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Designing games and apps

Okay, so I did make that prototype I promised I would last week, but it's still a little raw, so I don't think I'll be exposing it to the (few) eyes here yet.

But since, it turns out using this newsletter for motivation is a great idea, I'm going to set another goal: Implement links, and make it pretty enough to show people.

So, lacking a demo to hold your attention, I wanted to return to yet another aspect of MUDs, one I managed to miss talking about the last two times. They're games.

Part of what makes emulating them as an operating environment so appealing is that they have a proven history of being fun, and of creating powerful experiences.

In one of the first editions of this newsletter I talked about how game developers are just doing cooler things than product engineers. Well it turns out game designers are generating envy in their counterparts two.

Applying game design to product development isn't new but I think it's seeing more of an explicit focus lately. See for example, this interview with Rahul Vohra, the founder of a an email app Superhuman, that uses game design techniques to make it's users faster and more productive. Or this blog post from Michael Dempsey which opens with the premise that gaming is the next frontier of social experiences.

Game design offers a really powerful lens for apps and tools. I've been reading Designing Games by Tynan Sylvester, which bears the subtitle "A Guide to Engineering Experiences". Looking at an app as an experience rather than a tool is interesting. It means instead of thinking about the utility of certain features, you think about the emotions they will elicit, how they make the player/user feel.

To be honest, I'm a little wary of the intersection of game design and product design. Product development as a field has an iffy history of not caring about end-user agency or even happiness, and I worry that the powerful psychological tools from game-design could be misused in that lineage. Game design must think about player agency, but it also has many ways to manipulate the player into directing that agency in the way the designer wants.

Reconsidering Rewards

An example that's burned into my brain is the idea of random reward intervals. In Cory Doctorow's For The Win contains a didactic chapter dedicated to explaining how if you pull a lever that dispenses a reward on a consistent but unknown schedule, you just keep pulling that lever. It feels like a "win" everytime. Once you start looking for it this is everywhere. Refreshing twitter, or checking your email again, or doing yet another run of Hades, hoping to get just the right set of boons.

The dispensing of rewards is a big part of game design, and in it's best form gives a player a constant stream of motivation and feedback to make progress towards a goal that intrinsically matters to them. In it's worst, it's just another attention manipulating, addictive, time-sink.

Making Games for Yourself

One way to get around this problem in product development is end user programming. Instead of trying to make sure the designed experience completely matches the users goals, or trying to shift the users goals to match the designed experience, give them the tools to manipulate the experience into whatever they want.

One parallel here might be mods in video games. I've been reading Sid Meier's Memoir! and in it he talks about how he was completely opposed to the modding capabilities on Civilization II, which eventually turned out to be absolutely intrumental to the franchises success. It's still slightly different though, as mods really just change who the designer is, while end-user programming turns the player themselves into the designer.

From that perspective, it's much harder as the "top-level" designer to think about how to create emotion. There are as I see it two moves: 1. Focus on the base systems and their emotional power 2. Create a Meta Game, that's exists no matter what the user ends up creating

The first is an interesting challenge, because I'm already thinking about the base systems, and specifically how to get the most expresiveness out of the simplest ones. Adding the constraint of emotional potency on top of that seems to almost be pushing in the opposite direction as expresiveness, though both drive towards simplicity.

One way I'm interested in exploring a meta-game in my notetaking app experiments is perhaps the simplest. People have already generated a rich visual language around gardening, and homes, so why not just weave that narrative directly into the app?

Make it fun

Part of the reason I'm not quite yet ready to show this new prototype is because it's not yet fun, even for me. I can see the hints of something that's really exciting to play with, but I want to explore it through these lenses I've been describing to see if I can arrive at a core experience that's as powerful as I want to it to be, but still deeply enjoyable and fun.