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FEATURE29 March 2011

Entertainment by design

Features

Gamification is an enticing prospect for researchers. Adding gameplay elements to surveys promises to boost respondent engagement and enjoyment levels. But designing games isn’t easy. Disney Interactive design director Alex Cullum explains.

Sounds great. But what constitutes a game? And, more importantly, how do you design one that people want to play? We turned to Disney Interactive design director Alex Cullum for the answers.

How would you define a game?
An interactive activity with a pre-defined set of rules, where the objective is to entertain.

Can you think of examples of game design at its purest?
Most people would probably look to old card or board games or something like Rock, Paper, Scissors. I prefer to look to the old arcade games. Take Space Invaders for example.

It had good high-level design: a premise or narrative setting that makes the player want to play by offering a fantasy fulfillment. In this case, you’re a lone gunner defending a planet from an alien invasion.

It had good medium-level design: the incentive to keep playing from minute to minute – you want to keep playing to maximize the value of your ten pence piece. You want to keep playing to get further up the high-score table. The arcade high-score table was an incredibly strong draw for players and in many ways is the precursor to what we see in today’s Facebook games: you want to show off to others how well you have done.

It also had good low-level design: the second-to-second feedback to your inputs that reward you and make you feel good. Every time you fired that laser you were rewarded with that satisfying “blurp” sound, and when you hit an enemy they exploded in a shower of particles. It felt good and you wanted to do it again.

So where does the process of designing a game begin? Do you start with the mechanics, thinking about what the game will allow the player to do? Or are storyline, characters or concept more important?
The best games start with the low-level design: the mechanics. Ultimately video games are all about people pushing buttons – if that simple act of pressing a button gives you satisfying feedback and is “fun” in itself then you have a solid foundation to work on the medium and high-level design.

Games that do this the other way round (starting with the high level: the premise) often find that they have created a framework that forces them to use mechanics that are never going to be fun in and of themselves. You can have the best story and incentive system in the world, but if your second-to-second experience, the actual process of playing the game, is not fun then your game will never become great. Halo [a first-person shooter on the Xbox] one of the most successful video game franchises of this generation, was famously built around the mantra of “30 seconds of fun, repeated over and over.”

With the mechanics in place where do you go from there? What other things need to be considered?
Once you have solid and fun mechanics then you need to work on the medium-level design: the pacing (players need breathing space between high action); the challenge curve (you want players to feel challenged initially but then have time to overcome that challenge and enjoy a period of mastery before you introduce a new challenge and the cycle continues); the reward/incentive structure (players like to be rewarded for their actions, and they enjoy having the carrot dangled in front of them so that they know there is another reward just around the corner).

After that you can work on the high-level design: you want to create a world people want to spend time in, a role that people aspire to, a narrative that people want to see what happens next.

Are there any rules you follow about how soon you introduce the main mechanic, when the first major challenge occurs, that sort of thing?
Professional game design is still an incredibly young industry so there aren’t hard and fast rules, which in itself is exciting as there is so much scope for innovation, and some are better at pacing than others. Nintendo are the absolute masters of this. Take a game like Zelda: they will introduce a new mechanic or “toy” and give you game space to play with it, learn it and gain mastery in it and then, just at the point you feel at one with this toy, they introduce a specific challenge that requires you to use that toy, before then giving you a new toy to learn and play with. It is a very difficult balancing act. Get it wrong and a player feels bored or punished.

How much thought goes into setting the difficulty level of a game, and how do you balance the needs of those who like a challenge against more casual players?
The key here is to avoid binary design: where there is only one way to accomplish a task. If you do this then you can never satisfy all styles/skill levels of player – either the beginner feels punished or the experienced player feels bored and unchallenged. Analogue design allows for multiple ways to accomplish a task. As an example take Mario, even the simple task of getting onto a platform is analogue: the novice player can accomplish the task just by jumping on to that platform via another platform with simple single jumps, but the advanced player can get on to this platform directly with a back flip or by bouncing off a wall. Both players have accomplished the task, but the advanced player has been able to do it with flair allowing them to show off their skill without punishing the novice by forcing them to do things they cannot do yet.

What about rewards systems in games? Do you reward gradual progress, or only for surmounting major obstacles?
Too many rewards lessen their impact – if you are rewarded for every little thing you do then the rewards lose their meaning. So, yes, you need to save the rewards for major events. However, simply giving the rewards in itself is not enough. You need to incentivise as well as reward. The player needs to know that accomplishing a task will give them a reward before they receive it.

Thinking about the survey research process, how would you use game play elements to encourage people to take part, to get them to take the survey properlay and to make sure they complete the survey?
Many of the surveys I have taken part in include a status indicator of how far through the survey I am. This is a good thing as it appeals to people’s basic desire to complete things but perhaps something more could be made of this? For example, perhaps each section of a completed survey could reveal another part of a picture, like a jigsaw puzzle – this appeals to people’s desire to complete things as well as offering intrigue: what is the final picture?

And how would you reward them appropriately?
The usual thing is vouchers and discount codes, isn’t it. I think these work but they feel like what they are, a bribe. The participant is being “paid” for taking part. I often feel used – the survey has taken the information from me and at the end I am paid off and then I never hear any more. It would be nice if the participant is also made to feel a part of the true reason behind the survey so that they can feel like they are truly participating. The aim of the survey is to get information that can be used to improve a product or service. Perhaps if participants were allowed to opt in to an email post-survey that gave them insight into the survey’s findings and an idea of what changes their participation will bring about, maybe that would make them feel more an actual part of the process.

Cullum has been with Disney Interactive since 2006. Recent titles he’s worked on include the racing games Pure and Split/Second. Earlier in his career he worked on Populous 3 and Syndicate Wars. You can read more of his thoughts on gamification in the April edition of Research Magazine.

1 Comment

8 years ago

Gamification of research always makes me nervous. There can be a unintended effect of turning everything into a game, without regard for the validity of data, and then as fun as the research is, nothing is generalizable to the real world. Shopping is shopping in the real world. It isn't always fun and exciting and the way we make decisions when we are having a great time is very different from the way we make decisions when we are bored. Hm... am I in favor of boring surveys then? :)

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