Analyzing Your App Using Game Thinking: Part 3 – Depth

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 Complexity. This week I will focus on its Depth.

Depth: The ability to find enjoyment in a game as one’s skill in playing the game increases.

One of the Cardinal Rules of game design is that games should be easy to learn but difficult to master. The “easy to learn” provision means that a game should have low Complexity, while the “difficult to master” provision means that a game should have high Depth. The greater the Depth, the more difficult it is to master the game.

Why should a game be difficult to master? Well, that just means that a game should remain challenging even as your skill in playing that game increases. In other words, a game should remain engaging no matter how many times you play it.

Depth is directly related to the number of interesting decisions the player can make, whereas Complexity is related to the number of rules there are in the game. For example:

  • Tic-Tac-Toe has few decisions, but it also has few rules
  • Chess has more rules and elements, but it has many interesting decisions
  • Monopoly has even more rules and elements, but relatively few meaningful decisions

While it is possible to learn the basic rules of Chess in just a few minutes, it might take players years, if ever, to master the game.  A game like Chess, where there is a high Depth to Complexity ratio, is referred to as design elegance by game designers. Many game designers strive for design elegance by creating as much depth as possible without too much complexity.

This can be tricky to achieve, though, since Depth (lots of interesting decisions) can come from Complexity (lots of rules), but too much Complexity can also decrease Depth.  Why?  Well, if there are too many rules in a game, it may make it too difficult to every truly master a game.

So, what does this have to do with apps that aren’t games?  If you recall The Player’s Journey from Game Thinking, Mastery is the final state of the Journey.  It is when Enthusiasts who’ve built their skills and mastered the system are ready for something more.  If your app has Depth, there will be something more to give your Enthusiasts.  That is, it will still have value for users who have used your app for a long period of time.

Game designers have given a lot of thought to how to add Depth to a game, because the Enthusiasts who have mastered the game are often its best promoters and it’s important to keep them loyal.  Here are some take-aways from game design that you can use to add Depth to your app:

  • Providing the more advanced users with different ways to use the app’s main action, different actions to perform or even different overall uses for your app will increase the users sense of freedom of choice within the app.  However, these different choices need to produce different results for them to be meaningful and truly create an app with Depth.
  • If the knowledge or timing of when your users use the main action of the Core Learning Loop is a factor in determining how useful that action is, then your app already has a potential for Mastery.  The better your users get at acquiring the right knowledge or adjusting their timing, the more skill they develop on the Journey to Mastery.
  • If the timing of using your app’s action involves any trade-offs; that is using the action for one purpose at a given time might be at the expense of the benefits of doing something else instead, that strategic knowledge of when or the best order to use your app’s action can form the basis of Mastery.
  • While your app may built upon a single Core Learning Loop, you can design in different actions to support, expand on, or provide variations of the main action your users use, each of which makes it possible for users to train in additional skills.
  • Allowing the users with learning how the rules of cause and effect work in your app without experiencing any actual negative consequences can encourage users to learn about all the different ways your app can be used.  Such experimentation will allow users to gain information about how your app works, and that knowledge can lead to Mastery of your app.
  • Allowing users to use the actions as expressions of creativity, particularly if they can share those expressions with others, can give users a sense of creative control that can lead to Mastery.  Such expressions of creativity can be as non-obtrusive to your app’s main function as allowing the users to create the look of their avatars or change the skin of the user interface, or it may be the main purpose of the app, such as with a photo editing app.
  • Congratulatory messages for using the app well and prompting about what features can be unlocked as the users improve their skills can help motivate them to achieve Mastery.

Unfortunately, there are also mistakes you can make that can interfere with creating a Player Journey to Mastery:

  • If your app is too Difficult for people to use in the Onboarding or Habit-Building stages, they will bail on it before reaching Mastery.
  • If your app is not Complex enough to provide increased utility (more things for your users to do) as their skills in using it improve, there is little motivation for them to keep on using your app to improve their skills.

Of course, these considerations are all for users who already have become skilled in using your app.  But what about the users who are still in the Habit-Building stage?  What will keep them returning to your app so that they can build that habit?  This is what game designers call Replayability, and we will examine that factor next week.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on May 1, 2017, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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