Something strange is happening in the city of San Francisco. We've all seen the dancing bag from American Beauty - or witnessed a stray plastic bag blown about by eddies. But now it's not just once in a blue moon, it's every day - every hour - and the bags are starting to move together.
You can help by reporting strange bag behavior to the #BagsAlive hashtag, and working with leading zoologist Elizabeth Anderson - to help analyze this increasingly strange phenomenon. What sort of behavior should you report? - Bags that seem to be tracking, following, or stalking you - Bags that move against the wind, or move freely without wind - Two or more bags moving together in synchrony - Large quantities of plastic bags, still or moving - Bags exhibiting animal behavior - such as roosting, hunting, or protecting territory [[This is a one day transmedia project for the #TransmediaJam SF - thanks for playing!]]

8000 Bottles of Butterfly Milk, or Why I Love Glitch

I don't work for Tiny Speck. I just love Glitch. Here's why, and what everyone can learn from it.


Glitch is an open world MMO in disguise. Everything happens on 'streets' and for a long time you don't realize that all of those streets are connected in giant webs of territories across several continents. When you do, you get this wonderful scale shift moment - an instant of abrupt comprehension when your perception of the world suddenly expands by orders of magnitude. It is vast, but you don't feel overwhelmed. You consume the world in bite sized chunks (there's even GPS directions to wherever you need to go) that make you hungry for more. Glitch takes the complexity of WoW and makes it easily digestible to casual players. You don't need to make simple systems for casual users - you just need to make complex systems accessible. Introduce small pieces. Don't overwhelm players. Enable them to discover more.


Things in Glitch feel valuable because you have to invest in them. By making you earn teleportation instead of giving it to you, Tiny Speck makes teleporting more fun, exciting, and satisfying. Challenges are compelling. Use challenges to imbue value in an experience.


Glitch doesn't have open loop mechanics that punish you for not coming back on time (this is a common retention tactic). Crops don't wilt, piggies don't starve, items don't disappear. The only thing you lose by not coming back is opportunity. And in fact, Glitch's skill-learning mechanic makes it OK to go out and live your life. Learning skills takes a certain amount of real-world time - from half an hour to the majority of a month. I can go do something else with my life and still be making progress just by passively using the time to learn. But then I'm adamant about returning when I can start to learn the next one. The faster I can learn the skills - the sooner I can start using them. Make players want to come back, not need to come back. It's the difference between "I have to get back or I'm going to fail" and "Everything is fine, but if I go back I can do even better". Obligation is not a good experience.


I'm doing an entire post on fractal game design, but the core is repeating patterns at different scales. In Glitch, crafting exemplifies this. The best items require exponential quantities of parts and pieces, multiple machines, and loads of time and effort. Here's just one example:
SDB recipe from the Glitch Strategy Wiki
To make one Storage Display Box (SDB), you need 4 boards, 8 snails, and 2 metal rods. You also need a Construction Tool to put it together, 40 energy to use the Construction Tool, and the skill Furniture-Making II. And that's just the top level. To get a board, you need 4 planks, a Woodworker machine, energy to use the machine, a Fuel Cell to power the machine, and the Woodworking skill to use the machine. To get a Fuel Cell you need 2 White Gas, 8 Blocks of Peat, and 12 Clumps of Jellisac (and a Fuelmaker machine, the Fuelmaker skill, energy to use the Fuelmaker.... and a Fuel Cell to power the Fuelmaker). Suffice it to say listing out every single item needed for every step of the process would take up this entire article. If it takes that much work - how can this possibly be a good thing? Because you can start small, and start fast. Along the same lines as the quick to learn, difficult to master adage, it is incredibly easy to craft something like Butter (just use 2 energy to shake Butterfly Milk) - but over time you can get new recipes, new machines, and new skills to make bigger, better, more wondrous things. And no matter how much time you have, there's something to accomplish. If you have 30 seconds, you can still make a few planks. If you have a week, you can create an SDB for every item in your inventory. In a way, it's also a dynamic difficulty system. There's something for everyone, regardless of the skill level you're at. You can always challenge yourself, and you can always pick at a few low hanging fruit, too.


People prefer collaboration to competition 3:1, and everything about Glitch honors that desire to work together instead of engaging in zero sum endeavors. So how did they get away with so little competition in a giant MMO? Besides eliminating any sense of PvP, it helps that Glitch doesn't have a singular goal. It's not "do this and win". There's no system to break or cheat or take advantage of so you can be the best. Without that ability to compare progress towards a fixed target, competition is moot. You can't weigh my stash of butterfly milk against your Transcendental Radiation II skill. You're not "better" in Glitch - you're just different. But it's not just minimizing competition - it's facilitating collaboration.
Collaboration is incentivized in most core Glitch activities. You get bonuses for mining together, harvesting together, and scraping barnacles together. It isn't for friending people, for sending them invites, for getting them to click a link - it's for working together with another human being in real time. That is social. It's social presence, it triggers emotions like gratitude (reverence for something given: service, item, or otherwise), and it fosters a positive, goal-oriented community. The optimal strategy is to work together. There are so many other ways Glitch lets you play together: projects (everyone working together + contributing items and unique skills), parties (buy them from vendors and everyone can add money to the time the party room is available), and house-sharing (let other people have keys to your house, so they can help harvest resources + leave presents). But I think you get the gist.


Few games pull off Free To Play models without tainting the experience. Glitch does. Here's how: 1) I never feel pressured to pay. I can play as long as I want, do as much as I want, without ever running into a pay wall. Nothing in the game is restricted based on my wallet. I'm not bombarded with pop-ups or pay prompts. It's never shoved in my face, never injected into my experience, never a hassle, pressure, or inconvenience. 2) I'm not out done by people who do pay. In a lot of F2P games, paying gives you inordinate advantages over others. To be on the top, you have to pay. Not so in Glitch. Remember how I mentioned no competition? 3) I pay to express myself. What I can buy in Glitch is clothing, supplies, and community votes, not fundamental changes to the game that let me feel like I'm cheating (though that can be fun sometimes!) and not features that fix things inherently broken in the game design (I see this way too often). 4) I can pay how I want. If I just want to have a constant boost, I can subscribe. If there's that one item that I really really want, I can just buy just that item. With more ways to pay, more people are going to monetize.


Agency is someone's capacity to effect intentional change: their ability to make meaningful choices and uniquely express themselves. In Glitch, the entire game is about figuring out what you want to imagine. I happen to enjoy meditation, so I learned all of the meditation skills. Then I realized I wanted a house, so I figured out how to get a housing permit, then how to raise money to purchase a house, then location scouted, and so on. Glitch doesn't tell you what to do, but it gives you a clear if challenging path to do whatever you choose. Don't know what you want to do? There are always quests to fall back on, and failing that, every object in the world has multiple interactions - I've probably only witnessed a fraction in my time.


Part of all artistic media is to help us better understand ourselves. In games, we get to test out different actions, realities, personalities, identities, and moralities. In Glitch, not only do you have avatar, house, tower, yard, and butler customization (aesthetic expression), but you can specialize in different skills, collect different items, worship your preferred deity . You can choose to be someone who takes pictures or posts auctions or throws parties or plays minigames (mechanic expression).
There are several currencies in Glitch: mood, energy, currants, and imagination. You get Imagination (iMG) for doing virtually anything in the game. Whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, Glitch rewards you just for being active in the world. It is the most flexible and all-encompassing system I've encountered, and I think it's brilliant. It makes whatever you want to do the thing you should do. There is no right path. The best thing you can do in Glitch is be who you want and do what you want.


I feel when I play Glitch, and feeling is awesome. The dialogue and writing are hilarious. The scenario (living in the collective imaginations of 11 giants) is bizarre and wonderful. The quests are sometimes silly, sometimes thoughtful, and sometimes I don't know how to feel, which is sort of a cool feeling too. Getting a new achievement makes me feel accomplished (their achievements range from quirkily mundane to so difficult less than a dozen people have them), discovering a new street makes me feel curious and proud and masterful. You don't get that range of feelings in most games. You don't get the subtler emotions (contentment, meditative focus, relief, calm), and you don't get the variety (kill! explore! kill!). Make your game evocative. Practice affective design.


Yesterday there was a new miniature experience to explore in Glitch, called a Summer Day.
The game left it open to interpretation, inviting you to find your own meaning in walking through the whitewashed world, touching floating sprites and landing on visible (and invisible) platforms. It was pointless. But that's what made it brilliant. Here, take this, discover what you will, feel what it makes you feel. Summer Day was a built-in pause, a few moments of reflection, a delightful dose of novelty mixed with the deep appreciation that comes with one-off opportunities. I can't go back there. I did it, saw it, felt it, experienced it, and now it's over. Not everything needs a point or explicit purpose.


Glitch is always evolving and changing. From their infamous un-launch to features that blow in and out of style, there are always tests going on and the team invites you to participate and respects whatever time you invest. You can tell the product is alive and loved, and that encourages all the more investment and goodwill.


Glitch is different. Glitch has resisted all the detrimental shortcuts, the spam, the pop-ups, the pay prompts, the pressure to make things easier, simpler, and more like what's "been proven". It has features that exist simply to elicit joy, wonder, and curiosity. Despite being a game designer, there are very few games I play for more than a few hours. There has never been a social game that I played for fun. Glitch is a social game that I've enjoyed for a year and a half, and counting. I have 8000 bottles of butterfly milk. They're doing it right.

Broken Systems: VC Investment & Data

Let's pretend this is your company
Yesterday I referred to VC's as soulless. Better phrasing would have been: VCs act in accordance with a set of priorities that reduces other people's humanity. This is what sexism does, it's what racism does. It's not a good thing. When VCs look at a venture, they want to see numbers - growth trajectories, monetization, ROI. They condense every person at the company and all the nuance of values, goals, and purpose into the exact same box as every other company. We are made identical. Our unique texture is disregarded.
This is your company trying to satisfy VCs
The issue with looking exclusively at those numbers is that to get funding, companies focus exclusively on those numbers - this is the nature of prioritization. And then suddenly it's not just the company's texture that's obliterated - it's the product's too. And here is what's most problematic. When a product's success is defined only by its numbers, its systems and mechanics are optimized to increase numbers. Not better people's lives. Not solve problems. Not exist for 100 years. Increase numbers. That means your users become just clicking wallets or convenient billboards… and at that point, well, you've gone and dehumanized your entire player base. People get grouped into cliche target demographics, and optimizing those means catering to lowest common denominator likes and dislikes. Layer after layer after layer of complexity, depth, and humanity is scraped away, until you have a silicon mold product designed for silicon mold clickers to appease silicon valley VCs to whom money isn't a means to an end - it is the end.
This is your company after VCs
The current investment system, through my eyes, incentivizes creating generic, dehumanizing products at the expense of company culture and values, product innovation and human benefit, and in the end, the perception of people as complex individuals. And when the entirety of the internet treats us like nothing more than mindless click machines - well… how do you think we're going to behave?

Fixing It

Systemic issues are notoriously hard to fix, but data seems like a good place to start.

Question Our Success Metrics

Right now, these are the most common success metrics I see:
  • Traffic (Daily Active Users) - This is pure 'how many people play the game' - it encourages flamboyant advertising and extreme spam. It's so short-sighted that most products I know who optimize it turn into mangled, multi-limbed, pop-up plagued monsters.
  • Engagement (DAU/MAU) - This isn't measuring whether or not a product is good (ethically, I'm defining good as "life-enhancing"). This is measuring whether it's addictive. Whether you can train people to keep coming back to it. Optimizing this encourages products that players become dependent on. That's kind of how abusive relationships work.
  • Retention (Of players who played on a given day, how many showed up: the next day, a week later, a month later [D2, D7, D30 retention, respectively]) - This can foster the same thing as engagement, but what I appreciate is D30. Most games are designed for quick hit/steep spike curves. Simply acknowledging that you want a game to last at least 30 days is a big step up for a lot of companies. It also encourages a long view - less local maxima and more finding a coherent picture of what players want.
  • Monetization (ARPU) - Unfortunately, optimizing ARPU means switching monetization tactics. Companies used to just charge players one time for the full and complete experience. Now players get a small fraction for free and are constantly nickeled and dimed every step of the way. Not the best experience.
  • NPS (Net promoter score: likelihood that a user will recommend product to others) - I actually think NPS is brilliant. NPS measures a product's relevance and impact on a player. People don't recommend bad experiences. They recommend useful, fun, engaging, and exciting experiences. Measuring NPS is what's difficult, and is what's kept it from being a staple.

Creating New Data

The onus is on companies to start measuring more than just quantity. Getting qualitative data normally means surveys, focus groups, user studies. The data is complex, and can take weeks to aggregate and decipher. That's why we need to start finding new ways of measuring how experiences affect people. Why couldn't JOY or REVELATION be metrics? Learning? Compassion? (Financial Security? Marriage Health?) Until we start creating those metrics, we're never going to design for them, try to improve them. Until we start measuring what makes a good experience - we're just going to be creating spammy, addictive, abusive ones. Numbers aren't irrelevant or evil. They're vital, and we need to be more responsible with them.

Gameful Design

X-posted from the SuperBetter Blog Two years ago I attended a conference on the emerging field of gamification - or adding game elements to services and applications. Just by giving people a bit of reward, you could incentivize any behavior you wanted -- navigating to another page, leaving a comment, learning multiplication. Others celebrated this silver bullet, but I, as a game designer, wasn't so enthusiastic. The medium I'd dedicated my life to was reduced to basic behavioral response to stimulus, to operant conditioning, to dolphin training. Click. Cookie. Repeat. These gamification experts extolled all the superficial, short-term psychological hooks from games and none of the meaningful, metaphysical joy and satisfaction produced from playing. They forgot that players are people. As we designed SuperBetter, we wanted to prove that games are more than just dopamine injections, that players are more than chemical machines.
SuperBetter offers an alternative to gamification. Instead of taking the psychological hooks and operant conditioning from games, we use their deeply satisfying properties - things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback - to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning. We call this a gameful approach to design.
So, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few key differences in how we approach design. Of course, not everyone who calls themselves a gamification company hits all of these points, but too many do. We can do better.



Makes you do what companies want you to do


Helps you do what YOU want to do


You play games because it's what you want to do. No one is telling you to play, no one is giving you money to play, no one is holding a gun to your head making you play. You're intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you take pleasure in the activity itself. If you don't want to do something, no amount of awards, badges, leaderboards, or points is going to make you do it - not long term, not sustainably.



Relies on operant conditioning (reward, punishment)


Harnesses the good of games (feedback, agency, emotion)


You don't actually play games for points or badges-- those are just progress indicators that help you contextualize your improvements/skill (which is exciting). People love games because they are in control and can affect the world (this is called agency), because they can make meaningful choices and interesting decisions. They play because games are delightful, challenging, and filled with clear goals. Operant conditioning ignores all of those things, and tries to motivate using our most basic human instincts instead of the complex depth that makes us human.


SuperBetter's core elements -- quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies -- help people feel more in control of their lives and capable of changing them (this is agency). Instead of setting goals for you, we let you choose goals that challenge you, and we make sure you're creating a toolbox of ways to spark positive emotions in your life while identifying and gaining control over those things that hold you back.



Added to an existing platform, curriculum, or service


Integrated into design from the ground up


All games teach. All play and all fun is learning. If the entirety of a system is "Leave Comment, Get Badge" people will learn that very quickly, and once a system is learned, it loses its charm, its fun, its pleasure. Tack on something like badges or leaderboards, and after an initial engagement spike, the system suddenly becomes a transparently irrelevant annoyance - or worse, an unavoidable reason to leave the site/service altogether.



Uses extrinsic rewards


Uses intrinsic rewards


Rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Here's a true story about extrinsic rewards: A child with a love for music starts playing the piano. Her mother, wanting to encourage her interest, begins rewarding her every time she plays. When the mother stops rewarding, the child stops playing, her initial curiosity and intrinsic desire to play diminished by the reward system. Lasting behavior change comes from within. Giving someone cash to do something taints the nature of whatever they do. Even if it's something they wanted to do, getting a reward for it decreases intrinsic motivation, and actually makes people less likely to perform the behavior without reward. The moment you give someone a reward, you're decreasing the likelihood of lasting, sustainable change for them.


Intrinsic reward is a fine line and hugely nuanced. In SuperBetter, when players report actions, we increase their Resilience score. But Resilience isn't a made up thing - it's not just magical, virtual "points" - it's a reflection of a very real, validated principle of psychology. You're rewarded by seeing your progress in an immediate, tangible way, but not by the points themselves. SuperBetter also lets you track changes to your well-being, so over time seeing the difference is its own reward. Most importantly, players are rewarded because as they do these actions, they really do start to feel better and reach their goals.



Limited meaning/social context


Meaningful/customized awards


But wait - didn't I just say rewards can be bad? There's a difference between celebrating accomplishment ("award") and incentivizing actions ("reward"). This is about the former! Getting an award is a great feeling - when you've worked for it. When it feels relevant and special to you. When it represents success at something appropriately challenging. There's nothing wrong about celebrating accomplishment; it feels great to be recognized for what you've done, as long as what you've done is actually something worthwhile. If you go to certain sites you'll find yourself with random badges for seemingly no reason at all, after just clicking through a few pages (and of course, you have to sign up to keep them). Is that satisfying? (No.)


While we do have a few automatically awarded achievements in SuperBetter, we found the best way to make awards meaningful was to ensure it wasn't a machine giving them to you. Allies have the option to give achievements to their heroes: to create a title and customize the icon and provide a reason/description for the award. When players get awards from friends, it means something unique to them, their relationship, and their actions. It matters.



Tokenizes social relationships


Creates & strengthens social relationships


In many social games and social services, gates are put onto mechanics that force you to be viral and connect with other players before you're allowed to continue (for example, you need 3 friends to expand your land in FarmVille). This is tokenizing - or only considering how many connections you have, and not the type, depth, duration, or any number of other facets that make each human relationship unique. Almost every social network game is like this. Even Twitter is like this. Tokenizing is not actually social. For something to be truly social, the experience of playing has to be different depending on who I'm playing with. Mechanically, social means other people impact the game meaningfully; they're making interesting decisions and expressive choices too, and my game is unique because of their unique contribution to it. Again, this comes down to remembering that people are people and not numbers in a DAU or CTR graph or mindless click-machines.


When you invite allies to join you, we ask you to give them a mission - something unique that you need and would be grateful for and something specifically suited to that person's talents. We also ask that you check in - that is, have a heart to heart or face to face conversation with them - at least once every two weeks. These aren't just numbers helping you towards some other purpose; the strength of your relationships matters and has a real and measurable effect on your well being. Each friend is a unique ally.



Requires little to no skill


Trains up skills of players' choosing


This is closely linked to learning a system - when developing skills is seen as learning and mastery can be either knowledge-based or skill-based. Most services that employ gamification aren't challenging or fun to do. They require no skill. In the tired example of frequent flyer miles, for instance: is it fun to click on a flight scheduler? It is challenging to pick Virgin over Delta? No, of course not. And believe it or not, we love a good challenge - 80% of the time we're playing, we're failing. And we love it! We like failing, struggling, and utilizing our skills to succeed. We play games because they challenge us. And when they don't? We just stop caring altogether.


In SuperBetter, YOU choose how you want to improve, and the whole game is about getting stronger. Power Packs are custom tailored to challenges, and focus on different skills across the board: social, physical, emotional, mental. Not challenging enough? Add another Power Pack. Overwhelmed? Take a break, or just do a single move (3 quests, 1 battle, 3 power-ups) a day.



Promote sharing indiscriminately, constantly, to everyone


Promote sharing meaningfully, at major moments, to whom it matters


Gamers are great at tuning out irrelevant information, and if they're constantly spammed with the same canned messages, they're not going to get engaged. Novelty is a huge component of engagement (it's something new to figure out, to learn, to master) and unique content adds value. As much as you can, let players add their own messages, and prompt virality when it matters: when the player has accomplished something difficult, when they've expressed something unique, when they've really made a difference. And don't blast it to everyone if it doesn't apply to them: send it to the people to whom it matters most.


Phew! Long post! Those were just a few examples, but I hope they helped clarify the difference between what most people call gamification and what we consider the "right" way to borrow from games (gameful design). Looking over the list, here are the three key bullets I'd pull out next time you go out and try to design a great experience:
  • Keep it intrinsic
  • Players are people
  • Agency, agency, agency
Now go make it gameful :)

Wait what?

One vital thing to designing great games: Don't forget to get away from the project. There are amazing experiences outside - new scents and sights, colors, sensations, styles, spaces, perspectives, people. There are opportunities and possibilities you can't imagine until they happen. We live inside the most complex procedural generator in the universe. There's raw inspiration all around you, right beyond the doorway. If you want other people to feel, feel yourself. Expose yourself to a breadth and depth of emotion. Create vibrant memories you can call on in your design. I spent the weekend offline, consumed by feelings I could spend the rest of my life trying to capture in a game. Up and down, better or worse, depression and euphoria. This is your one life. Live it.

Project Aurora – Prioritizing Development

This is the third post in a weekly series on the progress of my latest indie endeavor: Project Aurora. The other two are on Creating a Concept and Making Design Decisions.

Why Prioritization Matters

We will never be able to create exactly the game we hope to make. We will never be able to add everything we want, to iterate as much as we should, or to polish to the extent the game deserves. Life happens. That's why we prioritize. Prioritization is incarnating your core to the best extent possible within the constraints of your environment - be they time, money, tools, people, or sanity. To me, this is the very heart of what makes an indie game an indie game. A product manager would have a very different definition of prioritization, focused on optimizing revenue, engagement, daily active users, marketability, or any number of business related goals over realizing the game's core. Regardless of company size or financing, for me an indie game is one whose creators champion the play experience over (but rarely to the exclusion of) other influences.

Production vs Design

Most schools of thought advocate having the producer and designer be VERY different roles played by VERY different people. A producer is someone who fights for the deadlines, who says 'no', and who protects the product against feature creep and randomization. A designer is someone who fights for the game's integrity, who says 'please', and who protects the user experience against quick fixes and low hanging fruit. Prioritization is the result of their constant battle. I like playing both roles. It forces me to deeply understand the impact each feature is going to have on user experience and the relationships between those features. It forces me to think on my feet when delays pop up, and be able to point and say, THIS feature is the most important of the three on your plate - do that one; that second one sets the foundation for five other features, but their impact will be virtually null if we lose this moment at the beginning. Be a responsible designer. Know the impact your decisions will have on workload and deadlines. Learn to prioritize. As Stephen King says, kill your darlings. So what does this actually look like? This is another process-that-happens-largely-unconsciously, but here's an attempt to get it down:

Figure out your influences

This step sets the stage, defining the space you have to work and what you plan on doing there. Influence is just a broad term for anything affecting your priorities:
  • Things you want to accomplish with your game (Goals)
  • Things that hold your game back (Constraints)
Here's a list of some of my major influences, and their order of importance.
  1. December 10th Deadline - This is the GDIAC showcase for my awesome Cornell team. If the game isn't done by then, they don't pass.
  2. Affective Design - The core of the game. Making people feel curiosity, wonder, solace, and smallness.
  3. Team's Technical Capacity - We've got two MEngs, one of which knows Xcode, and two undergrads. There's going to be a steep learning curve.
  4. Usability/General HCI - This is an umbrella for several goals: no text, quick to complete, holistic aesthetics (audio, visuals, narrative, gameplay all mesh together)
  5. iPad's Processing Power - As much as I want this to be beautiful, there are only so many particles or simulations the iPad can handle at a time.

Figure out your features

You've got to be prioritizing something, right? If you've already got a concept doc, you're set. If not, starting from the shiny ideal game in your head, mind the goals and constraints and come up with a reasonable feature set. Here's a few groups of features from Project Aurora:
  • Interactions: Walking, Swimming, Calling, Activating, Collecting
  • Usability: Tutorial, Touch feedback
  • Aesthetics: Aurora Borealis, Flocking Shards, Light rays, Binaural score, Dynamic shard sounds, Audio filters unique to location, Mountain top moment

Figure out your feature impact

This is my baseline for prioritization. How much is this feature going to impact the user experience? I usually average effect and frequency with some fudging. Frequency is how often the user engages with the feature, and effect is how much the presence (or absence) would affect them.
Walking Very HighMediumVery High
Swimming HighVery HighVery High
ActivatingMediumVery HighHigh
CollectingMediumVery HighHigh
TutorialLowVery HighMedium
Touch feedbackMediumHighHigh
Aurora BorealisVery LowVery HighMedium
Flocking ShardsVery HighMediumMedium
Light raysLowVery HighMedium
Binaural scoreLowMediumMedium
Dynamic shard soundsMediumMediumMedium
Audio filters unique to locationMediumLowLow
Mountain top momentOnceExtremely HighVery High
NOTE: This is a rigid structure, and I tend not to think quite so concretely. For instance, even if I have several low impact (but very cool) features, I will try to highly prioritize at least one. To me, those tiny details speak volumes about our craft. While not everyone will notice those additions, their absence, I strongly believe, is always felt.

Figure out the effort required

In college, this was called the "Awesomefort" score, and I've stuck with it since. If we think of Impact as "Awesomeness" and dev requirements as "Effort", it's pretty self explanatory (and superior to the "Effsome" score, which got us some funny looks). This doesn't normally change my priorities, but occasionally you'll be able to nix a low impact/high effort feature, or realize that you can do five low impact features for the price of one medium.
Walking Very HighLowP1
Swimming Very HighMediumP1
Touch feedbackHighLowP1
Aurora BorealisMediumHighP3
Flocking ShardsMediumMediumP3
Light raysMediumMediumP3
Binaural scoreMediumMediumP3
Dynamic shard soundsMediumMediumP3
Audio filters unique to locationLowHighP4
Mountain top momentVery HighMediumP1

Figure out your feature dependencies

In the sample list, I only had room for "walking" - but this is actually the root feature of several others: running, idling, trudging, and stopping. None of the latter features can exist without walking, so I know walking has to be prioritized first. Revise your list with dependencies in mind.

Work with your deadlines

Deadlines, for the most part, shouldn't matter. If you know your priorities, then you know what needs to be done in what order, and it's just a matter of figuring out how much of your process you can get through by what date. There might be some instances where you'd rather have features Y and Z complete for a beta and leave higher priority X until it can be fully functional and polished for a later milestone. I tend to think of that more as "temporary reprioritization" though - and stay away from it when possible. That's the first step down the long and troubled path of randomizing your devs.

Adjust for the bumps

If we suddenly realize that our walking algorithm causes the game to lag to 4 fps, we have a problem. Is it more worthwhile to spend three weeks fixing it, or nix walking altogether in favor of having a swimming only game? What about two weeks? One? As a designer, you get to draw the line.

Phew! TL;DR

TL;DR - Here's all the factors I consider when prioritizing features:
  1. Project Goals: What features best accomplish the goals?
  2. Project Constraints: What features are realistic given the time, money, people, tools, and sanity we have.
  3. UX Impact: How much will feature's presence or absence affect the user.
  4. Dev Cost: How much effort is it going to take to implement?
  5. Dependencies: What features does this unlock? Or what are its prerequisites?
  6. Deadlines: Should we put off this big feature in favor of having something more stable for a milestone?


Much love to everyone who's encouraged me to keep this up. Next week is going to be on project management. Stay tuned!

Project Aurora – Making Design Decisions

This is the second post in a scarily-open series on the development of my latest indie endeavor: Project Aurora. The first one, on creating a concept, is here.

What constitutes a design decision?

All of game design is making decisions - about implementation, priority, advice to take, playtests to do, where to stop, how to end. The vast majority of these decisions are tiny enough, or broad enough, to address with a few seconds thought, or intuition. Scary word, so let me clarify: Intuition is an informed gut reaction. It's not magic. It's not an excuse to hole yourself up and never look beyond your bubble. And by all means it is not justification to do whatever you want, however you want to, because you want to. Intuition is the rapid-cognition sum of all that you've experienced and learned, and the best designers are going to be constantly learning, constantly playing, constantly adding to that internalized machinery that automatically weighs and values choices. Great designers can all but instantaneously throw their imagination into the possibility space, seeking the optimal experience like electrons searching out a grounding wire. It's a good place to start, but please, please don't misinterpret this as me endorsing design without intention. It is anything but. For me, a design decision is a place where intuition forks into two or more viable options, or where a choice already made is confronted by playtest results, or confused looks from team members, or another dev who says 'but did you think of...' Design decisions come down to the experience. Here's one example of a design decision made over the past week for Project Aurora, and how we made it.

Movement Controls - The Choices

When thinking about controls I was lucky to have two very different and very effective examples to draw from.
  • Tap & Go (Sword & Sworcery) - In Sword & Sworcery players tap a location on screen and the avatar walks there along preset paths. If players hold a place on screen the avatar walks in that direction.
  • Swipe for Velocity (Mirror's Edge for iPad) - In Mirror's Edge, a swipe anywhere on screen to the left or right sends Faith running in that direction. Swipe up makes Faith jump, swipe down makes Faith slide. While there are several contextual variants, directional swiping is the entire input spectrum.

Movement Controls - The Process

Ultimately every decision comes down to What best upholds the core of the game?. If you didn't check out last week's post, the core for Project Aurora is a set of emotions: Curiosity, Wonder, Solace, and Smallness. It's important to note that I do 'affective design' - design to elicit specific emotional experiences. Your core probably isn't a set of emotions (but maybe it should be). The Good S&S: Waiting for the avatar to traverse its path created significant down time - time to reflect & listen, to appreciate the stunning artistic detail, to notice fairies in the forest. This would give players opportunity to cultivate the emotions I wanted (especially wonder), making sure they were feeling and not just flowing. ME: Having precision control of Faith allowed for skill mastery, heightened agency, and closed the gap between player and avatar. The fluidity of constant movement echoed the spirit-nature of the polar bear: a windblown entity gliding across the arctic. Curiosity also correlates with agency - I'm more likely to investigate if I feel like I'll have an effect. The Bad S&S: Wait time could quickly shift from interesting to agonizing, and having pre-written paths is unexpected programming overhead. ME: Overall controls were less intuitive and could get frustrating quickly in a small space trying to perform a rapid series of moves. Players should live in the world, not feel burdened by controls.

Movement Controls - The Decision

When you have two good options, take the best of both. I desperately wanted to control jumping. It made the mental difference between "I am this character" and "I am ordering this character to do things". I also wanted the enchanting 'watch-the-world' feel you get in S&S as your character strolls across the screen. So here's what we wound up with: On Land/Surface of Water
  • Swipe left or right to start moving in that direction
  • Swipe up to jump
  • Swipe down to dive (only on water surface)
Under Water
  • Hold finger + bear will swim towards it
And here's how it affected our core: Curiosity - I can go anywhere in the world my body can take me; I'm not restricted to paths, and more likely to try and get to new places. Wonder - I can dive to the depths of the ocean, around the tails of icebergs, and fully digest the scope of the world on my own terms. Solace - Negligible. Smallness - Negligible.


TL;DR - Here's how I make a design decision.
  1. Figure out the options. Give a nod to your intuition. Think about feasibility, gameplay benefits, the emotional experience, and harmony with existing elements. Only go past this point if you have more than one really good option.
  2. Champion your game's core. How does each choice contribute to your core, for better and for worse? Be honest. Live for the edge cases. Ask your programmers. Make a benefits/detriments list if you need to.
  3. Consider compromise. If you have great options, is it possible to utilize elements from both/many?
  4. Make the decision. Come on, we have milestones to hit!


The team is hard at work getting our repository set up, entering our tickets & user stories, and constructing our paper prototype. Look for an update next week with more pictures, docs, and maybe a silly video. Update! The next post in this series is Prioritizing Development.

Project Aurora – Creating the Concept

If you're like me, you love seeing how other people design. Here's the process - and the docs - from the first stages of development on my latest indie endeavor: Project Aurora.

The Spark

The idea for Project Aurora came up accidentally, the result of experimental concepting for Project Babies. Armed with a rainbow glitter texture and some semi-transparent white hills, I was in the middle of making background sprites when I had one of those awesome perceptual shifts. It wasn't happy rainbow hills - it was the aurora borealis amongst the stars, casting bright spectrums on the snow. I doodled a polar bear on it, and it stuck. At that point, it was an aesthetic - there were no mechanics, nothing beyond the look, but I loved it. The entire game was this picture:

The Core

One of the rare times I literally "dreamt this up". In the dream I was actually a seal, swimming in arctic water black as void. I couldn't go on land - but that restriction made the water feel safe, like home. I found specks of the Aurora Borealis that had fallen from the sky and called out to them to wake up, wake up! When they were glowing again, I shepherded them together, guiding them through the waters. I woke up with a vivid emotional imprint, and a head start on the mechanics. At this point, the idea was still in "bright light" stage: it was vivid and pulsing with potential, but if I looked right at it with a critical eye I'd wind up blind and stumbling until I extinguished it. Instead I felt it out tangentially, mentally testing moments instead of mechanics, building the integrity of the experience up slowly in my head so that when it came to details I'd have a foundation to stand on instead of losing it to doubt and the slippery slope towards 'generic'. I picked these out as the four main emotions (and in roughly this order) I wanted to evoke:
  • Curiosity – what is this world? Drive to explore.
  • Wonder – the stars are flickering, the water lapping.
  • Solace – I am alone. The world is dying.
  • Smallness – I am a tiny piece of a cosmic world.
They would form the core of the game.

The Feel

I had enough of a start that I wanted to get this thing made, and the awesome Kim Koskamp and I were overdue for a project together. I wrote up an official pitch doc, set the milestones, and we decided to make it happen. The first time I'd mentioned the project to her, it was still in its rainbow bubble gum art aesthetic, so her initial character concepts reflect that feel: At first we weren't even sure we wanted a polar bear. Here we switched away from the bear cub aesthetic into something more of a 'spirit' character - older, wizened, and with inspiration taken from the smooth curves and minimalism of Inuit carvings. We also snagged some help from wildlife artist Amber Hill to help make sure we had all the major anatomy points down. And after several more iterations, settled on this:

The Mechanics

Oh, right, mechanics... We had a feel we liked, a character, an idea, and a set of emotions we wanted to evoke. We knew it had something to do with collecting pieces of the aurora, but how exactly? No idea. Necessity is the mother of invention. When our intended programmer went MIA, I connected with GDIAC - the Game Design Initiative @ Cornell - and sent around an updated pitch looking for AS3 or iOS devs. I was lucky enough to get an interested team of 4. ((You'll note that I dedicated an entire page to 'important aesthetics that will require dev work' -- when the core is feeling and emotion, aesthetics play a huge role)). That meant I actually needed to know how you play this game. I broke the mechanics into the rough sections I wanted:
  • (Explore World)
  • Find Shard
  • Activate Shard
  • Collect Shard
  • (Restore Borealis)
Bouncing ideas with Kim, we knew we wanted something sound-related. Since the team was iOS, I started thinking touch screen, and sound/touch mechanics. I was drawn to the old wine glass trick - circling a damp finger on the rim to generate a tone. But that wasn't fun enough alone, so I added a melody-recall challenge mixed with connect-the-dots. What does that even mean? Good question. I’ve found the best way to unfuzzy an idea is to get it on paper – which brings us to the storyboards.

The Storyboards

I like to start my storyboards with..er.. story. If I can convey the story of a game in a paragraph, then I should be able to illustrate/storyboard each sentence and get a basic walkthrough. Right? Right. So here's the story:
The light has fallen out of the sky, into the snowy desert of arctic dunes and deep blue dark of oceans. ((setting, conflict)) * You are the eternal guardian, the tireless wanderer, the only living thing in the wasteland. ((character, mood)) * Seek the scattered remnants of the broken borealis, calling into the wind and waiting for echoes. ((purpose, mechanic1)) * The shards have forgotten their power and purpose; awaken them, resonate with them. ((mechanic2)) * Song ignites the shards of shattered aspiration, each unlocked by a melancholic melody. ((mechanic3)) * … [spoiler] ((conclusion/message)) [Image available in concept doc] *
Which brings us to the final concept doc, where we stand now. Up next on the agenda is working out user stories, getting a 30 second "feel loop" of audio for the project, and creating a paper prototype.


My process is a little different every time - and sometimes wildly - but hopefully you got a kick out of your adventure in my brain space, and stay tuned for more.
Update! The next in this series is Making Design Decisions, followed by Prioritizing Development.

How We Reached The End

During the 2011 Global Game Jam, Michael Molinari and I managed to create The End of Us. He arrived 2.5 hours late to the jam, I was running the jam, both of us slept both nights, and yet we made it to the finish line with a fully fleshed and fun little experience.
People asked how we pulled it off. Besides "Magic", one fact is pretty telling of our process:

the first line of code was not written until after midnight

Let's put that in perspective. We only had 43 hours to create a game, between 7pm Friday (code start) and 2pm Sunday (code submit). We slept (underneath desks on yoga mats) for seven hours the first day and five the second, which brought us down to 31 hours. Of those, a sixth was spent not actually creating anything.
What were we doing until midnight? Besides trying to reset the router every 10-15 minutes, we mostly just talked. Half of it wasn't even traditional brainstorming so much as, "there was this time when..." when I thought, when I felt, when I was. What did we want people to think? To feel? What were we trying to say? What did extinction actually mean? Was it even possible to comprehend?
As humans, and gamers on top of that, we're all motivated by giant countdown clocks. The moment we get a time limit, especially a 48 hour one, we feel the need to rush, create, work, NOW. I've heard playtesting emphasized over and over again - just get something you can play and go from there. Iterate, iterate, iterate. And sometimes in that wild rush to churn code we forget to think, to talk, to design with intent.
There are innumerable accolades about developers stumbling upon brilliant design and mechanics purely by accident, by bugs in code, by tweaking the wrong variable. For creations whose merit lies predominantly in their functionality - the mechanics, the system, the interactivity - experimenting and iterating is a brilliant, proven way to go.
For creations whose merit lies predominantly in their ability to evoke emotion, it can lead to mediocrity.
Had we let playtests dictate where our game should go, we might have trashed the idea straight out. Too boring. We might have added a high score, powerups, fast-paced pew pew action. We might have become like so many other games. Had we just put our first idea up as soon as we thought of it, we might have wound up with a sunset simulator or overzealous ambitions for an RTS.
But because we thought through several ideas and, quite frankly, allowed our game to just suck until a few hours (minutes!) before the deadline, we made it to the design we'd had in mind from the start, complete with the fine tuning and polish, the aesthetics, that define the game and made a half dozen commenters allegedly tear up.
So how did we do it? We took it easy. We went slow. We spent five hours having ridiculous philosophical discussions on the cognitive capacity to comprehend annihilation. We slept. We kept it tiny. We were two people. We put huge emphasis on music. We designed with intent.
If you haven't, check it out, and tell us if we succeeded.

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