Friday, February 19, 2010

What marketers can learn from game design: The essential experience

Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing
-Oscar Wilde

Games rule! We all play them. Some of us play Bridge, some of us play Call of Duty. Some, like Lindsay Vonn, ski down mountains at incredible speed. A few (?) of us can even make a game out of other people's confidence or a country's currency.

No matter what the game, there is something that speaks to just about every human when it comes to getting your game on.

Theories abound as to why we play games--from prime-evil competitive instincts to ego- or sensory gratification to a way to while away the time with friends--and everything in between. Beyond theory, one thing common in the practice of gaming is that game playing creates an experience.

Funny then, that gaming and marketing should have something so fundamental in common. And while great instances of marketing fun and games can be found, there's something more essential about the connection: designing a game has much in common with designing a brand.

personal branding

The Art of Game Brand Design

Books have been written. Quite a few even on game design! Beyond how-to's and theoreticals on flow, structure, narrative, action and scoring (including our own game example here ) a new book entitled The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell could just as easily be titled The Art of Brand Design.

The book takes a decidedly different approach to a discourse on games. It looks at what makes games worth playing by seeing game design through various lenses, including the lens of the designer; the lens of the team and the lens of the player among others. You could easily substitute 'brand' for 'game' and much would be equally applicable.

For instance: Just as gamers expect to unlock more value from a game as they develop skills, brands may have customers who have developed as much (or more) knowledge than the original product designers. Communicating with highly skilled users as if they were brand n00bs isn't likely to engender the loyalty or positive word of mouth one would want from these influencers.

Brands, like games, can design a pathway to increasingly robust experiences by balancing challenge and skill
(from Art of Game Design)

Essential skills

Schell lists the more than 15 skills game designers should have some experience with, from Anthropology to creative writing, mathematics to sound design and visual arts.

These skills should all look familiar to marketers: they are the broad skills required of the best marketers who operate in a complex, technology-enabled social marketplace firmly under consumer control.

But the most important skill according to Schell is listening: to clients, to oneself, but most importantly to the gamers themselves.  Focus groups, panel discussions and proxy surveys all hold value to marketers. But listening to customers, in all their variety, through direct channels like social media, customer service and sales is another skill the best marketers among us possess.

Essential questions

Other connections in the book that might just as easily address brands as games include the importance of iteration and testing, the interface, measuring interest, clients and users. But of all the lenses, there is none so relevant to marketers as the first: The lens of essential experience.

Brand designers--like game designers--do well when they remember that the brand is not the experience: it is a means to an experience. A very personal experience that resides in the mind of the customer.

Which brings us to the essential questions (not to be confused with these Three Questions Marketers Should Ask Themselves!) brand experience designers can take away from the Art of Game Design:

  • What experience do you want the customer to have?
  • What is essential to that experience?
  • How can your brand capture that essence?
By constantly assessing the experience you want to create against the one you have created, brand designers stand a chance at being in the game. Confusing or unhelpful product support, interruptive or annoying attempts at building loyalty, inconsistent and insensitive pricing or quality...are all essential brand experiences that no marketer would intentionally design.

Foreseeable experiences, however, are not unintentional ones. By focussing on the essential experiences that can be foreseen, brand designers can ensure that customers find their game worth playing.

For a loosely related musical interlude on the games people play:

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