Also titled: “What I learned from FourSquare.”
A few years back when we started exploring new technology, one of the ideas that seemed to stick with me was around gaming. The processes that made something enjoyable seemed to be an essential, yet elusive ingredient in business software.
In truth, I felt there was something magical about games, even if I could not articulate it. For many people, games are an escape – a respite from the day to day. A chance, even for a moment to be someone, or something, they are not. Whatever the call, the reality is that millions of people choose to spend their precious free time paying to game. If you don’t believe it, you can look to the hundreds of millions of game consoles currently out there (DS, Wii, XBOX360, PS3, etc) or the recent online examples like Zynga and their 50 million daily active users playing casual games. Zynga is especially interesting since users actually pay for virtual goods. They amass hundreds of millions of dollars from people buying better (virtual) guns in MafiaWars or more productive (virtual) tractors in Farmville. Think about that. People pay real money for stuff like hairstyles for their avatars. If that doesn’t blow your mind you should exit at this point.
Still here? Cool. Now, let’s contrast this to work. Work is a place where employees provide a function for a certain amount of pay. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is the general model. I hire you to do a job. You agree to do that job in return for compensation. Repeat. Work is the OPPOSITE of a game. In fact, if you even hint at the idea of work having the potential to be a game (or at least gamelike in some small way) you are relegated to the padded corporate room never again allowed to send an email to your bosses boss without your bosses careful review. No promotion for you!
One of the problems here is a genuine lack of respect. It is hard to take people’s ideas seriously when you don’t respect them. If we don’t appreciate games for the amazing things they do, we will never pay attention long enough to actually learn. As software developers and product managers of “valuable” software we could use a bit of humility, and perhaps games can be a great source of inspiration.
Games are the highest form of application development. They have tackled extremely challenging problems that would cause most software developers to wake up in a sweaty mess. Take Halo as an example (a game several years old). Incredible graphics…sure. Real time interaction…got it. Physics modeling for gravity, destructive environments… done. How about connecting people from across the world, as if they are in the same room, fighting an alien race, in real time, while talking on headsets to each other…why not?
And the web software world is abuzz with an ajax pop up menu?
Games are not trivial technology, but more interestingly, they are not trivial in how the do what they do. The magic is that they get you to return again and again to do things THEY want you to do while thinking it is what YOU want to do. Does this sound like it may be useful for work?
Indulge me in a walk down memory lane…Remember that old school tabletop/cocktail pacman from the local pizza place? Remember how much you wanted to get to the top of the high score list? Remember how you wanted to express your originality with a cool three letter handle? (Hey self-expression wasn’t so easy back then!) I always went with the boring “PDP”, but maybe if I made it to the top I’d have been emboldened to go with “ACE” or “XXX” or something else my 14 year old self would have found cool.
The point is that I pumped quarters into that thing for the street cred and lavish lifestyle that a high score would inevitably bring. But the rabbit hole is deeper. It’s not just about the leaderboard and the praise that would have most surely been showered upon you. It’s HOW you got there in the first place. You had to pick up dots, throw the javelin and hit the albatross, or get the second space fighter to drop to double your firepower. Every game had its own little tricks to up that score – unlocking secret levels, extra lives, and more. The game designer kept you exploring, learning, developing, growing, wanting. Not a moment was work.
I bring that up to express that there is in fact an art to game design. A balance between ease of use and depth. The interplay of challenge and frustration. I once read an article by a member of the Bungie development team (of Halo fame). He basically noted that all shooters have to get a single experience right. That moment when you happen upon a group of enemies and dispatch them with extreme prejudice. That simple act, repeated over and over, has to be fun. You can do a million other things, but that one thing must work, and work well. Said another way, if jumping barrels in Donkey Kong, no leader board would save it.
Back to the present day. If you have been following the location based services out there, you have no doubt heard of FourSquare. They are in the same game as earlier rivals such as Loopt, Google Lattitude, Dopplr, and FireEagle. All of these bring their own flavor to the concept of broadcasting your physical location, but Foursquare was the first that made me want to play. In fact, for years I have been bearish on location since I really didn’t want to publicize where I was at all times. Why did FourSquare work for me when the others did not? Foursquare is a game that happens to feature location.
Let’s look at a few examples of how FourSquare is a game:
1. Collecting: You get points for various actions like providing your location (ie. checking in), checking in multiple times at a venue and more. You can earn badges (eg. medals) as well. Examples include a local badge for checkins in a given area or you can become the mayor if you check in enough at a single given location.
2. Competitive: The game puts leaderboards in an easy to reach place. This gets you to strive for being the top point earner among your friends or your geographical area. What do points do for you? Nothing, just status. Prestige. I am not sure why you want em’, but trust me, you want em’.
3. Powers: Everyone starts with basic abilities like checking in, but you soon gain more capabilities depending on your “level”. So you can do things only the experienced can. Feeling special is cool. Ever wonder why they have that velvet rope and a line at empty nightclubs?
4. Shared: The game is not played alone (much). Solo games are OK, but the great games include others. How fun is reading Trivial Pursuit cards on your own. “YES! Nailed another Arts&Leisure – Sweet”. As an aside, what was the last “business” app you “played” with someone else? Bueller, Bueller?
5. Expressive: Foursqure allows users to co-create. You augment the reality. In FourSquare you can add venues or badges. You play a part in crafting the experience for other players. Truthfully, this is FourSquare getting the masses to do their work for them, but you don’t care cause you get to show off a bit and express your greatness. People like to brag. Who knew.
6. Purposeful: You don’t think about it, but games have a purpose. Save the princess. Eat the little dots. In FourSquare it is to check in. That is the goal above all else. They get you do do that over and over again, willingly.
7. Surprise: Every time you check in you may be the “mayor” of that location. You may also find someone you know there already. There is some exploration going on. The element of suprise and the search for the unknown keeps you coming back.
Of course this is not a complete list of game mechanics, but they were the most obvious ones I saw in FourSquare and I thought they were implemented well.
So let’s return to the world of business software for a moment. Hopefully I have convinced you that games are serious stuff and that we can learn a lot from them. The challenge is that it takes courage. I say courage because all product development is the application of resources to create a solution that you hope people will use and pay for. Given that perspective, you begin with a problem like “people can’t track billable hours” or they “need to manage accounting”,etc. People don’t start with “we need a game that can do accounting” – for obvious reasons.
That means that if you want to make a game you need to put the game first (like Foursquare did). It needs to be a first class citizen and in the end, FUN must be a design principle. If I was building a task management application I’d have to be asking “is it fun to add a task” as much as I’d consider things like categories, sorting, due dates, owners, and milestones. This is extremely tough. Adding gaming means something else does NOT make it. Resources, scope and time are a zero sum game. I’d have to ask myself, do I create yet another task management application with the “features customers are asking for”, or do I create something that will really inspire (a few). Do I accept the fact that most won’t like it or understand it?
Incremental is without risk and real innovation is definitely not for everyone. Snapping a leaderboard on your application is fake innovation for those who want credit from others. Real innovation means you must say no to a lot of things that everyone will tell you are a must have, but if you want inspiration it’s the only way. Find that core of what your application is. The one reason it lives (eg. adding a task, tracking time, sharing a file, whatever). Find it. Honor it. Strip away the noise. And then work like hell to make it FUN.
If you do that you will most surely be laughed at. You will almost definitely fail, but you will have pushed the needle of innovation a wee bit ahead.
Until next time.