Book Notes: Playful Design

Here are some highlights I took from John Ferrara’s book Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces.

The elements of great game UX

  • Motivation: There needs to be a reason to play, a goal.
  • Meaningful choices: You need to be able to influence the outcome of the game through your choices. Partial ambiguity can work well here (eg. I don’t know what will happen if I do X, but I’ll take the chance because I have a reasonable expectation of what will happen).
  • Balance: How well do aspects of the game work together to create an experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?
  • Usability: Interactions must work well. There should be clarity around why you win or lose.
  • Aesthetics: It has to look good to be enticing and engaging enough to bother with.
  • Fun: Of course games are fun, but you can’t create fun. It’s a result of the other factors being successful.

What motivates people to play games?

  • Immersion: Getting lost in another world where you lose track of time (“flow”)
  • Autonomy: The freedom to do whatever you want versus the constraints that come with real life.
  • Competence: People like the feeling of being good at something and games give them that chance.
  • Catharsis: Blowing off steam that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in real life.
  • Accomplishment: Risk vs. reward. Games allow you a safe place to strive for greatness.
  • Social image: A belief that if you’re good at something, people will have a more favorable impression of you.
  • Social interaction: Games are an outlet to socialize with others.
  • Creativity: Games can give people an outlet for self expression.
  • Others: People can have highly individualized reasons why they play games.

10 tips for building better games

  1. Games need to be games first: First and foremost, the game aspect needs to be enjoyable.
  2. Test: Test early and often.
  3. Games aren’t only for kids: Keep the game accessible for a broad range of ages.
  4. Action can be boring: Repetition of short problem/response situations (like the arcade games of past) can be dull compared to the richness of modern games, which are too cost prohibitive for most applications. It’s more productive to offer players choices to make with their resulting outcomes which have some amount of randomness to them (think card games like hearts).
  5. Fit the game into the player’s lifestyle: Know your users and how the game can fit within their reality.
  6. Create meaningful experiences: In exchange for player’s attention, you need to give them a reason to play- a payoff for their investment.
  7. Don’t cheat: Don’t give the game advantages not available to players. They’ll know it and be turned off.
  8. Skip the manual: Make it easy enough to jump in and start playing. Nuances can be learned over time, but getting started should be simple.
  9. Make the game make sense: Players need to know why things inside the game are happening to feel a sense of control. Players should understand why they won or lost, have clarity around cause and effect, understand the objective and know what actions are possible.
  10. Make it easy to try again

Reward systems

  • Praise: Tell players that they’re doing well when they are. Don’t overdo it. It has limited power to compel players to continue for extended periods. Praise appeals to the need for accomplishment, competence and social image.
  • Point systems: These simultaneously measure performance (how well player has done in this sitting), proficiency (level of skill overall) and progress (how far player has advanced). Points appeal strongly to the need for competence.
    • Points are a good way to roll up lots of low level successes and achievements into one common concept.
    • Points have to matter to the advancement of the game.
    • They shouldn’t be redundant relative to other rewards or else they just create needless complexity.
    • Points should be awarded in varying amounts to lend greater depth to the game.
    • You need to offer a way to compare points (like a leaderboard) or else they’re meaningless.
  • Currencies: Much like points except they can be redeemed for things. Currency appeals to the need for autonomy because the currency can be spent in whatever manner suits the player.
    • Scarcity of currency lends depth to the game because players need to decide how best to spend it (force player to make meaningful choices).
  • Leveling: As players move up, they gain personal power, benefits, status, etc. and are then able to accomplish greater things or more difficult challenges. Leveling appeals to the need for catharsis, accomplishment and competence.
    • Levels can pose limitations on a player’s ability to do certain things.
    • Players can be motivated to work harder when they know how much effort is needed to advance to the next level and are close to reaching that level.
    • Levels can extend the amount of time players are willing to stay engaged than if they didn’t exist.
  • Customization: The ability to acquire and customize virtual possessions. Customization appeals to the need for creativity (i.e. to self express).
  • Avatars: A simple customization that users can control at will.
  • Currency: Currency allows players to customize the game in ways they choose.
  • Social rewards: customizations that can be shared socially can be a big payoff for the player.
  • Item drops: The ability of a player to pick up various attributes (like health packs or weapons in video games).
    • They can be used as lures to get players to take bigger risks.
    • They can provide hints and encourage players to explore.
    • They foster competition as players via for scarce resources.
    • They can enable strategic play as players compete to gain different advantages offered by the dropped items.
    • Fixed locations/fixed schedules for drops reward experienced players over novices.
    • Fixed locations/variable schedules reward persistence.
    • Variable locations/fixed schedules reward exploration.
    • Variable locations/variable schedules don’t reward any particular behavior.
    • Dropped items can be a positive or negative reinforcement.
  • Collections: Take advantage of human nature to find, capture and hold things. They are not usually spent or lost. The desire for symmetry and completion can be a powerful motivator for some.
    • Earned items can be awarded as a player accomplishes things.
    • Found items can be awarded through a scavenger hunt/Easter egg/exploration scenario.
    • Purchased items combine collection and currency systems together to create a more compelling reward system.
    • Holding a player’s interest is a function of the size of the collection and of the difficulty in acquiring the items. The overall size of the collection can be fairly big and provide a continual reason to keep playing, but shouldn’t be so vast that players question why they ought to bother.
    • The ability to acquire each item can range for added depth of game play and can be combined with leveling so that as the player’s level increases, the difficulty in acquisition also increases.
  • Achievements: Invite players to perform things just for the sake of doing them. Achievements appeal to the need for accomplishment.
    • They are incredibly flexible- award them for anything you can think of.
    • They are cheap and easy -hey can ask a player to do something they would anyway, but that might not be otherwise necessary.
    • Since they are so cheap and easy to create and dole out, they can be matched to a player’s skill level thereby making them a universal reward regardless of how experienced you are in the game or not.
    • Known achievements give players something to work toward while hidden ones reward self motivation as players guess and intuit their way to them.
  • Unlockables: Rewards that are more substantive and therefore need to be unlocked. Otherwise, they’re off limits. Anything that isn’t essential to the game can be locked down. The requirements to unlock them can be as flexible as needed. Unlockables appeal to the need for competence because players typically need to master something within the game before they are ready to unlock the reward. It also appeals to the need for immersion because unlockables extend playtime as rewards are doled out over time.
    • Make sure players are aware of the unlockables.
    • Control the difficulty of the task necessary to unlock. Don’t make it too easy or too difficult.
    • Test the unlockables to see if players are actually motivated enough to unlock them.
  • Metarewards: Rewards that are outside the game itself. Examples include Easter eggs and cheats.
  • External rewards: These rewards are a step beyond metarewards and include things like real world money, prizes and special privileges.

Key Questions to ask when designing a game

  • How much motivation will players have to participate?: Every player needn’t contribute to a significant degree. A smaller, but highly dedicated group of players can make up for lack of motivation by the majority.
  • How long will each player contribute?: Consider not only how long people will spend with the game in one sitting, but how often they return in the long run. Greater benefit will result if people come back to the game over time.
  • How many people will contribute?: You want to design a game that will transcend an active minority. It should grow to be as popular as possible among a broad set of contributors.
  • How much do you need to spend to get desired results?: Set objectives for costs related to design, development, launching, marketing and maintaining over time. Then set objectives for the benefits to be derived for the dollars spent.

Best practices for human computational game design (i.e. a game where people’s action result in useful by-products that can be used to solve thorny real world problems- think Google image labeler)

  • The game experience must stand on its own: Whatever you build needs to be enjoyable to play in its own right. You don’t have to hide the fact that its a game, but do need to take the key questions (above) seriously.
  • Bolster quality: Because people vary in their commitment, ability and seriousness, you have to keep an eye on the quality of the game’s output. One way to do this is to have other players verify results by making it part of the game (think Quora).
  • Watch for cheats: People will always look to accomplish something in the easier, most efficient way possible so keep an eye out for how the game might be subverted. Testing helps ferret this out.

Best practices for reframing game design (i.e. a game where people’s real world actions are reframed to be part of the game- think Foursquare)

  • Make it easy to play: People have to bounce between real life and the game so each interaction needs to be easy. Minimize the amount of time it takes to open the game, achieve whatever the interaction is and get back to real life.
  • Create an alternate existence: The game world and real world need to coexist and both be interesting in their own right. Pick a theme or motif for the game in order to temporarily transport the player into its world and then back out.
  • Focus on varied and fresh rewards: Well crafter rewards provide players a compelling reason to play. Any single reward system does not speak to every person so offer different kinds of rewards to attract different kinds of people. Its also important to reinforce the feeling of progress to keep players coming back to the game.

Best practices for real-time reinforcement design (i.e. essentially a reframing type game but with real time feedback- think Nike+)

  • Same ones as for reframing (see above)
  • Specialize: Real time reinforcement works best when it runs alongside a narrow task that the player is engaging in rather than a broad set of tasks.
  • Take advantage of reinforcement schedules: Because you’re tracking the player’s actions, you have the opportunity to shape them by scheduling feedback. Continuous reinforcement is best when new behaviors are being learned. Variable ratio schedules produce the fastest rate of response. Fixed interval schedules produce a burst of activity just around the time that a reward is expected.

Best practices for optional advantage design (i.e. presenting real world actions as optional advantages in the game- think CityVille)

  • Build investment in the experience: remove all barriers to entry, give players a sense of ownership in the game world and give players a sense of incomplete progress toward long term objectives.
  • Keep options optional: Some players won’t participate in optional advantages so let the game be of interest to them nonetheless. Over time, they may change their mind and opt in.
  • Create disproportional rewards: Let the rewards be of greater value than the cost for them is to the player.
  • Don’t allow cheating: It can be a blurry line between disproportionate rewards and outright cheating so keep tabs on the difference. If a reward is too extreme, it cheapens the game for everyone.

Best practices for scheduled play design (i.e. setting game play to occur on a regular schedule- think Amazon’s Gold Box)

  • Validate the schedule: Test how often most players will return to play. Any more or less results in less participation over time.
  • Offer suitable rewards: The perceived value to playing over time is dependent on the reward given. The schedule can be graduated where smaller rewards are granted early on and better ones later after more return visits. A probabilistic schedule makes the reward something that might be won rather than won just for showing up. A competitive schedule lets players compete for rewards at any given time.
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