What World of Warcraft and Scrum have in common

10 Dec, 2010
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Why a good Scrum is like World of Warcraft
Today I saw a brilliant TED talk by Tom Chatfield called "7 ways games engage the brain". While watching the presentation and going through these 7 ways, I realized that while I have seen these playing games, I have also seen these happen in a good Scrum.
The 7 ways are:

  1. Experience bars measuring progress
  2. Multiple long and short-term aims
  3. Rewards for effort
  4. Rapid, frequent and clear feedback
  5. An element of Uncertainty
  6. Windows of enhanced attention
  7. Other people

I will go through each of the points comparing World of Warcraft to a Scrum.

Experience bars measuring progress
World of Warcraft:
In World of Warcraft, as described by rewarded play reviews, you have a very literal experience bar when you level a character from level 1. But even when you get to the maximum level the game changes from focus around gaining experience and levels and shifts to gaining better and better gear. To make this process more visible people have actually created ways to distill the level of someone’s gear into a single number. Just so they can see their own improvements and compare theirs to others.
In Scrum, all progress is tracked by a burndown chart.

Multiple long and short-term aims
World of Warcraft:
Tom compares killing creatures in World of Warcraft with opening boxes looking for pie. Finding 5000 pies is boring; finding 15 is fun. World of Warcraft makes it fun by having a whole lot of different quests and challenges to overcome on a wide range of levels. From the killing of monster hoping he will drop item X to vanquishing the big dragon who is threatening to destroy the entire world.
Which is probably why I have killed 85592 creatures since they started keeping track without being bored out of my skull yet.
Scrum (Or Agile Modeling, or whatever you want to call it) does pretty much the same by breaking long term goals and visions down into smaller and smaller pieces. At the top are visions and we work our way down through themes, epics, user stories. And even those are broken into tasks, the equivalent of "kill 10 bears" quests.
Reward for effort
World of Warcraft:
In World of Warcraft you always get some reward for doing anything. Kill any monster and you will get a little bit of loot, possibly some experience. Gathering resources and crafting obviously gives rewards too. The interesting bit here is that even the mighty Blizzard messed up in this department, but they fixed it later in the game.
As I mentioned before, at maximum level the game changes from leveling a character to improving his gear. But because of point 5, the need for uncertainty, and the desire to extend the playing experience, the best bossed can only be killed once a week and drop random items from a fixed list. This meant that someone who was either unlucky or already had all the items from a boss would get no reward. This was changed a few years ago with the introduction of points to buy items from when you killed any boss, giving everybody at least some points to spend on stuff.
Anything you do in Scrum is related to some task that is being tracked. These tasks are small, typically between 4 and 10 hours of work. After every task you get rewarded with the feeling of having completed something. This is usually done with the ceremony of moving your task on the Scrum Board from In Progress to Done.
Rapid, frequent and clear feedback
World of Warcraft:
In World of Warcraft all feedback is instant and clear. Kill a monster, get experience and items; Craft an item and receive it; Hand in a quest and you can pick a quest reward; Level up and you will receive new abilities; Fail at killing a boss and you will die and have to run back to your corpse, have bad tactics and you lose a match. You get a reward for doing something good, and get punished when you do something bad.
Scrum (with some borrowing from XP) also has multiple feedback cycles. The first is Continuous Integration and automatic testing. On every checkin of code the CI application will check out your code, compile it, run all your tests and report the outcome. This gives you near instant feedback that your code is still in decent shape.
Then there is the burndown chart feedback. Are we still on track to make our Sprint goals? How about the epic goals?
At the end of every sprint we demonstrate our changes to the Product Owner and other stakeholders. This allows them to give feedback on what we did the past weeks.
And of course we have the retrospective, where we can give feedback on what went well and what could be improved in delivering working software.
All initiatives to give rapid, frequent and clear feedback.
Element of uncertainty
World of Warcraft:
The rewards in World of Warcraft are a mix of certain and uncertain awards. Will this monster drop my quest item? will I receive an extra skill when I make this item?
Bosses are known to drop certain items, but what they drop will be random. This adds to the excitement of killing bosses to find out if they drop the item you want from them.
All of Software Development is all about uncertainty. And Scrum is no exception to that. A lot of things are uncertain during a sprint.

  • Will my code still compile and all the test run?
  • Will we make our sprint goal?
  • Will the demo work when it is supposed to?
  • Will the stakeholders like what they see when they get to see it?

Window of enhanced attention
World of Warcraft:
Have you ever tried to start a conversation with someone who is in the middle of trying to kill a boss he has never killed before? That is immersion. The person is completely focussed on achieving her goal and will not be disturbed by the game until after the encounter.
In Scrum we also have the notion of not changing or disturbing a team during a Sprint. Between Sprints stakeholders can change whatever they want, but during a Spring the team is in control of how and when. This allows a team to be immersed in the problem at hand and solve it.
Other people
World of Warcraft:
Being a Massively Online Roleplaying Game, World of Warcraft is for a large part about player interaction.
There is cooperation because you need to work together to kill the tougher bosses, but there is also competition between players. Both in who can kill the toughest bosses first or has the best gear, but also all out warfare in player versus player combat.
Is obviously all about working together. It is a tool for people to collaborate and produce great quality software that delivers real business value. A lot of people have to be working together to make that happen.
To wrap it all up
A good working Scrum is eerily similar to World of Warcraft, which is interesting, because we can now ask ourselves the question: "Would I rather work, or be playing World of Warcraft?". If the answer is the latter, you might want to take a look into which above areas you are not addressing properly at work.


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