In 1966 Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam with blank protest banners.1 The use of rousing slogans had been outlawed by the city’s mayor. The ‘protesters’ were arrested. Provo achieved their goal of making the authorities look silly by playing at protesting.
They took existing rules and decided to play within them, to see how far they could push the limits of those rules. They were not allowed to use actual slogans, so they decided to use unwritten banners. They made use of the ambiguous nature of play: They were protesting, but at the same time not protesting. There were no forbidden slogans on their banners, but at the same time, the slogans were ever so present through their absence.
The police were not willing to take on Provo’s ludic attitude. They refused to step into their magic circle and play at opposing them. In stead they broke the rules, arrested them for real, and by doing so, lost—at least in the public’s eye.
This example—and hopefully a few others—I will discuss at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility. In 20 minutes or so, I hope to inspire designers to think about what the near future’s blank banners could be. My session is titled ‘Mobile components for playful cultural resistance’ (an unwieldy title in desperate need of improvement) and will probably be in Dutch.
‘Metagames’Richard Garfield’s presentation for the 2000 Game Developers Conferenceis in today’s links, but I think it deserves a bit more attention than that. Here are some quotes from the document that stood out for me.1
What a metagame is:
“My definition of metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life.”
In other words, metagame design is contextual. It forces you to think about when, where, how and by who your game will be played.
Why metagame design has not been getting as much attention as game design itself:
“…the majority of a game’s metagame is probably unalterable by game designer or publisher.”
So, metagame design is a second order design problem. Designers can only indirectly influence how metagames play out. They facilitate it, but do not direct it.
Garfield divides metagames in four broad categories:
What you bring to a game
What you take away from a game
What happens between games
What happens during a game
Where “game” should be understood as a single play session of a game.
Garfield has interesting things to say about all these categories, and I recommend reading the article in full, but I’d like to zoom in on one bit mentioned under “from”:
“It is worth noting that many things listed have a ‘circular’ value to the player.”
Getting something from a game that you can bring with you again to a game makes you care more and more about the game itself. One clear example of how metagames are a helpful concept for making a game more self-sustaining.
Better yet, the ‘stuff’ that players get from a game play session can be shared or passed on to others. In this manner, the metagame becomes a viral loop.2
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).
Allowing people to change parts of your product is playful. It has also always ‘just’ seemed like a good thing to do to me. You see this with with people who become passionate about a thing they use often: They want to take it apart, see how it works, put it back together again, maybe add some stuff, replace something else… I’ve always liked the idea of passionate people wanting to change something about a thing I designed. And it’s always been a disappointment when I’d find out that they did not, or worse—wanted to but weren’t able to.
Apparently this is what people call adaptive design. But if you Google that, you won’t find much. In fact, there’s remarkably little written about it. I was put on the term’s trail by Matt Webb and from there found my way to Dan Hill’s site. There’s a lot on the topic there, but if I can recommend one piece it’s the interview he did for Dan Saffer’s book on interaction design. Read it. It’s full of wonderful ideas articulated 100 times better than I’ll ever be able to.
So why is adaptive design conducive to the playfulness of a user experience? I’m not sure. One aspect of it might be the fact that as a designer you explicitly relinquish some control over the final experience people have with your…stuff.1As Webb noted in an end-of-the-year post, in stead of saying to people: “Here’s something I made. Go on—play with it.” You say: “Here’s something I made—let’s play with it together.”
This makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of the thing under design as something that’ll be consumed but something that will be used to create. It sounds easy but again is surprisingly hard. It’s like we have been infected with this hard-to-kill idea that makes us think we can only consume whereas we are actually all very much creative beings.2 I think that’s what Generation C is really about.
A sidetrack: In digital games, for a long time developments have been towards games as media that can be consumed. The real changes in digital games are: One—there’s a renewed interest in games as activities (particularly in the form of casual games). And two—there’s an increase in games that allow themselves to be changed in meaningful ways. These developments make the term “replay value” seem ready for extinction. How can you even call something that isn’t interesting to replay a game?3
In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman describe the phenomenon of transformative play—where the “free movement within a more rigid structure” changes the mentioned structure itself (be it intended or not). They hold it as one of the most powerful forms of play. Think of a simple house rule you made up the last time you played a game with some friends. The fact that on the web the rules that make up the structures we designed are codified in software should not be an excuse to disallow people to change them.
That’s true literacy: When you can both read and write in a medium (as Alan Kay would have it). I’d like to enable people to do that. It might be hopelessly naive, but I don’t care—it’s a very interesting challenge.
That’s a comfortable idea to all of the—cough—web 2.0 savvy folk out there. But it certainly still is an uncomfortable thought to many. And I think it’d surprise you to find out how many people who claim to be “hip to the game” will still refuse to let go. [↩]
Note I’m not saying we can all be designers, but I do think people can all create meaningful things for themselves and others. [↩]
They gave us Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things1 to read in interaction design school. I remember reading it and—being young an cocky—finding it all very common sense and “Why do they ask us to read this stuff?” And so on.2
I am rereading it now, in the hopes of sharpening my argument for playful user experiences.
(There are a lot of things I want to blog about actually, such as how Hill and Webb’s adaptive design reminds me of Salen & Zimmerman’s transformative play, why Cook rejects MDA while Saffer embraces it and more.)
Anyway, my new copy of DOET has a nice introduction by Norman in which he summarizes a few core concepts form the book. On page xi—writing on conceptual models—he writes:
“[G]ood design is … an act of communication between the designer and the user, … all the communication has to come about by the appearance of the device itself.”
In other words, if you can’t figure “it” out by just looking at it, it’s not well designed. Where “figure it out” basically means understand how to operate “it” successfully. Of course this is an important concept, but I think something’s missing.
In games, it’s not enough just to be able to figure out how to make Mario jump—for instance—you want to learn how to jump well.
It’s about skill and mastery in other words. A “Norman Door” (a door that is difficult to open) can be fixed so that people can open the door easily. But a door has a narrow spectrum of learnability. Or as Koster would probably say: The pattern to “grok” is really simple.
And anyway, why would you want to become a master at opening doors, right?
But a lot of the things I’m working on (for instance creative tools, but also toy-like environments) have more complex patterns and therefore (wether I like it or not) have a wider spectrum of learnability. And that’s where usability alone is not enough. That’s where in testing, I’d need to make sure people don’t just understand how to do stuff by looking at it. (That’s the start, for sure.) But I also want to be able to tell if people can get better at doing stuff. Because if they get better at it, that’s when they’ll be having fun.
Or The Psychology of Everyday Things as it was then titled. [↩]
I still consider myself young, only slightly less cocky. [↩]
Last night I presented at the January UXnet meetup in Oslo. When Are invited me to come over I thought I’d be talking to maybe 60 user experience people. 200 showed up—talk about kicking off the year with a bang. I think the crew at Netlife Research may just have written UXnet history. I’m not sure. (Don’t believe me? Check out the RSVPs on the event’s page at Meetup.com)
The talk went OK. I had 20 minutes, which is pretty short. I finished on time, but I had to leave out a lot of examples. The original talk on which this was based is a 2 hour lecture I deliver at UX companies. (I did this last year for instance at InUse.)
The lack of examples was the biggest point of criticism I got afterwards. I’ll try to make up for that a bit in a later post, listing some examples of web sites and apps that I would call in some way playful. Stay tuned.
For now, here are the slides (no notes I’m afraid, so it’ll be hard to make any sense of them if you weren’t there). Thanks to Are Halland for inviting me. And greetings to all my friends in Oslo. You’ve got a beautiful UX thing going on there.
First, the bad news: I won’t be able to make it to Interaction 08. Which sucks, because it looks like it’s going to be a wonderful conference with a smart crowd attending. I would have loved to meet up with friends there. And of course I was looking forward to sharing my ideas on playful products.
There’s plenty of other events in the pipeline for me though, both big and small. Here’s a rundown:
Next week on Tuesday 16 January I’ll be flying to Oslo on invitation of Are Halland at Netlife Research. I’ll do a short presentation at the UXnet meetup, focused on the application of game design to UX for the web.
Shortly after that, I’ll be participating in BarCampCopenhagen. I’ll probably do a session about my thoughts in mobile social gaming. Other than that I’m looking forward to just hanging out with the Danish geek crowd.
One final engagement taking place in June that I can already announce is From Business To Buttons, organised by my friends at InUse. Here I’ll get a chance to talk about the stuff that I had planned for Interaction 08: play, storytelling and complex systems. Looking forward to it.
If you’re reading this, and happen to be attending any of these events. Do drop by and say hi. I’d love to meet and chat!
First of all my best wishes to you for 2008. It’s been a bit quiet around here lately—the last proper post was published December 19. Shame on me. The usual apologies apply: I’ve been busy doing work, but also spend some time catching up with friends and family in the Netherlands around the holidays.
I was considering doing the traditional look back at 2007 and perhaps post some resolutions for the coming year, but I won’t. 2007 has segued into 2008. Therefore I feel it’s best to just dive in and tell you what’s been occupying my mind lately.
How exactly do the fields of game design and interaction design relate? I’ve found myself straddling the line between the two more and more often. And what I’ve been wondering: Can game design be considered a specialised sub-discipline of interaction design, or are the two equals with some overlap? (Or can interaction design perhaps even be considered part of game design?)
Here’s a diagram of how I tend to think of the relationship between the two fields:
Seen this way, interaction design and game design each have their own body of knowledge with some overlap. From this perspective you could consider my work to be brokering of some sort—passing information back and forth between the two. I tend to place myself in the interaction design circle, making the occasional foray into game design territory and bringing back interesting stuff I find.
But there’s at least one other way of looking at these two fields:
I was trained to be an interaction designer. But part of the curriculum consisted of game design. Nowadays interaction design’s emphasis on efficiency naturally makes it irreconcilable with game design. At the Utrecht School of Arts, these two were not seen as being at odds with each other. You can consider this a gross oversight, or alternatively as proof of a far-reaching vision. Whatever.
In any case, it can be argued that (digital) game design is simply a very specialised sub-discipline of interaction design. This is not to say it is in any way less valuable than ‘regular’ interaction design. However, it might help people in both fields to advance their practice if they look at each other this way. Which is more or less a summary of what I’ve been arguing ever since I went freelance last year.
The problem is of course that in reality the two fields—or to be more exact the two communities of practice—are very much separate from each other. I’ve been trying to make some change there, in my own little way.
On the other hand this might just be me trying to justify my interest in game design as an interaction designer…
But perhaps there’s something more than just professional guilt at play here. I’m not sure yet. Some observations that might support one or the other view:
Although their definition of games is very exact, Salen & Zimmerman’s definition of play is broader: “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.” Isn’t that an apt description of what people do with anything interactive?
The Interaction Design Association defines interaction design on their site and says it concerns: “the structure and behavior of interactive products and services”. Surely that includes digital games?
I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but I seem to remember Koster mention something about game design ultimately being about putting people in touch with each other. Sounds like interaction design to me.
In any case, as long as I need 400+ words to explain why I want to do both interaction design and game design, I’ll be in trouble. Can you boil it down for me?
Today Playyoo went beta. Playyoo is a mobile games community I have been involved with as a freelance interaction designer since july of this year. I don’t have time for an elaborate post-mortem, but here are some preliminary notes on what Playyoo is and what part I’ve played in its conception.
Playyoo brings some cool innovations to the mobile games space. It allows you to snack on free casual mobile games while on the go, using a personalized mobile web page. It stores your high scores and allows you to interact with your friends (and foes) on an accompanying regular web site. Playyoo is a platform for indie mobile game developers. Anyone can publish their Flash Lite game on it. Best of all — even if you’re not a mobile games developer, you can create a game of your own.
It’s that last bit I’ve worked on the most. I took care of the interaction design for an application imaginatively called the Game Creator. It allows you to take well known games (such as Lunar Lander) and give them your own personal twist. Obviously this includes the game’s graphics, but we’ve gone one step further. You can change the way the game works as well.
So in the example of Lunar Lander you can make the spaceship look like whatever you want. But you can also change the gravity, controlling the speed with which your ship drops to the surface. Best of all, you can create your own planet surface, as easy as drawing a line on paper. This is why Lunar Lander in the Playyoo Game Creator is called Line Lander. (See? Another imaginative title!)
At the moment there are six games in the Game Creator: Tic-Tac-Toe, Pairs, Revenge, Snake, Ping-Pong, and the aforementioned Line Lander. There’s long list of other games I’d like to put in there. I’m sure there will be more to come.
So although making a game is very different from playing one, I hope I managed to make it fun nonetheless. My ambition was to create a toy-like application that makes ‘creating’ a game a fun and engaging way to kill a few minutes — much like Mii creation on the Nintendo Wii, or playing with Spore’s editors (although we still haven’t had the chance to actually play with latter, yet.) And who knows, perhaps it’ll inspire a few people to start developing games of their own. That would probably be the ultimate compliment.
In any case, I’d love to hear your comments, both positive and negative. And if you have a Flash Lite compatible phone, be sure to sign up with Playyoo. There is no other place offering you an endless stream of snack sized casual games on your phone. Once you’ve had a taste of that, I’m sure you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.
I’m finding myself in the starting phases of designing a casual MMOG (or virtual world, if you prefer that term). When I say design, I mean determining the structure and behaviour of the world — interaction design, in other words.
It’s an interesting challenge (and a significant change from designing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the potential for more emergent phenomena, both social and economic. This is truly a second order design challenge.
Of course, the same old player needs still hold true, and tools and techniques such as scenarios and storyboards are just as useful here as in any other project. But the need for an iterative, test driven design and development process becomes hugely apparent once you start to think about all the effects you simply cannot design directly.
You might think I’m involved with a WoW- or SL-like endeavour. On the contrary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique pleasures of a virtual world to a mass (adult) audience.1 That means making the experience more casual, more short-session.
Our players will still want to feel related and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activity. They’ll still want to feel competent and achieve, but without having to make to huge an effort…
There’s plenty of movement in the space of casual, short-session MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Passively Multiplayer Online Games — and focus on making them open systems that interact with daily life. I’m trying to imagine what — as a closed system — a casual MMO should feel like, what its aesthetics (PDF) need to be. What, in other words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamoto-san had designed it?
Plus some other more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. [↩]