Game Design 2011-2020

Innovation in games has shifted from content to business models. It’s as much about the experience as it’s about how you monetize the game, at least in the fastest-growing segment of the industry, online games. Club Penguin allows the players to earn coins to spend on virtual goods, except they can’t spend anything unless they’re a paying subscriber. Deteriorating virtual goods in GoSupermodel incites the users to be aware of the latest fashion premium virtual goods. Accellerating the experience by replacing tedious grind mechanics with a cash deposit saves busy gamers valuable time.

These are examples, but very crude ones. If you look to the literature of game design, you’ll find directions on mechanics, dynamics, theme, and balance. The frontier is how to couple these elements to capitalisation. The game designer of the future needs to understand how the fabric of design is interwoven with the fabric of business models.

This is, to me, the most brilliant convergence of professions. It has happened in other design industries through history – industrial design, architecture, fashion, even food – when the designer embraces the commercial reality and understands how to fold back insights from how people are ultimately going to pay for the added value of design.

The game designer of the next decade has commercial focus. Understanding the impact of different new and ingenious ways of monetizing gameplay onto the game design itself will be a critical skill.

The two questions the game designer needs to ask for most design decisions are:

1. How will my choice retain my customer?
2. How will my choice make my customer pay?

Finally game designers have the opportunity to capture the “dark side” by including business model directly into the game design itself, and to seize control – creative control – of the commercial aspect of games that has for so long rested with non-designers. The next decade is in the hands of the designer, not the marketer.

Posted: October 7th, 2010
Categories: Games
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A Message to Marketers

I used to hate the term “proactive”.

Then, a few weeks ago, I listened to a local radio programme discussion panel covering the Copenhagen Fashion Week boasting some of the industry’s top figures. The key message from the commercially oriented creatives was clear: You can’t in any way employ reactive marketing strategies in the fashion market. Finding a niche for silk scarfs and starting a design line to meet that niche just isn’t going to work. Fashion is about creating markets, about combining a perceived future need of the customer with the creative equity of your team.

That’s exactly the same challenge we face in games. We are creating the market. And for lack of a better word, that’s proactive.

Now fashion is somewhat older than games. So the challenge to game designers is to look to other sectors in the creative industry and learn. How do they predict fashion? How do they spread their bets? What are their release cycles? How do fashion artists acid test their creations? And how does their creative process relate to their business development.

Fashion is hit driven. So are games. That’s proactive business.

Posted: August 26th, 2010
Categories: Games
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Vision, Experience, Technology

Some games start with a vision. A fluffy set of ideas behind which lies a grand concept. The concept is what makes a difference, what ultimately adds value.

Some other games start with technology. Whether from the demo scene, from playful mocking about with animations, or from some intriguing way of coupling existing AI game design elements bottom up, the discoveries present a new palette from which entirely new games can be created.

I believe all games projects have strands of both. You may have seen both visionary Game Design Documents and Technical Design Documents. Or perhaps simply a conversation between a game designer and a programmer where they realize that they really have something potentially revolutionary on their hands. Art and Tech are the two ingredients that games are made of.

But I also believe most projects miss the central part that couples the two. That part is called the experience. It is the ingredient that almost all game design books try to push, as alchemists tried to push understanding of the elements. Understanding the experience in a formal and discrete way is necessary for creating a commercial game, and it is the place where the vision and the technology converge.

So I say to all you game visionaries: Learn to break down your vision in small-step experiences. Understand how to create a view of your overall concept in a way that can be explained as you would direct a movie or write a recipe. Boil it down! And in the process, make sure you can account for the experience to lift your audience from the level of interest to the level of intriguement, the level of enthusiasm, the level of flow…

And to all you game technology people: Restrain yourselves. Don’t do Big Up Front Design! Relax – and carry on one element at a time. Try not to interpret the vision of the game and build ivory castles of frameworks and engines. It’s more important that the player has fun than the computer has fun.

Posted: May 10th, 2010
Categories: Games
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Who, What, Why?

By now, every sensible producer or project manager should know that an agile approach to software development is superior to anything else we know unless the set of targets are absolutely fixed. From a production perspective, that’s what we have learned throughout the last 10 years. We have also learned that some of the more dogmatic approaches such as XP and RAD often impose artificial barriers to common sense. By and large, Scrum seems to prevail.

Surprisingly, though, in games development, the adoption of agile principles seems to encounter more barriers than in other sectors. Most often, I see Scrum implemented as a stand-up meeting every day, where team members basically report to the project manager what they’ve been up to, so he can update his gantt charts. The barriers are due to the usual factors such as fear, uncertainty, doubt, and ignorance – but we are also dealing with an existing methodology for games development that is usually poorly understood let alone defined.

Most of Scrum is directly applicable to games development – it’s simply common sense. But some pain is felt notably in two areas.

  • Games development carry the notion of “pipelines” that essentially produce distinct elements of the game based on disciplines – code, graphics, animations, sound, etc., and turning that machine into a team structure that focuses on single features of the game containing all of the disciplines is a major paradigm shift.
  • Game designers must leave behind the massive design documents and start producing requirements that feed into the feature team. That also is a major change of habits.

I could also mention that the producer role is usually poorly defined, and emphasizes the barriers because the ownership of change cannot easily be anchored in the organisation.

The right place to start is building a solid comprehension of how user stories work. User stories that can be read and understood by everybody on the team. User stories that explain, for each requirement, what role in the game we are addresing (the “who”), the experience itself (the “what”), and the reason for the requirement (the “why”). The who and the why elements are really just meta information (focus and value), but don’t leave such useful information out.

If we meet in a casual place somewhere and you tell me that you work with agile principles, I will ask you how you construct user stories, and how you make sure to balance them to all be approximately the same size. That is, of course, after I have asked you what your iteration velocity is.

Let’s not fool ourselves. If you say you have adopted an agile methodology but really haven’t, you are responsible for inducing a lot of risk into the project. Agile is supposed to expose weaknesses, not fix them. That’s still up to your leadership. But if you think you have a process that exposes waknesses, but in reality don’t, you might well better stay with your pipelines.

Posted: April 9th, 2010
Categories: Games
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Economists stole my dev conference!

This year’s game developers conference was chock-a-block with new ways of thinking about games – not only from a design perspective alone, but from how the experience is delivered across multiple channels, and how people can pay for the experience in completely new ways.

My first two days of the conference was with economists and attorneys. What’s up with that? It seems as if the entire games industry is maturing now, attracting the classic social sciences with basic knowledge of how markets work and how products are diversified. Even though it was a strange feeling being on a game developers conference not talking to designers and programmers, I sensed a new dawn in the way we understand commercial aspects in games – both from a design and a sales angle.

The challenge is to me twofold. We need to understand how to factor in basic economic theory into the game design early on, and we need to be specific about how we measure the performance of the games once launched in order to optimally configure and refresh them. We have a lot to learn from traditional retail sectors!

Posted: March 23rd, 2010
Categories: Games
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Need-driven games development

One of the things that keeps worrying me about creating great games is that we tend to create games that we like to play ourselves. While that may be a necessary condition for success, it isn’t a sufficient condition. The central question has to be what user needs we are optimizing our game designs to.

That question is absolutely critical in more mature design industries. Product development shifts between a research-oriented mode in which the user’s behaviour is studied and a set of core needs is defined; and a creative mode in which ideas are created to address those needs. You will find that everywhere in industrial design, in advertising, in most of the movie industry, and in the entertainment economy at large. We’re possibly just not mature enough in the games industry to really understand it.

I used to believe that well-defined processes was the answer to everything. I still believe that understanding your process is critical, but having the right tools is much more important. With regards to need-driven innovation in games, the tool set for understanding user needs is interesting because it revolves around experiences. Remember that experiences need to have some kind of novelty, otherwise your customers will have been there, and done that.  So the old mantra of being close to your customers – but not too close – applies.

Computer science has taught me to be precise about units of analysis, and this is what you need to be when researching user needs for games relative to your novel ideas. A good unit of analysis is testable, either in terms of market data or usability feedback. And it should be framed in terms of commercial performance and time.

Good inspiration flows from diffusion theory, which is a model of the way innovations are adopted throughout an organisation or into the world and, in the end, are overtaken by other innovations. Those diffusions, expressed as “s-curves”, are the units of analysis the experience economy, and chiefly games development, needs to nail.

Posted: March 2nd, 2010
Categories: Games
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To the core

The major challenge in the screening of games projects, and in the subsequent concept maturing of the gameplay, is to get from the notion of “we think this is a great game” to “we have evidence to support that customers will buy this product.” We have a formula for doing that at NOGAP which is really painful, but necessary. Painful, because we discover all sorts of unpleasant facts about the game in the process, and necessary because we need to kill some darlings along the way.

Fundamentally we always pit the product against the market. Digging a little deeper, it’s not difficult to frame the game in terms of its properties – that’s the words you would write on the back of the package, say a “2D platformer with realistic physics and 500 levels of increasing difficulty.” Similarly, it’s not difficult either to describe the audience, and this is usually done in terms of demographics, say “tweens” or “homemakers” or “boys between 12 and 32″.

But we need to get closer to the core. We need to understand the experience that we want to transcend into the players. This represents a shift of focus from the developer of the game to the user of the game. The experience is explained in terms of feelings and cognition and thee are the real defining qualities of your game.

We also need to get closer to the audience – demographics are not enough. It’s essential to know who they really are, what values they have, what opinions they carry, what other interests they have. In short, we want to understand our players’ behaviour and psychographic profile, because that is where the ultimate match between the user and the game takes place.

The exercise is enlightening. It’s an analytical process, but also one of questions. It takes us from being unaware of what we don’t know into being aware of what we don’t know – what some people call conscious incompetence. Armed with topical and precise questions, we can form hypotheses on the match between our game and its players that we can test. And that, then, is the basis of a business case for the game.

For the Danish readers, this small movie neatly paraphrases the process.

Posted: February 12th, 2010
Categories: Games
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The Importance of Experiments

I attended the Nordic Game Jam this weekend. Close to 300 people worked for about 40 hours day and night to produce around 50 games in Copenhagen in what was a convincing demonstration of what is possible if you put your mind to it. It never ceases to amaze me what is achievable in terms of creative power and collaborative strength when the setting, context, and atmosphere is just right.

The event clearly demonstrates that ideas are abundant. The 50 teams demonstrated that creating original and stimulating experiences is not that difficult. So the paradox is evident. As the games industry is screaming for original IP, and as we know from all the game jam events that creating it is not a problem, why don’t we see a lot more games finding their way to the market?

My answer is that there is a great distance between the established publishers and investors in the games industry on the one hand, and the developers with great new ideas on the other. There are very few doors on which to knock, presenting original concepts and getting the attention and collaboration they deserve.

This is why we set up NOGAP. Developers deserve a place where collaboration can take place to mature new game concepts into market propositions with real commercial potential. A place where game ideas can be shaped and pruned, development schedules be discussed, and marketing plans be laid in mutual respect and with common goals. This is also why we sponsored Nordic Game Jam. Besides being a fun, social event, it focuses the necessity of experimentation and provocation – virtues that are critical for inventing new products, but also activities that for many reasons are really hard for established companies to organize.

My advice is to take the creative and collaborative energy from the game jam into your work life, to provoke and experiment, and to knock on NOGAP’s door if you think you have something extraordinary in the brewing. And if you’re an employee of an organisation that legally owns your ideas – talk to your management about the possibility of spin-offs for the best of those ideas. Chances are that the oxygen level necessary for survival for those ideas inside the corporate settings is close to zero.

Posted: February 3rd, 2010
Categories: Games
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Gap? What Gap?

I’ve been asked a lot recently what “gap” I refer to when I’m banging on about my radical new business model. This is the most important one.

When I nosed around the Danish game industry two years ago, I was looking for causes to the symptoms that I saw. The symptoms were that good game ideas never got to make it into production, and a lot of those that did ran out of cash before reaching the market. I don’t know which scenario is saddest, but focusing on the first and asking “why” four or five times, you get to some of the root causes, and two stuck out. The first was that investors (other than the incumbent publishers whom I want to avoid) have little or no competency in games, and thus it’s pretty difficult to assess the risk, hence difficult to calculate the returns, and then the money goes to some other, more predictable, industry. The other was that developers tended to have a sort of romantic impression that the whole world would love their game as long as they loved it themselves. Those were the parties meeting up. A pretty impossible situation. So that’s the first gap I want to close: The gap between developers and investors, and the bricks and mortar of that solution is called co-creation. We take all the good things from both sides and build the games proposition together, framing and reframing the game design and the market need. The inspiration comes from open innovation thinking.

There are other gaps, such as suboptimal use of our best talents – and the missing management skills. You’ll get those stories, and more, in a later post.

Posted: January 27th, 2010
Categories: Games
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At NOGAP, we equate a game development project and a game development company. While there are a number of structural reasons for this, such as how the different stakeholders can split equity, IP ownership, and profits, it also means that the team that worked on the development project gets broken up when they are finished. So what’s up with that? Am I simply a serial killer of well-jelled teams? Isn’t this contrary to everything we have learned about the value of teams whose members intimately know each others’ strengths and weaknesses? All the investment that has been put into growing this team, thrown away?

It’s a good point. Companies are often valued on the basis of their technology, their customer base, and not least the “human capital” that constitutes the knowledge, the skills, and the abilities of the team. So why would we actively want to destroy it?

The answer is that the benefit of continuously reconfiguring teams is higher than the cost of breaking them up. The reason it’s difficult to see why is that the benefit works on a longer time scale than the cost. We need to reconfigure teams to be able to group think in new way and to approach challenges with new ideas. Even the best jelled team works in a certain pattern, which is fantastic for the project they’re on, but we want a different pattern in the next project. We actually want the team to go through the processes of forming, storming, and norming with each new game development challenge. We need death and rebirth. And the explanation is, of course, that it is unhealthy for a creative team to become stuck in its ways, to mistake their comfort zone for Flow. As organisational psychologist Fiona Patterson has pointed out: Change is the most significant motivator for innovation on an individual level.

So we’re constantly forming and growing teams. The benefit for each professional game developer, programmer, designer, engineer – is that he or she can pick the next project that appears most interesting rather than being “resource allocated” by someone. An extra benefit is that the best talent pretty quickly gets to work together across a few projects. I would like to see this model becoming a chronic condition of working with games – one that induces a healthy heartbeat into the mix of science and art that games development is all about.

We’re not really killing teams. You kill a team by mismanaging it, through things like bureaucracy, phony deadlines, fragmenting people’s time, and reducing quality. That hasn’t changed since Peopleware. But, as a Chinese proverb states, when the winds of change are blowing, some people build shelters while others put up windmills.

Posted: January 17th, 2010
Categories: Games
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