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Designing game mechanics into calendars

Minutes, artifacts, discussion and analysis from the April 26th workshop

Minutes

Artifacts and discussion

The exercise was to take typical calendar events (a day of four events was provided as an example) and turn them into a game. The notion that this is possible comes from Danc’s post about Ribbon Hero on Lost Garden, where he writes:

If an activity can be learned…
If the player’s performance can be measured…
If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.

Each pair of designers was to apply the following game mechanics to their calendar schedule: points, levels, quests, feedback and inventory. As no concern was to be given for the interface itself, wireflows were used to illustrate the mechanics in use.

Christopher, Maria, Vincent

Christopher, Maria, Vincent
Wireflow for a single quest

The first group used a lunchtime meeting (drive to a location 30 minutes to an hour away for a one-hour appointment) as the example for their mechanics. Each appointment is a quest, starting from the beginning of the “buffer” time (travel time in this case) to the completion of the appointment.

The wireflows illustrate an alarm going off to signal the beginning of travel time, followed by a check-in to signal that you are leaving for the appointment, earning points, which provides immediate feedback. A check-in on arrival earns points, more if you are on time. Finally, checking-in at the end of the meeting to signal the completion of the quest earns a final round of points, plus badges based on the meeting context, e.g. for being the first person there, or for a productive meeting.

Quests, leaderboard feedback, and power-ups

Total points or quests completed allow you to level up, with higher levels allowing you to make more complicated schedules. That is, when you start using the application, you might only be able to have two appointments per day, at least an hour apart, but proving yourself able to be on-time and productive earns the ability to have more complicated calendars.

Additional feedback is provided in the form of a point every time you check your personal leaderboard, to encourage you to monitor your state proactively. Finally, incentives to change negative behavior are provided in the form of power-ups or bonuses: for example, if you are always tardy, you might be awarded a bonus that triples your early-arrival score to encourage you to arrive to your next appointment early.

Margaret, Alyson

Alyson, Margaret
Wireflow for a single quest

Group #2 had a similar quest definition, encompassing the travel, meeting and final accomplishments. Each day is a level, and successfully accomplishing your agenda results in a level-up. Their example was the first appointment, a trip downtown.

The trip is a quest. Arriving early earns extra points, and arriving late deducts points. Completing the quest earns a reward of both points and a badge. Feedback and encouragement is provided along the way, such as fireworks and sparklers for an on-time arrival, and a unicorn and rainbow for completion, plus contextual badges like one for not falling asleep during a presentation. Rather than explicit check-ins, Group #2 felt automatic check-ins via location services could suffice.

Badges can also be awarded by other attendees. For example, if someone is late, you can give them a “raspberry” badge.

As a final aside, it was suggested that if you take the bus all over town and you’re never late, you win everything.

The larger group had concerns about the negative points and badge assignments. In the case of extenuating circumstances, such as construction detours causing you to not just be late but miss the meeting entirely, you get negative points despite your effort, and then someone would give you a negative badge.

Group #2 responded with the idea that you could “make up” for bad days with consecutive good days.

In addition, maximizing negative scores can also become a game: one could always be late and never check into meetings just to have the “best” negative score possible, which is also a really rare score because few other people would abuse the game this way. As a rule, you should only award points for behaviors you want to encourage, never deduct or award negative points.

The larger group had continued concerns around potential abuse of badge assignments, and the response was that badge assignment was mutual: if, in aggregate, your associates always assigned you a “liar” badge due to your spurious assignments, this would be visible on your profile just as with any other badge.

Nicole, Ray

Ray, Nicole
Group #3’s countdown-based quests

Group #3 took a substantially different tactic with regards to quests and their relationship to your appointments.

First, your daily appointments still earn you points, but they are not your quests. Second, your entire day is on a constantly-resetting countdown timer. In the example above, starting with your wake-up alarm, a timer begins counting down to your first task: in this case, to leave on-time for your first appointment.

Getting out of bed is the hardest part of the day, so that earns a hundred points for you immediately. Snoozing loses points. The countdown begins towards your next task, and every check-in resets the countdown timer, starting it at the time remaining before the subsequent task.

Group #3’s countdown-based quests

Points are earned based on how timely you check-in for your tasks, and levels and titles are granted based on point values.

Quests, on the other hand, are not your tasks. Rather, they are meta-tasks assigned to you by others. They are social tools: friends can assign you a quest to go on a trip with them.

Finally, badges are assigned based on roll-ups of tasks. At the end of the day, a dashboard spanning your social network is presented. Every task is categorized socially: work, family time, surfing. If you have listed surfing as important to you, you are awarded badges for accomplishing “surfing” tasks during your day. This also applies socially: if your friends all value going to bars, you get badges from them for bar-hopping.

Some criticism was voiced that if anyone could assign you a quest, it cheapens the quest concept. The group countered that external assignment is at the root of what a quest is, like a queen giving a knight a quest. Indeed, to play any sort of game is to engage in a quest designed by someone else. The meaning comes from someone else saying it’s important that you do this, which may be especially valuable if tend to put off things you assign yourself. With this system, you can’t just automatically do a quest by going about your day, it requires you to have a life, to know people who care enough to give you quests; you have to have friends and relationships and landladies and bosses who will assign them to you.

Supportive mechanics even for “losers”

The final aspect of Group #3’s work was being supportive of those who didn’t complete their tasks well. Within your social network, the end-of-day dashboard is presented at the same time, declaring the winners based on points. The person in last place, however, gets to choose the weights for the following day. For example, you have to work all weekend, and are in last place because everyone else is succeeding at attending recreational activities. By weighing the metrics to favor work-related events, you have a better chance of performing well the following day.

Cecy, Brody

Rather than crafting an overarching narrative to drive their process, Group #4 tackled each mechanic independently.

Cecy, Brody
Group #4’s inventory mechanic

Inventory: events can earn inventory items based on the context of the task, location, etc., offering a collection incentive for doing tasks. Items can also be gifted to others.

Group #4’s leveling mechanic

Levels: named ranks instead of numeric levels, earned by numeric points. Points are granted by whether you were at least on time (100% of points), late (50% of the points) or absent (no points) for an event.

Leveling-up means you can redeem your points for badges (awards) or items.

Group #4’s feedback mechanic

Feedback: after completing your last scheduled task, the apps suggest recreational activities to add to your calendar, related to local events or places with promotional items, such as a badge for viewing a particular new release movie.

Group #4’s points mechanic

Points: entering a task (event, appointment) into the system displays the amount of points to be gained for completed it. Completing the task rewards the points, which roll up into local and global aggregate leaderboards.

Group #4’s exchanges mechanic

While exchanges appear in my notes, it wasn’t part of the requirements for the exercise. Nevertheless, Group #4 also designed a mechanic (which they placed under Quest Feedback) which fits the bill.

Exchanges: if multiple people are participating in the same task and one is scoring better than you, you can counter them and earn more points by participating in the service more, such as uploading a photo from the event or tweeting or posting to Facebook about it. If you counter them and end with a higher score, their avatar appears in your “wall of shame” collection.

Group #4’s exchanges mechanic

Beating a certain number of competitors moves you into higher brackets with new, more challenging opponents.

Group #4’s quests mechanic

Quests: participating in the service more, such as taking a photo when you arrive instead of just checking in, earns you additional points.

Group #4’s quests mechanic

Bad performances, such as arriving late, also provide the option to redeem yourself, such as by tweeting your reason for being late.

Commentary from the group included the idea that your leaderboards should also reflect your own best performance, so you’re competing against both yourself and others. (This is something I thought Penny Arcade’s Tycho called “time-shifted competitive single-player,” but the phrase isn’t actually there and is a Googlewhack. I’ll take credit for it if no-one else does.)

Concern was also voiced for the “wall of shame.” Is being able to degrade someone else the same as subtracting points for negative behavior? Is having the biggest wall of shame, or being on the most people’s wall of shame, something that players would try to game? Convincing suppositions were not provided before our time was up.

Analysis

Impetus

The exercise was a spin-off from last workshop.

At the previous workshop, we brainstormed ways to present typical calendar information to a user in novel, more useful ways. The user’s schedule was:

The additional design requirements during the last workshop were to account for travel, setup and tear-down times. For example, from downtown to Cedar Park takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The user also needs 45 minutes to two hours of uninterrupted work time, which means there’s time to get settled and time to pack up on either end of it. The design objective was to account for all of this to better lead the user through their day.

Two groups used the idea of “badges” or “achievements” to provide incentive to the user, and this workshop intended to capitalize on that interest.

Preparation

I’ve worked in the game industry before, but always on an ancillary basis: writing tools, providing support, creating web sites, never doing actual game design, so this workshop wasn’t coming from a point of experience. I understand game mechanics and game design conceptually, having read all of the references in my notes (and more) at least once, but for this workshop I spent a weekend reviewing all of the material I knew of, taking copious notes, and distilling it into the cheat sheets referenced there.

Whiteboards filled with game mechanics summary notes

If you read and digest the references (and especially in the case of Raph Koster’s work, also read the references he cites), you’ll have a pretty good idea about the academics of game design, and the common mechanics described in the notes (distilled from Amy Jo Kim, Danc and Josh Knowles’ work) will give you the interactions and language to implement them in your own work.

Facilities

We’ve met at Genuine Joe for all but one workshop so far, reserving the large, private room for the group regardless of attendance. As long as I reserve it at least a week ahead of time, I seem to be consistently able to get the room.

In addition, as I have to pay a minimum tab regardless of the turnout, for the second meeting in a row I’ve had the baristas to put everyone’s snacks and beverages on my card. It’s made tallying much easier at the end of the evening, and doesn’t cost me much more.

Presenting

The group was small enough that I believe everyone was able to see the hand-drawn wireflows. Handouts of my notes were used to augment my lecture, and the iPhone/LCD setup was not used. For most of the groups, their narrative led the presentation.

The Call to Action

Are you a UX, IA, UI, IxD, usability, visual or other sort of designer in Austin, TX? Come out for a design practice workshop on April 26th, from 7–9pm at Genuine Joe Coffeehouse (it’s on Anderson Lane up the road from the Alamo Drafthouse Village).

This workshop we’ll explore designing game mechanics for calendars and time management. Last workshop came up with some crazy ideas for calendar views, so this week we’ll talk about how they can work and design wireflows around them. Have you used game mechanics in a site, product or project?

Come a little early to get settled and get some coffee or a snack so we can start on time. When you arrive, tell the barista you’re with the design workshop. We’ll be in the large, private room (“The Cellar”) immediately to your right as you enter the shop. I’ll be there early to set up if you’d like to introduce yourself or discuss the meeting itself. Paper, markers and other materials will be provided.

Add this meeting to your Google Calendar, RSVP to this meeting on Facebook or on LinkedIn, or subscribe to this ICS feed in your calendaring app to get all of them. Questions? My name is Vitorio.

The Exercise

This was the second workshop using the “Right Way to Wireframe” workshop templates, which continue to work well. Extra-fine Sharpie markers continue to perform better than the normal fine points.

This was also the second meeting where I enforced timeboxing of each component of the exercise. I originally avoided timeboxing as I feared it would stifle creativity, but instead it seems to energize the discussion and provide extra motivation to perform.

Expenditures

I’m trying to run the meetings as inexpensively as possible, to make sure cost isn’t a barrier to others wanting to hold similar meetings.

Color copies
$48.90
Meeting room
$33.00

Total: $81.90 to host the eighth meeting, not including taxes, gas, etc.

Follow-up and follow-through

These notes continue to take an exorbitant amount of time to produce. Timeboxing the workshop makes taking notes from the audio easier, as I can piecemeal it better, but it’s still an hour or more of audio, plus assembling the scans and providing commentary. I’m really not sure what to do about it. I believe it’s valuable work, but this is only the second write-up I’ve managed to complete in the four months I’ve been holding workshops.