Playful Design Blog

Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces

Posts written by John Ferrara

  • 10 Tips for Building a Better Game

    Posted on

    The good folks at .net magazine have run an excerpt of John Ferrara’s new book covering these ten important tips.

    The book itself, we’re thrilled to report, shipped from the printer just moments ago. You can order it now, both digitally (PDF, ePUB, and MOBI) and in paperback. Just keep in mind that the paperbacks will take a couple days to make it to our distribution centers in the US, UK, and Canada, not to mention Amazon’s various warehouses.

    In the meantime, you can get a taste of John’s thinking from excerpt. Thanks so much to .net for working with us to make it available!

    Interview with Jesse Schell

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    Last week I spoke with game designer Jesse Schell, the highly
    influential author of “The Art of Game Design”, professor at Carnegie
    Mellon, and CEO of Schell Games.  His presentation from the 2010 DICE
    , in which he mapped out a future where gamelike experiences will
    be integrated into everything from toothbrushes to bus rides, went
    viral and sparked widespread controversy.  We talked about the
    presentation, the promise for games to do good in the world, and how UX
    designers should approach game-related projects. 

    second chapter of your book is dedicated to discussing games as
    enablers of experiences.  Why the emphasis on that idea right at the
    beginning of the book?
    important because people who are trying to design games are so quick to
    go to anything tangible.  They want to talk about the particulars of
    the design right away, how it works and what it looks like.  But what
    the designer’s actually doing is building an experience, and we should
    never lose sight of that.  That’s the real goal.

    DICE presentation predicted that in the future gameplay will be
    thoroughly mashed into everyday user experiences.  Do you envision the
    impetus for that coming from the game designers, or from the designers
    of conventional user experiences?

    see it coming from both directions.  Reality and games are really
    reaching out to each other right now, and meeting in the middle.

    So what core competencies would conventional user experience designers need to develop to game up their interfaces?
    competencies isn’t the right way to think about it — it’s not learn a
    little about this or that.  You’d first need to make a fundamental
    shift in your perspective, and then you’d need to practice.  You’d need
    to turn away from efficiency and toward entertainment.  So for example,
    if I were to give you a tax application with just one big red button
    that you pressed and boom, your taxes were all done, that would be
    ideal.  If you did the same thing for Gears Of War, that would be the worst game ever.  So people who are gameifying conventional interfaces can get themselves into trouble. 

    What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about incorporating a gamelike experience into a conventional UI?
    can’t just say “Hey, people like games, therefore people will like
    this.”  That isn’t necessarily true.  And people don’t necessarily want
    a user interface to be a game per se, but to have gamelike qualities. 
    There are many things that games are especially good at.  They can
    provide clear feedback, the possibility of success, mental and in some
    cases physical exercise, the opportunity to satisfy your curiosity, a
    chance to do problem solving, or a feeling of freedom.  So you should
    be asking “What are the elements of games that people find pleasurable?”

    of the reaction to your presentation has seemed fearful, with
    speculation of Orwellian implications.  Did you anticipate that

    I think there is some reason for concern, and I really wanted people to
    have that discussion.  This is something that’s definitely going to
    happen and it can be a very good thing, but it can also be misused. 
    For example, you start getting into a lot of ethical problems with
    advertising because games can be such a powerful medium to influence
    buying behavior.  It’s one thing when you use a compelling game
    mechanic to create an experience that you really get into, but it’s
    another if you’re using it to get people to buy something that could be
    damaging to their health.

    Can games can be used to achieve positive social ends?
    Certainly educational.  If you have the ability to ability to influence
    behavior in a negative way, then you also have the ability to influence
    it in a positive way.

    Do you think that video games have a place in the classroom?
    There are a lot of challenges with games in the classroom.   In general
    they’re best suited for use outside the classroom because games tend
    not to work well under time constraints.  They’re better as homework. 
    But there is a place for them in the classroom, and it’s probably best
    when the teacher serves as a game master.  So let’s say you do a live
    simulation in class where the teacher sets up the situation then
    observes and augments it as it goes, with the goal of creating a
    teachable moment.  That’s something that simulations are really good
    at.  Teachers know you don’t just pour something into the student’s
    ear, you have to pry their brains open so that they actually care.  The
    teacher can use games to engineer that moment, and then drive
    discussion about how it could be done differently.  I’ve seen this done
    a few times in training games for firefighters, doctors, and nurses,
    but it can happen almost anywhere.  The key is to shift from games as a
    replacement for the teacher and to something that empowers the teacher.

    Can games be persuasive?
    are best at being persuasive when they’re persuading you of the truth. 
    They can be particularly good at illustrating complex systems.  If you
    have an argument about whether a nuclear reactor is safe, people may or
    may not give credence to your words.  But a simulation can prove that
    it is or isn’t safe because you can actually experience it. 

    property of games can also make them very useful in, say, political
    situations where people need to make decisions about complex systems
    that are difficult to understand.
      A team from CMU made a game called Peacemaker,
    intended for Israeli and Palestinean students.  People on either side
    of the conflict tend to assume that the whole thing will go away if the
    guys on the other side just stop being jerks.  Then the students get in
    the game and start working on solutions, and they discover that what
    they thought was simple is actually unbelievably complex.  So it
    elevated their point of view on the conflict.

    In your mind, what’s the most exciting work being done in line with the ideas from your DICE presentation?
    I like cool entertainment experiences that make people’s lives better.  Some of the charity-based ones are really interesting, and can even be meaningful and important.  Looking forward, I’m
    really excited to see it incorporated in theme park experiences.  You
    don’t really see interactive vacations, and I think there’s a lot that
    can be done there. 

    many of the attempts out there are boring.  There’s a glut of
    self-improvement games that are just flops and failures.  Most of them
    don’t really get the idea of rewards.  There’s a great book called
    by Rewards” that I encourage everyone trying this to read.  We have
    30-40 years of psychological research proving that if you bribe someone
    to do something, people will come to despise doing that thing.  Why? 
    Because of the tricky nature of freedom: when someone pays you to do
    something, you’re not doing it for the intrinsic benefit anymore.  
    An awful lot of things that will fall into that trap.

    You’ve been critical of Foursquare in the past.  Do you take issue with its execution?
    I think that Foursquare is inherently flawed.  The challenge curve is
    messed up.  It’s very similar to Tamagotchi, and it’ll probably will
    have a lifespan similar to the Tamagotchi.  The game as it stands
    requires no skill.  It also doesn’t fit conveniently into your life;
    you have to fit your life into it.  So if you’re in random places at
    random times, you’re going to lose at Foursquare.  You can only win by
    engaging in boring repetitive behavior, and it’s not fun to actually do
    that.  You’re always rating yourself against the most obsessed people
    in the world.

    wasn’t Tamagotchi an important forerunner to other virtual pet games,
    like the Sims?  Doesn’t that show that there’s some potential there?
    took a simple fantasy, the Sims turned it into an elaborate fantasy. 
    When you think about it, almost all indoor games have some kind of
    fantasy component to them, even simple things like chess and checkers. 
    Foursquare has no fantasy in it, so there’s just not much to expand. 
    If you take Foursquare and add fantasy, you get larping.

    Fifteen years from now, what do you think games are going to be like?
    future of games is going everywhere.  They’re creeping into every
    aspect of our lives.  Over the long term, one of the big trends will be
    game worlds with many points of entry.  You won’t only get into World
    of Warcraft from the PC, but also from mobile and console systems and
    maybe even in your car or in a theme park.  I also think that speech,
    where you can talk to a game and it can understand and respond to you,
    will really change gaming by bringing in real expressive emotion.

    Thanks so much for your time Jesse.

    Can games bring real social change?

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    I’m thrilled to unveil “Fitter Critters“, a video game designed to teach 9-to-12-year-olds healthier eating habits.  I developed this game in collaboration with a brilliant team* as an entry to “Apps for Healthy Kids”, a contest sponsored by the USDA and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.  The contest explores the potential for games to bring about meaningful social change, an idea of which I’m a proponent.

    Our game combines principles of user experience design and game design, and plays like a mashup of Farmville, The Sims, and Animal Crossing.  It has a strong educational mission (complete with a unit plan for teachers) and aims to persuade kids to change the way they eat.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be periodically blogging about how we built it and the objectives underlying the design.

    In the meantime, please feel free to give it a try; I’d love to get your feedback.  If you find it interesting and enjoyable, consider giving it your vote on the contest website!  You can access the game at:


    Have fun!

    * I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t express my deep appreciation to Andrew Karetas, Bri Lance, Jim Chiponis, and Amanda Ferrara for their work developing the game.

    Discussing the PlayStation Move with Sony’s Dr. Richard Marks

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    PlayStation Move Controller

    Sony’s about to take a huge leap forward in motion control.  This fall it will roll out the PlayStation Move, a wand-shaped motion controller that works in conjunction with a video camera (PlayStation Eye) tracking its position in space.  The result is a highly precise, richly functional, and broadly accessible platform for human-computer interaction on PlayStation 3 (a great demo video is available here).  The new device builds upon on ten years of research that also produced the EyeToy, an earlier motion control product that used only a video camera.  I recently spoke with the inventor of both products, Dr. Richard Marks, Senior Researcher at Sony Computer Entertainment.

    Would you call yourself a user interface designer?

    Yes, although it’s taken me a long time to describe myself in those terms.  Traditionally I identified myself as an engineer or programmer.  And anyway, I would describe it more as a user experience designer.  My job is to come up with new experiences and see how they can be made into reality.

    What does your team do at Sony?

    Our charter is two-fold: To improve the existing experience, and to grow the entire market.  That’s not necessarily just your share; we also want to bring in people who don’t traditionally play games.

    What are some of the challenges of bringing in people who haven’t played a lot of games in the past?

    A lot of people are intimidated by the controllers on modern game consoles, which in PlayStation 3’s case has two analog sticks and fifteen buttons.  You think about the old Atari 2600, which had just one stick and one button, and that made it accessible to a lot of people.  Fifteen is a whole lot more, and the average person who isn’t a gamer feels like they can’t possibly compete and don’t even want to try.  Many people also don’t have super-fine physical dexterity and it’s difficult for them to move a very small amount, as required by many games.  So while we find that the medium of video games appeals to a lot of these people, they’re just not very good at interacting in it.

    That’s one of the great advantages of motion control.  Back in 2001 we made a demo with a camera tracking colored ball on a stick, and onscreen it projected a character over the ball.  I had my 3-year-old son try it out, and he instantly understood that wherever you move the stick the character would also move.   Even a 3-year-old can understand that, while using a controller or joystick to do the same thing would be completely beyond him.

    What were some of the lessons you learned from your experience developing the EyeToy?

    EyeToy camera

    Something that was lost with EyeToy was a sense of accuracy.  Once in a while you want that.  The EyeToy could only register broad, coarse body movements, and its reliability would vary with the lighting conditions in the room.  So the Move has a glowing sphere on the end of it, which the camera can track to within a tenth of a pixel.   The PS3 system knows exactly where the PlayStation Move controller is in the room with great accuracy.

    One of the mantras of the EyeToy was that there were no buttons.  We could have had people using the PlayStation 2 controllers with the games, but instead we chose to just rely upon the person’s physical movement in the room.  I think that was a good discipline for us to work within and resulted in some really unique game experiences, but we came to realize that it went too far.  It was very difficult to do things like navigating menus.  You could only do that by waving your hands repeatedly over menu items to select them, then wave at another message to confirm that was really what you wanted to select.  And while it was neat that you could work that way, it wasn’t a great interface.  A button is very fast, very reliable, and very abstract — you can map it to anything you want. 

    Tell me about the physical design of the Move controller.

    Well it’s different from the Wii, which used a remote control paradigm.  With the Move, it’ll be more like you’re holding a physical object that has a handle.  It’s designed so that it tapers in the middle then flares back out at the base, kind of like an axe handle.  That creates an ergonomic advantage as well, because a smaller hand will naturally grip it at the thinner point while a larger hand will grip it further down, and in both cases that positions the thumb right above the button.

    There’s also an analog button on the back that’s called the “T-button” and is used in some games like a trigger, but I prefer to think of it as a squeezer.  It has a fairly long throw so you can control something really well just by squeezing, and that makes it feel very natural for grabbing and manipulating objects.

    Do you think that a device like the Move has applicability beyond gaming?

    Definitely.  One of our favorite uses for the Move besides gaming is creating user-generated content.  Just as a creation tool, it provides a lot more capability than anything we ever had before.  We actually wrote a driver to send the data from the PS3 to a PC so our artists could use it in Maya, which is an animation suite they use to design games.  Often in Maya you have to move things around and look at them from different angles and distances, which normally takes expert knowledge to understand the indirect controls.  Using the Move, it’s amazing how fast you can operate it.  People are surprisingly good at positioning two controllers relative to one another.  You can carve, extrude, lathe, grab points in a wire mesh — it all feels very natural.

    Fifteen years from now, how do you think people will be interacting with computers?

    That’s such a difficult question.  A lot of people say we’ll be controlling computers just through brainwaves in the future, but I don’t really believe that.  In my opinion, people want to use both their bodies and their brains.  There’s a somatic gratification you get when your whole body is involved in an interaction.  Playing the drums in Rock Band is really gratifying, because your body’s really taking part in it.  That’s also a big part of the appeal behind touchscreens, because touching something directly is more gratifying than just clicking a mouse. 

    I think the future is in interfaces that people enjoy using more.  Where the mechanic is fun, or if not fun at least pleasing.  Things have actually been going that way for a while, when you think about it.  PC gaming, where you have to sit rigidly at a desk, has become less popular than console gaming, where you’re reclined and relaxed.

    Thanks so much for your time.

    Send your questions about the PlayStation Move

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    Next week I’ll be interviewing Dr. Richard Marks, Sony’s R&D
    manager of special projects, who developed the EyeToy, PS Eye, and
    PlayStation Move peripherals.  If you’re not familiar with the Move,
    it’s a motion controller that uses a video camera to track a wand held
    by the player, creating a high-precision input device.  A video demo is available here.

    In the interview, we’ll be discussing the process of developing
    entirely new models of user input and the applicability of innovations
    in game design to conventional interfaces.  If you have specific
    questions along those lines, please do send them them as comments to
    this post.

    Gamepocalypse Now

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    Jesse Schell, author of “The Art of Game Design”, has started a blog
    to expand on the themes of his February presentation at the DICE
    Summit.  In that talk, he predicted that sometime soon game mechanics
    will become integrated into all sorts of mundane everyday activities. 
    He expects that governments, corporations, and other organizations will
    discover power of  games to shape human behavior.  He’s taken to
    referring to this as the “Gamepocalypse” (and occasionally “Brave New

    The classroom as a game

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    Lee Sheldon teaches game design at Indiana University.  His methods
    are a bit unconventional.  His class on building massively multiplayer
    online games is itself structured like an MMO.  Students work in teams
    called “guilds”, grades are awarded with experience points, and exams
    are boss fights that guilds work together to complete.  He’s recently
    started a blog on the class.

    One of the themes I’ve been developing is that many things we do in
    everyday life are indistinguishable from games, but we’re just not used
    to thinking of them that way.  There’s real value in that insight,
    because interfaces that cater to those activities can benefit from the
    same design principles that make games so compelling.

    And the Nobel prize for video games goes to…

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    One of the most interesting practical applications of video game design I’ve come across is FoldIt,
    a project out of the University of Washington that has game players
    folding chains of proteins.  It’s actually a lot more awesome than it

    Biochemistry is hard.  Protein molecules grow to extraordinary
    lengths, and can be folded into a dizzying variety of different shapes
    following a set of basic rules.  And a single protein can have
    completely different effects depending upon the way it’s folded.  Fold
    one protein this way and you have a normal part of the human body; fold
    it that way and you’ve got mad cow disease.  Unraveling the complicated
    effects of different protein shapes is an extremely important area of
    inquiry in modern biochemistry.

    A rules-based problem with countless numbers of possible solutions? 
    On the surface it sounds like a job for SUPERCOMPUTER!  It’s not. 
    Computers certainly provide vital support through modeling complicated
    protein structures in real time, but it turns out that they’re not
    especially good at figuring out how to twist protein chains into new
    shapes that obey all of the rules.  I recently spoke with Seth Cooper,
    one of the developers of FoldIt, who told me that left on its own a
    computer “just kind of flails around, trying random moves to get the
    pieces to fit together.”  Since there are so many possible combinations
    to run through, this sort of brute force approach gets results very

    On the other hand, human intuition can recognize patterns and
    anticipate strategies that are lost on machines.  But human beings come
    with their own set of problems — in particular, you need to give them
    a reason to do something.  As Luis Von Ahn pointed out,
    you can motivate people with material things like money or goods — but
    inexpensive and intangible things like recognition, praise, and social
    credit can often be just as effective.

    And that’s why the designers of decided to make their
    human-guided protein folding interface into a video game.  Making
    progress gets you points, points get you onto leaderboards, and
    leaderboards give you recognition.  This simple formula has been
    sufficient to get tens of thousands of players to volunteer their time
    to a science which, in many cases, they have no background.  Though it
    must be pointed out that it’s at least conceivable that a by playing
    this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize.

    White House launches games for health initiative

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    Can video games get kids to go easy on the Lucky Charms?  The Obama administration thinks they might be able to.

    In a letter to attendees of the annual Game Developers’ Conference last week, Michelle Obama issued a challenge
    to develop games that would educate kids about eating better and living
    healthier lives.  Prize money will be awarded to the best entrants, as
    judged by a panel including Zynga’s Mark Pincus and professional TV
    dancer Steve Wozniak.

    Can this work?  I absolutely believe it can, but I’m more concerned that it might not.  Let me explain.

    On the one hand, I fully believe that games can be used to bring
    about change in people.  In his speech at the DICE summit, game
    designer Jesse Schell proposed games to get people to do anything from
    brushing their teeth more often to helping their kids with their
    homework.  Popular games like WiiFit and Brain Age improbably get
    people to exercise their bodies and minds.  Games are intimately tied
    to motivation, and can be powerfully persuasive ways to get people to
    do something or adopt a certain point of view.

    On the other hand, I’m concerned that this competition (itself a
    motivational game!) might not be structured to elicit the best
    solutions.  To be successful, a game must first and foremost be a
    game.  If an educational mission (however noble) supersedes the
    gameplay, the experience can become heavy-handed and unenjoyable.   I
    think there’s a danger here that the prize competition could reward
    entrants that most conspicuously promote the healthy eating idea,
    rather than those that really engage the player.  A game can’t
    influence people if no one actually wants to play it — call it “The
    Bible Game” problem.

    But still, the White House is is doing something really significant
    by endorsing the idea that games can achieve real-world objectives.  I
    think that’s a sign of shifting expectations about the role games have
    to play in all of our lives.