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).
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?
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.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
(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.
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…
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.
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?
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?