Thinking Tools Inc., the company behind "Project Challenge," is a spin-off from Maxis, the software outfit whose line of PC-based simulations — the most famous being "SimCity" — includes some of the most popular computer games of all time. "Project Challenge" borrows much of its logic and "look and feel" from games such as "SimCity." It is business edutainment.
Boot up the software and you find yourself behind a desk in a dowdy, cartoonish office. You're the manager of a five-person team that's developing an unnamed technical product (say, a software package) for a client. While a time clock runs, you try to deliver the product on-time and on-budget, while satisfying your sponsor and maintaining the morale of your team. Unlike real life, the game lets you decide how tough a situation you'd like to face. The game has three degree-of-difficulty settings — orientation, normal, and hostile — that influence how quickly things move and how messy they get.
"Project Challenge" uses "adaptive agent" technology that learns from each player's moves. In this case, agents take the form of animated characters. You hear a knock at the door, click your mouse, and see and hear your "boss" welcoming you aboard. Or the telephone rings. You click on the phone and your project sponsor says, "Please come to my office." You can visit him, drop in on your team — even eavesdrop as people chat in the company lounge (usually gossiping about your performance).
The software rates a player's progress based on a number of measures, including schedules, budgets, and customer satisfaction. The game also has a few intentionally silly features. For example, your performance affects the condition of your sponsor's office. If things are going well, the sky outside the window is blue and the office plants are leafy. Poor performance turns the sky dark — and kills the plants. Similarly, the player's office has a painting of a sailboat hanging on the wall. If things are going well, the ship sails through smooth seas; if things are going badly, the ship flounders on choppy seas and the water fills with sharks.
Sure it's a game. But "Project Challenge" observes all the principles of successful business practice. First, it's fun — which keeps players engaged and helps them take it seriously. Second, it requires that participants solve discrete problems. The virtue of budgets and schedules is that these performance indicators keep the action grounded. Finally, the game makes clear the connections between decisions and results. Cut salaries to save money, and your staff will start quitting. ("Project Challenge" also has a post game debriefing function that lists all your actions and their effects.)
Finally, and perhaps most important, "Project Challenge" is a safe place to fail. It lets players experiment with new management techniques or test their responses to new kinds of problems — and see results immediately, without real-world consequences.
"A good simulation," says John Hiles, president and CEO of Thinking Tools, "helps people think about all the complex things they have to cope with. It's like being blind sided in the real world, or seeing unanticipated side effects from a 'simple' decision. Simulations help prepare you to deal with surprise in a safe environment."
"Project Challenge" is available from SHL SystemHouse, a subsidiary of MCI Communications. The price is $1,495 for a single copy. Site licenses are available. For more information, call 800-745-8870 or visit SHL on the Web at (http://www.systemhouse.mci.com)
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.