of the platformer-genre are so called checkpoints—a dedicated location where players can save their progress, so they don’t need to start from the very beginning once its Game Over. Shovel Knight takes a refreshingly different approach to this established mechanic by creating risk. Usually, checkpoints serve as a safety net. But this, in turn, encourages a more passive playstyle by fostering the notion that players only need to get to a certain point in the game by whatever means necessary. Which is boring.

To fix this, Shovel Knight does something deceivingly simple: Giving players a choice. You might or mightn't save, either creating a safety net and progressing through this particular section more easily, or destroying the checkpoint to gather ressources and, when successful, progressing through the entirety of the game more powerful.

This approach naturally resonates with project management: Just as Shovel Knight resolves the problem of player engagement and facilitated passivity by reversing the formula, project managers should approach persistent project challenges with a willingness to explore unconventional solutions. Sometimes tradition must be overcome—and sometimes it just takes a nudge in the right direction. In order to do so, creative thinking and novel solutions must be employed.

Lessons from Masahiro Sakurai!

Masahiro Sakurai is among the most renowned gaming directors in Japan, contributing to a multitude of iconic games and franchises as well as being the creator of one Nintendo’s household names: Kirby!

The pink, “friend shaped” (as Sakurai himself put it) tour de force of innocent joy that millions of players instantly fell in love with. Suffice it to say: Sakurai knows a thing or two about game development, leadership, targeting audiences and many more insights he has accumulated over the span of his career. Lucky for us, the mostly retired but nonetheless restless Sakurai has started his own YouTube channel, “Masahiro Sakurai on Creating Games”, where he discusses the games he's worked on, team management, work ethic and anything else that goes into project management, to enable future developers to create the best games possible. Coming from such a leading figure, this is a dedicated gold mine of advice! We’ve compiled some of his most valuable lessons.

Team Management: Explain Ideas to Everyone at Once

Recounting the development of Kid Icarus: Uprising, Sakurai ran into the problem of having to govern a team of people who have never worked together, which caused communicatory problems, sometimes yielding suboptimal results, due to Sakurai communicating ideas separately. Once development of the next game Sakurai directed started, he chose a different approach to fix this: when giving instructions or feedback, all relevant team members were required to attend and listen.

Not only did this prevent unnecessary miscommunication, it also enabled team members to discuss the implementation of ideas more efficiently, since everyone had a concrete idea of what to expect and what to achieve. People were working in unison while also participating in their respective divisions, which proves valuable when sound designers, animators and programmers all work individually on the same attack, for example.

Sakurai invited 30-50 people per meeting and established a rule, that anyone, even if not part of the relevant team, could come in and listen, as to improve teamwork and community within the working space. Furthermore, by having team members see what feedback their colleagues were receiving, everyone could learn and grow at an increased rate. These meetings proved to be a productive exchange. While assembling 30 people at once might seem wasteful considering the accumulated time spent, this still proved highly effective, due to better understanding the assessment saving a lot more time in turn. Fewer revisions were necessary. According to Sakurai, one thing is mandatory to efficiently make use of this strategy, though: Provide snacks, fruits and similar goodies. 🍊🍫 Everything feels a lot more communal through food. 😉

Targeting Audiences: Branching Tastes

Video games are an expression of the diversity of the human experience: Some of us might exclusively play Candy Crush on their phone, others play Mario Kart with their friends. Some keep physical copies as part of a collection while others principally buy digital. Some people play movement-based video games to stay in shape! Others play just for fun, trying to take a break from their everyday life. All these activities are wildly different, but at their core, they boil down to the same common thread: gaming. Like a strong standing tree, branching out indefinitely, every twig representing a unique subcategory. As we are certain, this is an analogy you will find applicable to a vast majority of things. 😉

It is important to understand accordingly: when targeting a specific branch, it isn't so much about your own likes and dislikes, even though (especially since LinkedIn came around 😉) it seems every single one of us is highly opinionated when it comes to working climates, audiences, required content and what not. This isn't a problem necessarily; a smidge of eccentricity may serve as a unique selling point after all! We ourselves know that rather well.

In general, though, Sakurai proposes to take more of a top-down view on the market one is trying to approach, so you might identify specific likes and dislikes, but also a more succinct identification of well existing problems within that branch. A lot of highly acclaimed video games within their respective branches aren’t necessarily groundbreaking after all—they merely prove able to fix the formula. Again: look at Shovel Knight!

The more aware you are of your market, the better you will be able to target it—but always think of it as a tree. 🌳

Project Management: Don’t Rely on a Plan B!

How often did you find yourself in the situation of scanning over a proposal document, which at the end suggests something along the lines of: “Orrrrr we could do this instead…”

As a result, two options emerge. One might be easier; one might be more creative or fun and so on. The easy way out, of course, would be to approve both options and leave the actual choice to someone else! Then again, this obviously is a terrible decision due to facilitating unnecessary disorder. Sometimes you must close doors and ditch Plan B entirely, however appealing it might be.

Choose, what you think will work best. Further suggestions and course-corrections can happen, as a team, but serving hypotheticals just won't cut it and further complications will arise with given time. For this to succeed, you must think your idea through, though—no time to dilly daddle! Once you focus on a single plan instead of two, development will progress a lot more efficiently. Still, Plan B might serve as a new project entirely, eventually. A good idea that can’t find its place still remains a good idea. 😉

An Analogy Between Industries

The gaming industry's immense influence and continuous evolution offers invaluable insights for project managers navigating the complexities of digital transformation. By adopting game design problem-solving techniques, project managers can identify root issues, align team members, iterate and experiment, embrace bold changes, reverse the formula for innovation. On another note, recreational gaming is just a whole lot of fun as well! Give it a shot if you will—we've far surpassed the stigmas surrounding gaming after all. 😉🎮

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