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Game design and teamwork have one thing in common: they both make people do things that they don't want to do. Maybe there are lessons that we can take from game design to improve teamwork productivity, and business in general.

Kenneth Chen

August 6, 2015

28 Min Read

I hate teamwork with a burning passion. It's annoying, it's unproductive, it's a waste of time, and worst of all, when I'm in a team I'm forced to TALK TO OTHER PEOPLE. Like, talking FACE TO FACE. What have I ever done to be subjected to such a horrible form of torture? Who would do such a thing to me?

Apparently, the whole game industry would. This is stepping outside of pure game design for a bit, but the hard reality of game production is that it happens in a team. It's just way too much for one person to handle. Sure, there are the people like Notch (maker of Minecraft) and Zun (maker of the Touhou series) who are able to do amazing things by themselves, but then there are the thousands of other solo developers we never hear about who didn't make it and are now working as cashiers at Gamestop.

I was like that, too. My dream was (and still is) to be a solo developer. But the more I learn about the game industry and the production process, the more I have to accept that teamwork is pretty important, and that I should probably get better at it.

So... how do you actually get better at teamwork? Well, since this is a blog about game design, maybe we can pull some knowledge from our own area of expertise and see what happens.

Teamwork and Game Design

Both teamwork and game design have a common goal: they are both about getting people to do things that they don't want to do. That's a really weird thing for me to say. Maybe it makes sense for teamwork, but games? We play games because we want to, right?

But when you think about it, games are inherently difficult and frustrating tasks. Why do we put ourselves through so much trouble in a digital environment that has no real-world consequences anyway? Imagine describing a weekend of playing Dark Souls to a buddy. "Yeah, I was fighting this guy and I got killed when I tried to attack him, so I switched to a different weapon but I got killed again, and then I tried shooting him with arrows instead but he still killed me." Games make you scream, games make you cry, games make you throw your controller at the wall until it breaks. A game is largely about overcoming obstacles, so why do we willingly subject ourselves to those obstacles in the first place? Why don't we just sit on the couch and watch TV? How do we get people to get up and willingly put in effort?

And a lot of games have struggled with this problem. Sometimes, it's so hard to find people to playtest your game that you have to pay them to do it. How do you get people to do something that they don't want to do? Flappy Bird was a prime example of this: it was an extremely frustrating game that's practically designed to be rage-inducing, and yet so many people still played it. The reviews for Flappy Bird communicate an overwhelming amount of negativity. People call Flappy Bird the work of the devil, and the game's developer shut it down because it "ruined his simple life." Yet people still play it. They make Flappy Bird ripoffs and clones with extra little gimmicks, and people still tap that little bird until it crashes. How did Flappy Bird manage to get people to willingly do something that they didn't want to do?

The reasons why people do things they don't want to can be grouped into two main categories. The first category consists of motivators that exist outside of the task itself, which provide rewards upon completion. On the other hand, the second category consists of motivators within the task, thankless but fulfilling. It's the difference between doing something for the goal versus doing it for the journey. Various game designers have studied these motivators: Extra Credits called them extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards, Jesse Schell called them exogenous vs. endogenous values, and even I called them character-based skill vs. player-based skill. All of these definitions refer to why we do things: do we do things because we actually want to, or do we do things for the rewards?

This is important because good game design focuses on intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic ones. Players should be engaging in a task because it's interesting in and of itself, not because they're being given an external reward for doing it. If people are playing a boring game because it promises to give them rewards for doing so, the game itself is broken. A game should not be boring in the first place. Using extrinsic rewards to compensate for a lack of intrinsic ones is a way of sugarcoating bad design (or worse, a way of creating malicious money-trap Skinner boxes).

Intrinsic rewards are better than extrinsic ones because they help us develop our skills. If we are motivated by extrinsic rewards, we try to optimize and cut corners. We get through our task as quickly and inelegantly as possible, because we care more about getting the reward than doing a good job on the task itself. On the other hand, if we are driven by intrinsic rewards, we're struggling to do our best because we want to do our best, because we want to accomplish something great for ourselves.

Back to Teamwork

Now, we can take the concept of intrinsic/extrinsic motivators and see how they apply to teamwork. Which kind of motivators are used in teamwork? If we list out the reasons why we work in teams, maybe we'll see some trends that we can work off of. Why do we work in teams?

  • We will be rewarded for doing our work (money, grades, prestige)

  • We will avoid being punished for not doing our work

  • All our friends are in the team and we want to hang out with them

  • We want to put less burden on ourselves

  • We want to challenge ourselves

  • We find pleasure in doing our work

The most obvious motivators are the extrinsic ones. When we say that the world revolves around money, we refer to "money" as an extrinsic reward, and whether you're being paid in currency or reputation or academic credit, it's still just an extrinsic reward. On the other hand, we usually laugh at the intrinsic motivators. Who's ever actually passionate about teamwork? Is there anyone who actually likes doing this stuff? What a lame nerd.

When you compare them, it seems to make more sense to use extrinsic motivators in teamwork. Sure, intrinsic motivation means higher quality work and better team morale, but it's so extraordinarily difficult to implement that a whole field exists to study how it works (that field is game design). On the other hand, if you use extrinsic motivation, the work still gets done anyway, and you save yourself the effort of trying to motivate people. People have studied how inefficient it is to use money as a motivator, but it's the traditional standard unquestioned approach and pretty much everything works that way already.

But there have been lots of recent movements to bring intrinsic motivation into standard practice. Pop-culture writers like Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell make compelling arguments for why the future needs creative thinkers rather than rote memorization. Educators have been experimenting with new methods like blended learning to help foster intrinsic motivation in students. The world is changing, and teamwork has to change with it. Extrinsic motivators just won't be good enough. Is there some way that we can tap into the power of intrinsic motivation and use it in team productions?

Congratulations, we have now derived the philosophy behind gamification.

Gamification has developed a pretty bad reputation. "Let's put progress bars on your work, and make you level up when you finish a task!" Or worse, "let's give you gold stars when you do something properly!" But the underlying idea behind gamification has a lot of potential. What if we could take all of these tactics and tools from game design, and instead apply them to teamwork so that people get intrinsic motivation in the real world? But the problem with gamification is that when you turn something into a game, you have to consider what kind of game you're turning it into. If you turn an extrinsically-driven task into an extrinsically-driven game, nothing has changed.

A big idea in gamification is “points,” or “progress bars” or “medals” or “achievements” or “gold stars.” The idea is to give people a solid idea of how much progress they’re making towards their goal, which is a good thing. However, all of these rewards are extrinsic, and they don’t actually exist within the task. There’s no difference between “I’m doing this because I’m being paid” and “I’m doing this so I can earn another gold star."

Another basic way to implement gamification theory in education is to count up grades over time, rather than keep an average. All people start at 0, and with each assignment they count up until 100 (or whatever their maximum is). The idea is that people would rather see positive progression than watch a fluctuating average. It might be logistically sound, but it really doesn’t do anything for intrinsic motivation because the reward is extrinsic.

One of the more popular gamification trends in real-world businesses is creating competition. In games, a lot of engagement comes from PvP tactics, so people concluded that competition leads to engagement. However, competing against someone else over an individual task is still extrinsic, because getting first place is an extrinsic reward. It's the same reasoning behind competitive Tetris games where two people play side by side, not interacting with each other at all, seeing who lasts longer than the other. Or worse, it's the same reasoning behind competitive social/mobile games (Your friend has $200 more than you! Better catch up by grinding more).

When we say "gamification," we need to make a distinction between "extrinsic gamification" and "intrinsic gamification." Too often, we're referring to the former. Gamification is not the "economists HATE us!" solution that people misunderstand it as. You can't just slap points or achievements onto a spreadsheet and expect your company morale to magically skyrocket. It's hard to do gamification properly, but if it's done properly, it can really make a difference.

So... how do we do gamification properly?

Intrinsic motivation is tied to the concept of flow. In game design, flow is the state where you are completely immersed in a task, like when you’re playing an intense game and you’re no longer aware of the controller. It's like a trance where every fiber of your being is dedicated to overcoming whatever obstacle is in your path. When you play an intense game and you don't notice anything but the game, when hours feel like minutes, when your body and your avatar move exactly the way you want them to, you've reached flow. Your concentration is at its maximum, and you can do things you couldn't do before.

If you can make a game that pulls players into a state of flow, you've planted the seed of intrinsic motivation in them. There are plenty of other ways to generate intrinsic motivation, but I think flow is the one that's best suited to taking out of game design and applying to different contexts. But before we go there, let's look at how games make flow happen.

There are three criteria for flow: clear goals/progression, fast feedback, and a balance between challenge and skill. Each of these three pieces is important for flow, and I'll break each one down individually.

Doing Gamification Properly - Clear Goals/Progression

The idea behind having clear goals/progression is that you need to know that you're doing something significant and meaningful. This by itself is not enough for flow to happen (none of the three aspects by themselves can create flow), but it's hard to concentrate on something if you don't know what you're doing. Humans are pretty goal-driven, and reaching a goal is an extrinsic motivator, but we can't have a journey without a goal. Once all three pieces are in place, the journey becomes more important.

Speaking of which, Journey itself is a game about a goal. You're a robed dude in a desert and there's a giant mountain in front of you and you move towards the mountain. The goal is the mountain, and the levels are arranged in such a way that it's always in sight. Dear Esther does the same thing with its red beacon. The theory is that since you can always see your goal and how far away you are from it, you come to understand that the actions you're doing in the game are actually doing something to get you closer.

On the other hand, LIMBO is a game with no clear goal. There's no shiny mountain or red beacon, you just always move right. In this case, it was intentional. When you play LIMBO, you feel confused and helpless and that your life has no purpose other than to trudge forward meaninglessly and die a lot. For LIMBO, that's what they were trying to accomplish, and it's deeply related to the game's theme. However, we generally don't want people to feel confused and helpless and meaningless, so we want to give people clear goals and a clear sense of their own progression.

But this doesn't usually happen. When we work in teams, it's common for us to just be given a task to do with no idea of what our end goal is supposed to be. The idea of assembly-line production still lingers from the Ford era, and sometimes team productions get set up like assembly lines. We do our part, pass it on to the next person, and repeat over and over. This isn't good for intrinsic motivation, because how can you be motivated to do something if you don't even know what you're doing?

This happens because we separate people based on their roles. A game production team set up this way would have a group of designers, a group of artists, and a group of programmers. The designers design everything, then pass it off to the artists who make it look pretty, who pass it off to the programmers who make all the pretty stuff into a game. Each person is a cog in a wheel, turning around and around to power a system that they don't understand.

The solution is to make the goals clear. Each person must know what the end result of what they're working on is supposed to be, and how their own work factors into its creation. That's why most game productions set up groups by teams rather than roles: instead of having a "designer" group and an "artist" group, they have a "player" group and an "enemy" group. This way, each team has a smaller goal that they work to achieve, and each person can see that their work is meaningful and necessary.

The role-centric grouping model above, and the team-centric grouping model below.

That also means that each person needs to be slightly multidisciplinary. Designers need to know art, artists need to know code, programmers need to know design, etc. If you're locked into one and only one role, you don't have a holistic understanding of how everything comes together to make the final product, and you lose sight of the team's ultimate goal. Don't be the one saying "I can only do this one task, and I'll do it for you over and over again if you pay me," because that's just grinding in real life, and grinding is not intrinsically motivating at all.

Doing Gamification Properly - Good Feedback

The second criteria for flow is fast feedback. Once you know what you're supposed to be doing, you need to know how well you're doing. Am I moving closer towards my goal, or further? Or am I just treading water doing nothing? All of this information is necessary so you can evolve and adapt to whatever challenge you're facing. With the goals and progression in place, you need to influence the situation around yourself to get there, and feedback tells you what you changed.

In Warframe, there are "laser doors" that will make you trip if you go through them (I don't know how lasers make you trip but anyway). The laser doors have lots of feedback attached to them, and it helps you understand what's going on. When you pass through them, they make a distinctive noise, and you stumble and lose control of your character until you get back up. But the laser doors only activate when you’ve been seen by a security camera, and when the security camera sees you it turns red and makes a sound effect. From all the feedback in the environment, you quickly learn that you can pass through by either not being seen or destroying the camera. After you learn this, you feel clever and you’re motivated to proceed because you’re so smart and cool.

The super-indie game Depict1 subverts all your expectations for feedback. Spikes look like they'll kill you, but when you touch them you pick them up and you can throw them as weapons. All of the unclear feedback in Depict1 makes you doubt everything, and it becomes less about enjoying what you do and more about doing what others don't want you to do. If you stripped away all the narrative significance from Depict1, it would just be a pretty average, uninteresting platformer game.

Unclear feedback isn't good for flow, and it isn't good for team productions either. Unfortunately, most of the feedback we get is unclear. If we make sure that feedback is fast, clear, and related to the task at hand, we can get one step closer to generating flow and intrinsic motivation.

I think the best way to give feedback is to make sure you provide explanations for what you're saying. No game just tells you "avoid spikes," they explain why spikes are dangerous (it's just that in a game, "explain" means letting you fall into a spike and dying). The feedback isn't "avoid spikes," it's "avoid spikes BECAUSE they will kill you." That one word, "because," is the key piece in feedback. If you go to an artist and say "hey, this character needs a cape," there are a few ways for you to make sure that the artist puts a cape on that character. You could use extrinsic motivators and pay them money to put a cape on the character, or you could use intrinsic motivators and clearly explain why you want that character to have a cape. "Hey, this character needs a cape because we want cool wind physics when they jump." Good feedback helps make the goal more clear, and a clear goal needs good feedback to be realized properly.

Feedback is also important because it opens up the possibility for counterarguments. A counterargument is a rare and valuable opportunity because it means that someone is passionate enough about what they're arguing for that they will fight against you to make it happen. Passion is intrinsic motivation and it should be treasured. Good feedback is delivered in such a way that it's open to counterarguments: make it clear how you could be persuaded otherwise. In the previous scenario, maybe a scarf would look even cooler with good wind physics. If you know that the goal is to have cool wind physics effects, maybe you can twist yourpassion to deliver that goal.

This is also why executive overrides are bad. Intrinsic motivation in teamwork is about balancing everyone's morale. Maybe you really want the character to have a cape, you would put in ten extra hours a week to make sure the character has a cape, but the other artist really wants the character to have a scarf and they'd put in twenty. If you're aware of how intrinsic motivation works (and hopefully after reading this far you are), other people's passion is more important than yours. No matter what, you don't want people to say "man, I'm only doing this because Omegathorion told me to." If you give up, your own motivation will take a hit, but since you know how intrinsic motivation works you're better off than the others who don't.

Doing Gamification Properly - Balance Between Challenge and Skill

The last component of flow is a balance between challenge and skill. Players need to start with easy challenges because they’re not very skilled, but as they get better the challenges ramp up. If the challenge is too much for the player's skill, they become frustrated, and if the challenge is too easy they become bored. This is the part that the last two aspects of flow were building up to. You can focus on the goal, you can focus on the feedback, but in the end this is the part that really makes flow happen. It's that feeling when you do something perfectly and you feel like a total badass: if it was too easy it's not satisfying, and if it was too hard you can't do it anyway.

Most modern games use flow to some degree. In a shooting game, you start off facing few enemies, and as you continue enemies become tougher and more numerous, but it's okay because you're getting better too. In a racing game, maybe you start off on a simple track but the courses become more and more complex. In a strategy game, you unlock more units to control, because having everyone unlocked in the beginning would be too overwhelming. It's the most important part, so game designers put a lot of effort into making sure there's a good balance between challenge and skill.

Unfortunately, "balance between challenge and skill" is simultaneously the most important and most difficult part of flow in real-world team productions. It makes sense in games because you can gauge a player's skill level. When they're first starting out, they have no skill at all. As they progress through the challenges you set for them, their skill goes up. Some players get better very quickly, and some players are slow to learn, but in general you can count on an average skill level as players go through the game. That means you can set appropriate challenges, and when those players face your properly-tuned challenges they get pulled into a state of flow.

Not so for real life. There are just way too many factors when it comes to real-world skill levels. Different people start off with different skill levels, and they all grow differently. Even if two people have the same college degree, maybe one of them cheated to get it and actually has less skill than the other person. And then there's the problem with fluctuating skill levels, because there isn't really a way to gauge a person's real-world skill level at any given point in time. Some people spend decades to get better at a task.

If you can't judge someone's current skill level, you can't give them an appropriate challenge. And if they don't have an appropriate challenge, even if the goals are clear and the feedback is good, they still won't be engaged. An imbalanced challenge is either boring or overwhelming, and neither of those is good for flow. Truly amazing team managers are probably very good at gauging people's skill levels.

This is a pretty big roadblock, and the safest thing to do is to assume the worst: that your teammates are unskilled until proven otherwise. It's not good to make assumptions, but it's better to be surprised by a high level of skill than it is to be disappointed by a low level of skill. But then you run into two problems. One, how do you make a low-skill task not seem patronizing and stupid to someone who's overqualified? Two, what do you do when you actually do have a low-skill person? Let's take on the second one first.

When you’re faced with a low-skill teammate, there are a few assumptions being made, and some of these are in fact true. Low skill indicates low passion/intrinsic motivation, which means they’re only doing it for extrinsic rewards anyway. Thus, to get a low-skill teammate to work, you use extrinsic rewards to motivate them rather than intrinsic ones. From what we just learned, this means two things: 1) turn them into a “cog in a machine” and 2) override their decisions.

However, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone seems incompetent, the natural reaction is to treat them like they’re incompetent. If they’re treated like they’re incompetent, they’ll lose their intrinsic motivation. If they lose their intrinsic motivation, they’ll become incompetent.

In Infinity Blade 3, if you die once against an enemy, it will ask you to retry. If you die twice against that enemy, it gives you two options, “Retry” or “Too hard?” which basically puts you on easy mode. If you die three times against that enemy, it will only let you select “Too hard?” Situations like this tend to feel patronizing for players, if they’re doing poorly they don’t need to be put down by the game.

Papers Please also uses a negative loop to make players feel bad. If you screw up, you get fined, and you’re already short on money so you’re incentivized to take more time scanning each person so you don’t screw up again. However, the game never makes it clear how your salary works, so you start thinking that maybe you’ll get paid more if you scan more people. But if you try to scan people faster, you’ll make mistakes and get fined. And when you get fined, you panic and either scan people slower (and get paid less) or scan people faster (and get fined again). Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very good at making people feel bad.

As much as I hate Asian MMOs, Vindictus actually does something pretty cool here to break the self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a battle where you fight against a giant dragon who’s very strong and kills everyone in one hit. If you’re not strong enough to fight the dragon directly, there are tons of other things around the arena for you to do. There are ballistas that shoot chains, and if you aim properly you can hit the dragon and incapacitate it for a brief moment. There are little mini-shelters that you can build, and people can hide in them for safety. Then there’s also blessed water that you can carry to people who have been set on fire by the dragon’s breath. The idea was to create a battle where anyone could have a significant role regardless of how skilled they were.

A game designed with challenge/skill in mind can make simple, skillless actions feel awesome and rewarding. At the same time, you’re still aware that you’re not doing too well, but it breaks the self-fulfilling prophecy by not treating you like an idiot.

To get this to work in a team production, you have to be able to make low-skill jobs sound significant and important. This helps keep morale up and intrinsic motivation intact, but it’s very difficult to do for very little reward. It might even backfire, since flow is dependent on a person’s skill level increasing over time (what if it doesn’t increase?). But if it works, hooray, you’ve done a miracle.


With this, we've got all three aspects of flow covered. To ensure clear goals/progression, sort people by teams rather than by roles. To ensure good feedback, explain why and don't use overrides. To ensure a balance between challenge and skill, make all jobs seem significant and meaningful.

The secret to better teamwork is more passion, and as game designers we have the tools to make that happen. It's difficult, but it's our job to make people do challenging things that they wouldn't normally subject themselves to. Whether it's dying to a boss ten hundred times in Dark Souls or working together in a team, we have the ability to make people actually want to do these unappealing tasks. Gamification and game design techniques might be the key to success moving forward into the future, not only in gaming but also in general business practices.

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