Two weeks ago I had the great pleasure and privilege of participating as a coach at Amy Jo Kim’s Game Thinking Live event, a two-day training seminar introducing innovators and entrepreneurs to principles of game design that can be applied to the development of their own non-game products to make them more engaging. As I went over the training materials in preparation for my coaching responsibilities, I thought about what I teach my own game design students at The Los Angeles Film School, and one additional thing that I thought might be helpful to innovators was to show them how I teach my students to analyze the games that they are developing to ensure that they are delivering the intended user experience.
Five factors that I cover on in analyzing games are difficulty, complexity, depth, pacing, and replayability, and in post I will focus on…
Difficulty: The amount of skill a player needs to overcome the game’s challenges.
For challenges in games to be engaging for players, they need to have the right level of difficulty. When players play a game for the first time, their skill level for playing that game is low, but it will likely improve as they continue playing a game. However, if the game’s challenges exceed the abilities of the players’ current skill level, it can lead to frustration. Conversely, if players’ skill level is increasing faster than the challenge, it leads to boredom. The results of both of these situations is the same: players will leave the game.
Yet if the difficulty of a games’ challenges increases at the same rate as the player’s skill levels, it can keep the player engaged in the game. This balance of difficulty is an important factor in keeping the player in a state of flow: the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When players experience flow, time stops, nothing else matters and when they finally come out of it, they have no concept of how long they have been playing.
So, what does this have to do with creating an app that isn’t a game? Well, a project that is created using Game Thinking begins with implementing its core learning loop. This is the basic level of engagement in your app. It is comprised of the following elements:
- A repeatable, pleasurable activity that’s connected to an internal or situational trigger.
- Feedback that drives learning and skill-building.
- Progression and investment with re-engagement triggers.
Take a look at the second element. Feedback that drives learning and skill-building. When you play a game, you gain skills and knowledge that prepares you to take on greater challenges. The same is true with using an app. As you use an app, the skills and knowledge you gain transforms you as you engage with the product experience, allowing you to gain more value from the app. Setting your app’s difficulty properly helps to ensure that there is a smooth learning curve for the user to advance from Onboarding to Habit-Building and increases the likelihood that they will continue on in the Player Journey to Mastery.
If you are to transform your players, must properly adjust the difficulty of using the app to the user’s skill level. How do you know what the appropriate skill level is for your users? Simple: ask them during playtesting, “On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being very easy and 5 being very difficult, how difficult was it to use this app?” You can also ask playtesters how empowered they felt using the app or whether the app did what they wanted it to do, since negative responses to either question might be a result of the app being too difficult for them to use.
Remember that the difficulty of an app is individual to each user, so be sure to collect this information from a wide pool of playtesters. Also be sure to collect information when they first begin using this app and at multiple points during their Player’s Journey, because their skill will improve the more they use your app.
Unlike games, most apps can never be too easy to use. But what should you do if your playtesters tell you that your app is too difficult?
One potential solution might be to provide more information about how to perform the various actions in your app or even about what the purpose is of some of your app’s features. Information can be given through help screens, tutorials, tips or even by encouraging your users to discover on their own through experimentation about how features work.
Another potential solution to try is to give users more of whatever resources they need to perform the app’s actions — whether that resource be time, points, virtual currency, or data.
When users report that they need more time to perform your apps actions and there aren’t any direct time limits implemented in your app for you to adjust, such as the delayed effect of performing an action due to your app’s performance speed, it may be that any aiming mechanisms (whether be how your users aim a camera for taking a photograph or aiming their fingers for touching the correct user interface location) needs to be re-evaluated. Or if the user needs to perform a combination of key-presses to perform at time-sensitive action, you may need to find a way to revised the user interface to make fewer key-presses necessary or not require the user to be as dexterous when using multiple or complex control mechanisms. Users may even report that they don’t have enough time to perform actions simply because there isn’t an effective indicator that tells them they are ready to perform that action.
If your app allows users to perform certain actions until they’ve accumulated enough points or currency to do so, but users report that doing those actions is too difficult, the solution may be a simple one — either don’t be so stingy in awarding points or currency required to do later actions, or lower the costs of those actions.
In the case of your users reporting that they don’t have enough information to successfully perform actions in your app but you know that you are definitely providing that information to them, you may be requiring the users to memorize too much information, and it may be necessary to move (or duplicate) the data display to be closer on the user interface to where the user performs the action needing that data.
Requiring the player to memorize too much information or operate too many controls may be an issue of the app not being too difficult, but being too complex, a problem that we will examine in detail next week.
Amy Jo Kim has a unique understanding of games. Having worked closely with Will Wright on The Sims and Raph Koster on Ultima Online as a social game designer, she knows how game development has been so successful at creating innovative apps that engage their users almost to the point of addiction. She’s generously shared the knowledge she gained with others through her 2000 book Community Building on the Web and her TEDx talk “Collaboration & Community-Building”, inspiring Fortune to name her as a top 10 influencer in digital games. But what makes Amy Jo’s understanding of games unique is that she sees how game design techniques can be applied to a wide range of applications, and she’s used that insight as in her role as a startup coach to help thousands of entrepreneurs innovate faster and smarter.
Amy Jo has encapsulated this insight into a framework that she calls “Game Thinking”, an integrated system for accelerating innovation and driving sustained engagement through a powerful blend of game design, systems thinking, agile/lean practices, and design thinking. Don’t be mislead by its name into believing that this is all child’s play: it’s a proven approach that Amy Jo has used to bring deeply compelling ideas to life while working with clients like Happify, eBay and Netflix.
Game Thinking is comprised of the following steps based on the habits and practices of breakthrough innovators:
- Clarifying your product strategy by formulating clear, testable hypotheses for developing your MVP.
- Mobilizing a thin, high-value, high-need slice of your target market — what Amy Jo calls your “superfans” — for getting feedback on your hypotheses.
- Running quick, focused screening interviews with your superfans to dramatically accelerate your ability to find exactly the right customers to listen to.
- Turning research insights into actionable design through the use of Job Stories, a powerful, cutting-edge design technique that will add speed, agility and focus to your product development.
- Sketching your customer’s journey from Discovery to Mastery so that it is organized around skill-building, learning and empowerment.
- Building iterative prototypes of working systems based on a pleasurable core learning loop providing skill-building feedback, progress and investment.
- Conducting low-fidelity, high-learning play-tests that let you start iterating rapidly with confidence.
- Validating your strategy using road-mapping technique that will streamline and focus your iteration and help you create a deeply engaging product that will delight your customers.
Although this system sounds simple enough, successfully implementing it does take work and guidance. That’s one reason why Amy Jo decided to hold a 2-day workshop called Game Thinking LIVE at the Marriott Waterfront near San Francisco last weekend. The event was attended both teams from large companies like Tesla and Intuit as well individual innovators and entrepreneurs along with virtual participants who joined from around the world through online video streaming — all eager to learn a system for better, faster product design. I was thrilled to be asked by Amy Jo to participate in the event as one of the coaches there to guide attendees through the Game Thinking process and help them apply it to their own projects.
Did I call the event a 2-day workshop? It was a far richer experience than that! It actually began a month or two prior with an introductory online course featuring short videos and step-by-step templates that take took attendees through the basics of Game Thinking. This allowed attended absorb the material at their own pace, and arrive at the event primed and ready to deepen their understanding and apply the techniques to their projects.
By having a foundational understanding of Game Thinking already in place, there was no need for attendees to sit through boring PowerPoint demonstrations that typically comprise workshops. Instead, Amy Jo organized the first day into a talk show type format: a casual, free-flowing conversation with experts and innovators who are leading the way in Game Thinking. The day’s topics included:
- What REALLY makes games engaging: Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun, explained how “fun” is just another word for “learning” and since all apps involves skill building, they can be transformed into an engaging experience.
- Customer Discovery on Steroids: Scott Kim, game designer at Age of Learning, and Mike Sellers, professor at Indiana University, described their experiences in finding the right customers to listen to for early prototype feedback.
- Piggyback on Customer Habits: Megan Mahdavi, CEO of Sunreach, Cindy Alvarez, Design Research Leader at Microsoft, and Laura Klein, author of Build Better Products, discussed how developing user experiences without conducting proper research on customer habits is just guessing.
- Systems Thinking: Raph Koster, Mike Sellers, and Dan Olsen, author of Lean Product Playbook, explained how not to think of your app not just as individual components, but as a dynamic, integrated system.
- Build a Path to Mastery: Robin Yang, Product Manager of Code Combat, and Margaret Wallace, CEO of Playmatics, emphasized the important of identifying the correct target group for testing your product.
- Bring your Learning Loop to Life: Raph Koster and Scott Kim, gave us a deep look at how game designers use learning loops to engage users in the habit-building phase of their customer journey.
- Better, Faster Product Experiments: Dan Olsen and Casey Winters, Growth Advisor at Greylock Partners, described how online companies grow through experimentation and metrics.
- Rethinking Design Thinking: Laura Klein, Cindy Alvarez, and Erika Hall, author of Just Enough Research, held a hilarious but through-provoking discussion on how the design process needs to be restructured to challenge personal biases and confront deeper issues in product design.
During the lunch break, some of us split up into informal “unconference” sessions centering around topics such as “Games and Learning” and “Virtual and Augmented Reality,” while others played collaborative party games to keep their creative juices flowing.
At first, I wondered whether the talk show format and games might be more entertaining than informative for the attendees, but everyone I talked to assured me that they got a lot of value out of the experience. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” And isn’t that really the essence of Game Thinking?
Day 2 was structured quite differently. Attendees spent the day working with the Game Thinking coaches to apply Amy Jo’s Toolkit to their individual projects, and then get feedback and advice from guest experts. As I wrote above, I was one of the coaches, along with Jaxton Cheah of TalentIntelligence Singapore, Duff Gardner of Protocol M Ventures, Curtis Gilbert of itMatters, Inc, Karthik Vijayakumar of DesignYourThinking, and Felipe Lara of New York Film Academy.
Each of us coaches were paired up with groups of attendees. My assigned group consisted of six individual innovators: Dan, who was providing online strategies for business start-ups; Sjeord, who was training employees in positive thinking; Ray, who was creating a system to help non-STEM graduates find careers; Patrick, who wanted to incorporate gifting into his book purchasing app; Brian, who was developing a viral video app; and Susan, who was selling a one-day break-making kit. I have to say, Susan’s Tomorrow Bread was a big hit with everyone when she served up hot slices of fresh-made bread to complement the event’s delicious food.
While I originally thought we could go through Amy Jo’s process in one day, all six of my group wanted to focus on developing Superfan Screeners and Speed Interviews. I quickly realized that was intuitive for me after thirty-five years of game development, required new ways of thinking and discipline from these entrepreneurs. They had a natural inclination to want to target mass market customers rather than SuperFans and to offer preconceived solutions instead of ferreting out their customer’s needs. It was several hours of hard work to guide them through this part of the process, but it seemed to pay off for everyone at the end.
The final couple of hours of the day was devoted to each attendee pitching their product to a panel of Game Thinking mentors: Mike Sellers, Raph Koster, Margaret Wallace, and Erin Hoffman-John, CEO of Sense of Wonder. As I listened to the mentors give their feedback, I appreciated how this was pure gold for the attendees. Where else on Earth can innovators get this kind of expert advice on their products?
And this advice doesn’t end with the weekend. After the event, attendees will continue to learn and stay in touch with the mentors, coaches and fellow attendees through Amy Jo’s Game Thinking Academy — her curated learning community of experts and enthusiasts who provide weekly updates and a monthly Q&A within a private supportive environment.
It was clear to me the benefits that the attendees got from Game Thinking LIVE, but I had to ask Amy Jo what she had hoped to get out of hosting the event. “I want to build a community and spread the idea of Game Thinking.”, she explained to me. Well, she certainly succeeded on that score — at least a few of us have discussed plans about how we wanted to work together afterwards to help others entrepreneurs develop their MVPs.
As for spreading the concept of Game Thinking, I did see some roadblocks. As excited as the individual entrepreneurs were about Amy Jo’s process for running faster, smarter MVP experiments, some of the product managers from big companies that I talked to during the breaks told me about the problems they had convincing their management to change their old way of thinking that just wastes time and effort building the wrong product or feature. Such a change can’t be done through a two-day workshop; it will require a long conversation with technology leaders.
Hopefully, Game Thinking LIVE will become a regular event, and Amy Jo will continue to spread the word about Game Thinking as more and more people sign up for her Game Thinking Academy. In my own experience as a consultant, it pains me to see entrepreneurs take the wrong approach in developing their MVP, and I would like to see more innovators take Amy Jo’s surer path to a successful launch.