Mixing Linear Content with Non-Linear Context

There are at least three fundamental aspects of scientific inquiry — I’ve always liked the way that Ken Wilber refers to them – as three “strands” of valid knowing:

  1. Instrumental Injunction is the foundation of the scientific method, and always of the form, “if you want to know this, you must do this.” If you want to see moon craters you need a telescope. If you want to understand how a quaternion works, study Mathematics. If you want to play a game, you gotta learn the rules.
  1. Intuitive Apprehension is an immediate, direct understanding brought forward by the injunction – the acquisition and grasping of data. You look through a telescope. You study quats (and if you go into the theory of quats, you try to keep from frying your brain). You play by the rules.
  1. Communal Affirmation (or rejection) is a checking of results (apprehension of data) with others who have adequately completed the injunctive and apprehensive strands. You talk to others who have seen the same moon craters you have. You share and validate code (for example, in a video game) that replaces some of your old Euler matrices with quats. You find and play games with other players and share your strategies.

Using these strands, think about a chain of activities in a social game. Call it a quest. How does a quest work, fundamentally? How does it deliver a compelling experience — something of value? Let’s obviousify:

  1. If you want to complete a quest, you need to follow instructions. For example, you’re playing a fantasy game and the town Bard tells you a story about his missing magic lute and how he lost it, then asks you to find and return it for a reward. He infers or tells you directly what to do to get it back.
  1. You start checking off the places you need to visit, people you need to meet, battles you need to win, etc. until you finish the quest. You return to the bard for your reward. At this point you know how the quest works — its risks, its meaning to the game’s fiction, what you learned, how the journey went/felt, your reward and so on.
  1. Other players choose the same quest. Their experiences are similar to yours. If enough players finish and broadcast, the quest becomes popular, affirming or rejecting your own judgement.

A quest should have intrinsic value — (1) and (2). Without at least the appearance of gameplay — something meaningful to do, something learningful and the freedom to do it — few players will take it on and even fewer will finish it.

A quest should also have extrinsic value — (3). In fact, extrinsicly-speaking, the quest exists mostly (perhaps only) because many players have completed it and can verify and validate it. At some point the number of shared experiences will sum such that the quest will become common enough knowledge within the game world, making the prospect of finding and completing the quest far more interesting and challenging than by (1) and (2) alone.

Gamification weights (3) so much that gameplay has little value. The objective of the quest is to “play”, validate, then play again — rinse and repeat, scratch and win. It works to a certain extent, because it has a logical foundation to it. Quest components — where you go, what you do, what you see and understand, knowledge and rewards you get for your effort during the process — have less value. The reward is extrinsic and based on some other context — locations on a map, for example.

Traditional gameplay weights (1) and (2). The gameplay has most of the value — the reward is instrinsic.

How do we combine the intrinsic with the extrinsic in a way that leverages both (ideally with optimal development efficiency)? Or, how do we make the extrinsic a little more intrinsic — and the intrinsic a little more extrinsic? How do mix linear content with non-linear context?

Here’s one example. The quest is our “Quest for the Magic Lute”: Find the Bard’s lute through a manageable but somewhat complex narrative of places, people and battle encounters, then return for a handsome reward. However, upon completion there’s an additional reward — you’re now allowed to pass on the quest to others with some game-generated modifications. You might be allowed to substitute a qualifying item from your inventory for the quest target, and create the “Quest for the Magic Ring.” Or you can change two or three places on the path and the game will re-plot the journey.  Or you can re-write some of the story, within prescribed limitations, keeping the basic integrity of the narrative intact.

Changing a few parameters — intrinsic parametrization, a bit like mashing-up — alters the original logic or quality of the quest, adding more or different value. Taking ownership of the quest — changing the starting gate to the experience and its external identity — adds extrinsic value since you’re motivated to spread the word about “your” quest. If enough players take ownership — sort of like curating their own content — players become motivated to look for “repeatably unique” experiences where something familiar is also something new.

Ask the Game

My co-founder (and chief creative genius) at Kineplay, Laddie Ervin, pointed out this today and it’s awesome — it’s Double Fine’s Tim Schafer in a very funny bit on pitching his new Kinect game Once Upon a Monster.

Laddie and I have been on both sides of the table over the years. I’ve spent a little more time on the pitch side while he’s been in the decision-maker’s chair more often. We agree that Tim’s video is hilarious — and not all that different from what really happens. We’ve seen plenty of executives act like “cookie monsters” with millions of cookies at their disposal, and there is no shortage of “monster ideas” that can eat through them faster than milk can sogify ’em (in the case of Tim’s new game, it’ll be money well spent — the game looks great!).

Funding decisions, especially in traditional gaming but almost as common in non-traditional gaming, are far more random than what most people realize. Because it’s a creative business, many managers think they’re super-creative and tuned-in, but when it comes to a great game idea, their judgement is extremely hit-and-miss. Why wouldn’t it be? They spend their time managing, not making.

Likewise, developers often think they have the Next Big Game and stubbornly resist changes to their vision. Or worse, they have no vision and will do whatever it takes to get the gig. In both cases their interests aren’t going to align well with funding expectations.

What works best is when the funding monster and the maker monster agree on the initial nugget of a game idea, then hold themselves accountable to it — fill out the design by asking the game. Objectify the idea and ask it about story, art design, scale, mechanics — the exercise is subtle but important. Good fiction writers will tell you that they often see themselves as reporters who tell the story, not creators. This perspective takes the pressure off to “be creative” and especially for a complex and expensive project like a game, it provides a safety net for expression.

Playifying Work

I finally had time to run through another delightful presentation on gamification by Sebastian Deterding, Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. There’s always more under the hood of Deterding’s presentations, and this one was no exception — great stuff on game design in general, fun theory, designing choice and the impact of more-or-less gamifying life. Some slides are mashed up from his other presentations (all excellent), but this one is longer and more philosophical.

The general grok for me is that modern gamification is often an attempt at simply playifying work — a worthy pursuit but also very often too clever, too much of a trick and fatigue-inducing. Of course that makes me think about workifying play — something a missed game implementation does by over-burdening an otherwise playful game mechanic (easy to do and not uncommon).
Note: At this point I’m now no longer even thinking about the presentation, but other things I can -ify. Like WordPress, which both blogifies websites and webifies blogs. Apple, who has appified smartphones. Google, who has brought searchification to every website. And of course VC’s, who fundify entrepreneurs.

Sitting on a Gold Mine

Rovio announced last week that they’re partnering with Barnes & Noble to geo-contextualize Angry Birds. Customers can now download a free “Mighty Eagle” add-on on their NOOKs at any store. I don’t often get to B&N (Amazon will usually do), and I’m not a NOOK fan, but maybe it’s awesome.

Then again maybe not-so-much. The add-on is part of Rovio’s larger “Magic Places” (love the name, actually) rollout, which they announced last month and which aims to use connected devices and location to expand Angry Birds. Magic Places will work a little like a traditional location-based game — when a player arrives at a specific location, she can use her smartphone to unlock special game content like new characters (e.g. the Mighty Eagle) and levels.

This is more gaming value than location-based gamification — and it’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not very thoughtful, considering the gold mine that Rovio is sitting on. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the right idea — according to Gigaom’s brief interview with Rovio Product Manager Ramine Darabiha, Rovio sees Magic Places as a way to encourage players to find new places and content, and they view location as a legit distribution channel.

But Gigaom reported that Rovio’s plan isn’t to aggressively monetize Magic Places, but to build deeper engagement with the Angry Birds brand.

Razzle-frazzel-frackin-fricken. It’s another example of Low-Hanging Fruit Syndrome, and while no surprise, I was hoping for better. After all, Rovio’s been in the trenches. They developed a slew of titles, many of which were unsuccessful, before Angry Birds. They came back from near-bankruptcy at the eleventh hour. And they’re from Finland.

Building brand makes complete sense — that’s a big piece of what they should be doing, but they’re already doing it with merch, film, lots of press and of course porting and extending. Not to mention their $42B round of funding in March (a chunk of that money, I would think, is paying for marketing).

If they want location to help them reach a billion downloads by the end of next year, they’re going to need more than the unite-retailers-with-customers model. Their markets are big and the Birds are still on fire, but a billion downloads? They’re at about one quarter of that goal today. Rovio CEO Mikael Hed is talking wartime but his location strategy has gone peacetime.

Rovio should stay on-product and re-innovate to fully leverage location. Why not let players design their own basic birds and/or levels and drop them anywhere on the globe? Use AR to find “birds in the wild” to top it off. Reward mobility but don’t require it. Give the crowd a way to crowd-source and share actual game content — be scrappy and focus on a location strategy that has a better impact on gameplay.