Spaceships, Robots, and Zombies at the USC GamePipe Lab Spring 17 Showcase

Last Wednesday I attended the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Lab’s semi-annual Showcase held at the Egg Building just outside the university’s Los Angeles campus, and as always I was impressed by the exceptional work of some of the best and brightest game development students in the country.

For USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda and his students in the USC Games program, the Spring 2017 Showcase event is an opportunity to show off a school year’s worth of collaboration, creativity and computer design. It’s also the students’ introduction to a host of industry scouts who may purchase and publish the games, as well as hire program graduates to design, program, and produce the games of the future. I make an effort to attend Showcase every six months to help me set aspirations for my own students at The Los Angeles Film School.

There were so many great games to play, that it is a shame that there was only time for me to play two.


Arkology is a virtual reality real-time strategy game developed as part of virtual reality research at the University of Southern California. The player controls the game using motion control.  At first I had difficulty understanding how to move the units using my virtual reality “hands”, but one I learned to stop over-thinking user interface, I realized how intuitive and simple the controls actually were.

From the Operations Room in the heart of the Ark, the player must strategize, command, and lead his forces to preserve what may be the last of humanity.  As soon as the player becomes familiar with the controls, the enemy begins to attack,  The player is then forced to activate the experimental warp drive to preserve the Ark, but with the premature activation of experimental tech,  the player and the crew of the Ark find themselves in uncharted space.

I found that I really enjoyed how virtual reality immersed me in what was a cross between a board game and a real-time strategy game.  Developed by a six-person team led by Powen Yao, this is a game that I would pick up just to show off my virtual reality gear.


BoltCraft is a cooperative, wave-based, third-person action game where players are members of the Bolton Collective in a fight for a desolated Earth’s resources against the planet’s robotic overlords. Developed by an 11-person team lead by Maison Lietzke and Martha Monica with artistic collaboration with the Laguna College of Art & Design., BoltCraft allows players to customize their robot’s abilities and appearance and deploy helpful minions to defend themselves and their team against an onslaught of enemies.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any screenshots of this game, so you’ll have to take my word fo it that I had fun maneuvering my robot through an urban environment and selecting different abilities and fortification to defend my area against the overlords attempting to take control of it.

As always, the creativity and technical prowess of the USC Games students was impressive, and it was exciting to see how these kids are bending our reality to create a new gaming future.

Analyzing Your App Using Game Thinking: Part 4 – Replayability

In this series of articles, I am taking a look at how innovators and entrepreneur developing non-game apps and other products through the application of Amy Jo Kim’s Game Thinking process can analyze their work using some of the factors that game designers use to determine that the games they are developing are delivering the desired player experience. Last week I discussed how to analyze an app in terms of its Depth. This week I will focus on its Replayability.

Replayability: The ability to find enjoyment in a game after playing it multiple times.

If you played a game only once and had no desire to return to it again, either it took a very long time to play through to the end (such as with an online role-playing game that can take weeks or months to play), or it just wasn’t fun enough the first time through.  Game designers want their games to be so fun that players play a second time, a third time, a fourth time, and if the game is sufficiently deep, a hundredth time.

In Game Thinking terms, we want apps to be sufficiently experiences that users will want to return to the activity loop during the Habit-Building Phase of the Player Journey so that Newbies become Regulars.  In non-game apps, replayability can be referred to engagement, 

Engagement is often measured by how frequently users actually use an app and is defined by the average number of sessions per Daily Active User. Every time any user, not just a unique user, opens your app, that counts as a session.  If a user is very engaged in your app, they will open your app several times a day.

The essence of an app being engaging is that users find value in it; that is, it actually does satisfy the users wants and needs.  But beyond that, there are a number of tips we can take from the world of game design about how we can make non-game apps more engaging:

  • Keep your core loop tight, so that users get value quickly through short session lengths.  Triggers, actions, and feedback should be combined into a smooth and cohesive system, so that users getting constant deliveries of value, and therefore constant hunger for more.
  • In games, successful actions will often trigger a sequence of colorful graphics or other musical fanfares congratulating players for their skill, when those actions may be owed to dumb luck. Similarly, you can provide players with such positive reinforcement when they use your app successfully, particularly when done in unusual ways.  However, remember that infrequent rewards are much more effective than frequent ones, so be careful not to overuse any over-the-top feedback.
  • Find ways continually provide new content for your app, so that users never feel like they’ve experienced it all and will keep coming back for more.
  • Allowing users to customize their app or the assets produced by their app will allow users to experience a feeling of empowerment as well as greater ownership in the app.  And if they can share their customizations with other users, then they can experience the Peacock Effect — dressing to attract the attention of others.  Attracting such attention can provide the additional feelings of accomplishment and social influence.
  • If your app’s business model is based on microtransactions, allow the user to still use the core loop for free but pay for other features, such as customization or additional functionality.  Otherwise, if users are frequently confronted with a payment demand that cannot be bypassed, they may feel like they are being shaken down and will bail out without building that habit of using your app.
  • Provide resources so that users can learn how to use your app more effectively while they are not using it.  In game design, this is called metagaming, where players study game strategies to become more skilled players.  If you’ve designed a path to Mastery in your Player Journey, then consider putting online some tips for achieving mastery with your app so that users will become engaged simply through the goal to of optimizing their skill progression.

In summary, you need to design your app so that your users get value from it quickly, feel good about developing the skill to achieve that value, and can have additional content, information, features and uses to keep them coming back for more.  Of course, there is the danger of turning off some users by providing them with too much information to absorb or too many decisions to make quickly, and so, for the next and final installment in this series, we will look at the factor pace.