Ever since my success with Draw Something, I've done quite a bit of consulting with various startups in the NYC area. I found that my experience with game design was "in demand," but people's understanding of game design as a school of thought was both very lacking and very flawed. Some caveats I found:
- Most people I talked to saw game design as just adding competition and challenges. I consider this to be just one subset of game design, and definitely not the most rewarding or widely appealing subset at that.
- "Gamification" often meant just adding a superficial layer of gameplay on top of an existing experience. I consider this to be ineffective and often something that the end user will see through.
- Some people think that you can take an experience that is dull or not fun at all and somehow make it fun with gameplay elements. This is like trying to polish a turd. It doesn't make sense to build two experiences, or to try and obscure a dull experience with some elements that are supposed to be fun. Most likely the end result is just a more complicated experience that is still not fun.
- Lastly, one of the key foundations of gameplay is that the end user is playing to have fun, unwind, relax, escape, etc. They are not playing to complete a necessary task or perform some utility. Trying to shoehorn game design ideas onto a utility product is hard, and even dangerous. That is not to say that game design can't enhance a utility experience. I believe that game design can apply everywhere. But it bears mentioning that applying it requires some serious thought.
I consider game design to be extremely interesting. As a formal field it's very young. There are not many people that do it well, but I think that's partly due to the fact that it's hard to teach and not enough has been written on the subject. Still, I would love to see the day that game design and game theory is something taught to all young people, and more people interested in design of any form incorporating game design into their study.
At the same time, the game industry is a mess. As I write this, I find myself in a position where I don't think I would want to work in the game industry right now. I've been disappointed too many times watching game companies be poorly run and game industry talent be undervalued and overworked. But at the same time, I've discovered that game design is not just for making games.
Let's put it simply: game design is useful everywhere. Any type of interactive experience can benefit from it. Game design should not be confined to entertainment experiences. Game designers should not be reserved to building yet another slot machine or FPS or whatever is the trend these days. Game designers have the potential to be well-rounded product/interactive designers. But it's not just about making every experience competitive. That's probably the least useful approach to designing an interactive experience. Here are some of the valuable aspects of game design:
- Risk & reward – Converting engagement into rewards. Adding chance into the mix. Letting users make decisions.
- Cooperative play – Building ways for users to work together to accomplish things. Making experiences inherently social. Letting users involve their friends. Providing better rewards for cooperative engagement.
- Investment – Showing a user their progress/milestones. Progressive rewards over time.
- Player representation & customization – Letting users represent themselves in a public experience. This often means avatars & decoration but it actually means different things in different contexts.
- Coaching – This is the most obscure and underused area. Games are great at teaching their players how to interact and how to get the most out of the experience. More interactive experiences should coach their users the way games do. A great example of effective coaching is Team Fortress 2.
I did a presentation over a year ago on the topic of game design in e-commerce that expands upon these ideas a bit. It's not my best presentation ever but it's worth a look → Finding the Fun in Gamification.
Overall the most important aspect of game design is "finding the fun" which is to say that the first step is to build an experience that is inherently fun rather than trying to "polish a turd." "Finding the fun" is a topic for another day but it starts with thinking about the psychology behind an interactive experience and putting yourself in the shoes of the end user. Often it requires user testing to verify. One of the caveats is that users will often bear some annoyances to get utility out of a product, but if they are just looking for entertainment, their tolerance for annoying is very low. A game has to be inherently fun to keep a player's attention. This is why game design is so challenging.
In essence: every experience can be fun. Sometimes it means fundamentally rethinking the experience. Regardless, game design can and should be applied everywhere.