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Archive for the ‘game design’ tag

The Game Design of Cities

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There’s an old adage in the game design field that good games are easy to learn, yet difficult to master. That is, a game should be simple enough for even the most uninitiated user to understand yet challenging enough for a master to spend years working to hone their skills. Chess is one oft-cited example. Picture of New York City, Wall Street

Cities operate by similar principles. Great cities are easy for visitors to navigate yet take years if not decades for residents to fully explore and understand. Cities can be too simple, like so many in middle America that bore their smartest residents into submission (or departure). And cities can be too complex for newcomers — New York, for instance.

This is why Adopt a Hacker is a great idea. New York is possibly the most fascinating city on earth to master — but it’s also one of the most difficult places for a newcomer to learn, especially when it comes to meeting new people. Adopt a Hacker NYC lowers the bar to get great hackers engaged in the city by lowering the learning curve. By pairing visiting developers up with veteran NYC residents, it adds a tutorial to an otherwise dense game.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

September 14th, 2010 at 8:42 am

The Next Generation of Game Mechanics

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I’ve already had a few things to say on the coming explosion of game mechanisms in non-game apps, but listening to Gabe Zichermann talk at last week’s New York Gaming Meetup raised some new questions.

I agree with Gabe on a lot of things. We’re absolutely seeing a proliferation of game mechanics throughout the internet, and the resulting points or badges are totally divorced from real-world value. But everything I’ve heard on this topic has presumed that most of the innovation in game mechanics has already happened; that the real advances will be in applying points, leaderboards and badges to anything and everything on the internet. In other words, we’ll see a world of thousands of companies replicating a limited pool of “proven” game mechanics to guide user behavior. There have even been entire companies formed to help companies stick points and leaderboards on their apps.

It’s a crock of shit, really. There is a whole world of compelling game mechanics out there, only a small part of which is the Activity > Points > Badges flow that Foursquare nailed. Game mechanics are going to expand throughout the web, but they’re going to diversify and incorporate a wealth of varied engagement strategies as they do. Different tactics work for different people and different sites, and consumers will demand diversity and deeper engagement as they become more hardened to “vanilla” game mechanics.

So what are these next-gen game mechanics, you ask? Here are a few I think we’ll see much more often:

Building and Growing: Most people like to build and grow things. You can chalk the psychology up to our agrarian past, but Ford knew this when they put a virtual tree into the Fusion. Leaderboards feel like a zero-sum game, and many people will respond better to a mechanism that feels more collaborative. Like growing a tree, for instance.

There’s a corollary mechanism to this — building or growing something that can help you play the game better in the future — that could be particularly powerful. This mechanism is analogous to building a strong base in a RTS game. People are doubly motivated to do it since it puts their involvement in the game on an exponential growth trajectory.

PvP Competition: This is a no-brainer. People can be motivated by leaderboards and badges, but it’s nothing compared to the passion you see in player versus player competition. That said, this is somewhat psychographically specific — lots of people have no interest in direct competition with other players, and I imagine that designers will initially approach PvP competition in non-game apps with a lot of caution. But I can’t see it staying on the sidelines forever given its power.

Real World Rivalries: I experimented with this in GoCrossCampus a few years back, and I still think there’s really something here. As I mentioned above, many people love to play games against other live players (whether asynchronously or in real-time), and real-world rivalries only accentuate the power of this mechanic. Your leaderboard isn’t doing enough to engage users? Let players represent major sports teams or their colleges and see which team/college is the best! Use real-world rivalries and your app can piggyback off your users’ natural loyalties and affinities.

Leveling: I’ve seen some non-game apps using this already — such as online forums that reward activity by “leveling up” members based on post count — but it’s still woefully underused. Levels give people goals, the lack of which can be the death of a traditional points-based reward system. If members don’t think they’re working towards anything other than more points or a slightly better place on the leaderboard, they probably won’t hang around too long. Social game developers know this well; it’s worthwhile to study the leveling system that Farmville uses to keep players from leaving in the early stages of gameplay.

Chance: When “gameifying” apps hits the mainstream, incorporating elements of chance into these game structures will be a big deal. People in the tech and media world like the meritocratic, deterministic nature of Foursquare, where points can only be earned, not “won”. But normal folks like to win and will often value a chance to win something valuable over something small and guaranteed. Game designers aren’t blind to this, and the game-based apps of the future will absolutely allow users to wager their virtual currency and tokens.

There are more, but this is enough to argue my point. It’s hard to imagine any of these tools not being used on a large scale over the next five years. Marketers and developers must stop mimicking points and badges and start thinking about how game mechanics integrate with their apps on a fundamental level.

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July 6th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Cargo Cult Game Design

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During World War II, many remote Pacific islanders received their first taste of modern goods when Allied or Japanese armies showed up and took over. Soldiers built airstrips, control towers and barracks, and planes regularly flew in and out. To avoid conflict, the islanders were bribed with food, alcohol and amenities. Then, the war was over and the soldiers left, tearing up their bases and taking their planes with them.

When these remote islands were visited again by anthropologists years (or even decades) later, some islanders had created “cargo cults” mimicking the soldiers’ activities. By building landing strips, wooden control towers and straw planes, islanders hoped to re-create the bounties of cargo. That is, they were copying the process without understanding the underlying principles.Plane from a Cargo Cult

As the idea of building game mechanisms into everything becomes the next new hot thing, I’m seeing a lot more cargo cult game design, or “let’s stick a leaderboard on it”. Lots of companies are copying the games they see others build without really understanding what they’re building or why they’re building it.

Don’t get me wrong — the people who are thinking today about building game mechanics into their non-game products are way ahead of the curve and should be commended. But good game design is hard – look at how long it took some of the smartest game designers in the world to figure out how to create really compelling, blockbuster games on Facebook. The Facebook platform was lost in the wilderness for over a year before anyone started figuring it out — but when they did, they revolutionized an industry.

I get a couple emails a week from people interested in making their company’s products more game-like. The person tasked with this is typically in product development, product management or marketing. They’re all pretty smart people, so they look around to see what else is working. Sadly, examples of good games built into non-game products after a product release are few and far between. So they find something that May Be Kinda Similar But May Also Be Different In Some Fundamental Ways (really, that just means foursquare) and co-opt it to their company’s product development plan while changing as little of the original game as possible.

But this doesn’t really work. In fact, it’s not that much different than building a plane from sticks and bamboo and expecting to receive wondrous gifts from the heavens in return. Games are fun when they fit organically into the theme around them. If everything has its own standardized leaderboard of people who have generated points doing X, I’m going to get tired of leaderboards pretty quickly. Game design isn’t black magic (that’s SEO), but it does have to be tailored — or even re-engineered — to fit its environment, audience and purpose. And often, the fundamental questions that need to be answered in these companies can’t be addressed by game design. Game design must come after there are answers to core questions like who are the users? and what do we want them to do? In other words, it’s not a cure-all for core business issues.

So when friends ask me how to wrap a game around whatever they’re doing, I point them in the direction of some fundamental game design writings by guys like Raph Koster and Greg Costikyan. Ultimately, you’re better served by building something from the ground up. Start with the basic principles of psychology and game design and build them into your product at a fundamental level. Otherwise, it’s just an elaborate cargo cult ritual that mimics the process but fails to understand the underlying truths.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 17th, 2010 at 6:55 am