Author Archives: John Ferrara

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

  • Send your questions for foursquare

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    This weekend I’ll be interviewing Dennis Crowley, creator of foursquare.  We’ll be discussing the decision to design what could have been a conventional UI as a game-based experience.  If you have questions you’d like me to ask, please post them as comments to this blog.

    Defining games (the cheapo way)

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    Many books on game design have a chapter, usually early on, that
    wrestles with putting a definition to the term “game”.  Since that’s
    something for which we all have a pretty intuitive sense, it’s
    surprising how broadly our definitions of it can diverge.  Try it! 
    You’ll find it’s pretty difficult to come up with that ideal string of
    words that are true for everything we call a game, but which also
    clearly exclude those things that aren’t games.  For example, you might

    • “A
      game is a fun activity.”  Hmm, well I’ve been to parties that were fun
      activities but that weren’t games.  I’ve also played some games that
      weren’t fun.  When I was in fourth grade all of the boys in my class
      would spend recess simulating pro-wrestling matches, which I personally
      found to be just plain painful.  But I’d have to admit that the
      shortage of fun didn’t stop it from being a game.

    • “A game is a
      rules-based form of play.”  It’s certainly true that all games have
      rules, no argument there.  But so do computer programming languages,
      highways, and sessions of Congress.

    • “A game is a frivolous
      diversion from the real world.”  No, that can’t be right.  Militaries
      stage games to simulate conditions of war, which is about as far as you
      can get from a frivolous pursuit.  A blackjack table is a game, but
      since the players are putting up real money it can have very tangible
      impact in the real world.

    I think the difficulty stems
    from impulse to tackle the problem using a straighforward Webster’s /
    OED approach, which only works until you find one example to the
    contrary.  I vow never to try to do that.  Instead, it’s a little
    easier to describe the characteristics that, taken together, comprise a
    gameplay experience (sort of a cheapo approach).  In the past, I’ve
    found some success with these three characteristics of all games:

    1. Static objectives.  One or more explicit, measurable conditions that all players are trying to reach. 
    2. Environmental constraints.  The things and places that enable play. 
      Think of cards, dice, checkerboards, and football fields.  These set
      hard limits on what people can do: a deck of cards only has four aces,
      no matter how much you might need a fifth one.

    3. Formal
        AKA, the rules.  These are the intangible limits on what
      people can do.  There’s nothing that keeps the players following these
      constraints, except for the fact that they all agreed they would.

    it.  Those three things are true of any game under the sun.  Also,
    anything where those three characteristics are present must necessarily
    be a game.  You’ll notice that makes it a pretty expansive way of
    thinking about games, and the characteristics could easily encompass
    things we wouldn’t normally identify as games.  Education, financial
    planning, and even work would be caught in a net that wide.  That’s by
    design!  I really believe that many mundane, everyday experiences can
    be understood as games, even if we’re not used to thinking of them that
    way.  And in turn, they can benefit from the elements of design that
    make games compelling and enjoyable.

    Jesse Schell (who wrote a
    fantastic book called “The Art of Game Design”) gave a very
    future-looking presentation

    at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas last week, where he suggested
    integrating game design into the littlest things people do every day. 
    Brushing your teeth.  Eating breakfast cereal.  Riding the bus. 
    Reading a book.  He suggests that all of these things can be detected
    through sensors and engineered to earn you points, achievements, or tax
    credits.  Absurd?  You bet.  Schell’s deliberately overshooting the
    mark to invite us to stretch our imaginations beyond the traditional,
    limiting definitions of “game”.  Somewhere short of remote toothbrush
    surveillance is a much more compelling way to do Quicken, Outlook, or

    If Schell’s proposals seem absurd, it’s more because
    we’re unaccustomed to them than because of any real-world barriers to
    actually bringing them to fruition.

    Hunting for coupons at Old Navy

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    Game experiences are slowly creeping into regular old user interfaces. 
    A great example is  On the surface level it serves
    as a normal circular, announcing big sales on the hip clothes.  But it
    also prominently prompts users to “Click around to find hidden in-store
    coupons”, playing as a kind of easter egg hunt. 

    In some cases
    you need to drag items from one outfit to another, like a pair of shoes
    or a heart imprint.  In others you need to click a character that
    appears briefly onscreen, like a baby chick who periodically runs out
    of a basket (and it’s actually really hard to catch the little
    bastard).  For each find, you’re rewarded with a coupon to print and
    bring to the store — but you can only keep one, so in each case you
    need to decide whether it’s a better deal than the one you already have.

    of course this goes against the must fundamental, ingrained tenets of
    usable design, like making sure that users can easily find the things
    they want to find.  So can this really be a good thing?  I’d suggest
    that there may actually be a few ways that a game such as this one can
    be helpful to the retailer:

    It couples the coupons with a sense of achievement. 
    You had to invest effort and ingenuity to get that coupon, dammit, and
    that investment won’t be fulfilled until you make use of it.  If you
    don’t, then the time you spent working on it could only be seen as time
    wasted.  The more difficult the challenge, the greater the sense of

    It commands greater attention.  Games require
    active, participative engagement in the experience.  Since anything
    onscreen could be a trigger, the user has to pay more careful attention
    everything.  Eyeballs are good, but attentive eyeballs are much more
    likely to respond to ads.  The game also also encourages repeated
    visits as it’s redone each week.

    It encourages free peer-to-peer advertising. 
    You also have the option to gift one coupon to a friend via Facebook. 
    That’s great for Old Navy, because it comes with an implicit
    endorsement from a trusted friend.  If it was worth sending, then the
    person receiving it must read it as saying “This is a great deal, you
    should check it out”.

    It invites users to think of themselves differently. 
    Web users are often cast like the audience of TV or magazines, who use
    or consume information at the end of its journey and after it’s fully
    formed.  People playing a game, on the other hand, join in making the
    experience.  This invites users to think of themselves as belonging to
    in-group, with a role to play as a part of the Old Navy brand.

    going to try to make contact with the site’s designers, to ask them
    about the intention underlying the game approach and how well it’s
    worked for them.  If you have any questions you’d like to me to ask
    them, please feel free to add comments to this post.

    Interview with Stone Librande, Lead Designer at Maxis

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    I recently spoke with Stone Librande, who has worked as a designer
    on games including “Spore” and “Diablo III”.  Stone also leads an
    annual design workshop at the Game Developers’ Conference and teaches a
    college course in game design.  We discussed game design process,
    including a method of paper prototyping that UX designers will find
    both familiar in concept and new in execution.

    Q: Tell me a bit about your background.

    Before I went into gaming I was actually doing a lot of work in user
    interface design.  I commercialized a technology that parameterized
    artwork and allowed users to quickly sift through thousands of drawings
    just by pulling sliders mapped to different characteristics.  We found
    a lot of video game applications for it.  Then I took a job managing a
    Web design team at a company called MPlayer, which was a social gaming
    network that was a little bit ahead of its time.  But looking all the
    way back to my childhood, game design was always something I was
    interested in.  Eventually I worked my way into Blizzard and from there
    on to Maxis to work on Spore.

    Q: How was Spore’s game experience created?

    Well there were really two pieces to that.  First, there was a
    high-level description from Will Wright.  In one case, we were asked to
    make a game about cells swimming in a drop of water.  Then
    there’s the bottom-up design of the game mechanics.  An important
    consideration in the cell game was creating the right balance of risk
    and reward.  In any game you don’t want it to either be too hard (which
    would become frustrating) or too easy (which would make the game
    boring).  But everyone’s different and we wanted Spore to have broad
    appeal to both casual players and hardcore gamers.  The question is:
    How do you make an experience to fit many different tastes?

    way we approached that was by giving players opportunities to outfit
    their cell creatures with different pieces as they evolve.  Novice
    players can finish the whole cell experience with just the basic
    creature design.  You can get by while taking very modest risks, but
    you also won’t reap great rewards from it.  But for hardcore players,
    there’s an opportunity to really dig into the game by experimenting
    with the effects of different pieces.  They’re invited to take a lot
    more risks, and they put themselves in more danger of failing.  Since
    the traits they pick up in the cell game effect the later stages, those
    players who take on a greater challenge can also put themselves at an
    advantage and realize a greater reward.

    Q: How do you guide players’ behavior in games?

    A lot of those ideas you learned in Psych 101 like reinforcement
    schedules are fundamental to game design.  People are subject to the
    same behavioral influences as pigeons and rats.  You can influence the
    players’ behavior by attaching a meaningful reward to the actions you
    want them to take.  For example, say you’re designing a card game and
    you want players to try to collect three 3’s.  You could force them to
    do that by making it the winning condition — there’s your reward.  Or
    you can make people pursue that same goal less aggressively by saying
    that three 3’s are worth 3 points, while all other collections of cards
    are worth one point.

    The most powerful reward you can give a
    player is a social reward.  Intrinsic rewards are nice, but adding in a
    social component exploits people’s basic competitive nature.  If
    someone else has something that you don’t have, you’ll work really hard
    to obtain it.  There’s also a element of inclusion, of being part of an
    in-group that’s tied together by the game experience. 
    You gave a presentation at last year’s Game Developers’ Conference
    about paper prototyping.  Tell me about how your method works.

    First of all, the paper prototype is not a representation of the actual
    game, and it’s not intended to be.  That’s not the purpose.  Instead,
    the point is to ask and answer one simple question about the game
    you’re working on.  Second, it should be something that you can
    experiment with and iterate very quickly. 

    So for Spore’s cell
    game, a key design question was figuring out the various creature parts
    that would be available to the player, and how they balance against one
    another.  So I put together a board game version on paper.  [See an image of the game board here.] I wrote up
    a large list of parts and their abilities, going big at first so we
    could test a lot of scenarios and then scale it back.  Players would
    assemble a unique cell creature using different
    combinations of eyes, mouths, graspers and tails. The cell pieces have
    different game abilities. For instance, tails allow the cell to move
    forward and rotate. During the game, each cell would either attempt to
    eat the most green food tokens (herbivore victory) or to attack and
    kill the opposing cell (carnivore victory).

    We ended up with 12
    parts that were given away over the course of the cell game’s five
    stages.  We also defined the other creatures you’d encounter in each of
    those stages, ranging from harmless to more difficult as the player
    progressed through the game.  That output was what made it into the
    final game.  [See an image of the game output here.]

    Q: Why do this on paper, when you could model thousands of different scenarios in one go using a computer?

    I run a workshop teaching this technique at the Game Developer’s
    Conference, and computers aren’t even allowed into the session. 
    Building  prototypes with paper fosters team interaction.  As people
    work on it, they’ll start role-playing and getting into the characters
    of the game.  They also develop a shared vocabulary for discussing
    elements of the game.  If you did it with computers, everyone would
    just be working on their own and you wouldn’t get that kind of

    Q: What works best prototyped on paper?

    You can’t represent the full gameplay experience, that’s just not
    practical.  A video game like Spore has a lot of physics and math, and
    that just can’t be done on paper.  Input controllers like mice or
    keyboards are also really difficult to simulate.  Anything that’s too
    complex would just be misery to test.  Similarly, if a user interface
    designer were prototyping the front end for a database, you could show
    what the form elements and buttons look like but you couldn’t simulate
    the return of actual data.  That’s just too complicated to do.

    said, when you really abstract a design problem there’s a lot that you
    can pull into a non-electronic prototype.  In my workshop, I do an
    exercise where I have people build prototypes of existing video games. 
    A few years ago one team decided to try doing Rock Band, and I was
    really skeptical that it would work.  Surprisingly, they came up with a
    game that captured Rock Band’s core mechanics.  There were five
    players, one of whom had a shuffled deck of colored index cards.  He
    would throw out the cards in sequence, and all of the other players had
    to dig through their own cards and throw down matching colors.  When
    you matched the pattern, the moderator would give you coins.  If you
    missed, he would take coins away.  Players could support one another by
    throwing coins to band members who were missing their beats.  Even
    though there was no music and there were no plastic instruments, the
    game really captured the Rock Band feel.

    This is a really amazing method.  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Stone.

    Looking for Haiti Relief Games

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    Two weeks ago Farmville made a special white corn crop available for real money, and passed the proceeds on to Haiti relief efforts.  In a news release, Zynga reports that they raised over $1 million.  I think it’s a really amazing example of a game interface used to meet a real-world need.  I also expect it’s fleeting, so if you know of any other online games that are doing something similar, please do let me know through a comment to this blog post.

    Applying UX skills to game design

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    Nathan Verrill of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming provides a wonderful in-depth
    explanation of how he designed Signtific
    a game that facilitates prolific high-quality brainstorming around a
    central question.  While the project was wholly a game, Nathan’s
    descriptions of the process steps and deliverables will sound very
    familiar to any UX designer: mind maps, wireframes, design comps, user
    testing, analytics, and so on.  His background is in the design of
    conventional user experiences, and those same core competencies lent
    themselves well to the design of a successful game.

    While they
    currently reside in different industrial families, user experience
    design and game design share a common parent in human-computer
    interaction.  To the extent they differ, there are opportunities for
    cross-discipline learning.  To the extent that they’re similar,
    expertise and skills transfer well from one practice to another.  My
    own experiences applying UX skills to game design provide examples of

    I designed my first game in 2002, when Unisys started an
    annual tradition of sending e-cards with embedded games to clients,
    employees, and partners.  Each year, the in-house Web team would design
    and develop an original game, taking it from concept to delivery.  Our
    first idea was for a miniature golf game that fit in with the company’s
    sponsorship of professional golf tournaments.  While we were excited
    about the opportunity, none of us had made video games before.  So we
    applied the same methods and skills that we used in the design of
    websites, simply because they were the only ways we knew to approach
    any design problem.

    We started by conducting ethnographic
    research at a miniature golf course.  Now I realize that last sentence
    reads like it’s meant to be facetious, but this was actually an
    indispensable step in understanding what makes the real-life game
    interesting, exciting, frustrating, funny, social, competitive, and
    worthwhile.  For example, we discovered that the courses were often
    designed to tempt people who overestimate their own proficiency to
    attempt difficult putts which, if missed, put the ball much farther
    away from the hole.  This in turn creates a social dynamic that can
    reverse the fortunes of beginners who play it safe, and skilled golfers
    who take greater risks.


    From there I designed a short wireframe,
    available here as a PDF
    In some ways this was a traditional document, showing the
    core functionality while saying very little about the game’s
    appearance.  But in other ways it was very different.  The document
    focused on small interactions, as we were developing every interface
    element from the ground up instead of relying on ready made widgets
    like those baked into Web browsers.  These were presented as atomic
    pieces that could be assembled to build a course, much like a pattern
    library.  I also experimented with ways to show motion over time, and
    the effects of objects moving relative to one another.


    finished game, which you can play here, had
    its strengths and weaknesses.  The visual presentation was fantastic
    and the level design was really good (owing to the efforts of Todd
    Horning and Mike Rosario), but it had some important usability and
    learnability problems (precisely the things that I should have been on
    top of).  I think the core mistake was in describing the interface
    elements as individual pieces without showing how they should be put
    together.  At the time, I reasoned that game design needed broad
    creative latitude and that the traditional prescriptive wireframe would
    have been too limiting.  But it turned out that the way the pieces hang
    together, as with a conventional user interface, is really critical the
    experience of the game.  For subsequent games in the holiday series my
    documents actually started to look more and more like Web wireframes.

    Do you have examples of games you’ve designed using conventional UX methods?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!

    Interview: Luis Von Ahn, creator, Games With a Purpose

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    In 2003 Luis Von Ahn introduced The ESP Game, which challenged
    two players working online to independently pick the same words to
    describe a picture.  But The ESP Game was also designed with a covert
    purpose: to improve search technology and the accessibility of the Web
    by gathering metadata about untagged internet images.  Impressed by the
    game, Google picked it up and renamed it Google Image Labeler.

    Von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and recipient of the
    Macarthur Fellowship, has since built out a collection of similar
    Games with a Purpose“.  I spoke with him recently to discuss the
    theory behind his work and his vision for how it can change the way we
    approach the design of user interfaces.

    Q: So what are “Games with a Purpose”?
    To the player a GWAP is for all purposes a game, but
    as a side effect of play it’s designed to produce useful work.

    Why build something like Google Image Labeler as a game?  Why not just
    show people a picture and ask them to submit tags for it?

    A: Well, because
    nobody would do it.  There has to be motivation for doing work.  There
    are a few ways you can provide that.  You can pay people for work, and
    that’s effective but it’s also expensive.  Then there are motivations that drive
    people to contribute to something like Wikipedia, perhaps
    because they believe it’s a worthwhile thing or because they like the feeling
    that they played a personal part in building it.  But that model has
    failed when people have tried to apply it in other contexts, so it’s
    not a reliable motivator.  Then there are things that people do because
    they enjoy them.  So with GWAPs, instead of paying people with money
    you pay them with entertainment.

    Q: How much can you accomplish by playing games?
    On average, Americans
    spend 1 hour every day playing videogames.  That’s over 100 billion humanhours a year.   That’s a
    humongous opportunity, considering that it only took 7 million
    humanhours to construct the entire Empire State Building.  And consider
    too that while people are spending all that time playing games they’re
    using their brains.  If you could turn all gameplay into useful work,
    people would be amazingly productive.

    Q: If people are just playing around, then how do you know that the results are of good quality?

    There are a couple of tricks to that.  First, you can correlate one
    player’s results with those of other unrelated players.  For example,
    in The ESP Game the same image will be shown to multiple players who
    are asked to submit tags describing it.  Since those players have never
    met and never had the opportunity to interact, if more than one person
    gives the exact same answer then it’s much more likely to be a reliable
    tag for the image.  Second, you can give players questions for which
    you already know all possible correct outputs, to see if they’re
    answering honestly.  If their responses fall outside of the set of
    correct outputs, then you can flag them as suspicious and ignore the
    rest of their responses.

    Q: Since you started promoting
    Games with a Purpose, do you feel that the use of GWAPs has progressed
    as you’d envisioned in the broader community of design practitioners?

    and no.  I think it has been catalytic to what is today called
    “crowdsourcing”, which didn’t even have a name when we started.  But
    games haven’t gotten to the point where I’d like them to be. 
    Ultimately I’d like to see all work turned into a game (I don’t see why
    it couldn’t be), but we’re not there yet.  That’s probably because it’s
    very, very hard to design a good game.  Once you add in the constraint
    of the game producing useful work, then  it becomes even harder.  The
    potential’s there, but I think designers are just starting to figure
    out how exploit it.

    Q: So how do you go about designing games?
    first we just think about them.  We think about them a lot.  Then we
    build a prototype using just paper and pencil, and start testing it
    like hell.  You really can’t tell whether a game will be fun or not
    until you test it.  And if you find that it is fun then you build a
    simple live version and test that, revise it, and so on.  And even then
    there’s no guarantee that it people will enjoy it.  Of the games that
    you complete, you’ll find that some are much more fun than others.

    Q: Can you talk a bit about fun?

    Actually I’m not sure how to define the word “fun”.  What really
    matters is whether or not people play the game.  It’s a strange paradox
    that people will often play a game that they don’t even find
    enjoyable.   So I prefer to sidestep philosophical questions about
    whether or not people are really having fun, and focus on what we can

    This is a spectacular direction for user experience design.  Thanks so much for your time!

    Introducing the book and calling for your input

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    Hello world!  I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce my forthcoming book, Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces.  This title is going to focus how the explosive growth of video games impacts the design of other kinds of user interfaces. 

    And how could it not?  A 2008 Pew Internet Research survey found that nearly all American teens play video games, and games are increasingly finding audiences across gender and age barriers as well (Wiis, for example, have become a fixture in retirement communities).  Today an enormous number of people are spending an awful lot of time, many days a week, playing games.  Inevitably, the conventions and patterns in those interfaces will define a normal way that people interact with machines.  User experience designers will find that games are impossible to ignore.

    But this is also about much more than catering to a trend.  Games offer new ways of reaching users, of communicating with them, and of persuading them.  They offer new potential for the design of regular, everyday interfaces.  The largest section of the book will explore this angle.

    If these ideas spark your interest, I want to hear from you.  What do you expect a book on this subject to cover?  How would you hope reading it could benefit your work?  Do you have a case study of your own experience developing a game-like experience?  Please do submit your comments as I build out this blog.  Consider it to be a book that’s written just for you — your participation is critical to its success!