How ‘Age of Empires’ taught me to build awesome products

Miguel Carruego
6 min readNov 7, 2017

I was born in 1984, so I grew up in the golden era of video games. I’m neither a “rate-my-setup guy” nor a “console guy”, I played (and still play) both.

And now that I’m a grown-ass man, I can see that there is one game that changed the way I build things: “Age of Empires II: The Conquerors”.

Gotta say, I was for a long time a “PES guy”, but now I’m a “FIFA guy”.
Shame on me.

Spending more hours that the ones I want to admit, I was pairing and competing with my friends in this amazing strategy war game. But what I didn’t know, was that I was actually training for work (or life):

You have to build something, while everyone else is trying to kill you.

So, all these hours playing this majestic multiplayer online game, gave me one valuable skill:

Making good decisions, under stressing circumstances.

Here are some of the strategies I learned playing AOE, that I still use everyday at work. And of course, at life.

Visibility

Do you ever wondered why your first piece of army is a Scout Cavalry?

All rights reserved to the Microsoft Corporation.

That’s right. The first thing you have to do, is not attack, is not build, is discover.

How do you know where to put that expensive first castle, if you don’t even know where your enemy is? How do you know where to build your walls, if you don’t know where the map ends?

Now let’s think about work, do you ever built something out, and when you were finishing it, you realized that is not solving any real problem?

If this is your daily basis, you should change your methodology and be sure to do some kind of research before anything else. I’m not going to expand here because you’ll find plenty of books, posts, papers or whatever about what a good research is.

Sometimes, is just grabbing a piece of paper and drawing something to understand what problem needs to be solved, and when you are done, then is when you should build your castle.

My advice: try to complement your UX research with a technical research, or viceversa. But never rely only on one of those.

Anticipation

The key to winning battles, is to anticipate others moves. That’s why in AOE you build watchtowers everywhere you can. So when the other team is moving an army you’ll know, and you’ll be prepared.

Watchtowers in Age of Empires. Microsoft

When you are building a digital product, those watchtowers are the metrics.

You have to build a set of primary Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), so every time you see a negative tendency, you can be prepared and act accordingly to change that tendency.

What is important about these KPIs, is paying attention to them, not just making them at the very beginning and never see them again.

I learned this the hard way. (Might need a separate article)

Focus

You can protect your castle, you can lead your army to battle, or you can grow large and vast farms, but you can’t keep up with all that at once.

The sound you hear when you know you are in trouble.

This is one of the biggest challenges in the game, doing all at once.

What is the secret? Focus in one thing at a time. There is a time to do each task. The challenge is, of course, choose the right time. Sometimes this depends on luck, but if you work on your observation skills, you can predict when someone is going to attack you, or by the contraire, when someone is not going to bother you.

Focus is always the key to success. This is something I learned from Martín Palombo: when you have a big challenge ahead, baby steps and focus.

Complementary teamwork

Let’s face it, you suck at most tasks. But there is one thing, just one, that you know you can do good. So, why trying to do all by yourself?

Try this obvious strategy instead: find the best people in their fields, and make them your team.

Of course, is not an easy task, and it does not depend all of you, but if you put some effort on your leadership skills, smart people will follow you. And if you put a lot of smart people together, they can make an amazing work.

When you are playing AOE, you always try to team up with people who is great at doing something that you don’t. Like gathering a lot of resources building a smart trade strategy, while you build a strong army and other pal take care of the right defenses.

Same thing goes for building products. You have to team up with complementary roles. And this might sound a bit obvious, but one thing that usually happens, is that we team up with people who is just like us.

Healthy business model

If you focus your economy on mining spendable resources, you are gonna lose eventually.

Markets and trading carts. Microsoft

Something you learn when start playing multiplayer, is that you need a trade strategy. Why? Simple, the mines will eventually run out of gold or stone, but the trading carts will product endless gold.

This is basically how economy works, and is a very common scenario seeing a startup company run out of money because they never had a healthy business model. Great ideas don’t necessary means great business.

That is why you need a plan and a model.

A model where the money you earn is more than the money you spend. And a plan, where you evolve and achieve that model. Because of course, you usually don’t start earning money at the very beginning.

MVP

There is no need to build all those beautifully aligned houses that you’ll never gonna use. Also, probably there is no need in building all those huge walls around your city.

The difference between a pro player and a noob, relies on the ability to spend the right amount of time and resources. This, again, applies for AOE and building products. And life, also in life.

What is really hard, is finding what is the value your product is delivering to your customers. Sometimes is pretty obvious, but when you have a big and complex product, is not so easy. That is why in most cases, building a MVP is the right answer.

You should always aim to build a great knife, not a so-so swiss army knife.

Never stop delivering

One thing that you constantly do in AOE is find your idle villagers, and put them to work. This might sound as exploitation, but you know what? There is a whole army giving their life so you can stay there doing nothing.

A bunch of villagers doing nothing. Microsoft

When it comes to digital products, and mostly in startup companies, the speed you have for delivering value is key to success. Static companies tend to die with time. Also, clients of digital products are used to constant updates and new features, and when that cease to happen, users tend to move to other solutions.

Another thing you can do is kill those villagers, but that is none of my business.

Do not limit yourself, let the game limit you

Something that people usually do in AOE, is build the walls of the city when the game starts. If you build the walls too far away, they are difficult to guard, but if you build the walls too close instead, your city will eventually grow and wont fit anymore.

When it comes to products, services, or any other project you have, always shoot for the stars.

The environment will eventually put a limit on your project.

Always have a plan B

One very common mistake in AOE is to spend all of your money on a large army, then attack, fail with the attack, be counter attacked with nothing else to defend, and lose.

Age of Empires logic

You know what? Chances are you are going to fail. More than once. And that goes for AOE, love life, work, or whatever. So always be sure to have a plan B.

If you are happy and you know it clap your hands ♪

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