Today, we’re proud to announce a new creation from Jackson Fish Market. It’s a video game. Yes, a video game.
In some ways, creating a video game is the ultimate challenge of software design. Every option is at your disposable, and the only thing keeping anyone using is the possibility that it may be fun. Hard stuff!
Carrot Crazy combines adorable graphics, energetic music, and twenty-five challenging levels of arcade-style action. Crazy critters, fun powerups, and plenty of bonuses, keep things interesting throughout. Help Carl the cantankerous farmer plant and harvest his carrot fields. Carl’s friend and customer Jolene needs all the carrots she can get to make her organic juice. But watch out, annoying birds keep eating Carl’s carrot seeds, and pesky rabbits try to steal his carrots. But you never know what Carl has up his sleeve to deal with those varmints.
It’s our first ever full-fledged video game and we submitted it to Apple a few days ago. So, assuming all goes well, we’ll have it up in the store soon.
Jenny, Holly, and I created every last bit of Carrot Crazy. Visual/UI design, game/level design, music/audio, and programming are all courtesy of the three of us. If you’re in Seattle, and would like to check out Carrot Crazy before it’s out to the general public, come by our office (at the INScape building in the International District in Seattle) and play the game. (We have carrot shaped gummy candy too for anyone who comes by for a spin.)
We’ve kind of fallen in love with Carl and Jolene and hope you will too.
Let’s get this out of the way at the outset. LARP is an acronym that stands for Live Action Role Playing. Think Dungeons and Dragons, but running around in the woods in costumes and with fake swords. Or at least, that’s what I thought it was. But, it’s way more than that. It’s way more than I imagined anyway. Before I get into the details, let me give some background.
Here at Jackson Fish Market, we live and breathe user experience design. And for us, the highest calling of a great design is making the user feel… have an emotional experience. This is what we strive for in small and large ways. As my co-founder Jenny has said, in some ways, a game is the purest form of user experience design. The person playing the game doesn’t need to get their work done, or get a message to someone, they’re just there to feel something, to have fun. With other software, the user needs to accomplish a task. The software they’re using may be their only option for getting it done. But in the world of games, there are tens of thousands to choose from. And these days, a huge number are free.
One of the common themes in game design circles is the desire to tell a story. Countless failed efforts at “interactive fiction” and games designed with the input of Hollywood folks have left that dream for the most part unfulfilled. But for game designers, software is but one canvas. The resurgence of tabletop gaming is evidence that the thirst for gaming goes will beyond our obsession with our various screens. And for one group, the canvas of choice is the real world.
A LARP is an experience where a group of people enter a situation in character and play out a story. There are other people, the game runnners, who arrange plan the experience, the rules, any props, and any non-player characters. The key is this, whatever the scenario, whatever the environment, the players job is to stay in character and keep the game going no matter what. There are tools to pause the game and discuss how to proceed, but the magic of the LARP experience is to feel like you really are in a dungeon/spaceship/different era. And when someone stops the game, the suspension of disbelief takes a hit.
In a world where the internet is filled with trolls, and online games have griefers — players who like nothing better than to ruin the game for others — it’s difficult to imagine playing a LARP where someone doesn’t try to ruin it for everyone else. But as best I can tell, the LARP community is small enough and tightly knit to the point that this type of anti-social behavior is frowned upon. So for a niche group, a LARP can really be an experience that creates real emotion and transports you to another time and place. Whether this is something that could be reproduced for a much broader audience I wonder.
A few months ago I read online about a LARP that was being planned for March 2013 in Sweden. It would take place in the world of Battlestar Galactica. In in the real world it would take place on a Swedish destroyer that was now a museum. The LARP was billed as put on by the most hardcore and serious LARPers on the planet. Basically, this would be the ultimate LARP. Four six hour “episodes” spread across three days on a Swedish Destroyer. Fascinated with game design, and with extending user experiences beyond the screen, I decided, if I was going to experience a LARP, this was the one to try. I signed up.
To be quite honest, it was fantastic. Like a movie more than a videogame but I WAS IN IT. Maybe it was more like a play? A play that went on for twenty-four hours on an immersive set? If you’ll excuse the metaphor from another fictional universe, it was like the holodeck. It wasn’t perfect, but when everything was clicking there were a few truly magical moments where I believed I was in space aboard an old ship that had just survived the Cylon holocaust that destroyed most of humanity. I was THERE. Seriously. I know that I have a data set of exactly one, but given the reactions from some of the veteran LARPers that were there, I think it’s fair to say my positive assessment is not entirely because of the fact that this was my first LARP.
Before I dive into some of the details, it’s important to note that while there are many reasons why this LARP was so good, the most important decision the team made was to set it in the Battlestar Galactica universe. If you’re going to make a Harry Potter LARP, the players need to pretend to cast spells (and more importantly, pretend to be affected by them). If you’re going to make a superhero LARP you’re going to need to pretend to fly and use superpowers. But while BSG has space travel, and sentient humanoid robots, the technology in the show basically resembles what we have here on earth. In fact, to avoid Cylon infiltration, the survivors in the BSG universe had to go use old tech that wasn’t susceptible to Cylon technology. That kind of technology looks a lot like a Swedish Destroyer from the middle of the twentieth century.
Because the rebooted BSG television show was produced on a budget, many of the decisions they made about the storyline and context of the story were made to save money. In other words, the producers of the show the LARP were trying to emulate tried to use as many real world props, and inexpensive environments as they could. The TV producers’ decisions made it so much easier for the LARP producers to create an environment that really felt like you were in the world of Battlestar Galactica. One of my favorite examples is the octagonal paper and signage present throughout the TV show. Basically, you cut the corners off a piece of paper and voila, it’s from the world of BSG. When I first saw this on TV I thought it was kind of silly, but like most of the little details the TV producers used, it grew on me, and gave texture to that world. And wonderfully, it was pretty straightforward to reproduce in the LARP. All you needed was a pair of scissors.
Who was in attendance at this LARP of LARPs? I didn’t do a formal survey but for the one I attended (they put it on three times) it felt like over half the people (and maybe more) were somehow involved in the business of game design. Video game concept artists, Disney imagineers, tabletop game store owners, video game level designers, and more. Basically, this was an incredibly well-thought out LARP, set in a perfect and immersive universe, run by the most hardcore game runners in the LARP world, and attended by people who design games for a living. In other words, this was a professional game for game professionals. A perfect storm.
Oh, and I was there too.
I played a marine. I was equipped with a backstory a uniform, and some weapons as well. The uniform didn’t fit. And like the food that wasn’t good, it all helped me get into the mindset of being a Colonial Marine. I imagine that Marines just make do. And that the food on some random commercial spaceship that luckily survived the almost complete annihilation of humanity wouldn’t be that great. There was money — cubits they gave us. There were a few card decks with which to play Triad (BSG Poker). And throughout this old Swedish destroyer, octagonal signage, and screens connected to hardware controls that let you actually do stuff that mattered – like fly and repair the ship. Or run scientific experiments that had a bearing on the story. Honestly the level of detail, and thoughtfulness put into this experience was nothing short of amazing.
You didn’t fly the ship with a joystick. You flew the ship in three dimensional space. Planning jumps. Reading sensors. Plotting coordinates. Math and stuff. Apparently the first version of the interface for flying the ship was so realistic, some PhDs in Astrophysics had a hard time getting it right. After some retooling the game organizers came up with some great teamwork inducing mini-games that let a group fo people in the CIC (that’s BSG speak for “bridge”) fly the ship pretty well. Yet another detail that was super well thought out.
But it wasn’t just environment, there was a story too. A good story. Playing with a bunch of game designers meant that not only was nobody trying to ruin the game for anyone else, everyone was almost nervous that they might ruin the game for others. So people played with a light touch, trying to read signals about what others wanted to do. It was actually quite nice. And everyone understood the basic rhythm of a good story, so everyone was content to let the tension and revelations build over time until the end of the experience where things came to a head. Creating a story that 140 people can guide in a freeform fashion is no small feat. The game runners did just that however. Often repeating the pattern of balancing three elements of the story, three choices, three sources of leverage with each other so there were always interesting directions in which the story could proceed. It was never A or B. It was almost always A, B, or C. And when key inciting events had to happen, the game runners were able to deliver those moments to the players either via the technology built just for the LARP or by the introduction of non-player-characters played by the game runners themselves. If you know anything about Battlestar Galactica I can’t tell you how disquieting it is to know that there are unidentified Cylons aboard your ship, and then suddenly see twins. Anyone familiar with the TV show knows that this is the telltale sign that you’re in deep shit.
The other players were really quite great. All of them trying their hardest to really live the experience, never break character, and make the game fun for themselves and others. They were also nice enough to help me with my crazy marine uniform (I would make a super crappy soldier) and advise me on the secret of LARPers — chocolate. When you’re on guard duty on a cold space ship, making sure a Cylon doesn’t escape, and you’re starving, a Caprican chocolate bar tucked away in one of your pockets can be a real life saver.
I want to take a moment to thank the organizers of the Celestra LARP including Martin, Cecilia, and Adriana. They were just one tenth of the team that put this on, but they were some of the folks I got to talk to in more detail at the afterparty over beers. They did an amazing job and I’m super grateful. (There’s also a Facebook page with lots of pictures and videos.) I’d also like to thank all my fellow LARPers — newbies and veterans alike who made it a super fun experience. I heard rumors that maybe this experience will come to the U.S. If they do put it on again, or frankly, if this group of folks put on any LARP again, I urge you to attend. If you have even one of the magical transporting moments that I did, I promise it will be worth it.
So say we all.
There is this common element in user interfaces on every device and on every platform. Here’s how it goes: You press a button or a link or some piece of UI that does “something”. The next thing you see is a small dialog box asking you “Are you sure you want to do [that something]?”. If there were a hall of fame for irritating dialog boxes, this one would be its first inductee.
Here’s the inner monologue running through my brain when I encounter one of these in the wild: “Am I sure? Well of course I’m sure. I just clicked the button. Did you forget already? Are you having some sort of memory overload? Did I not look serious when I pressed that button? Or is there a big problem where users are accidentally clicking on that button so you need to confirm their intent a nanosecond after they request you do something?”
You get the idea.
Here’s why software developers put in the “Are you sure…” dialog (or as I like to call it — the CYA dialog). Invariably, there are things that you can do in software that make changes. Sometimes permanent changes. And sometimes permanent changes to your data. So… before the software will perform a destructive action on your behalf, they want you to be sure of the implications of your decision. This is a fine thing when you’re erasing a hard drive. In fact, if you’re about to erase a hard drive, or delete an account, feel free to put in multiple CYA dialogs, and move the buttons around so nobody can click them accidentally by rote. But in the normal cases, stop asking me. Just do as you’re told.
Now, we recognize that there are certain situations that are less potentially dangerous than erasing your entire hard drive, but still could cause heartache for the user if performed without the user being aware of the full implications of their decision. And there are steps to mitigate this:
- Undo. If the action is going to destroy some data, just save a copy of it, so after the action is performed, the user can un-perform that action. Yes, this is more work. Yes, this is a pain. But you are delivering safety and confidence to your user.
- Limited time undo. Let’s say that maintaining the ability for the user to undo their action isn’t impossible, but really expensive. Give them a limited time after completing the action. You could give them one chance post-destructive action to undo it, OR, give them a time limit (24 hours?) to undo their action, and then the changes are permanent. There are lots of minor variations on this scheme.
- Eliminate the functionality. That’s right. Just get rid of it. If the functionality is so dangerous, perhaps your users can live without it. Is there another way to solve this problem? Do users really need this particular feature? Etc.
- Better messaging around the action. If this information is so important that you need to put it in a dialog… just put it up front around the button in the first place.
Software that’s filled with scary warning messages is not a product that anyone falls in love with. They may use it, but they won’t love it.
It used to be enough that a piece of technology existed. It used to be enough that now we could do something we couldn’t do before. Whether it was adding up a column of numbers, or WYSIWYG editing of a document, or listening to music, or editing a movie, or the web! But creating new categories of software is a hard task. It’s happening less and less. And the number of entrants in each category is only increasing. This is the sign of a maturing (and saturated) industry. What to do with the 72nd app in an existing category? How will anyone notice your new to-do list app? Or your amazing new word processing software? Will anyone pay attention to yet another social network?
Have no fear. There is a weapon in your arsenal that you can use to attack this problem. That weapon is design. And don’t worry, using the weapon effectively is hard enough that merely knowing that design is the answer is no guarantee that of success.
The key in distinguishing your software experience is expressing focus through design. And the first step is answering the question of “why”. Why are you making a new app in this already overpopulated category? What makes you so much better? You don’t have to prove that your better empirically. You don’t have to have a longer list of features. What you need to do is believe in your heart that your solution makes the competition look like antiquated garbage, and then convey your belief through the magic of focus and design in your experience.
Does your product do something better than the competitor? Then build your entire identity around that advantage. (e.g. the iPod vs. every other MP3 player in existence when it was launched. And what did the iPod do better? It played music better. It did this by eliminating features and distractions and focusing on the main reason you bought the device in the first place.)
Does your product turn their liability into your advantage? Then lead with that. (e.g. GMail’s near unlimited storage vs. the constant hitting of storage limits on Hotmail and Yahoo Mail.)
Does your product simply look ten times better than the competition? (e.g. Flipboard vs. every RSS reader that was out there.)
Let’s take a look at Flipboard. Flipboard had less content than the competition, less customization than the competition, ran on fewer platforms than the competition, and yet made the competition look terrible. And even in terms of design, Flipboard had less. A few standard templates, simple clean typography, and one simple animation. The flip. It’s not fancy. It’s not technically challenging. It’s not even necessarily coherent with the visual design. It’s just simple and to a certain degree — arresting (because nothing else did featured this animation so prominently). And yet, the reaction to it is visceral. Because it was different. And what did Flipboard do? They made it the centerpiece of their identity. It’s in their name. They even counted “flips” and claimed it was a meaningful statistic to show off about.
What is the flip? The flip is Flipboard’s “signature moment”. We’ll cover these in detail in another chapter, but you should understand, this simple animation done in the context of all their other focusing decisions makes Flipboard stand out.
Having a hard time knowing how to differentiate yourself? The answer doesn’t seem obvious? Break the rules. Reverse your assumptions.
This doesn’t always work, but it’s a good method for getting your creative thinking going. Want to make a web encyclopedia that competes with the printed versions? Don’t have a huge expensive staff? What if anyone could edit it? Anonymously!
Want to compete with a relatively simple to use blogging platform with millions of users (Blogger)? What if you made a blogging platform that was even simpler (Tumblr)? Or how about one that was even simpler than that (Twitter)? Or how about one that’s way more powerful (WordPress)?
There are no right answers here other than to avoid the assumptions that govern the current winner in your category like the plague. The things that made them successful now constrain their growth. They have an audience that likes their focus. Your job is to come up with a truly different take to peel off users for whom their solution doesn’t quite work.
Visual design is another area where you have an opportunity to say something different. And again, some of the best distinctive visual design is a result of the kind of thinking we discussed above. Let’s take an example for the consumer products world – Smartfood Popcorn. At the time, retail snacks simply didn’t come in black bags. Period. “It just isn’t done.” When someone utters those words, that’s the smell of blood — and you’re a shark. It’s not that you should recklessly pursue things that aren’t done. Because sometimes there are good reasons they’re not done. But, often, there’s some small notion you can cultivate from those assumptions to help you stand out. Smartfood shipped in a black bag. The world didn’t end. People bought it. People ate it. Smartfood succeeded.
Think great visual design needs to be expensive? Take Minecraft or Doodlejump. In an age of videogames costing tens of millions of dollars to produce… In an age where video game graphics look almost like Pixar films. These two games were produced with relatively low-tech graphics. Minecraft went super low-res with pixelated cube graphics representing every object in their world, and Doodlejump was literally that — a bunch of hand-drawn doodles jumping around on your screen. They looked like anyone could have drawn them. Both are hugely successful, both stood out, both were not considered state-of-the-art visual design.
Applying great design in the context of tight focus is what makes things stand out. Getting specific and niche is not a liability, it’s a tool to let you distinguish your product in a crowded marketplace.
And don’t worry, if you succeed, you can always expand your focus later and become the sprawling all-encompassing market leader that you’re now trying to unseat.