Added on 24 March 2017
Innovating is hard. There is not a clear road, and a disorienting number of possible directions to follow. Innovating and succeeding in the market is even harder; but there are a few lessons we can learn from innovating products that have succeeded in the past. Amy Jo Kim has put together a Game Thinking Toolkit, a powerful system that integrates many processes and practices she learned as part of the design team at games like Rock Band and The Sims. It turns out that a lot of the principles that game designers have used for creating successful innovative games can help us innovate successfully in all sorts of fields.
Lesson 1. Assume You Will Be Wrong
There is a lot in common between good game design practices and other product discovery methodologies like lean startup, UX centered design, and design thinking. One of the things all these methodologies agree is about the chances of succeeding at our first attempt at product development: every time we are coming up with new products or solutions to problems we make a lot of assumptions -many of them unconsciously- and a lot of these assumptions turn out to be wrong.
To counter this problem all modern product discovery methodologies prescribe as a solution user-centered iterative development: focus on understanding your user needs first, and then develop solutions in an iterative way where user testing and course correction is part of the development process throughout. If you know that most likely you will be wrong, early and continuous testing will let you correct before is too late or too expensive. “You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site” says the famous Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote.
When you assume that you will be wrong, plan for it, and do your best to uncover the wrongs as early as possible, the whole process will be more effective and smoother.
Lesson 2. Develop a Core Learning Loop First
If the first lesson is common to many other methodologies, this one is more unique to game thinking. The concept of a core loop is something common in games but game thinking expands its application to all sorts of products and experiences.
All games have a core set of activities that the player repeats over and over to advance through the game. In a casual game like Bejeweled the core loop is pretty simple: you solve match-3 puzzles, which let you level up and earn new powers, which make it more fun to solve more match-3 puzzles, level up more, earn more… and so on. These core repeatable activities are called core loops and are the foundation to long-term engagement. In essence, players complete rewarding activities that compel them to come back and do more rewarding activities. Social networks are an easy example of products that are not games that have a core loop. In Twitter and Facebook for example, the loop would be about reading and responding to updates and messages, as you engage with people and topics that you find interesting, your updates will be tailored around them, making your updates more interesting and engaging for you, which will lead you to interact more, and so on.
The other aspect that is unique in Amy Jo Kim’s toolkit is that we are not just talking about core-loops but about core-learning-loops: loops where the repeating activities allow the player or user to learn or get better at something. “Fun is just another word for learning” is a well known quote from Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It is true; the most engaging games include a mastery component. If you add this element of mastery and transformation to your loop it will be much more powerful.
Why developing this core-learning-loop first? Because in most cases if you cannot figure out how to keep people around your product or experience, nothing else matters. You can spend as much as you want on marketing, but if the people you bring from your marketing efforts don’t stay, become fans, and recommend your game or experience to others, you won’t succeed. In other words you will have a leaky bucket that can never be filled, no matter how much water you manage to put in.
Developing a loop that keeps players around is much easier if you have found something that connects emotionally with your users or players. In the case of a utilitarian product this would be the value proposition, you offer the solution to a problem that your users have, and that is enough of a reason for them to be invested. So although the first part of the product that you should develop is this core-loop, you need to be clear about your value proposition and how it connects to your users.
In the case of an entertainment product, finding that emotional connection is much trickier. The value proposition, providing an entertaining game, is not enough in a market filled with games claiming to be entertaining. In the case of games and other purely entertainment products, figuring out how to connect emotionally through the right theme or IP might actually make it easier to find the right loop. In the case of games and other interactive experiences engagement will also be stronger if you tie your loop to other ingredients that contribute to engagement like stories. You can read more about how concept art can help you test and validate you emotional connection in another article here. You can also find out more about how core-loops can connect to other ingredients in your game to strengthen engagement in this article here.
Lesson 3. Test First with Your Super-Fans, Not Your Core Market
This is another thing that is unique to Amy Jo Kim’s game thinking approach. At the beginning of the process, the people that you are going to learn the most are not the people that will be your core market, but the people that are already very invested: your early adopters or super-fans. This recommendation is very different to what you hear from other methodologies. The most common recommendation is that you need to test your ideas and prototypes with your target market, with the people that will eventually be your core customers. That makes sense, a successful game or product needs to attract a wider audience, and not just the super committed fans willing to adopt any new product in the niche they love.
However, when you are truly innovating your product will be difficult to grasp for most people. People in your target market will get it once you have polished all the rough edges and figure out a smooth user experience, but that comes at the final stages. At the beginning you will have a lot of rough edges and you should not be spending time smoothing them out, but figuring out if the core features are the right ones. The most qualified people to give you feedback about those core features, the ones that will be able to see beyond the rough edges, are your early adopters and visionaries, not your core market. This approach, although counter intuitive at first, is what allowed ground breaking games like Rock Band and the Sims come to fruition and become the huge market success they are. Of course you want to make sure that your value proposition, or your theme and IP in the case of a game purely for entertainment, will connect to your larger target market, but to figure out the right core features, test with your super-fans.
Innovating successfully is hard, but following some lessons from previous innovative and successful products will increase our chances. The Game Thinking toolkit that Amy Jo Kim has put together is a very useful roadmap to navigate the confusing waters of innovative product development.
If you want to learn more in depth about this system and save time in your product development, check out Game Thinking Live, a yearly conference and workshop happening at the end of March in San Francisco. I will be participating as a coach and if you are interested in attending you can get a 30% discount by using the code FELIPE30.