foursquare is a mobile networking application that broadcasts when
users check in to various locations around a city. People can see
which friends are nearby, and drop in to join them. One of the things
that makes foursquare really unique is its use of game mechanics. It
awards users badges for accomplishing goals like going out several
nights in one week, or visiting a gym a certain number of times. The
people who check in a given location most frequently can be crowned its
Mayor, inviting other players to seize the title. The formula has
generated a lot of interest, and in less than year since launch
foursquare has grown to broadcast 1.5 million checkins a week.
I recently spoke with Dennis Crowley, foursquare’s founder, about the incorporation of game components into its design.
Q: How would you describe foursquare?
something that makes cities easier to use and explore. It’s a mashup
of friend finders with city guides to locate interesting places, with a
layer of game mechanics to incentivize you to explore the city in ways
you otherwise wouldn’t.
Q: Why put a game into foursquare, rather than just presenting it as a straightforward UI?
A number of years ago I helped create Dodgeball, which was one of the
earliest friend finders. It worked via SMS, so you would just text
where you were and Dodgeball would parse it, recognize location data in
the message, and send it to your friends. One of the things we
discovered from that experience was that it was only interesting when
you have a good number of friends who are also using Dodgeball. But
until that happens, how do you get people to use it?
In foursquare the game adds interest single-user experience, because
when you check into places you can start earning badges and mayorships
right away. For first time-users, that’s very important. It changed
the reason to check in. Then people ultimately discover the core
application as they start to find their friends, restaurant reviews,
and so forth. By that point, the game mechanic is intended to be
secondary to that experience.
Q: Do you think some people are turned off by the presence of game elements in an interface?
A: There are people who say they don’t take it seriously. But people
don’t really object to the game mechanics. When someone does feel
turned off, it’s more often about the competitive elements. Incentives
like leaderboards don’t appeal to everyone.
Q: How was foursquare received when it first went up?
A: We launched it at the SxSW conference in March of 2009 as something
you could play while you were attending and use to socialize with other
people. It was a really big gamble because we knew it was either going
to be really good, or people would be laughing at us. That initial
version was very game-heavy. You would get badges for doing things
like traveling 25 miles out of the city, or for attending the first
panel in the morning. As it turned out, it went over really big at the
conference. Then the attendees traveled back to their respective
cities to find there were more badges waiting for them there, and they
continued playing it.
Q: What influenced the design of foursquare?
A: Legend of Zelda was an inspiration. You know how when you’re out on
a mission and you find something like the boomerang, and you get
totally psyched? I loved that feeling when I was 8, and I loved it
when I was 28. So why not make a real-life challenge where an everyday
serendipitous experience can feel like uncovering the boomerang in
I don’t know if you’re a Harry Potter guy, but I also thought of
foursquare as a cross between the marauder’s map and the Weasley
clock. That idea of always having a map in front of you showing where
everyone is really appealed to me.
It was also hugely inspired by Nike+, which connects your iPod to your
sneakers and tracks your workout. It also connected to leaderboards
where you could track yourself against your friends and set up
challenges with them. That becomes a motivator to get out of bed in
the morning and go running in the rain. That’s very powerful, and we
thought well hey, what if you could get people to go to restaurants, or
to movies, or to explore different neighborhoods?
I also just really love the whole idea of the quantified self, of
tracking everything that you do every day and turning it into numbers.
You can make it so that everything you do in life creates points.
Q: Have you contemplated the applicability of game design to conventional user interfaces more broadly?
A: Designers are starting to realize that they can use game mechanics
to get users to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. You could make a
game out of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated movies before the awards,
or seeing all of the bands your friends have recommended to you.
Of course those things are kind of trivial, but there are other things
you could get people to do that become borderline important. You can
use games to make people more rounded individuals, encourage them to
volunteer more, get them going to the gym, or feel better about
themselves. This year you’ve read x amount more than you did last
year. Imagine if Nike+ placed powerups all over the city where you
live, and you had to run over them to pick them up.
One thing I really liked about Jesse Schell’s presentation at the DICE
Summit is that he’s nailed the idea of redemptions. Your daughter got
an A in her class? Well that’s worth 1000 points for each of you, and
you can turn that into Obama bucks for a tax credit. Maybe something
else you do could earn you a voucher that gets you into a club, or gets
you a free movie ticket. That’s a huge idea.
Thanks so much for your time, I wish you continued success with foursquare.
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.
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
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:
- Static objectives. One or more explicit, measurable conditions that all players are trying to reach.
- 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.
constraints. 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
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.
Game experiences are slowly creeping into regular old user interfaces.
A great example is OldNavyWeekly.com. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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”?
A: 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?
A: 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!
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!