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Interview with Game Designer Chris Bennett: “Connect People. Design Experiences. Use Baby Steps. Just Don’t Put Game Lipstick on a Pig."

Interview with game designer Chris Bennett on building out the game layer by applying game design principles to non-entertainment sectors.

Stephanie Spong, Blogger

October 23, 2012

14 Min Read

Chris, with this series of interviews I am exploring the game layer, or the application of game technologies, platforms and mechanics to non-entertainment sectors, as well as leading edge thinking in game design and the digital game industry.  As a designer who bridges both worlds, your thoughts are particularly relevant, so I look forward to our conversation today.

Q.  Chris, you’ve had a great career in game development, as a producer and designer, with experience at Electronic Arts, Digital Chocolate, Playfirst and others, and you’ve been in the forefront of designers riding the shift to mobile platforms and social games.  Do you have a favorite game among those you worked on?   

Message in a Garden, which is a microcosm of why I love making games because it’s about connecting people.   This game was early on, at Digital Chocolate back in 2004.  Think back to that time:  pre-Apple App store, Facebook still only on a dozen campuses, before the smartphone explosion.  Think of it as a garden simulator with social elements—you could share images of real plants from the Burpee seed catalogue—and a really lively cadence of play.  It seems like such a simple game by our standards now. But at the time it was a huge change from what the carriers were used to selling on their phones. We found the magic that keeps people excited through cadence of play and sharing the pictures.

It reminds me of the new LinkedIn feature where you endorse people for specific skills.  So it pops up last week and makes me curious.  Before I know it, I’ve spent fifteen minutes rating others.  The cadence was right.  It was just fun to use.  They may not have intended this, but they made it into a game.  And it works.  It fits their business need for more engagement and interaction on the site, and it’s fun and helpful for me as a user.  I can think "Hey! 9 people have endorsed me on this, so that's kind of cool."

Q. Of the games you enjoy personally, can you identify elements that make you enjoy the game?

I enjoy connecting people through play.  I was such a geek when I was young, engaged in “lonely play,” reading my books and magazines.  I discovered other people through the early text-based internet.  I began connecting people through the internet and now through games.

Q.  Recently you have also done a bit of business and design consulting to non-entertainment companies, helping them take advantage of the power of game technologies and game mechanics.  What kinds of projects are you working on now?

I probably do half my work on straight game development and half on the game layer.  You see a lot of interest in this right now from edu-tech companies and the health and wellness companies.  One edu-tech company was trying to add a game layer to the process of studying for big tests, like the SAT or the GRE.  They had a good engine for serving questions, but they were experiencing a huge drop off after only a few hours of study.   They needed a better experience.  Our mission was to increase engagement and capture the student’s attention. 

We didn't make it into a game, but we did pull in key elements from games.  Quests and a bit of narrative yes, but also always serving up something the student can work on, in bite-sized pieces, always giving the students a choice of what to work on next.  All this adds up to pushing the student to higher levels of engagement and achievement.  You can use these tools on any kind of goal:  losing 20 lbs, running your first 5k, passing your test.  A game doesn't have to have angry birds hurled at pigs.  It’s about designing experiences that encourage engagement and the business results you are going for. 

Q.  With your clients who are less familiar with games and do not game themselves, how do you define a game?  How do you explain the power of game and social mechanics to non-gamers?

Several years ago I had a realization about the power of play, versus a game.  I overheard a middle-aged lady saying, "Oh I'm not a gamer, I just like playing FarmVille."  Gamers say social games are not really games.  Social game players say they are not gamers.  Okay, so let's say they are not gamers.  They are still a huge market.  I compare it to people who run but don't want to be called runners.  When I work out, I am not a serious weightlifter, but I am lifting weights just like the jocks who live there in the gym.  Our experiences, our intentions, our cadence of activity vary but we are still doing the same thing.

The game layer is not about making your product into a game.  It's about breaking it down into components and experiences.  Every bad game has something interesting about it.  Every world-class game has something wrong with it.   It's breaking experiences down and trying to understand what makes those things great, what makes them have impact and let’s you rebuild it into something much stronger.

World of Warcraft is just a prettier and more-advanced version of Everquest which is a 3D version of Ultima Online which is just a 2D version of the text-based MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) that I used to sneak on university servers to play 20 years ago.

For many people, MMOs are fun because there is always something to achieve and master and you are doing it along with other people.  I didn't necessarily know the people I played with in real life but it was fun, it was connecting people.  That's when the magic happens, when you connect people.

Q.  What kinds of companies and sectors do you see adopting these approaches first?  Why? 

Health and wellness is a big sector now.  The sector has had successes with Nike Plus and Fitbit, and companies like Zamzee that combat childhood obesity.  The health and wellness space is a great fit for game layer applications, as there are lots of aspirations and goals.  People want to lose the weight, get stronger, get faster, get more fit.   

Take the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab and look at the work BJ Fogg is doing on the power of baby steps and tiny habits.  He and his team are looking at getting people to make the changes they want to make in their lives. The steps are the same, what you have to do is the same, but what he’s doing is helping people find meaning in those small powerful steps. 

And that finally steps us around to what I think is one of the great powers of play and engagement, which is narrative.  When you watch a movie, it's a story, a narrative.  You want to be part of the story.  Play is the same thing, but you get to create your own story and interact with your story.  Kids playing with foam swords in the pool--they are embedded in a narrative, maybe an episode from the Star Wars series.  Play can focus us. Play can calm our minds. 

And play connects us.  When I was at PlayFirstworking on the Diner Dash franchise, we had computers laid out at an event so people could play the game.  I saw a little girl playing.  She was just barely old enough to manipulate the controls, and her mother helped her on the tactics.  An older woman stood behind them, not clicking, not participating, but just encouraging her granddaughter.  What I saw was three generations experiencing the play, each from their own lens, connected through a play experience I had helped create.  That meant a lot to me.

Social connection is a big focus when I design, doing something with other people.  It’s tough to create those together times we all enjoy, like watching a game with friends in a bar—it’s a great experience, but hard to put together for busy people with families and obligations.  Basically in many situations I am trying to recreate that social connection.

Q .  Do you talk about fun with your business clients?

I’m always happy to talk about fun.  But honestly, most of my clients are trying to reach a real business goal. So I need to speak their language and address their concerns, figure out the key metrics they want to move forward and then go from there.

Q.  What kinds of business problems are your clients trying to solve?  Any patterns or common themes or issues you see cropping up, or is each case pretty unique?

It’s almost always about either engagement or retention; about getting their customers or users to come back and continue.  I advise people not to make what they are doing into a game.  Making a great game is a terribly hard job to do in the first place.  If you then pile on the engagement or education or health and wellness metrics you are trying to achieve, you've made it even harder. 

Instead, I go back to what they are doing, like the test prep product, and wrap a new narrative around it.   I put myself in the shoes of the student.  What is my real goal, my main motivation?  If I am the student, I am in an awful situation, very stressed out, trying to get into the college I want to get into.   If I don’t do well on the test, my parents will be disappointed, my friends will mock me and I will have to go to my backup school, not my dream school.   

So I look at it and say, "How do I create an experience that gets kids to fight for their dream school, not just their safe school or their stretch school, but motivate them to go for the best?"  We need to connect the actions of their test prep to their real goals.  For example, as they work their way through the questions, the instrument can predict their actual SAT score.  We use that score as a wake-up call on how your performance relates to your shot of getting into a particular school.  Maybe you aren’t even scoring high enough to get into your “safe” school, so you do some work and nudge the measure up to high enough to get into your stretch school.  Pretty soon, you want to push that measure up all the way to your dream school.  Think about it.  There’s nothing fun about doing test prep, but there is a lot of meaning and impact there.  By using a measuring stick they relate to, students can see how a little improvement can really help them achieve their goals. What I try to do is reach a kid through the narrative that is already in their head, like one about getting into college. And show how we can change that narrative and make it better.

Q.  You are one of those hybrids who have the training and background to think through business issues as well as design issues.  How do you bring design into business decisions, and business concerns into design development?  We know there’s a balance and an integration between profit and design found by the most successful games and game layer applications, but do you have any tips on how to think through that balance and manage the tradeoffs?

If you look at the big social game companies, they know how to do what they know how to do.  They team a game designer with a product manager who focuses on virality and monetization.  I do both in my head, but smaller companies don't have the people for that kind of dual team, so I help them think through business metrics and project management.  I work with them on a definition of success--a million DAUs, this many downloads, this percentage of conversion.  Then we take their goals and test for reality, for feasibility, for opportunities to make it better.  I help them on project management as well, figuring out the development path to meet their design and business goals. 

Because fun is such a loaded word, we don’t typically use it much at first.  They want to reach a business goal, not a fun goal.  We focus first on the business.  Once we have those goals set, I speak with them about the experiences they want, the outcomes they want.  I tell them this process is not about making it into a game, but about breaking down their goals and building experiences that help them reach their goals.  And that’s where the creativity, the storytelling, the real experience of play comes in.

Q.  Focusing for a moment on the game industry itself, any emerging trends you find particularly interesting in game design, game interfaces or game technology? 

Biggest thing happening right now is the free-to-play market in mobile games. The combination of iOS and the App Store and Apple’s amazing products has been a game changer. And when we see these mobile games expanding to the TV in products like Apple TV and the Ouya console, we will have true cross-app functionality that completely bypasses the PC and the major consoles. I was fortunate enough to work on one of EA’s first Sony PlayStation launch titles back in 1995. But I tell you, I would not want to be Sony Entertainment right now.

Another really interesting area is what’s happening in the games crowdfunding space with companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.  They are supporting a whole new kind of game.  It's kind of like the free to play model.  A fan can pay a little or a lot to support a cause he or she cares about.  And the multiple levels of funding and the concept of stretch goals has some elements of the game layer right in there. I've worked with several people who have done successful Kickstarter campaigns, who really launched great communities to support their games, games that wouldn’t be funded in a traditional development deal.  You don't need a million people, you need 10,000 people or maybe just the right 500 people.  It’s very empowering!

Social games are crashing now, but think about how Atari got overhyped and crashed back in their cartridge game days, but it went on.  They leapt onto the next platform and kept making games.  Social networks don't have that yet.  You have failed social networks and successful social networks.  No one has ever put so many people on a platform--they’ve put a billion people on the Facebook platform.   It’s astounding.  People will go somewhere for their game experience.  People who used Facebook for their social games, well, developers got upset about Facebook taking 30%.  Apple takes 30%.  What's the difference?  Now people say it is cheaper to develop on iOS or Android.  They are starting to understand the ecosystem better, they see less spam than on Facebook. They want to reach new audiences. 

Lots of the indie developers--two guys in a garage--they aren’t making games for Facebook, they aren’t going for commercial markets at all.  Those people can take the iOS developer kit or an Android kit and publish their game now.  They aren't dependent on Facebook, only on themselves and their ability to market it.

Q.  Let’s put on your futurist hat for a moment.  As you peer into the future, what new developments can you imagine? 

The major effect of Facebook on world consciousness and culture is that they brought privacy issues to the ick factor, and then they stepped back one step.  As they do that, over and over, they bring everyone along to a new place we never would have accepted even three years ago.  Overall I find it very positive that Facebook has brought us all along to a more open society. 

I see tremendous potential if we can start bringing that openness into mobile apps around exercise, or into being more open about what a company is doing.  People want to be open and transparent and build trust in the work environment, and use that openness to give access to more data to help their people, to motivate them.  Everyone wants to be part of a tribe, not alone with their problems.  People want to help, people want to connect.  Maybe I cannot run with you everyday, but I can cheer you on while you run. 

Q.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights with us today.  Here’s to you continuing to connect people through games and the game layer.


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