Monday, August 29, 2016

That's No Game! It's a Project Management Trainer!

"A strong woman looks a challenge dead in the eye 

and gives it a wink" - Gina Carey


About a week ago, I bought a game called Planetbase. It was part of a Humble Bundle I purchased with several other games that hopefully I'll get around to, but right now, for a lot of reasons, I'm really digging this game.

It's based on colonization and sending a bunch of people to a barren planet to set up a base camp. They have different planet types that you can unlock once you reach a certain amount of successes on the previous planet type. You have a crew and starting resources, but you have to get to the survival stage and then self-sustaining fairly quickly or the crew starts having problems, you start running low on all kinds of things like spare parts and bots and sometimes even people. 

The opening mission is on a Mars type planet. You can pick anywhere on the planet to start your base and the idea is expansion for as far and long as you have resources, colonists and room to grow. It really is like a Sim game in a lot of ways. Until you get to the challenge section.

I started the first challenge Wednesday night. It was pretty simple:

Scenario:  Accumulate 100 ore
Given I have 5 people (2 biologists, 3 engineers)
And 9 robots (4 drilling, 1 construction, 4 carrier)
And a limited supplies 
And only trade ships available
Then I should be able to accumulate 100 ore

What you find out when you click into the challenge is that the game has removed abilities. The first limitation you are told when you enter the challenge, no more colonists than what you start off with. You lose someone or a bot, you are probably in for a rough ride.
This is from normal game play - but it's still a cool day shot.

Working Towards A Goal

As you can see from the gherkin above, I had to manage people, robots and resources. When you get into the challenge, you realize it's also removed any way to make building materials from the raw sources you produce. So you either have to trade/buy the materials or recycle them from something else. It also disabled any way for you to build more robots. If I wanted more, I was going to have to trade or buy them from the trading ships. 

One of the first things I did was recycle the construction bot and two carrier bots after the initial construction was done. More building resources! Yeah! 

With limited resource come limited ways to produce power to power everything, and store energy. My first problem was with the power grid. I had enough resources dedicated to it until I realized I was going to need a landing pad, and I couldn't recycle anything else. I had used the resources I pilfered from the bots to build out a bigger power grid and now, I was going to have to adjust that, and use what I had left to build the landing pad, or I wasn't going to have a way to get trading ships to my base. I recycled one of my solar panels to build a landing pad.

This is a great example of making initial decisions and the modifying them in the iterations that come later. When something looks acceptable, and then a customer or a tester detects an issue, this triggers (or it should trigger) a triage process by which resources and people can be moved and pointed at the problem. And then, solving one problem can lead to another.

Night shot of Ice Planet Colony (called it Hoth Rebel Base)
Because I took out part of my power grid, I was had to manage the power resources during the night cycle. I had one turbine that was there when there was any wind, which was rarely, but enough to keep producing energy. The real energy makers were the solar panels. I would shut off solar panels and even the landing pad to keep power for as long as possible. When I later added storage areas for the raw materials, I would shut off power to those as well. I also would shut down a mine if a bot wasn't working in it.

The power management problem, produced previously by the landing pad problem is pretty typical in project management. If you take resources or people away from a project which had a balanced, predictable cadence of production, you have to compensate in other ways, by reassigning people, moving other resources or limiting/restricting access to a resource so it isn't used up too quickly. This is project management basics. Mistakes aren't mistakes, they are really just resource problems. It only becomes a mistake if you can't compensate fast enough with another resource.

 Once the trading ships started showing up, I traded off any extra I thought I could safely trade away for building materials, semi-conductors or other needs. Eventually I was able to build out another storage unit, another solar panel, and other power collector and a second robot repair station. At this point, I was about 75 percent done with my goal. And my project was self-sustaining. I walked away for 15 minutes to do other things around the house and came back. All was well. I completed the challenge with 100 ore, all the people and the robots I didn't recycle, and had a few resources left over.

When projects hit this point, of self-sustaining, you basically watch for any serious issues, but it becomes a hands-off affair. Everybody knows the goal, knows what they are doing, and progress is reported on a regular basis. Progress can and should also be verified. In this game, it was seeing the storage rooms fill up. In the real world, it's demos, releases, defect reports and product sales/usage. This is the time when you start working towards your next goal, setting up for the next project. It's the quiet before the next storm. 

All of this is people and resource management. It happens every day in every business on every project imaginable. The trick is knowing who to put where and what to use to get the job done. If you are any good at these games, then you might have a career in project management. You just have to learn how to deal with real people instead of the meeple that run around in your sim. And that's a different blog post. 

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