Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Update 21-03-2008: I’ve added some images of slides to allow for some more con­text when read­ing the text.

This is a rough tran­script of my lec­ture at GDC Mobile 2008. In short: I first briefly intro­duce the con­cept of expe­ri­ence design and sys­tems and then show how this influ­ences my views of mobile casu­al games. From there I dis­cuss the rela­tion of casu­al games with the trend Gen­er­a­tion C. Wrap­ping up, I give an overview of some social design frame­works for the web that are equal­ly applic­a­ble to mobile social gam­ing. As a bonus I give some thoughts on mobile game sys­tems mobile metagames. The talk is illus­trat­ed through­out with a case study of Playy­oo—a mobile games com­mu­ni­ty I helped design.

  • I’ve includ­ed a slight­ly adjust­ed ver­sion of the orig­i­nal slides—several screen­shot sequences of Playy­oo have been tak­en out for file size rea­sons.
  • If you absolute­ly must have audio, I’m told you will be able to pur­chase (!) a record­ing from GDC Radio some­time soon.
  • I’d like to thank every­one who came up to me after­wards for con­ver­sa­tion. I appre­ci­ate the feed­back I got from you.
  • Sev­er­al aspects of Playy­oo that I use as exam­ples (such as the game stream) were already in place before I was con­tract­ed. Cred­its for many design aspects of Playy­oo go to David Mantripp, Playyoo’s chief archi­tect.
  • And final­ly, the views expressed here are in many ways an amal­ga­ma­tion of work by oth­ers. Where pos­si­ble I’ve giv­en cred­it in the talk and oth­er­wise linked to relat­ed resources.

That’s all the notes and dis­claimers out of the way, read on for the juice (but be warned, this is pret­ty long).

Introductions

Introductions

Hi every­one, my name is Kars Alfrink. I live in Copen­hagen, Den­mark at the moment, but my home­town is Utrecht in the Netherlands—a place so des­per­ate to become the hub for Dutch game devel­op­ment that they lit up the cathe­dral green for the Xbox 360 launch. I work as a free­lance inter­ac­tion design­er, which might cause you to won­der what I’m doing here. My com­pa­ny is called Leapfrog, which might con­fuse you even more because it’s dif­fer­ent from the US com­pa­ny LeapFrog. Which reminds me: I need a new com­pa­ny name. Any­one have any sug­ges­tions?

IxD (heart) GD

In my work I attempt to strad­dle the line between game design and inter­ac­tion design. For exam­ple I’ve visu­alised how mul­ti-touch inter­faces can be inte­grat­ed into a gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty. The inter­ac­tions peo­ple have with these inter­faces need­ed to be use­ful but also playful—so that’s where game design comes in.

Anoth­er project I’ve spent a lot of my time on late­ly is called Playy­oo. In an arti­cle on TechCrunch it was described as “a YouTube for mobile games”. Or if you’re famil­iar with Kon­gre­gate, it’s sim­i­lar to that as well—although there are some impor­tant dif­fer­ences. They hired me to con­sult on the games-relat­ed parts of the sys­tem. The work I did for them is the basis for today’s talk. Although I’ll use a lot of exam­ples from Playy­oo, I’ve tried to keep the con­tent as uni­ver­sal­ly applic­a­ble as pos­si­ble. Also—just to pre­vent any misunderstandings—Playyoo is not my employ­er. This talk is very much about my own views and inter­ests.

Today I’ll be talk­ing about “design­ing a mobile social gam­ing expe­ri­ence for Gen­er­a­tion C”. I know it’s not the most elo­quent of titles on the pro­gramme, but I had to come up with some­thing. Also, it sounds a bit like buzz­word bin­go doesn’t it? Mobile, social, expe­ri­ence, Gen­er­a­tion C… “Oh dear”, you might be think­ing, “who does this guy think he is?” I’ll talk about each of these ‘con­cepts’ in more depth. I’ll give you some of my views on them and show you how they were addressed in Playy­oo. At the end of this talk you’ll have hope­ful­ly learned a bit more about them in a way that’s applic­a­ble to your own work. If you do end up using any of this, please let me know about your expe­ri­ences. This is all very much work in progress for me, I love get­ting feed­back.

But before I get start­ed, let me give you a brief intro­duc­tion to Playy­oo. I despise sales pitch­es in talks so I was a bit reluc­tant to do this at first. How­ev­er, it makes the rest of my sto­ry much eas­i­er to digest so please bear with me.

Playy­oo con­sists of a web site, where you reg­is­ter an account and then con­fig­ure some­thing we call your game stream. The game stream func­tions as a rec­om­men­da­tion engine of games. You access this stream on your mobile phone. So this is the sec­ond com­po­nent of Playy­oo: the mobile web site, which allows you to launch and play games. You can send high scores and oth­er stuff from the mobile to the web site. All games on Playy­oo are user-sub­mit­ted. They can be devel­oped from scratch or made with a web app we imag­i­na­tive­ly call the game cre­ator.

By the way, all games on Playy­oo are Flash Lite games. This is because there is a large world­wide com­mu­ni­ty of Flash game devel­op­ers, and it would have been hard to pull off some of the parts of the sys­tem in some­thing like Java—such as the game cre­ator.

Experience

Playy­oo can be seen as a sys­tem. It has sev­er­al dis­crete parts that work togeth­er in order to pro­vide the play­er with a coher­ent expe­ri­ence. I use the term “expe­ri­ence” in the talk’s title because that’s the way I tend to approach design. (Not just me by the way, there’s a whole emerg­ing field of user expe­ri­ence that includes inter­ac­tion design.) The essence of this approach is that you think out­side-in, it’s human-cen­tred if you will. It also means you don’t start with a laun­dry list of fea­tures that need to be accom­mo­dat­ed just because the design team agrees they would be cool. In stead, you start with what moti­vates your tar­get audi­ence, what they want to do, but also very much how they want to feel while using your prod­uct, ser­vice or what­ev­er.

MDA

The approach is very sim­i­lar to the MDA mod­el described by Marc LeBlanc. So with expe­ri­ence design, you start from the aes­thet­ics and work “back­wards” in order to arrive at the mechan­ics.

So sys­tems. An exam­ple of a sys­tem that aims to deliv­er a good expe­ri­ence would be Apple’s iPod and iTunes. The smart thing Apple did was realise that there’s some stuff you would rather do behind your PC in stead of on your mobile device. So you use iTunes to organ­ise your music library, and your iPod to lis­ten to it. In addi­tion they intro­duced the iTunes Store so it became real­ly easy to buy music too. Togeth­er these form one sys­tem, one expe­ri­ence.

Playyoo's system

Playy­oo has these dif­fer­ent parts I men­tioned ear­li­er and they work togeth­er as sys­tem too. The web site for man­ag­ing your games (and doing some oth­er stuff), the mobile site for play­ing games and the game cre­ator web app for cre­at­ing games.

You can take this notion of expe­ri­ence design even fur­ther and think of your prod­uct as some­thing with a per­son­al­i­ty, some­thing that has agency. This is what I think peo­ple like Jesse James Gar­rett and Matt Webb mean when they use the phrase “prod­ucts are peo­ple too”. When you do this, you start to realise there’s even more to think about apart from the peri­od someone’s actu­al­ly using your prod­uct. The expe­ri­ence expands to include the first time some­one reads about it, or sees it in a shop on a shelf, or plays with it when vis­it­ing a friend. Any encounter a per­son has with your prod­uct or ser­vice can be thought of as an “expe­ri­ence hook”.

Mobile

This expe­ri­ence based approach influ­ences the way I think about mobile. I don’t real­ly think of it as a device, but as a con­text. Per­haps a noun—“mobility”—would make more sense. The major design chal­lenge for me is not to make any arbi­trary fea­ture work on mobile devices. It’s about com­ing up with stuff that makes sense with­in the con­text of mobil­i­ty. Sure, con­form­ing to phys­i­cal form fac­tor plays a role in mobile design, but what peo­ple actu­al­ly want to do while out and about is the real unex­plored area.

So Playy­oo aims to solve some impor­tant issues peo­ple have with mobile gam­ing. These are things like dis­cov­er­ing games you actu­al­ly like, and get­ting them on your phone. Pric­ing is anoth­er big issue—the per­ceived price of games for mobile is often too high.

Playy­oo is also firm­ly tar­get­ed at a main­stream audi­ence. It aims to intro­duce or rein­tro­duce a group of peo­ple to gam­ing who have felt left out until recent­ly. I’m not going to define the term casu­al game, but I will take a cue from Ian Bogost and point out they allow them­selves to be played in short ses­sions, have sim­ple, easy to mas­ter con­trols and (sur­prise) cost very lit­tle.

Short-session play

A note about the short play ses­sions though—although a sin­gle ses­sion might be short, you can see a lot of repeat­ed play with casu­al games. This is the “easy to learn hard to mas­ter” class of games. The ulti­mate exam­ple of this dynam­ic would be Go (if you exclude Go’s long play ses­sions from the equa­tion.) Con­verse­ly, some casu­al games are real­ly meant to be played once only. A good exam­ple would be the Zidane Head Butt game. This class of games are very much about cre­ative per­son­al expres­sion, about com­ment­ing on cur­rent events for instance (like news­games).

Generation C

Where are all these ultra-short, casu­al mobile games going to come from? That’s where Gen­er­a­tion C comes into play. I don’t usu­al­ly base my deci­sions on what trend watch­ers say is going to be the next big thing, but a while back I ran into a descrip­tion of Gen­er­a­tion C at Trendwatching.com (most prob­a­bly through Schulze & Webb’s blog). Gen­er­a­tion C is a grow­ing group of peo­ple that can be defined by their behav­iour in stead of age—they are extreme­ly com­fort­able with being cre­ative.

These peo­ple enjoy using prod­ucts and ser­vices that make them feel like they’re kick­ing ass. They want to be approached more as pro­duc­ers than con­sumers. They want to be able to share what­ev­er they make with their friends and expect the stuff they use to be smart about this. Gen­er­a­tion C need their ser­vices to be con­nect­ed in a way that makes putting in and tak­ing out cre­ations easy.

Introducing Gen-C

Exam­ples of ser­vices that are geared towards this gen­er­a­tion include Etsy, which is this online com­mu­ni­ty that con­nects so-called crafters to peo­ple look­ing to buy hand-made stuff.

Gen­er­a­tion C would feel very com­fort­able with some­thing like Sketch Fur­ni­ture—sketch out a chair in space and have the result­ing shape fabbed for you.

You could argue that a large part of this atti­tude has been brought about by games. They have opened up to play­ers in ways that allow them to express them­selves too. Think of The Sims, or Doom and Quake. Think of machin­i­ma and the mod­ding scene…

On top of that, there’s a whole gen­er­a­tion of people—myself included—who have been brought up with games in such a way that they feel com­fort­able express­ing them­selves through them. We have become increas­ing­ly game-literate—although the gen­er­al pub­lic can bet­ter ‘read’ than ‘write’ them. For peo­ple to become tru­ly game-lit­er­ate, they will need to be enabled with cre­ative tools that let them cre­ate games as eas­i­ly as play them.

So to bring this back to mobile social gam­ing: It’s obvi­ous not every­one wants or needs to be a cre­ator, but it makes a lot of sense for a casu­al gam­ing plat­form to enable cre­ative peo­ple to get their cre­ations in front of an audi­ence. After all, they are at least part­ly moti­vat­ed by celebri­ty.

Levels of engagement

Cre­ation can in this way be made part of the metagame (Word doc­u­ment), pro­vid­ing for mul­ti­ple lev­els of play­er engage­ment. With the rise of the social web, there have been many pyra­mid dia­grams whipped up illus­trat­ing these engage­ment lev­els. Will Wright once pro­duced one show­ing the Sims ecosys­tem, Raph Koster made one map­ping the lev­els to easy and hard fun and in web cir­cles Bradley Horowitz’s 1% cre­ators, 10% syn­the­sis­ers, 100% con­sumers pyra­mid based on behav­iour observed in Yahoo! Groups is pret­ty well-known. Here’s my extreme­ly sim­ple ver­sion of the pyra­mid, made spe­cif­ic to Playy­oo.

Playy­oo has dif­fer­ent ways to enable cre­ators. Savvy devel­op­ers who are com­fort­able with work­ing in Flash can down­load an exten­sion that helps them set up their work­space so that it’s guar­an­teed com­pat­i­ble with the plat­form. Less techie peo­ple that still want to cre­ate can use the game cre­ator. And at the bot­tom of the pyra­mid, we have all the peo­ple who are hap­pi­ly play­ing all the games com­ing into the sys­tem. The game cre­ator in a way tries to bridge the world of game play and game devel­op­ment.

Let me give you a brief overview of the game cre­ator. It allows you to cus­tomise pre­de­fined game arche­types. Cur­rent­ly there are six in the appli­ca­tion, with more on the way. The idea is to make this act of cus­tomi­sa­tion a fun way to spend a few min­utes. It’s a fill-in-the blanks kind of activ­i­ty. Once you’ve picked an arche­type, you can change the graph­ics on the dif­fer­ent game ele­ments, and change some of the rules and para­me­ters. You’re also able to enter cus­tom mes­sages that are shown when the game begins and ends. Final­ly we’ll ask you to describe the game for oth­er play­ers. Once you’re done, you can pub­lish it and it will be sent to the web site. From that moment, peo­ple can play it on their phones.

Some games

So that’s the cre­ation part. I’m sure by this point you’re won­der­ing how this is work­ing out. Well, pret­ty good I’m hap­py to say. There’s a nice mix of cus­tom games and game cre­ator games in the sys­tem at the moment. The cus­tom games tend to be made by enthu­si­as­tic ama­teurs that see Playy­oo as a way to reach an audi­ence and hone their skills. They’re pret­ty active in pro­mot­ing their games on the site.

The game cre­ator games are very much about peo­ple just hav­ing fun being cre­ative. Some­times they use the game cre­ator to com­ment on some­thing that’s going on. Some­times the games make no sense to me at all because they’re using fam­i­ly pic­tures for instance. But that’s OK, we real­ly want­ed the game cre­ator to be about cre­ative expres­sion on a per­son­al lev­el and that’s what seems to be hap­pen­ing. That’s great.

And we’ve basi­cal­ly pro­vid­ed for peo­ple to be engaged with the sys­tem on dif­fer­ent lev­els. Game cre­ation has been made a play­ful act and as such func­tions as part of the Playy­oo metagame.

Paradox of choice

Paradox of choice

With all these games com­ing into the sys­tem the sup­ply side of things is tak­en care of pret­ty well. We have plen­ty of games in the sys­tem and they cov­er a broad range of gen­res. The chal­lenge of course becomes get­ting the right game to the right per­son. It’s also about the para­dox of choice: The more options peo­ple get, the less hap­py they’ll be about the choice they end up mak­ing, always think­ing they should’ve gone with some­thing else.

We all know that in today’s world atten­tion is so scarce, peo­ple will be reluc­tant to spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time on any chunk of con­tent. And I think that’s actu­al­ly a pret­ty good expla­na­tion for the rise of the casu­al game. There’s a large group of peo­ple who don’t want to atten­tion-binge on a game but still want to play.

Surprise

So: Peo­ple want few choic­es (or none at all) and what­ev­er they choose needs to be con­sum­able in bite-sized chunks.

In stead of offer­ing choic­es, you can sur­prise peo­ple. Take for exam­ple the Any­way & What­ev­er soft drinks which you can get in Sin­ga­pore. It comes in two main vari­eties: car­bon­at­ed and non-car­bon­at­ed. But what flavour you get you’ll only know when you open the can.

With atten­tion being scarce, one way peo­ple are han­dling it is pay­ing less and less atten­tion to any sin­gle piece of con­tent. This is hap­pen­ing not just with media, but on oth­er fronts too, such as food. Min­nies in Chica­go serves bite-sized burg­ers, so you can eat a larg­er vari­ety of them! This is the oth­er way of solv­ing the para­dox of choice—by allow­ing peo­ple to con­sume in snack-sized por­tions and be more eco­nom­ic with their atten­tion.

Snack culture

(I first encoun­tered the exam­ples of Any­thing & What­ev­er and Min­nies in Trendwatching.com’s 8 impor­tant con­sumer trends for 2008.)

In Playy­oo the prin­ci­ples of sur­prise and snack­ing are applied through the game stream.

On the site you cus­tomise the game stream. This is a kind of explic­it tweak­ing of your pref­er­ences. In the future Playy­oo might be able to aug­ment this with guess­work based on implic­it behav­iour. Once you launch the mobile site you’ll get a time ordered sequence of games that you have not played yet. If you play a game once, it’s moved from the game stream to your recent­ly played list. You can also favourite games which makes them show up in a sep­a­rate stream. In the future, there might be even more streams added to the sys­tem.

Social

Part of the selec­tion process depends on what your friends are play­ing and cre­at­ing. Let’s talk a lit­tle bit more about the notion of social­i­ty in the sys­tem. Like I said the peo­ple Playy­oo was designed for aren’t only com­fort­able with cre­ativ­i­ty, they want to share their cre­ations with oth­ers.

We did not want to include social fea­tures just because all the oth­er web 2.0 sites were doing it. We want­ed the social dimen­sion to make sense in the greater con­text of mobile play.

For play­ers, this means it should be about “play­ing alone togeth­er”. Although a mobile play ses­sion is often soli­tary, the metagame turns it into a social expe­ri­ence. You can start com­pet­ing with your friends over high-scores for instance.

For cre­ators, the social dimen­sion is close­ly tied to celebri­ty. It’s about see­ing what hap­pens to your game, who plays it, do they like it, how can it be improved and so on.

How­ev­er, we don’t just hang out online and talk to peo­ple about noth­ing (although some­times you would think so). In stead we form rela­tion­ships with oth­ers around so-called social objects.

A good exam­ple of this con­cept would be Flickr, where the pho­tos serve as social objects. An “excuse” if you will for peo­ple to inter­act. With del.icio.us, the social object is a URL. With Upcom­ing, it’s an event. With YouTube it’s a video­clip. With Dopplr, it’s a trip, and so on…

Playyoo’s social objects are games. It’s inter­est­ing to look at the types of con­ver­sa­tions that hap­pen around them. Some­times the con­ver­sa­tion is about the qual­i­ty of the game itself. This is often the case with cus­tom games. With game cre­ator games, the con­ver­sa­tion is usu­al­ly about the sto­ry behind the game. If it’s a com­ment on cur­rent events, the con­ver­sa­tion might be about what is said about that event in the game.

You see this on Flickr too. You have peo­ple upload­ing art­ful­ly done pho­tos, and the con­ver­sa­tions tend to be about the crafts­man­ship of the pho­to (in addi­tion the sub­ject too of course). I take a lot of pho­tos with my cam­er­a­phone and upload them direct­ly to Flickr. My mobile is old, the pho­tos are hard­ly ever any good, but we have con­ver­sa­tions about the sto­ries behind the pho­tos.

So in a sense, the game cre­ator is to Playy­oo what the cam­er­a­phone is to Flickr…

Social software building blocks

I men­tioned peo­ple form rela­tion­ships around social objects and they have con­ver­sa­tions about them. Rela­tion­ships and con­ver­sa­tion are two of the build­ing blocks of any social ser­vice. Here’s my ver­sion of a dia­gram orig­i­nal­ly pro­duced by Gene Smith who in turn based it on work by Matt Webb. It shows the most impor­tant build­ing blocks of any social ser­vice. I’ll briefly describe each build­ing block:

  • Iden­ti­ty is how you are rep­re­sent­ed in the sys­tem. With games this is usu­al­ly a game char­ac­ter, in Playy­oo there are pro­file pages.
  • Pres­ence is about let­ting oth­er now where you are and what you’re doing.
  • Rela­tion­ships are about how you can be linked to oth­ers in the system’s social net­work. Playy­oo has a very basic ‘friends’ frame­work with no gran­u­lar­i­ty. As I said, peo­ple also relate to each oth­er implic­it­ly around objects. If we both like the same game a lot, we have some kind of rela­tion­ship through that game.
  • Rep­u­ta­tion is about mak­ing your past actions vis­i­ble to oth­ers. Think of eBay rat­ings for instance.
  • Groups is how you can mark out your­self and oth­ers as part of a greater whole.
  • We talked about con­ver­sa­tions already.
  • Final­ly, shar­ing is about what can be exchanged in the sys­tem. Playy­oo allows you to share your games with oth­ers.

The idea is not that each ser­vice should sup­port all of these in equal mea­sure. In fact, you can look at dif­fer­ent ser­vices and kind of map it to the build­ing blocks, expos­ing its char­ac­ter.

So let’s do that for Playy­oo. It focuss­es on con­ver­sa­tions (around and through games), rep­u­ta­tion (how good a play­er you are, how good the games you cre­ate are) and shar­ing.

The future…

Mobile game systems

Playy­oo is still just in pub­lic beta and is con­tin­u­ous­ly being improved. I’m only slight­ly involved with the roadmap for the future so I can’t com­ment on specifics. I’ll share two things relat­ed to Playy­oo that I’m gen­er­al­ly inter­est­ed in though: these are mobile game sys­tems and mobile metagames.

The game cre­ator takes a tem­plate approach to game cus­tomi­sa­tion, sim­i­lar to what MySpace does with pro­file pages. What if we come up with a tool that’s more like a deck of cards? These are game sys­tems: com­po­nents that can be used to cre­ate many dif­fer­ent games. The trick will be to come up with com­po­nents that make sense with­in a mobile con­text. I can think of loca­tion, move­ment, time of day and ges­ture, what else can you think of?

Mobile metagame

A metagame is about the activ­i­ties play­ers engage in around actu­al play ses­sions. Kon­gre­gate has done some won­der­ful work in this direc­tion, but it’s pret­ty struc­tured and nar­row. What if we come up with Flickr-like play­ful inter­ac­tions that take as their inputs mobile play ses­sions? There is a start of such a mobile metagame in Playyoo—it takes high scores from mobile play ses­sions as an input with which you can play on the web­site. I’d like to expand this in a way that makes sense for the mobile.

And that’s all we have time for. Thanks for your atten­tion! Any ques­tions?

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

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