Video Game Strategy and Service Design

Metal Gear Solid

A while back I was digging around my closet and came across a well-worn copy of the strategy guide for Metal Gear Solid, from 1998. It’s probably my favorite video game of all time and being a bit of a pack rat I’ve kept the guide around through three cross-country moves. It’s pure nostalgia.

But as I flipped through the pages I realized that the form of a strategy guide contains some incredible parallels for service designers. In fact, it could serve as a page-by-page model for communicating the design and delivery of a service.

The guide begins with the backstory for the game along with detailed profiles for all the key characters and enemies encountered throughout the story. You’re introduced to the hero, Solid Snake, and his support staff along with each of the level bosses and their henchmen.

I couldn’t help but imagine something like this being assembled for a service, with a breakdown of the different roles within the frontline staff and backstage crew along with a collection of archetypal personas for customers.

Similar parallels to the design of services exist for practically every section of the strategy guide.

For instance, next comes a detailed list of inventory. Every object the player might encounter during the game is summed up in six pages. Weapons, tools, food and medicine. Everything is presented with an icon, screenshots and a well-written paragraph about the item explaining what it is, why it’s important and where you’ll find it in the game.

The guide also covers a set of techniques for fighting, hiding and using communication equipment. Each technique is explained with an appropriate blend of words and images from the game showing exactly how the techniques are employed.

Are there any services that wouldn’t benefit from a concise overview of equipment and procedures? How to resolve a conflict or where to find the shift schedule. Hopefully front-line staff aren’t being taught about weapons and fighting techniques, but the basic concept is intriguing.

The core of the guide is devoted to detailed strategy for approaching each of the game’s 27 areas. It’s designed to show how Solid Snake makes his way through the game, but this is essentially a customer journey map.

It’s truly amazing. Video game guides typically travel step-by-step through each level writing about the encounters and collecting screenshots as a way to punctuate the text-heavy narrative. What blows me away about this particular guide are custom aerial overviews showing each stage in its entirety. Whether it’s a warehouse or a snowfield, they zoom out far enough to show the whole playing field along with the location of people, items and preferred routes through the terrain.

This sense of the big picture strikes me as applicable for virtually any service with an environmental component. Some services are so sprawling that I’d imagine the powers-that-be must have already thought of something like this. A theme park or a zoo couldn’t conceivably function without an understanding of the overall system but on a smaller scale, whether it’s a big box retail store or the local coffee shop, zooming out to show relationships and provide context seems awfully useful.

Throughout the guide, I’m struck by the clarity of its presentation. Of course the subject matter itself is a game, and it’s supposed to be compelling, but the graphic design really pulls the reader through the guide. It’s a near-perfect blend of words and images and a virtuoso example of the strategy genre.

Services always face the challenge of disseminating corporate policies and training new staff. Employees are handed a binder with page after page of procedures to pore through during their breaks. It’s all part of the new hire checklist.

Wouldn’t it be great to put together a compelling orientation package that people actually want to read?

  1. what a fantastic parallel to draw.

    I am studying product design but focusing on my projects having a service outcome.

    At the moment I am designing a game for young people to learn sign language and the breakdown of my process is following a similar route as I would use to design a service. Asking what each character needs, how the game operates and as I am trying to visualize this and get the concept across I am lending from techniques typically used with in the service design industry.

    An enjoyable post!
    My project is online at

  2. Truly inspired post! Very insightful. If I have the opportunity to do another service design project in my course, I’m stealing this! 😉

  3. Jeff

    Hi Sarah, thanks for the feedback. And Jack: feel free to steal away. If you do use this idea, I’d love to hear how it works out.

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