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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ribbon Hero turns learning Office into a game

This post has two goals. One, I want to share with you something amazing; a thing that according to most views of the tech universe should not exist. Two, I want to talk about a coming revolution in application design.

The amazing thing
Imagine Microsoft Office turned into a video game. One where learning a productivity app is a delight. One where the core loop of gameplay involves using and gaining skills in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

It sounds a bit unlikely doesn’t it?

Well, I’m happy to announce the availability of Ribbon Hero, a new download from Microsoft that turns using Office into a game. I’ve been helping the fine folks over in Office Labs with the design and we are all immensely proud that this is getting released to the public. Huge kudos to Jen, Jonas and the rest of the team. CNET calls it "Brilliant".

Go download it now. You can challenge me on Facebook with your elite formatting skills.

The coming revolution
Ribbon Hero, in part, was born from a speech I gave back in October 2007 on applying the design lessons of Super Mario Bros. to application design. I made the following bet:
  • If an activity can be learned…
  • If the player’s performance can be measured…
  • If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
  • Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.
Not only can you make a game out of the activity, but you can turn tasks traditionally seen as a rote or frustrating into compelling experiences that users find delightful.

The foundations of user experience design are incomplete
Games offer a very different value proposition than what you get from traditional usability design. The essence of modern UI design is summed up by usability guru Steven Krug’s proclamation “Don’t make me think!” We are taught, as UI designers, as website developers and as software creators that our target user is a shallow dullard. The prototypical user is presented as incapable of reading, barely cognizant of what they desire and are best served by products that offer a least common denominator feature set.

This user model is well supported by empirical data. Sit in on any usability test and your subjects will flail about, click on the wrong things and ignore most obvious visual cues. We assume that users are idiots because we see them behave like idiots whenever we test them.

The results of our current design philosophy are wonderfully simple apps that allow new users to perform one or two universal tasks in as streamlined a manner as possible. These are the Googles, the Twitters and the Diggs of the world. They focus on ease of acquisition and limit their functionality to the 20% of features that serve 80% of the population.

Yet, as applications grow, the “Don’t make me think” philosophy stumbles.
  • Users grow. Given the opportunity, new users rapidly become intermediate and expert users.
  • Different users, especially skilled users, want to master different tasks. Finding one or two universal tasks that matches all users is nearly impossible.
  • New opportunities emerge. As both the developers and the users gain experience with the software, they discover new use cases and tasks that create immense user value. Many developers are faced with the task of either bolting on new use cases or creating entirely new software, fragmenting their brand and user base.
Google Documents is slowly becoming just as much of a usability monstrosity any major text editor (Notepad excluded). Even apps that offer a more limited creative palette such as, Ebay and Amazon try desperately to maintain their simplicity. We attempt to leverage pre-existing skills. We carefully layer beginner, intermediate and expert functionality. We use the democracy of split testing to eliminate minority use cases.

Yet, despite the fact that Web 2.0 started with a fresh new philosophy of minimalism and a clean slate, it is rapidly converging on the same frustrating and complex usability solutions found in desktop applications. The current state of the art is missing something fundamental.

Game design focuses on improving user skills
Game design, as applied to application design, brings several powerful ideas to the discussion that are either missing or underrepresented in existing descriptions of UX design.
  • Users are learning machines: All users have immense inherent potential to learn and master new skills.
  • Exploratory learning is fun: Given the proper environment, users will, of their own free will, explore an unknown task. They will try, fail and then finally gain enough insight that they grok the core problem at an intuitive level. When this moment of mastery occurs, users smile.
  • Exploratory learning can be engineered into repeatable systems: Moments of delight and skill acquisition are highly reproducible. All you need is a well designed and balanced system of interconnected feedback loops that helps guide and encourage the formation of new skills.
  • Learning in games is both modular and user directed: Once you have techniques for reliably teaching users new skills, you can modularize your application and let users decide what they want, when they want it and how much that matters to them.
If you start with the idea that users are learning machines, all our observations about usability tests snap into place. Of course, people stumble when they use an application for the first time. They don’t understand the interface because it is new to them. And users will stay at that inexperienced level if we do not make an attempt to teach them how to improve. We’ve diagnosed a burbling baby as a hopeless invalid, blind to the fact that babies grow, learn and flourish.

When users play a game, they spend hours first slowly building up basic skills. Then they assemble these building blocks into complex stratagems. Ultimately, they expertly wield the systems of the game like a finely honed tool. By the time the game ends, the player is no longer the same beginner that started. The design of the game directly helped improve their mental model of the world in a profound and measurable manner. The whole time, the player is having fun.

To me, the rich lessons of past 30 years of modern game design are lessons about human potential. Let’s start with the assumption that people are amazing. We have built pyramids. We have created clockwork contraptions that move mountains and measure the universe. Every day, we navigate a crazy quilt work world of technology, geography, language and culture. Surely we are capable of more complex interactions than typing a word in a plain vanilla search box.

Instead of only treating our users like idiots, how can we follow a design philosophy that actively empowers our users to fulfill their vast potential? The techniques gleaned from game design are one very meaningful path worth exploring.

Practice matters more than theory
Now, it is one thing to talk about how game design can improve application design. It is a completely different task to grab a hold of Microsoft Office, the epitome of traditional application design, and turn it into a playable game.

Ribbon Hero is not the best game in the world. Not yet. However, even in its basic state, it does all the wonderful things that games do in the context of one of the world’s most used, most serious applications. People learn. They improve. And they enjoy the process. Such a highly valuable class of user experience has eluded traditional design for decades.

If these miracles can be done with Microsoft Office, how might game design change the applications you want to build in the future?

take care


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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Princess Rescuing Application: Slides

Last Thursday, I gave a talk on game design to the local Seattle chapter of the IxDA, an interaction design group. About 100 folks were in attendance and the catered finger food was downright delicious. Other speakers included George Amaya, who spoke about recent research on social/party games, and Mark Long, CEO of Zombie. Mark gave a lovely presentation on how narrative and storytelling immerse players. His new game looks gorgeous.

My talk was on building an application that rescued princesses. The goal was to give interaction designers some insight into how game design might be applied to the domain of more utilitarian applications. The talk was recorded and should be up sometime this week. When it appears online, I'll link to the video from this post.

Here are my slides both in PDF format and as the original PowerPoint.
The notes fields are heavily annotated with more details about each visual. For those of you who attended, this deck also includes a third section on game design patterns that I didn't have time to cover in the time allotted.

take care

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Short thoughts on games and interaction design

For some odd reason, I've been chatting more with people that are interested creating web 2.0 applications that borrow substantially from online games. If you see games as a technique for teaching skills and maintaining attention in a pleasurable fashion, I would expect this crossbreeding to only expand in the future.

Why games are interesting to the web
Website developers are desperate to have their users enjoy the experience of using the website. If you look at traditional usability and interaction design literature, it says a lot about improving functionality, but almost nothing about making that functionality pleasurable. In the gap there as emerged a faith derived aesthetic where minimalist, highly efficient interfaces are described as the major source of user pleasure. If the only tool in your toolbox measures efficiency, that is what you as a designer value. Regardless of whether or not cold efficiency is what your users value.

Games are interesting to web developers because they demonstrate a rich set of techniques, proven over the course of thousands of projects to keep users heavily engaged. Experience points, in game currencies, mission, player housing, avatar creation, and guilds are some of the meta-game systems that are almost immediately applicable to practically any existing class of application. These keep users around longer, give them an increased sense of community and when used appropriately give them warm fuzzy feelings.

Another area of great interest is that game explicitly deal with the concept of user exploration and the acquisition of new skills. They are experts at giving users the freedom to explore at their own pace while still encouraging the user to master new techniques, tools and skills. At the end of a game of Zelda you've learned hundreds of new techniques and you've enjoyed doing it.

At the end of a few hundred hours of used Digg, you've learned perhaps one or two new techniques. If you are really lucky, you've figured out their commenting system. Modern interaction design has great difficulty with the topic of learning. The current rule of thumb is that users should never be forced to learn any new skills in order to use the application. This greatly limits the scope of potential designs and their ultimate usefulness to expert users. Game techniques, as systems that teach, allow designers to break free from the oppressive assumption that they must only design for the lowest common denominator.

The baggage of games
Games also bring with them some interesting baggage. There is an unfortunate tendency to copy wholesale a game design and merely reskin it with a new theme. Math Blasters is certainly not the high point of cross breeding interaction design and game design. We need a deeper understanding of game design that allows us to choose the right elements for the job at hand. Here are a couple of pitfalls.

Don't use spatial relationship if it isn't necessary
Most occur in concretely realized spatial environments, whereas most applications do not. You play a game in a world with walls and ledges and characters. Many of the core mechanics of existing genres are built around these constructs. Some designers immediately think "3D world like Second Life!" when they imagine a game-like application. One of my favorite 'horrible user experiences' was in the early days of VRML, some fellow had replaced the desktop with a virtual office you wandered about. You were forced to walk from shelf to shelf and fiddle with clumsy 3D notebooks in the vain hope of finding the right 3D model that represented your last used document.

Applications operate in an abstract land of concepts. The mapping between navigating a maze in Pacman and linking cells in a spreadsheet formula is not obvious, nor is it likely even desirable. Instead consider the dozens of other game design techniques such as point systems, power ups, skill trees, currency and more. There are plenty of useful techniques that don't involve wandering about a world.

Inappropriate use of theme for the application at hand
Two people in the past week have asked me, "Does including a rich game-like theme increase the number of users or scare them off?" Their worry was that creating a theme for their application that sported rich characters and a predefined world (in one case a fantasy-land and in the other case a soap opera-esque college scene) would create an immediate filter that knocked out a goodly number of people from even trying the app in the first place. If you look at MySpace, Facebook or Digg, none of them have an obvious theme and they are the gold standard of success. Admittedly, almost all web 2.0 projects adhere to a ruthlessly minimalist school of design so that absence of rich setting is by no means evidence that it doesn't work.

Yet, if you were building a game world, this isn't even a question you ask. Our assumption is that people need a theme (Pirates! Elves!) in order to engage the abstract mechanics of the game. The theme is both the initial hook and a way of creating a context for the actions that eases the learning curve. Game designers can point to Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Ultima, and Mario and practically any title except Tetris that setting is critical to success. We fixate on establishing a rich, unique world as the single most valuable element of a game's brand.

But truth be told, I don't know if a rich theme is always a good idea for every application and every audience. Perhaps more importantly, I don't have the analytics tools (beyond some informed guesses) that would provide the insight necessary to make a good decision.

An open field
I'll stop now since this is my attempt at shorter post and it is a rather enormous topic. We are in a place where there is obvious benefit to be gained from cross breeding the two worlds of traditional interaction design and game design. However, it is not completely clear what should be borrowed, what should questioned and what should be reinterpreted. It is a fascinating topic for further inquiry. :-)

take care


Interaction Design image source

I borrowed the picture above from this lecture on interaction design.

What is interaction design
"Interaction design aims to minimize the learning curve and increase the accuracy and efficiency of task completion, without diminishing the value of a product's useful functionality. The objective is to lead to less frustration, higher productivity, and higher satisfaction for users."

"Ideally, products would have no learning curve: users would walk up to them for the very first time and achieve instant mastery."

All wonderful stuff that I practice daily. What I find fascinating is how there is no direct representation of user pleasure in the process. There is instead an assumption that by solving a problem in a pragmatic fashion, the user will automatically become happy. Taken to an extreme, interaction designers seek to build a utopia where every action is transparent and effortless.

Yet online game designers know from painful practical experience that utopias result in angry, destructive users. In almost all game designs, the process of mastery is the source of user value. An acknowledgment of pleasure of doing is missing from modern interaction design.

PS: July 2nd, 2007: Updated post to clarify the structure a bit.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Community sites as games: The tip of the iceberg

I’ve been looking at three quite popular community-based websites recently and putting together a few thoughts on the game mechanics used to encourage user participation and grow the communities.

First, these services demonstrate some classic game design techniques. Second, it is exciting to see game design making its way into such non-traditional arenas.

Wearing game design colored glasses
In the model of game design I’ve been using, the user performs an action and gets either positive or negative feedback. Many single player titles automate this process and have the computer dole out rewards based off the machinations of an internal system of rules. Multiplayer or social games instead provide mechanisms for other players to provide feedback that reinforce a particular behavior.

Designing a successful mix of mechanical and social reward systems for multiplayer games is a rich topic. There are a laundry list of design concepts derived from historical MUDs, and modern MMORPGs that are reasonably well studied and often discussed by educated game designers. It is from this perspective that I looked at the features of the community sites.

Examples of game design at work
Here is a laundry list of game design techniques that are evident.

  • Basic action-reward feedback system
  • Leveling your character
  • Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
  • User created content
Basic action-reward feedback system
Never underestimate the power of comments and friend notifications. Community sites are a reward rich environment that rewards adding content to the site. In Judy’s Book, as soon as you add a review, there are four obvious levels of rewards that come into play, each operating on at a different scope.

  • Users can view the review. Just knowing that someone is looking at one you wrote can give a jolt of pleasure to many.
  • Users can agree or disagree with the review. This requires more investment on the part of the other user and has a correspondingly bigger impact on the writer. When someone disagrees, first time users can be sent into a period of self doubting. Often this challenge encourages them to ‘do better next time.’
  • Users can comment on the reviews. Again, this is a high investment reward. It tends to occur at a slower, less predictable pace than mere views and offers the intermittent reinforcement that most classic games thrive on.
  • Users can ask to become a friend. This is a permanent commitment that is suggestive of real social bonds. The first time someone asks to be your friend, it can be a huge positive rush.
Other community sites offer similar feedback mechanisms that encourage people to participate in the community. Both Deviant Art and Threadless have comments. Threadless also includes a powerful rating system.

Leveling your character
The concept of leveling your character as a demonstration of both status in the community and investment in your online personality also makes an appearance.
  • In Judy’s book, when you write a review, add a comment or answer someone’s question, you gain a small amount of experience. With enough experience point, your ‘Trust Score’ level increases. Raise it high enough and you could gain the special City Editor badge.
  • In Deviant Art, reputation is demonstrated through extensive stats: You can pretty much just glance at any Deviant’s home page to see how popular they are or how long they’ve been with the group. You don’t need explicit levels plaster above someone’s head to show status. We don’t have such a crutch in the real world and it is amazing how quickly the human eye adapts to judging someone based off a glancing at a slew of numerical stats.
Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
Though all three sites offer search functionality, the primary method of exploration is by traveling through social links.

  • In DeviantArt, the friends list creates a large network topography of friend links. There is inherent value in each link since it suggest that the people who liked one type of art would also like and prefer a similar type of art. I could spend hours browsing through my friend’s recommendations.
  • In Threadless, the use of blogs that link to T-shirts that the user likes acts as another form of friend’s list. By treating recommendations as a blog post, users can add context to their recommendations and allow for feedback.
In both cases, the user is encouraged to explore new content. The hook is that the content comes with an implicit or explicit recommendation that it will be pertinent to the user and not a waste of their time. This exploration of new content process is fundamental to the operation of the entire game. As they browse, users passively increase the views of content. They also tend to leave comments, friend requests and ratings, which in turn create new links of exploration for future users and encourage the increased production of new content.

I find this to be a fascinating contrast to your typical MMOG that insists on using a strong physical map to creating a large interlinked environmental space. Clicking on a door to enter a building or clicking on a link to a friend’s home page is the same underlying technology. However, the metaphor used to express the action is different and the resulting topography is different as well.

There are some big benefits to using a social topography. Content is often pertinent to the user. You don’t need some expensive and in-depth back story to explain why the player should visit the northwest corner of the map. Instead, it is enough that the next link contains Susan’s favorite artwork and she was kind enough earlier to tag you as a friend.

User created content
This one is a bit obvious, but all these sites thrive on user created content. They are arguably much more advanced in their systems for encouraging the creation of new content than any other game.

DeviantArt has millions of submissions. Judy’s Book and Threadless have thousands. They are so successful at encouraging user submissions that there is hardly any developer created content on the site. This would be the rough equivalent of releasing World of Warcraft with a login system and some tools for creating levels and saying ‘Go at it.’

It obviously works and has potent cost reduction benefits that might be worth applying to more mainstream games.

The Big Picture: Why these examples matter
Each of these commercial and dare I claim profitable sites uses game-like systems to encourage participation. The successful application of game design is fundamental to their success. Community sites are a wonderful example of how game design can benefit and inform the creation of innovative real world applications.

Game design is currently a rather narrowly applied field. You’ve got a few board games, a many thousands of computer and console games in a few narrow genres and the relatively recent addition of modern ‘Serious Games.” The Serious Games movement, while it has its heart in the right place also manages to underestimate the wide scale applicability of game design to the larger world. Their most publicized usage involves using glorified FPS titles to help our rampant military industrial complex kill people more efficiently. This isn’t really stepping outside of the box much. The result is that you primarily see Serious Games relegated to places like ITSEC alongside a crusty training tank that someone hauled onto the show floor.

Game design, however, is a big concept. The ability to create automated systems that dole out both mechanical rewards and enable the exchange of social rewards lets us build products that harness the fundamentals of human psychology in a far more direct fashion than has ever been possible in the past.

From this perspective, game design is a fundamental body of techniques that should be taught along side microeconomics and psychology at any forward thinking business or product design school. It is in essence, the practical application of psychology to intrigue, capture, train and motivate users of a complex system or service. When properly applied good game design techniques encourage repeat usage, reduce customer churn and generate positive communities that promote the product virally.

This is all good stuff. Game design has all the aspects of a new skill set that smart people in a competitive world crave in order to give their products a strong competitive advantage. Learn it, adapt it to your needs, or fall behind.

I brought up community sites as examples of games for two reasons. First, they are fascinating examples of highly successful game designs that focus on a mixture of social and mechanical rewards. Any game designer could learn a lot from studying their mechanics in detail. The low cost of user content generation alone is a lesson that could revolutionize the ROI expectations of a wide range of titles.

Second, community sites hint that what we see in the marketplace currently is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of game design. If you are creating a product that involves people interacting with one another, you need to understand the psychological feedback cycles that encourage people to participate and promote your product. Game design provides many of the tools and terminology necessary to understand and manipulate these critical systems.

Now, if you pardon me, I have an undeniable urge to check out my DeviantArt profile. Maybe, just maybe, someone added me to their friends list.

Take care


Games I’ve been playing recently
Some of these sites use more primitive aspect of game design but don’t know it. You can rightly argue whether these are full fledged games. I say just give them time and competitive pressures. If they follow the typical pattern of evolving genres, the reward system will become more intense and they'll add additional layers of mechanics to trap users for longer periods of time.
Danc’s DeviantArt page:

Kill Chain (The delightful variant of the popular business term ‘supply chain.’ It is all about efficiency, baby.)
“KILL CHAIN - (1) The USAF six-stage target cycle of Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA). NOTE: The time interval between each adjacent pair of stages in F2T2EA is referred to as a "seam." See also THREAT KILL CHAIN. (2) A U.S. Navy modeling and simulation system that utilized video game technology to examine new ship systems and military tactics. [10:3065] NOTE: KILL CHAIN was initially designed to illustrate the capabilities that the DD(X) will add to the battlespace for the U.S. Navy.”

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Out of work MMOG designers will rule the world

As I sit here contemplating business dashboards, it occurs to me (as it has occurred to many others) that game designers will ultimately rule our working lives.

Games and Business
Games are a formal system of tokens, verbs and the rules that bind all the elements together into a nested set of risks and rewards. The rules are basically a simulation, sometimes simple and sometimes complex. The tokens can represent pretty much anything, but they are usually well defined with specific and pertinent properties to the game at hand.

Business, on the other hand, is quite messy. A make or break sales opportunity might come from the fact that you sat next to a stranger on a plane. To bean counters such as myself (yes, scientific brains are merely bean counters with better pattern recognition skills), this randomness is unacceptable. A COO wants to ensure that he has a smoothly running, repeatable business process that leverages the skills of his employees in an optimal manner.

Businesses have always tended towards games-like exercises with their incentive systems, pay scales and feedback methods. This just makes a lot of sense when you are dealing with people. Games are a great way to get people to perform an arbitrary task in an optimal fashion. With the correct sequences of risks and rewards, you can teach a player to almost anything. This is the thought behind serious games, and quite honestly business folks have been applying the concept for many decades.

Digital dashboards: A big change
Over the last few years, we've seen a big change occurring on the data side of the business world. More and more of those fuzzy business events are being categorized and placed into databases. Take a CRM system like Who you talked to, when you talked to them and how that translates into the company's bottom line are all on display. Mix this with financial systems, email systems, procurement systems, inventory systems and PLM systems and almost every aspect of business is being placed in a computer.

From an end user's point of view, this giant pool of information and business rules is quite different from a game. From a developer's point of view, it all looks remarkably similar to the backend on a massively multiplayer online title. You've got your mobs in the form of customers. You have player records in the form of users. You've got your realm points in the form of business unit financial results.

Right now, the game that businesses play using the data at their finger tips is quite primitive. I liken it to the hardcore war simulations that took the game market by storm back in the 80's. The information displays are crude and focus on the simulation instead of the player psychology. The learning process for new employees tends to be sink or swim much like it was in the ancient MUD days. There's not concept of gradual level-based advancement where you only eventually gain super powers (such as the 'Call in the manager' super-strike!)

This will all change with time. Someone will mix an employee incentive program with a few existing business systems. When a pre-specified action is taken, the systems will pop out real-time alerts that give positive or negative feedback. Risk / Reward in action. Ultimately, they are going to need people who understand these concepts to design and manage the complex online community that is a next generation business.

An opportunity!
This naturally is where the out of work MMOG designers step in. Sure, your game ground to a halt after only a two-year run. The damn players hated your new weapon upgrade system and left in droves. You are bitter and tired of the game industry. An ad from Walmart catches your eye.
"Game designer wanted. Experience creating vibrant and productive communities a must Salary: Double what you are making now."
Your design, which ties together all major systems within the company will incent the minute by minute behavior of over 1 million employees. They'll have their scanners and cash registers all tied into a central system. The CEO can watch his realm points go up or down. He can stage events to encourage participation. He can experiment with rule changes on various shards of his empire.

And the best part? A game may be voluntary, but a job is not left so easily. In essence, you have the holy grail of MMOG at your finger tips: player lock-in.

All this is only reasonable considering the trends of technology. You could argue that I'm behind the times and it is happening right now. I, for one, welcome our game designer overlords. The world will be such a cleaner, more efficient, more predictable place. A formal system. And if I play my cards right, I can become one of the gods of this new glorious online universe.

Ah, sweet temptation...the root of all technological horrors.

take care

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Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Financial Gameboy

One of the most difficult and damning areas of the American lifestyle is personal finance. As a nation we are deeply in debt and despite our cultural wealth fixation, basic accounting skills are rarely part of a standard education.

Here is a thought experiment that attempts to define a massively multi-player game of financial responsibility. How can we improve the personal finances and savings of heavily in debt individual using the tools and techniques of game design?

A Financial Gedanken Experiment
The key concept is that by using psychological risk and reward systems, we can promote financially sound behavior in an addictive, psychologically positive fashion. The 'player' has fun, they save money, and we make money by providing an exciting (and beneficial) game service.

First, let's begin with a rough overview of the tokens in play. The player is clearly the person spending the money. Money is a primary resource that is generated through a monthly pay check and is spent on several categories:

  • Essential: The basics you need to live.
  • Luxury goods: Anything above the basics necessary to live.
  • Savings / Debt reduction.
This is a great starting place. We have activities (purchasing) that we can categorize and either reward or punish. In the typical gaming world, we would immediately begin building interlocking risk / reward systems to start training the player. Unfortunately, we run into an immediate challenge. Games are typically played on a standardized platform with a well defined user interface and strong feedback mechanisms for the player. The real world is not set up in such a convenient fashion.

Dealing with the real world
As soon as you start dealing with real people and their daily interactions with the world, we are immediately in the land of product anthropology studies. We need to build a game interface on top of the player's reality and in order to do that we need to understand the basic constraints of their environment. Below are some obvious challenges that do not lend themselves to powerful game designs.

  1. Overly long reward cycles: Typically you only get checks in lump sums every two weeks. If gaining money is a reward, this occurs at far too long of a pace. On top of this, it is a fixed reward schedule, the exact sort that causes the player to burn out rather quickly. It is a thrill getting the first paycheck, but after a very short while it becomes the status quo.
  2. Lack of positive rewards: The player's primary actions occur in the presence of advertising and sales people who reward the player if they spend on luxury goods. There is little or not reward reinforcement for putting money towards saving.
  3. Untimely feedback: Means of monitoring and providing feedback are highly divorced from the action time scale. You can purchase a very expensive item within a few minutes. Yet feedback on how that affects yours longer term savings goals doesn't occur until typically several weeks later.
  4. Micromanagement: Existing systems are poorly defined. In order fit daily activities into the type of formal system required by most game mechanics, an individual is required to spend copious amounts of time with data entry. If I spend money on garden supplies at a grocery store, what does that mean? In the standard accounting viewpoint, this must be entered into a master ledger, tagged as gardening supplies and then manually compared to one of dozen account categories. Typically this happens in an application on a computer and is more effort than it is worth.
The result of all this is that most people begin an attempt to improve their budgeting and give up shortly afterwards because they don't see immediate results for the work that they put in.

Creating a financial game platform
Solving the interface problem is a priority. The player needs to get immediate feedback every time they make a purchase. Think of a purchase as the most atomic level that any meaningful action can occur at. This is our core risk activity. It is the equivalent of a turn in a game like chess or jumping in Mario. Remember, every core game mechanic is composed of a risk activity and a reward activity. We need a way of tracking purchases and giving feedback on them.

I'm going to imagine a 'Financial Gameboy'. This is a PDA-like device that replaces all credit cards and filters the use of the credit card through software that is hooked up to the internet (This last point may or may not be necessary.) A cell phone with electronic wallet technology isn't too far off from my Financial Gameboy, but with a little engineering, this concept should be possible right now.

The Financial Gameboy is a small gadget that slips and your pocket and replaces your standard credit card.

  • It acts just like a credit card. You can swipe it in any standard credit card reader. You can make a purchase over the internet. Any purchase that you make is immediately reported back to the device over it's internet connection.
  • It has a display that can show basic text information.
  • It has a very simplified interface with 3 or 4 buttons.
Here's how the basic interface works.

  • Before you swipe the card, the Gameboy must be turned on. By simply opening the device, it goes on.
  • Basic financial information, including your current goals and progress towards those goals, are displayed in a blatant manner. Just by glancing at the device you can tell your status as either within budget or over budget.
  • When you swipe the card, you are unable to complete the transaction until you identify the basic category the purchase falls into. Once you make a purchase from the same vendor, the device remembers if you've categorized it previously and saves you a button push. There are only 3 or 4 categories, each corresponding to a big button, so 'accounting' is trivial.
  • The card shows you your new status information and any rewards you might have accumulated.
Additional gaming rules
The interface with real life is always messy. In addition to electronic rules, there are specific social constraints that are necessary to ensure that the risk / reward system can do their work within a constrained formal environment.

  • You aren't allowed to use cash beyond a predetermined weekly allowance. Lower cash use is better because it lets you sidestep the risk / reward systems of the game.
  • You aren't allowed to use any other credit cards.
  • Your paycheck is automatically deposited in your account.
  • Major bills are put on automated payment.
How the game works
All this foundational structure is wonderful and I suspect would result in major improvements to anyone's spending habits. Simply having a shorter feedback cycle and an understanding of where you are financially is more than most people have when they are making purchases.

The real benefit comes from the addition of game mechanics that actively change the player's behavior in a positive fashion.

First, we do away with the bi-weekly 'influx of cash' that seems to define everyone's bank account. Instead, the player earns the ability to make additional purchases based off their skillful daily purchasing behavior. Even though your bank account has money in it, you don't get to touch it unless the game lets you.

Mind you, the game doesn't use a simple quota system like most budgets do either. The player would only get feedback when they hit a hard budget limit and that just isn't timely enough to provide solid operant conditioning.

The player's money is dribbled out to him in the form of immediate rewards.
  • Risk Activity (a.k.a. the Purchase Challenge): Every time the player makes a purchase, it is ranked as either a good or bad purchase.
  • Good or Bad is determined by a purchasing profile: For example, food purchases are typically $10 for meals and $100 when you buy groceries. Anything over these amounts is bad. Anything under is good.
  • When you make a good purchase, you earn points (think of it as experience points in an RPG) towards luxury items.
  • Luxury items are defined the player in a big web-based wish list that they can prioritize. There are also generic items like candy bars and such they can also prioritize.
  • The amount of points you get for each purchase is governed by a complex system of combos, random bonus, and other overlapping reward systems. Buy three good food items in a row for less than you expected and get a free minor reward. Wow.
You'll win some purchases challenges and you'll lose some. The game will start out on a relatively easy setting with simple rewards giving you substantial rewards. As you 'level up', you'll start aiming for the bigger prizes and that means aiming for more good purchases, and less bad purchases. Over time, you'll start playing meta-games to optimize your path towards those larger rewards. "Aha", you'll say. "I can avoid a whole bunch of purchases by eating in." The game, sensing a lack of purchasing activity will give you additional bonuses.

Underneath all of this is running an accounting engine that is funneling X% of your income towards savings, Y% towards fundamentals, and reserving some Z% for luxury rewards. Transaction after transaction, day after day, month after month, money will be funneling towards your longer term goals. As you get better at playing the game, you'll see your goals arrive faster than you expected.

With internet connectivity, you can start layering social reward systems on top of the basic mechanics. Algorithms can generate high score lists and compare you to other people in your area. As you improve, you start climbing the list. As you make additional levels, you get social awards. You can SMS other players words of encouragement and if they feel like the comments helped, they can mod you up, giving you more points to spend on your personal financial goals.

This massively multiplayer social lubrication leads the player to websites and blogs where tips are shared for getting ahead. The trick is not to create a self help group. This is no pity party. The goal is to create a cheat site for the avid gamer so they can 'beat the system'. This highly creative lateral thinking helps them save more money and reach their goals more quickly. We are tying into the powerful psychology of solving a fun problem. We are avoiding the dead end psychology that comes from couching financial management as a painful task that must be accomplished with no short term benefit.

What this accomplishes from a game design perspective
We've done the following:
  • Shorten the risk / reward cycle dramatically from once every 2 - 4 weeks to every purchase.
  • Build multiple overlapping risk reward mechanisms that reinforce behavior and prevent burnout.
  • Create meaningful rewards and set up clear activities for reaching those goals.

Target Market and Cost
The target market is people in debt. The service costs $5 - $10 bucks a month, but promises to save the player thousands of dollars. The numbers don't lie and we gather lots of numbers. In fact, with all the successful numbers in our hands, some of our biggest customers can be financial groups trying to mitigate the cost of people who have difficulties managing their debt. They would much rather have a low-risk system that gets proven results than have to go through the morass of bankruptcy and collection.

The opportunities to sell financial and investing services are also huge. Not only do you have access to the player's money, but you can also directly influence how they are spending that money by weighing certain options as more beneficial than others. The biggest reason for bankruptcies are unexpected hospital bills hitting families who are too highly leveraged on debt. Wouldn't it be nice to build the game in a such a fashion that it makes health insurance a slightly higher point value investment than items like a new car?

The morality of the issue is neither black nor white. The application of addictive gaming systems to everyday life is relatively new ground. What do we do when we can make the 'real world' just another part of an abstract, highly addictive game?

Closing thoughts
I would certainly use my Financial Gameboy constantly. At a very basic psychological level the act of financial accounting is painful. To make this modern micromanagement affliction into an activity that is both fun and productive is a nearly god-like accomplishment. The ramifications within our capitalist society are nearly boundless.

Perhaps this is the true future of game design. The most successful games may not be art. Instead they will be useful.

take care

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