Blank banners — see me speak at TWAB 2008

Provo protesting with blank banner

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.

The con­fer­ence is organ­ised by Chi Ned­er­land and will take place May 22 in the beau­ti­ful Beurs van Berlage in Ams­ter­dam. Keynote speak­ers include Ben Cer­ve­ny, Jyri Engeström and Adam Green­field. It looks like this will be a very spe­cial con­fer­ence indeed.

Image source: Gram­schap.

  1. Pro­vo was a Dutch coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment in the mid-1960s that focused on pro­vok­ing vio­lent respons­es from author­i­ties using non-vio­lent bait. Read more about them at Wikipedia. []

Metagames as viral loops

MtG: My Pride-n-Joys by AuE on Flickr

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

  1. Richard Garfield is the design­er of the CCG Mag­ic: The Gath­er­ing. []
  2. Via Matt Webb. []

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).

Con­tin­ue read­ing Design­ing a mobile social gam­ing expe­ri­ence for Gen-C

Adaptive design and transformative play

2006APR201648 by bootload on Flickr

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.1 As Matt 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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Note I’m not say­ing we can all be design­ers, but I do think peo­ple can all cre­ate mean­ing­ful things for them­selves and oth­ers. []
  3. Yes, I am a ludol­o­gist. So shoot me. []

Spectra of learnability

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.

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

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.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psy­chol­o­gy of Every­day Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still con­sid­er myself young, only slight­ly less cocky. []

Slides for my Oslo UXnet meetup talk

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.

Speaking, lots and lots of speaking

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.

In Feb­ru­ary it’s time to cross the Atlantic to San Fran­cis­co for the Game Devel­op­ers Con­fer­ence. I’m speak­ing at GDC Mobile about design­ing casu­al gam­ing expe­ri­ences for Gen­er­a­tion C. I’m going to make good use of my com­pli­men­ta­ry all access pass. You’ll most like­ly find me play­ing weird stuff at the Inde­pen­dent Games Fes­ti­val.

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!

Game design is ‘just’ specialised interaction design

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:

Venn diagram of IxD and GD as equals with some overlap

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:

Venn diagram of GD as part of IxD

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?

Playyoo goes beta

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's here

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.

Screenshot of my lolcats pairs game on Playyoo

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.

Since today’s launch, peo­ple have already start­ed cre­at­ing crazy stuff with it. There’s a maze-like snake game, for instance. And a game where you need to land a spi­der crab on the head of some per­son called Rebec­ca… I decid­ed to chip in with a pairs game full of lol­cats (an idea I’ve had since doing the very first wire­frame.) Any­way, the mind bog­gles to think of what peo­ple might come up with next! That’s the cool part about cre­at­ing a tool for cre­ative expres­sion.

Screenshot of a Line Lander game in progress in the Playyoo Game Creator

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.

What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

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 too 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?

  1. Plus some oth­er more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []