Why you shouldn’t always aim for perfection in game design

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Reading Time: 3 minutes (ish) 

Ever since Pokémon GO was released, on July 6th this year, all sorts of knowers have been ranting about the game’s inferiority to Ingress (the predecessor of the game from the same developer: Niantic) or it’s bad design in general. They claim that PoGO is lacking from so much of what makes Ingress a great game. They seem annoyed that the game gets so much attention, while being so crappy in comparison. Quora user and Ingress player Madhuja Chaudhari, expresses it like this:

” My vote goes for Ingress-
  • Majorly because you can work as a team- this game was made with community gaming in mind. Both the teams gather many times a year in live events- essentially large scale portal battles- organized by Niantic.
  • Not only it has a better look and feel, but also a great storyline.
  • Pokémon Go has too many bugs, server issues. It is also not available in India- that is on the Play Store.
  • I have seen people getting tired of playing PoGo, but have been committed to Ingress for years- yes you read it right.”

Like many others (gamers, social media experts and designer geek  alike) she is disturbed by the fact that Pokémon Go had more 1st week downloads from the  App Store than any other app in history. It generates a daily revenue of $10  million daily and by such it surpasses Ingress by a wide margin.

So how is it that even possible? How can the PoGO-game to outshine Ingress to such extent if the game is truly so much worse? How can it compell people the way it does if it is so buggy, has such weak graphic design and storyline as thin as a thread (if any)?

First of all: Is it true? Well, yes. Most of it is. PoGO is breaking many rules when it comes to know-how about game design, marketing and app design. Let’s have look at what  Android engineer Sara Haider has to say about the phenomenon on Medium:

”Pokémon Go flies in the face of everything we’ve learned. As of the time of writing this post:

  1. Pokémon Go sends zero push notifications.
  2. Pokémon Go does not ask to upload your address book to find or invite friends.
  3. Pokémon Go does not have any (virtual) social mechanics.
  4. Pokémon Go has a shop, but it never asks you to buy anything. The game does not become frustrating without purchases.
  5. Pokémon Go does not have any concept of game stamina or fatigue.
  6. Pokémon Go is not stable and crashes constantly.
  7. Pokémon Go has not been featured in either US app store.”

This is staggering but true. And still people keeping struggling with the game. Being frustrated with server failure and complaining about the lack of it’s social mechanics. But it does have an abundance of social mechanic. Just not built into the game!  Which is definitely a point made. We don’t have to tailor all design into the apps! Let the users create the paths! People meet up around Pokéstop and lure module activated spawns. And they hang around, compare levels and communicate. And the fact that so many mechanics have been left out is a great example of trusting the narrative and the back story of the game. People get the core loop so quickly because of the simple storyline from the Pokémon universe. It is basically easier than learning tic-tac-toe :

  1. Walk around
  2. Throw balls to catch pokémons

[Repeat]

It’s just that basically. And then we have all these sub activities, mini-games and strategies to keep the game going over time.

  • Evolve your pokémons
  • Power up your pokémons with candy and stardust
  • Get experienced and rise in level
  • Collect items to improve your chances
  • Hatch eggs and breed new pokémons
  • Train your Pokémons 
  • Battle and take over gym’s

Pretty simple. And most of all: a very simple, straight forward and non intrusive design. It trusts that enough people in the target group 18-34, mostly male, know the narrative and that those who don’t will catch on once the ball is in roll and the movement starts spreading. Actually it is perfect for a viral movement. And this time it is an IRL virality we are talking about. Affecting the world outside the internet in a way we have never seen. This is mobile. This is IoT and mixed reality in a way tech geeks only dreamed. And yet so imperfected. Who can it possibly work?! We are amazed!

But all the glitches and imperfection in the game, all the lacking features that people are demanding or ranting about, they serve their purpose. Yes we are irrational and driven by things that is sometimes hard to grasp. But then again, it isn’t really, when you think about it… We are living in an age were we want everything now. One click away. We demand services to be perfected an responding to our requests at an instant. And if they aren’t we turn rant about it, turn to something better, slicker. Something  that solves our problems with less friction and effort. But if there is no friction, no frustration and no unmet desires we tend to get satisfied and full. We get bored. Our engagement soon wears off.

Recently I saw a fantastic TED-talk from Tim Harford about how ”Frustration can make us more creative”. And I think the bottom line here is: if we want something bad enough bad design want stop us. So the challenge for designers and product owners is to make something so desirable that even bad design wont stop the users. And then you start small and fail small. And you keep improving based on user needs. And remember: don’t give them everything the cry for. Just like you shouldn’t with a spoiled child. Give them bits and pieces. Step by step. Let them be a part of the devolopment. And let the product evolve organically. Don’t keep pushing features that might be ”good-to-have”.

If you think about it: Had Niantic released a game so perfected that there was nothing more to look forward to in terms of new features and improvements, nothing more to rant about or to wish for. What had happen? Would the hype have worn off? Would the debate or ranting have worn off. Would no articles like this one have been written? This might be the greatest strategy they could ever have come up with.

A good game is not something that springs up from perfected design. It is a mix of narrative, obstacles and goals that challenge you enough to keep your interest peaked over time. Something that grows and evolves as result of user demands.  That is the core in collaborative design. Pulling user needs instead of pushing supplier features. And a good product or service is something that evolves over time.Start small. With the core features and core acitivities. Cause if they don’t work, nothing else will.

After playing PoGO for a while I know that I want: more pokemons once I’ve catched them all (150 more are coming soon), a way to trade pokemon with other trainers/players, and even to fight single users and better ways of understanding how to actually find certain pokémons (I know there are 3rd party products that does that, but none of them work really well). But if i hadn’t been playing the game I wouldn’t know what things I wanted. And I also know that I don’t need an inline chat service, or push notifications or better gym fights. Because part of the game takes place outside of the game. In real life. Talking to others. It doesn’t all have to be in-app-connected. We need obstacles. We need friction. And the urge to do something, my motivation, comes from within. I don’t want my life to be scripted or pushed in directions. Therefore i am grateful that PoGO doesn’t push me to buy, to cath or to interact. I want to engage with the game on my own conditions. And the introvert side of me is happy not to have to deal with other gamers in the game, only IRL. That is actually such a relief.

In summary: Great design is not about perfection. It is about balancing friction, desire and narrative. Of course it helps  a bit to have billion dollar franchise to lean on..

 

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2 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t always aim for perfection in game design

  1. Sylvester Arnab skriver:

    I’ve played both PokemonGo and Ingress. Ingress is a bit too complicated and the flow design is not as good as PokemonGo. The rough and ready PokemonGo with its simple mechanics is a winner. I can see how we can remix the same approach for learning games. Individual adventures with team elements naturally embedded in the narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sylvester Arnab skriver:

    Reblogga detta på Sylvester Arnab och kommenterade:
    As an evangelist of a more hybrid approach to behaving in a digital age and learning, I naturally gravitate to games such as ZombiesRun, Ingress and of course PokemonGo.

    I reblog Jan’s post on Ingress versus PokemonGo as I agree that perfection in any experience design does not translate to better engagement and most importantly sustained engagement.

    I’ve personally played both PokemonGo and Ingress. Ingress is a bit too complicated and the flow design is not as good as PokemonGo. The rough and ready PokemonGo with its simple mechanics is a winner.

    And I can see how we can remix the same approach for learning games. Individual adventures with team elements naturally embedded within the narrative.

    Gilla

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