A tough challenge

Lately I’ve returned to the wonderful world of game design. It’s brought delight and awe at how tough a job it is to design a single game concept. Comparing it to service design, it’s definately a different kind of nut to crack. Wheras with services, the initial concept of say how a new home cleaning service should work, or how to interact with your online bank, or even how your local library experience should be crafted. The solutions, once you’ve understood people’s motivations and unmet needs, come quickly, and it doesn’t need to be overthought. The real work tends to lie in understanding the organisation that has to deliver the service, and thus remaining creative and true to the user insights when implementing that concept.

With Game Design, however, the playing field is so colourful and fun, that it can be easy to think it must be hard not to come up with an original game concept that is compelling and desirable as well as replayable over and over again. Yet it is massively complex. The first ideas come quick, but then it is when you take one and start rounding it out, that you realise that it was just a single thought, a small idea, a mni-game, or even just a flash in the pan.

Designing a game is more akin to writing a novel, with its context setting, narrative style and structure, unifying themes, characters and events, rhythm and pace. Perhaps that’s why so many people who work in hollywood are switching jobs and joining the game design companies (or maybe it’s because games now gross higher). Designing a game is like designing a fantasy world, where the central fantasy of the game must be so compelling that once you’ve been told what it is, you can imagine the rest.

Designing Worlds

Worlds have to be realistic and to be realistic and compelling, they need challenges and goals. As Agent Smith explains in The Matrix, the agents tried to design the Matrix as a perfect world but humans weren’t convinced:‘Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.’
But challenges can’t be so audacious that they are unattainable. The game has to be accessible to the audience in mind. And once the initial challenges have been overcome, their level of difficulty needs to build with the player’s competence as they learn with the game. This can be called a learning curve.

A rewarding experience

Central to the player experience is a compelling player fantasy, and the balance between that and the interaction with the ‘toy’ or the peripherals and on screen interactions or mechanics through which he experiences the fantstasy. The rest of the game design elements should fall naturally from that central fantasy and how it’s enabled by the interaction. Hence a really great game understands the player’s expectations of the challenges and rewards that might be involved in that fantasty world and meets, plays with, or exceeds them.
Rewards can be short, medium, or long term. A short term reward might be the coins you collect when you shoot all whole space centipede in R-Type, a medium one being a powerup add-on to boost your shooting power, and the long term goal being to complete the game and ultimately enjoy the satisfaction of destroying the final guardian of the final level.

Gaming the organisation

Of course, with most games, the game design is fixed once it’s packaged and sold to the consumer, but with organisations, history shows that approach is flawed. People are unpredictable, and the game is the organisation, adn therefore for every action there is an array of potential concequences both intended and less desirable. In comparing organisation design to game design, this is probably the most important difference. However, a new branch of game design enables this distinction to become blurred: “Emergent game play” means that instead of relying on a scripted experience that is the same for every player, e.g. police car chases you once you kill the baddie, the game designer constructs elements of varying compexity with which the player can interact. This enables different possibilities to occur for the player, creates realism, and an individual experience. One of the most interesting aspects of emergent game play and its design is that it rewards creativity and problem solving, and here again we can see a similarity with organisation design.

What else can we learn from game design? How can we use the frameworks and elements of game design to think about how to design organisations? How can we think about organisations as a series of games, some about power or status, others more playful and creative?
To be continued…