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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 Mint.com, 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
Danc.

References

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Friday, February 03, 2006

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Thoughts on an integrative framework for understanding games

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

John Godfrey Saxe,
“The Blind Men and the Elephant”

To understand game design, it is common to look at games from a wide variety of perspectives. Much like the blind men describing the elephant in the old Indian tale, each perspective brings something new to the picture. However, if we restrict ourselves to studying only one perspective, we end up making ludicrous decisions. “What is this thing we call a game?” someone inevitably asks. The peanut gallery cries “It’s a movie! A set of rules! A very small pebble! No, it’s a duck!”

The result? Weak games, disappointed players and poor team dynamics. There is a better way.


Existing perspectives
There are several predominant perspectives out there. A short list might include:
  • Games as entertainment: Games exist as a method of having fun. Is there anything else? (The answer is ‘yes.’ :-)
  • Games as craft: Development sees games as a production puzzle full of risks, costs, resources and schedules. Games are a craft with techniques and skills that property applied result in success.
  • Games as art: Games are a burgeoning new form of creative expression that will change the world by changing how people think about critical human issues.
  • Games as business: Games are a business complete with profit, loss and opportunities for squeezing out more cash with few resources.
  • Games as theory: Games are an activity based on well defined (if not yet completely discovered) theoretical foundations.
We could no doubt add games as a community, games as status symbols, games as instruments of Satan and innumerable other perspectives of varying degrees of importance.

It is likely that when you started looking into game design you fell into one of these major categories. At first, I saw games as simple entertainment. Then for a while, I passionately believed in games as art. I’ve dabbled in the other perspectives and always enjoy asking which bucket folks call their own.

There is one right perspective, right?
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

In general, someone who lives by a dominant worldview either A) rails against those who do not share his opinion or B) ignores them if he holds enough power. This is really quite understandable. Each perspective is attempting to reach a very different goal. Anything that doesn’t help reach the goal is either an obstacle or noise.

For example:
  • From an entertainment perspective, a game is a success if it helps person relax after a hard day.
  • From a craft perspective, a game is a success if it ships on time with a well-executed set of features. More is always more impressive.
  • From a business perspective, a game is a success if it makes money.
  • From an artistic perspective, a game is a success if it evokes emotions and makes the auteur a name. Ideally, it will get young vibrant artists laid. (Let us be honest. :-)
  • From a theorist’s perspective, a game is a success if it introduces or clarifies new theoretical constructs that spur a deeper understand of the medium.
We can all think of examples where these goals conflict. Ask two people about the same game and you will get very different opinion about its inherent value.
  • To a theorist, Façade is a great game. To a pure business man, it is barely worth the bits on the disk.
  • To a business man, Deer Hunter was an amazing success story. To the artist, Deer Hunter evokes all that is wrong with the world.
  • To a craftsman, Doom 4 is the peak of excellence. To the player, it doesn’t quite create the same sense of joy as it once did.
On the surface, we would appear to be stuck in the same eternal battle of opinion illustrated in the blind men and the elephant. For folks striving to reach a differing objectives, even mere discussion of other concerns is a simple waste of time and resources.

There is an elephant!
It is easy to lose track of the fact that we are all feeling up the same beast. We are all talking about games.

What we need is an integrative approach to understanding games. When detailed conflicts seem impossible to resolve, it is often worth while to step back and look at the big picture.

Here are three questions we need to answer in order to make any integrative approach useful to real game developers working on real products. (Unfortunately, theory alone won’t pay the bills.)
  • What is an integrative framework to use as a starting point for the conversation? If we waste our time reinventing the wheel, we just end up with more arguments.
  • What is a common goal that subsumes the existing goals? If people don’t see a reason to work together, they won’t.
  • How do the various perspectives work as part of a coherent ecosystem? If there isn’t an obvious way the different perspectives benefit one another then the whole effort is a non-starter.
New Product Development as an integrative framework
There are many possible ways of describing our gaming big picture. We need to start someplace, so let us look at games as a New Product Development (NPD) exercise. This is a common integrative framework that is used across many industries and is easily applicable to the game industry.

NPD is, not surprisingly, the act of bringing a new product to market. It is a process that includes everything from the fuzzy front end of defining a product all the way up to releasing the product onto the market. Apple, 3M, and IBM treat it as a core strategic competency. For auto manufacturers, it is a religion. Even a few software developers are starting to think about their work as more than just writing code.

One of the key benefits of the NPD framework is its comprehensiveness. It details a variety of stages, each of which has important links into on the commonly held perspectives of the game industry. A traditional NPD process looks a bit like this.
  1. Idea Generation
  2. Idea Screening
  3. Concept Development and Testing
  4. Business Analysis
  5. Beta Testing and Market Analysis
  6. Technical Implementation
  7. Commercialization
A NPD (or the more loosely applied term ‘Product Design’) perspective allows us to look at any person who makes games and say “Yes, I understand your personal goals and this is how you contribute to the big picture.” When you follow an integrative framework, you no longer have to look at the world in terms of us and them.

A common goal
Next, we need to answer the question “Why should we all work together?”

NPD has a simple goal. Everyone involved wants to create and commercialize a product that benefits an underserved customer need. There are lots of ways to reword the goal of product development in a manner that appeals to a wide variety of people. One of my favorites is “Doing good things for other people (and not starving while doing it)”

Many people coming to product development for first time often mistake it as a capitalist or business system. It borrows from these perspectives, but making new products is about something far more fundamental. It is about basic human decency and using our marvelous intellectual and social skills to better the world. You see someone who has a problem and you help them out. If your solution is good enough, they’ll return the favor.

Admittedly, there is one group -- let’s call them the ‘Self Absorbed’ -- that finds the general goals of new product development repugnant. The major sticking point is the horrendous thought of spending their precious time helping others. Some are young men who just need to grow up and live life. Some have bought into ill-formed notions of how art or innovation actually occurs. I happen to believe that once you cut out the world’s sociopaths, the group that does not willingly contribute to the welfare of others is thankfully quite small.

Working towards a greater good is one of the most energizing and unifying activities that we can do as human beings. It is built in to our wetware. Teams that recognize this fact and structure their efforts around reaching for a meaningful shared goal create the world’s most amazing games.

If ‘Doing good things for other people’ is the general theme, you still need to answer some hard questions in order to bring folks on board.
  • Who is the customer? Specifically, who are we doing good things for?
  • Does their need really matter to them? If we make something cool, are they going to show us monetary love or are they going to guiltily look the other way and start walking faster?
  • Is our solution any good? Can we make something that they think is worth buying?
If you can answer these questions in a clear, highly positive manner, you have a team goal that helps cut across all existing boundaries. You give folks a reason to subsume their personal agendas into a greater goal.

If you give vague answers or switch goals depending on how the wind is blowing, people will call you on your bluff and move back to supporting their own goals. Most people want to believe in a greater good, but they aren’t complete idiots.

A coherent eco-system
Now that we’ve described a common goal for our integrative framework, we need to show folks how they fit into it all together. In essence, you are answering the question “How do we all work together to reach the goal?”

Here are some common ways that each group contributes:
  • Business: Business brings tools for measuring and managing sustainability and success of a product development effort. For example, ensuring that the company is profitable just means that the team can eat and continue doing what they love. Money can be seen as a useful measurement of value creation. If people pay you for your product, that’s a pretty good sign you are fulfilling customer needs.
  • Art: Art brings tools for identifying and meeting emotional needs that are not easily definable or reproducible by more empirical methods. Products are rarely bundles of only practical benefit. They can include status, comfort, stress relief, companionship and a million other fuzzy human benefits as part of their overall package. Those who promote games as art possesses potent tools for contributing these fuzzy human factors to a complete product.
  • Fun: The traditional entertainment perspective provides an established set of standard to benchmark your efforts against. Those who promote games as pure fun know what they like and are happy to tell you.
  • Production: The production / craft perspective bring together proven tools for building high quality products on time and under budget. Without production, you’ll never get your product out the door.
  • Theory: The theorists provide new empirical tools that can lead to radical innovative leaps. If making games is the craft of inducing fun in players, then theorists and academics provide the basic science that both drives the craft forward. They aren’t the only source, but they are an important input into the ecosystem of new game creation.
Each one of these is an essay onto itself, but I promised myself that I would try to write in more digestible chunks. :-) The important point is that it is easy to find common ground. Once you have an integrative framework and an understanding of shared goals, the benefit of widely divergent tools is quite apparent.

Conclusion
During the writing of this little essay, I ended up starting four other essays. There are lots of areas to explore and I found myself delving into team building, research technology transfer techniques and a half dozen other remarkably intriguing fields. If NPD or Product Design is to be a unifying philosophy, it certainly needs to be fleshed out in much greater detail. There are many practical questions just begging to be answered.

I'm tempted to say "Hey, isn't this exciting!" but it would be perhaps idealistic to expect all the participants in our industry to be focused on the same goal of seeing the big picture. Our charming Godfrey’s poem ends on a pessimistic note.

"So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”

I prefer to remain optimistic. We have the start of at least one integrative framework that can help us avoid theological wars. We also have two big carrots that I hope will encourage others to pitch in:
  • We can advance game design by leveraging a common viewpoint. The result is tightly focused teams and a lot less arguing.
  • We can learn one another’s tools and use knowledge from multiple domains to solve our most difficult issues in innovative ways. The result is better games that satisfy customers more deeply.
Imagine for a moment if our blind men figured out that they were really describing an elephant. Would they train it to carry them about? Would they run away if it was angry (I would!). They certainly would figure out that perhaps they shouldn’t grab certain parts too tightly. At the very least, they could stop arguing and put their efforts into something a bit more practical.

Pause for a moment the next time you hear someone ranting on how their perspective on game development is correct and the other fellow is completely off his rocker. Perhaps it is worth asking “Hey, what is our common ground here?”

Take care
Danc. (aka Mr. Platitude)

References
http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_product_development
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_life_cycle_management

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Monday, November 07, 2005

A five step program to move beyond the game geek culture

Folks in general completely missed the point of the last little post on the culture of the game design community. I want to particularly thank Zoombapup and the other great commentators who pushed me to clarify. Kudos to Gamasutra and Elias for getting the gist of the article.

The post wasn’t about lambasting programmer-designers. It was about pointing out a strong blind spot in our culture and practices. Instead what we got was a stream of prerecorded comments that were triggered by the words “programmer” and “designer” being on the same page.

I touched a nerve, but unfortunately it wasn’t one that I was writing about. :-) It is like telling your grandparents that smoking kills and they spend the next few hours arguing about whether menthol or regular is the better flavor.

Take two
Let’s take a different look at the original issue. The premise is this: The game industry is a highly interdependent ecosystem that is the natural consequence of historical starting conditions. It is not however the only form that a game development culture can take. It is almost certainly not the most profitable form.

We need take a step back and introduce some systems thinking to understand the dynamics of the industry. If we blame the publishers or the programmers or the consumers or the designers as individuals, we gain little understanding of the issue and manage to create a lot of denial, hand wringing and hurt feelings. The truth is that most individual actors in our industry are doing what they think is best. The result may be a degenerate system, but the individuals are operating with a clean conscience. There is absolutely no paradox here.

Ultimately, I’m not concerned by individuals doing their jobs poorly. My concern is that they are fixating on an insignificantly tiny market when a much larger one awaits. By blindly devoting their efforts toward the current market, we starve the market expansion process.

Everyone is doing a great job
First, let me assure everyone that they are doing their best. Let’s run through the list.
  • Publishers are being impressive optimizers: They exist to take successful products and built upon their success. This results in great profits. Who could blame them?
  • Developers learn from the best games: Most game developers are absolute experts at the various game genres. They know what they personally like and they use this creative vision to improve upon their past game play experiences. Who could blame them?
  • Programmer designers were just having fun: Of course, all those original designs come from programmer-designers that were building games for themselves. Can you blame them for their personal preferences? Heck, they started the industry. Throwing stones at geniuses like Yu Suzuki is like beating up on Jesus.
  • The customer want more of what they like: Two kids walk into a store and ask for candy. The guy at the counter only has sour candy. One kid loves it and the other one doesn’t. The kid with the sour tooth comes back the next day and asks for more. Heck, he even invites comes of his friends that also like sour things. The statistics? 100% of children who purchase candy love sour candy. Can you blame them?
The result across the board is a classic self-selection bias on the part of developers, the customers and publishers. Everyone is doing a great job, but the system that results has issues.

I like current games
You end up with a market that eats its own tail. We’ve seen this before in the comic book industry and the same pattern reoccurs in many other industries. I’m reminded of Garret Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons where Hardin describes the process as “the remorseless working of things.”
  1. The game development community is limited to people who like existing games. The skills, the extracurricular interests, and the passion necessary to build new genres for different audiences rarely exist. In fact, the community actively rejects those who do not fit a rather narrow hardcore mold. We’ve all seen the insidious hiring phrase “Must have a passion for video games.”
  2. The population of existing genres is derived from a very small genetic base. This base was historically built by programmer-designers for people who have tastes that are similar. The 8 or 9 dominant genres are the sour candy that the industry is built upon. The thought that different types of games might bring in new customers is typically brought up by fringe elements only.
  3. The publishers optimize what is available. The publishers look at the limited set of existing options, cut out the least profitable ones and start building efficiencies of scale into the creative and marketing operations. Considering you didn’t have much to start with, you aren’t left with much variety. It is the equivalent of practicing eugenics when you start out with a population of only 4 or 5 healthy animals.
  4. The audience self selects based off the products being offered. People who like the limited population of games buy them. When publishers offer better versions of the same basic software product, the customers buy more. In the process of focusing a limited audience, the industry systematically alienates large swaths of the population.
Occasionally, game developers get a chance to expand the industry. I was just chatting to a friend who worked on a title targeted at pre-teen girls based off a highly popular brand. The designer on the project could have made almost anything and the right design might have turned into a billion dollar franchise.

What he created was a Zelda clone. He also ‘innovated’ by adding insanely difficult jumping puzzles because everyone knows that is how all the cool platform games work. I got stuck completing the tutorial and can’t even imagine what an 11-year old who barely knows their way around a game controller would think of it. By follow his gamer heart, the designer royally screwed up a great opportunity.

No one is to blame. Everyone was doing their job remarkably well. Games for gamers, by gamers. It seems like heaven.

All of this is perfectly fine and results in a small core audience that is well served. If you liked Halo 1 and 2, I have some really exciting news for you about an upcoming Microsoft blockbuster. (I’ll give you a hint. It ends in a ‘3’.) If you want to make product that predominantly serves young, white, introverted, analytical men, I’m certainly not going to stop you.

What about the money?
My problem is that I think a lot about money, profitability and competition. Yes, I am a greedy bastard. Let’s run a few numbers. The current ‘active’ population of US households that own one or more consoles is around 35 million. This is different than number of consoles sold and represents the current addressable market in the US.

Now 35 million is much less than the 300 million potential customers. For a consumer electronics device, it is also far less than the 500 million PC’s in service. It is even less than the over 200 million have cable TV in the US alone. It is less than the 200 million cell phones used world wide.

It is okay to be small since we are growing rapidly, right? Unfortunately, no. We are currently growing at around 7.3% a year with much of this arguably driven by population growth not market expansion. It’s a far cry from the 15-20% you hope to see in a thriving high growth industry. For example, that little cell phone market that is 4X larger than the game market? It is growing at a reasonable 19.1% a year.

Also, when you have hundreds of companies targeting the same 35 million person audience, the result is considerable competition. We do not even end up with is eight or nine media categories like you might find in music or movies. With genre king dynamics, we end up with eight or nine software categories. People buy games closer to the way that they purchase copies of word processor or tax software. They don’t need 20 FPS any more than they need 20 copies of Word. Being a first mover on a new genre that serves a new need is like being the first company to master the sale of photo editing software. Big opportunity, low competition.

So, our great population of gamers is really a tiny insignificant fly speck if you look outside our insular little community. We fool ourselves into thinking the industry has ‘made it’ because the few gamers we’ve hooked spend a large amount of money. We even have splashy events on MTV. Sorry.

“If the tribe gathers roots and follows tradition, it will survive”
The crazy thing is that so few people in the industry are publicly discussing these very simple numbers. Whether we are talking about the economics of publishers and their portfolio models, or we are discussing about the limitations of programmer-designers, a major element driving the dynamics of the industry is this massive historical and cultural blind spot. We act like a rapidly maturing industry.

We really don’t see all those other people out there. They aren’t gamers so they don’t count. Maybe this is what young men do. They create a self-contained community that values homogenous personality traits and excludes people who are different. That is great if you are attempting to build a fraternity. From an objective business perspective, however, we need to look outward.

One simple strategy on a golden platter
I’m an optimist. I see this as an opportunity.
  • There are lots of folks out there that don’t currently play games that could play games.
  • If we could get out of our cultural rut and design games that appealed to them, we could make money.
If you don’t, someone else will
I’d like to say I came up with such a brilliant strategy, but of course I didn’t. We’ve seen it executed with impressive success on titles like Sims, Nintendogs and DS Brain Training. Nintendo in particular is trumpeting it lately. But we’ve also seen it pop up in the birth of the vast populations of MMOGs in Asia. In 6 years, one enterprising young man has gone from founding a small start up to become the second richest man in China.

You begin to see these surreal numbers tossed around. Over a billion dollars earned by the Sims. The portable gaming market is another billion a year market. A large-scale MMOG will earn upwards of a billion dollars over its life span. This is what happens when you start targeting billions of potential users instead of the same old 52 million.

Some people have figured it out. They’ve made a major shift within their organizations. They are not engaging in market optimization activities like the rest of us. Instead, they are actively pursuing market formation activities.

A five step process for moving beyond the gaming geek culture
Here are a few simple steps that any part of the game development community can take in order to start forming new markets and expanding the industry.
  • Step 1: Stop fixating on the current game market
  • Step 2: Stop listening to your gut
  • Step 3: Learn about product design
  • Step 4: Surround yourself with other perspectives
  • Step 5: Build an integrated business plan
Again, this isn’t for everyone, just those people who are interested in pursuing the biggest group of opportunities that our infant game industry has ever known. The rest are very welcome continue with their rarified discussions on how to make a better FPS. :-)

Step 1: Stop fixating on the current game market
We all have a favorite game. In our dream world, we would spend our days making the ultimate version of that game. The dreams are laced with the kudos we would get from our gamer friends. Not surprisingly, for 90% of the game developers I’ve talked to, their dream game is a clone and serves the existing game market. We need to stop lusting over the thought of creating a better Mario Kart, a better Doom, or a better RPG.

Instead, look beyond the current demographics singularity for people who are not being served by the current game market. It is okay to make a great game for people who are not part of our tribe.

Step 2: Stop listening to your gut.
If you happen to have an INTJ or ISTJ Meyer-Briggs profile, you need to stop listening to what your ‘gut’ tells you is a good game. If you happen to love FPS, Platformers, and anything involving WWII violence, put an ice pick through the part of your brain that digs these clone monsters.

Admitting to yourself that you don’t instinctively possess the magic answers to all the game design problems is the first step towards starting to truly listen to your target audience.

Step 3: Learn about product design
Product design is a fascinating, successful field practiced by almost every consumer industry except game development. It deals with creating products for a vast and ever shifting spectrum of customers and seeks to meet needs that they may not even have expressed. Here are some really great aspects about it that are lacking from the current field called ‘game design.’
  • Product design is an established, highly successful field. There is a lot of depth to tap into in the product design field. There are books that contain validated results, not theories. There are thousands of published case studies. In comparison, the game design field is composed primarily of wandering sages-for-hire and overly dramatic blogs like this one. :-) If our goal is to learn a new perspective, having a rich guide is helpful.
  • Product design has techniques for identifying needs: Once you stop listening to your gut, you still need a body of knowledge to inform your design decisions. Customer observation, ideation tools, rapid prototyping, on staff customers and others methods can be invaluable.
  • Product design has techniques for mitigating risk / improving creativity: In particular, the stage-gate product development process allows smart decisions to be made at the appropriate times with the appropriate amount of resources at stake.
To get the most out of a product design philosophy, you need to accept the assumption that games are software products that serve real market needs. This is a bit different than the perspective that games are primarily “an artistically expressive entertainment experience.” Each philosophy has its place, but if you are interested in market formation, I highly recommend sticking with the product design viewpoint. It allows you to tap into existing tools and drive toward concrete results in a pragmatic fashion.

Ultimately, product design has one fundamental lesson to share. A game designer must make games for their customer, not for themselves or for their preferred tribe. There is an objectivity and professionalism that comes with this perspective that keeps us honest. Market orientation is remarkably satisfying if you can pull it off.

Step 4: Surround yourself with other perspectives
A typical product design team has people from all walks of life. Engineers, artists, psychologists, men, and women partake in the cross functional design meetings. We can’t all be Leonardo da Vinci (though we should all strive to be.) However, we can certainly build teams that have a mass of experience across a wide spectrum of talents.

This means actively bringing women onto the team. It means bringing in people from different races and cultures. It means actively recruiting non-traditional skill sets from the cognitive sciences and art fields. Even if they know nothing about game development, their perspective into customer behavior is still incredibly valuable. They can always learn.

As a side note, most of what current designers do is not rocket science. In our egotism, we often fail to realize that our mystical powers of game mastery differ only mildly from the highly refined tastes of a Star Trek geek. When you move outside of the very narrow market segment that celebrates the high art of chain mail pasties, you’ll find that smart people from other fields may make even better game designers.

Here is an imponderable. Are Will Wright’s design skills universally unique, or are they seen as unique simply because he happens to be surrounded by the rest of the highly homogenous game development community?

Step 5: Build an integrated business plan
Market building requires you to think through a lot of activities that previously you took for granted or simply followed a formula. You often cannot rely on standard retail channels or marketing channels. The status of your relationship with Marie Claire magazine is something that rarely comes up when marketing Doom, but it may be critical to the success of your dress making shop simulation.

You need to build a business plan that demonstrates the entire chain of activities that will make your product profitable. The product must support the business and all aspects of the business must be intimately integrated with the core customer benefits that support the product.

This is quite different than the loosely coupled system we have now. The publishers make strong suggestions based on historical data and then the developers attempt to build their dream game within what they see primarily as a set of arbitrary and often harmful constraints. Often each group sits in a different silo and barely communicates.

The customer-centric approach puts both marketing and development on the same cross functional team. The same team exists to shepherd the product through from conception to market launch. Responsibilities shift, but there is no ‘tossing’ the product over the fence. Everyone on the team is equally responsible for the product’s final business success.

This works because there is a single common goal “make profit by serving the customer.” This is much more workable than managing a set of cultural assumptions and dreams.

A philosophical shift
What I’m describing here is a process and philosophy. It isn’t an answer, but a method of getting to an answer.

I’m not going to point out a specific market opportunity for you. In reality there is not one big market, but thousands of potential markets. By listening, observing and putting aside our subconscious biases and cultural assumptions, we can discover the underlying needs of new customers and begin to serve these markets. This process is more about market discovery and building than it is about market exploitation.

A shift in priorities occurs when you pursue a customer oriented market expansion strategy. Your biggest focus is no longer “Will this new rendering engine work” or “Will these graphics be seen as the best”. Instead you are constantly asking “Does this product meet and exceed the needs of my customer?” The tactical, technical details that are so often the primary focus of our industry are sublimated into the broader concept of making the correct product.

Now you get some interesting decisions that result from this perspective change. You have the opportunity to hire another person for the team. You can hire another programmer to improve your effects system or you could hire a cultural anthropologist to help you gain a better understanding of the target audience needs.

In a market formation situation, if you don’t understand your customer needs, you will fail. The cultural anthropologist becomes a far superior hire from both a business and quality perspective.

Conclusion
This essay is asking the game development community to do something that it historically has almost never done: Make games for people who are different than you.

My hope has been to point out the following:

  • There exists a self-reinforcing cultural bias within all systems of the game industry that limits our definition of the target market for games.
  • There exists a larger market outside of our current market that can be highly profitable if they are served with well designed products.
  • By increasing our self awareness and following product design methodologies using broadly cross functional teams, we can serve these new markets.
There are plenty of people who are happy with the current state of the industry and will defend their lifestyle choice to the grave. They drank the Cool-aid. They dressed up for the Star Trek convention. They beat Ninja Gaiden on hard. They love making games for the current gaming audience.

Many will actively attempt to discredit or dismiss attempts to create new genres. When opportunities arise to spread games into new areas, they intentionally or unintentionally will sabotage the results and try to turn them into games just like any other. They are not being spiteful. They are merely trying to do what they feel is right and enhance the culture they grew up with.

Who really wants to work in an industry where lavender is an acceptable color and shoe shopping an acceptable pastime? Ask your workmates if that is what they want to do with their lives. Eew, yuck, change it to blue! Chances are that you are part of this group. I am.

Cultural change is hard. We often make choices in life because of our implicit value system. Rarely do we ever question that value system or actively seek to change it.

There is, however, a big fat carrot awaiting the few who can make the transition to thinking about customers. It involves obscene profits and legendary status as one of the industry’s early innovators. Yes, there are still slots open in the game developer hall of fame.

The game industry is still young and has enormous room to grow. Stop looking at only your little corner with the assumption that it is the limit of the entire universe. Start listening, observing and imagining how your art can serve others. It is a life worth living.

Take care
Danc.

References
Miscellaneous stats

Ernest Adams’ discussion of philosophy behind the current game industry

Reggie talks ‘disruptive innovation’

Tragedy of the commons

Stage gate product development process


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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The myth of programmer-designer greatness

Here’s a phrase from an earlier post that harkens back to the ancient days when game developers beat their dinner dead with bone weapons. “The best game designers are also programmers.” (Apologies to Dylan Fitterer for taking this out of context.)

In the distant past, only a programmer could make a game. You could fumble through the tasks typically done by an artist, a game designer or a sound guy. All game designs from this era were created by programmers often for programmers. Most involve shooting or killing things and the industry bears the cultural bias of our founders to this very day.

In under funded teams where there are one or two people involved, you still need the programmer-designer. For the clone-tastic fringe of indie game development, someone who is a renaissance talent with skills in programming, design, and illustration is essential. Most modern teams however, have grown beyond this limited and restrictive state of creativity expression and they are better for it.

Modern game design is a specialized discipline that rarely correlates with a particular technical profession. Imagine the absurdity of the following statements.

  • The best authors are also be typesetters
  • The best directors are also camera men
  • The best product designers are also engineers
We have outgrown the need for all game designers to be programmers.

The liberal arts game designer
The best game designers certainly possess a passing understanding of the materials of their medium. This includes a knowledge of art, programming and sound. But it by no means suggests that in order to be a great designer you must also be a great programmer.

Instead, game design has emerged as its own distinct discipline. A modern game designer should be someone who understands risk / reward systems, prototyping dynamics, human psychology and basic market dynamics. They should understand the process and practice of game design. They need familiarity, but not stunning expertise in other areas of the game creation process. They need to be able to communicate with people who possess specialized technical skills. The result is that designer works as part of cross functional team.

Here’s a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto about how he designed Super Mario Bros:

It started with a simple idea. I thought: "I wonder what it would be like to have a character that bounces around. And the background should be a clear, blue sky." I took that idea to a programmer, and we started working on it.

Mario ended up being too big, so we shrank him. Then we thought, "What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest." We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland.

Here is one of the greatest designers of our industry, working hand in hand with a programmer to bring his vision into reality. He focuses on the core game mechanics, the setting and how the prototype evolves. The programmer focuses on creating the prototype, rapidly implementing new features and communicating technical constraints with the designer.

This setup augments the natural talents of both team members. The result is a product with great game design and great programming. You avoid creating a game that is restricted to the often limited talent palette of a single individual.

The innovation explosion that comes from tapping non-technical creators
In most forms of new media, we go through a period of time where an intimate understanding of technology is critical to the successful completion of the creative process. Early book authoring required the mastery of print making. Early movie auteurs built custom cameras from scratch. Photographers developed their own film for decades.

With time, tools and team structures emerge that do away with the need for such jacks of all trades. Printers would turn an author’s raw manuscript into a finished book. Movie makers created the position of Director, Script Writer, and Camera man so that people with inherent skills could focus on what they did best. Most photographers eventually discovered that a digital camera and a print lab let them focus more fully on the creative aspects of their art.

Specialization results in increased efficiencies and also impressively improved creativity. The unique voices of people that possess creative skills, but not technical skills are unleashed. In books alone, we would have lost 99% of all modern literature if typesetting was a hard prerequisite for writing a novel.

Games are going through the same maturation process as other industries. Ultimately, by tapping into non-technical game designers, we can increase the talent pool of visionaries by a hundred fold.

The dark side of a programmer worshipping game design culture
Old habits still linger and not everyone has adapted to the new world of true cross functional game development. If your bias is that your game designers to be programmers and you work in a team larger than one person, you are doing your game a grave disservice.

You eliminate out of hand talented individuals who are quite likely better suited for the position. If you look around, you may find artists with the correct skill set skill set. You may find programmers or writers. If you look even more broadly, you may find psychologists or housewives.

Any cultural bias towards promoting programmers to game design positions is the equivalent of promoting only white men to positions of decision making authority. At the very least, this practice is morally repugnant.

The limits of programmer design
At the worst, game designs created by programmers tend to focus on a very limited spectrum of human experience. They involve spatial skills, not social skills. They involve risk mechanics focused on extreme die and repeat-style punishment, not exploration or discovery. This is a generalization to be certain, but one that is not far off from reality.

By selecting game designers that are programmers, we let our incestuous history determine the creativity of our future. We build iteratively on the limited seeds of past efforts and create games for programmers and people who think like programmers. The result is more Doom 4 and less Nintendogs.

If you really want to contribute to the growth of our art form, build a team that doesn’t have a programmer as the main designer. Think of it as affirmative action for the game industry. Be sure that they know the craft and techniques of game design. Be sure that they can talk the language of the people on their team. But never make elite technical skills a prerequisite for a game design position.

I dream of seeing an explosion of vibrant game designs that expand our industry. This will only come about by putting people who are not traditional, technology-worshipping game developers in positions of great creative power.

Take care
Danc.

References
Shigeru Miyamoto Interview: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_45/b3958127.htm?campaign_id=rss_tech

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Book Review: 21st Century Game Design

I recently picked up Chris Bateman and Richard Boon’s new book 21st Century Game Design. Chris is the managing director at the game design consulting group International Hobo (aka ihobo) and has worked on Discworld Noir and Ghost Master. Chris has been kind enough to stop by this website and I’ve always enjoyed his comments.

The major contribution of his book to the dialog on game design is the formulation of a new audience model for game developers and publishers. This is fascinating stuff that certainly got my gears churning.

A more market driven approach
Many of the game design books on the market come are the ruminations of a successful game designer. They are the equivalent of listening to Miles Davis describing in his gravely voice “Sometimes I like to blow the horn like this. And it seems to sound pretty good.” Genius certainly, but such advice is difficult to replicate in any practical fashion.

21st Century Game Design is at its best when it attempts to approach the problem of game design from a perspective that is more familiar to businessman than a creative artist. The fundamental question that the book asks is “how do I make a game design that will sell?”

This is a very different question than “How do I make a good game?” The modern game industry is a Machiavellian place, where naively well-intentioned hard work is not nearly enough to engender success. 21st Century Game Design describes a calculated strategy for getting as many people as possible to play your title. The aim is game designs that are engineered for business success, not ones that succeed through luck alone.

The book provides a thought provoking look at the subject that it tackles. However, it ends up being the start of a much larger discussion. That alone is a worth contribution to the ongoing evolution of the theory and practice of game design.

Whispering sweet cluster analysis nothings in my ear
The backbone of the book is a study intended to provide a better method of categorizing customer wants and needs. A professional statistician would likely take the resulting categories with a grain of salt, but I’m willing to give it all the benefit of the doubt.

The result is a straightforward audience model consisting of four categories that goes beyond the pop concepts of “hardcore” and “casual” that many designers and gamers toss about.

  • Conqueror: The classic goal oriented power gamer, who believes “I win when someone loses”
  • Manager: The more meticulous challenge solver.
  • Wanderer: Someone who treats games like a playground.
  • Participant: Goodness knows, but it involves other people.
Each of these categories is split into a Hardcore and a Casual group. The authors then spend the rest of the book examining the describing how the various groups of game player react to different types of game mechanics and presentations. In essence, the book describes a series of market segments and then discusses how various existing design options serve those segments.
I’ve done a cluster analysis or two in my day and it is worth noting that they are inexact beasts in the best of situations. The Myer-Briggs inventories that underlie much of the books assumptions are based off hundreds of studies using very large populations tracked for many years. The likelihood of the book’s first generation audience model being correct in all its details is approximately nil.
However, that does not limit the value of the attempt. Some of the highlights include:

  • First, it calls out the dark and inbred history of modern game designs. Most of what we consider great games were created by a freakish group of Conqueror miscreants and are poor foundation for serving the needs of the broader population. Publishers, you need to get down on your hands and knees and pay ihobo gobs of money to beat this particular message into your thick, risk averse skulls.
  • Second, by presenting the current audience model, designers are encouraged to think about their target customers and the customer’s needs in a more rigorous fashion that is uncommon in the game industry.
  • Third, a fascinating topic for additional research has been broached. I hope that ihobo and other more academic researchers pursue the topic of audience models vigorously in the coming years.
Is an audience model the right way to go?
As much as I like how an audience model encourages us to think of our target customers, I worry that it only a piece of a much larger puzzle. I’m going to step away from reviewing the book for a moment and look at some of the broader implications.

An audience model is, at its core, an extension of the marketing concepts that drove much of the mass commercialization of music and movies from the 1940’s onward. There are some critical assumptions involved that could be quite dangerous if you are attempting to tap into new opportunities. Some of the implicit assumptions are as follows:
  • There are big broad market segments that are homogeneous and exist (in varying proportions) across territories.
  • These market segments are based on basic human psychology and are therefore quite stable.
  • Game distribution is a one-way push model. If publishers execute in a technically competent fashion, passive gamers will consume it. If a game is sent out and properly promoted, and it meets the generic psychological needs of the target market, then it will do well in the marketplace.
This is a highly defensible perspective on the game industry that fits the classic packaged goods models of entertainment. Within a mature market that requires its participants to play a game of ‘king of the genre’ with highly predictable consumers, the use of such a model is bound to gain a few extra percentage points on the revenue charts.

The book briefly touches upon the economic implications of this model. Each market segment has both an overall revenue and profitability associated with producing product for it. Hardcore gamers might only sell 500,000 copies of a game. This puts limits on the amount of money you should expect from and therefore spend in developing a hardcore title. This is quite reasonable.

Classic problems with an audience model
However, troubles come into play when smart publishers use this model as a technique for maximizing their revenue. They begin to create titles that appeal across multiple market segments. Marginal titles are culled and the portfolio is optimized for maximum profit. Historically, what happens here is as follows:

  • Marketing dictates ‘required’ elements for success. In order to properly cull your portfolio, you need criteria derived from your audience model. A pop record might have a check list that includes: “Pretty young girl + hip-hop inspired beats + epic vocals + sexual lyrics.” The book takes a stab at identifying common genre mechanics that appeal to different audience segments. This is only a short step away from creating a game specific check list. EA is already working towards such a check list with their latest “1 to 2 elements of original game play + 1 major brand + best in class artwork” formulation.

  • Originality is sacrificed because it does not fit into the ‘winning formula’: Games that are outside of the winning formula are instantly dismissed. Often, there will be a list of acceptable game mechanics that are acceptable. When an original game concept does not have an obvious match either the game mechanics or the buckets available in the audience model, the risk adverse action is to toss it and go with something safer.

  • Small market segments are underserved: If a market is not a major ‘acceptable market within the established audience model, it is unlikely to get much attention. There is no room for the long tail in simplistic audience models.
This model is very new to the game industry, but it has been around in a variety of forms for many decades in other media markets. The results are interesting and predictable. Rigorous application ends up with the majority of the publisher dollars funneled into high profit segments of the market. Consolidation trends are accelerated while low profit segments are starved and eventually die off.

In the short term, this firing of undesirable customers by the entire industry results in dramatic industry growth. In the long term, it leads to stagnation. It turns out that all those little low profit markets are the source of the periodic creative renaissances that the larger market requires to grow its revenue base.

Game specific issues with using an audience model
Complicating the picture is the simple fact that games are not traditional media like movies or music. Ernest Adams makes the telling point in his introduction to the book that there are a dozens of unique classes of games. The part that fascinates me is that these games differ radically terms of functionality, not merely content.

Most music is functionally identical. There are differences in taste, but the core psychological benefits that are derived by Jazz listeners are not so different than those derived by listeners of Metal. A game of Animal Crossing, on the other hand serves a radically different purpose than a game of Risk, not merely a different audience.

Who uses the game, how they use the game, where they use the game and the benefit they derive from the game are unique to the each genre. Of course you can’t play a game of Animal Crossing when you have a group of five friends over. It isn’t a multiplayer game.

I come from a background that deals with the concept of ‘product design’, not media marketing. Product design looks at the specific ecosystem of a class of users and identifies unique gaps or opportunities for creating value in that ecosystem. These opportunities are generally composed of an intricate webs of psychological, economic, relationship based needs.

We need to stop thinking of games as disposable entertainment that, like a faceless porn movie, merely services our generic psychological needs. The reason games are so hard to classify is because they entertainment tools, not merely entertainment experiences. Every tool has a different use within a very specific ecosystem.

Some examples:
  • Pokemon acts as pre-teen social networking devices and lives within the rarified ecosystem of GBA’s portable network.
  • Nintendogs appeals to Japanese consumers and other city dwellers who are unable to own a real dog.
  • Galactic Civilizations serves a niche of passionate players burnt by MOO3, but desperate for the glory of MOO 1 and MOO2. They are older gamers that need an entertainment tool that can be paused both mechanically and psychologically when the wife yells that dinner is ready.
The direct application of audience profiling as a concept formulation technique will never directly result in any of the games above. Such models are too vague, too generic. Where in the spectrum of audience markets would you find ‘dog lover?’

Part of a bigger picture
Games, as entertainment tools, are different products than disposable experiences like movies or music. An audience model is still a useful technique, but it must be applied properly. I see as it a secondary technique the can help refine a game concept that stems from an ethnographic or anthropological study.

In short
  • Identify a unique market opportunity or under served niche within an ecosystem.
  • Use an audience model and other profiling techniques (interviews, observation, etc) to identify critical goals for the final product design.
  • Build your game design around those critical goals.
Designers should avoid using audience models as the only determination of economic feasibility and instead rely on market-sizing techniques specific to their game concept.

Next Steps
Chris and crew have kicked off a wonderful discussion and I’m very excited to see where the book goes in subsequent editions. Some suggestions from the peanut gallery include:
  • Additional studies done with more statistical rigor. I want to trust the model that is put forward as reproducible. Ultimately, I would love to see the research side of this book grow to as compelling as business books like “Good to Great” or “Built to Last” by Jim Collins.
  • Exploration of the applicability of audience models to the game design process. How can it be used to enhance both the creativity and success of a product design process?
  • Exploration of the business implications of an audience model: This model is useful for game designs, but it has serious ramifications for the industry as a whole. What are the positive aspects of its application and what are the pitfalls that should be avoided?
Conclusion
Buy this book. You are doing yourself a serious disfavor as a game designer if you don’t understand the central concepts involved in the proposed audience model. The first few chapters alone are worth the price of admission.

Don’t expect the book to answer all your questions. Instead treat it as one of the first vigorous discussions about designing for the modern business-centric game industry. The basic attitude of measuring and asking real customers about their preferences needs to infect the entire industry.

Equally important is that you question the basic assumptions behind the proposed theory. Is it the right philosophy to inform the industry’s future investment strategy? EA is already following, if not the specifics of this book, the general spirit of an audience model driven strategy. They are quite successful. The simple market-based approach has worked for movies and music and seems to also work for games. Is there a better path for the game industry? Or is this good enough?

Our young industry is at the beginning of a very lucrative discussion of how to make game and why games should be made. When books like 21st Century Game Design promote a seductive message of profitability that sparks the interest of both the money men and the creative visionaries, they can shape the future of the entire industry.

I’ll leave you with this delightful quote from a recent article on the radio industry:
“[Lee] Abrams pioneered systematic audience research and "psychographics," connecting people's lifestyles to their listening habits. He invented a music format called album-oriented rock, or AOR, which in the 1970s shifted the music industry's focus from singles to albums and showed radio execs how to hold listeners and attract advertisers - to make money in the new, boundary-free
world of FM.

But his success had a cost. The rise of AOR was the beginning of the end for the brief, storied era of free-form radio and iconoclastic DJs - "some guy in a basement in Brooklyn, burning incense and playing whatever he pleased," as Abrams describes the late-'60s scene. The format ushered in such airwave dreck as classic rock, teen pop, and … there's no easy way to say this …
smooth jazz.”[1]

The good folks a ihobo are not the first to implement the concept of an audience model in the game industry. That honor belongs to the larger game publishers of the world. However, by writing a book on the subject, they are encouraging all of us to discuss the concept and its ramification in a public manner. Perhaps we can improve on the theories that drive the decisions that occur behind closed doors.

Take care
Danc.

References



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