Thinking Like a Gamer — A design thinking approach to video game design
A very short history of game design
In the last decade we’ve shifted to a new era where video games no longer require a computer, Playstation, X-Box, or Nintendo console. Now, everyone has access to a gaming console right in their pocket. This new widespread access is changing how games are made.
Historically, there has been a “fire and forget” approach to game design. A company designs a game, launches it, and doesn’t have to touch it again until the sequel. Today, games are no longer built by game designers for game players only, but they are made for a broader audience.
Now, games are a living service with continuous updates impacting hundreds of millions of users. With this widespread impact comes a need to better serve customers by maximizing joy, satisfaction, and entertainment.
At King, the maker of the Candy Crush Saga among others, optimizing the customer experience means setting business objectives to include human touch at every part of the product. We caught up with Customer Focused Innovation d.school alumni Alvaro Duarte (former Head of R&D at King) and his colleague Chris Grant (former Senior Director: Player Experience and Design) to learn how design thinking is informing their approach to game design in this new era.
Maximizing joy in the gaming experience
Initial data analysis and user research revealed a discrepancy between what purchasable premium offerings actually afforded users. Spending on premium offerings was perceived by some users as cheating, while others felt purchasing premium offerings was frivolous. However, the truth is, we spend on plenty of experiences that may not be rational or necessary to our basic survival, but that enhance our joy.
The problem King is faced with, is to better understand how to provide offerings that increase users’ joy, satisfaction and entertainment, and are aligned with what they value. Here was an opportunity to implement design thinking as a tool to better understand user experience.
Design thinking has forced the team to grapple with the key differences between them and most of our players. The team proudly plays and pays for games. Most players don’t. This divide means King needs to find ways to sell products to players that fit their mental models about the roles of games in their lives and the need to pay for games.
Timely implementation led to the swift launch of a new product
What’s most impressive about King’s implementation of design thinking is the timing. In a short six months — in the midst of winter holidays and a global pandemic — King went from learning about the design thinking approach and introducing the new methodology to their team, to launching a new product based on the results of the design thinking process. A significant part of introducing design thinking to a team is garnering buy-in. King’s ability to implement rather quickly could be attributed to other ways they were preparing their team for new methods.
Alvaro and I have been on a quest to make King more player-centric. It started with evangelizing player research, then moved to UX methods and is now focused on design thinking and learning. Luckily, by the time design thinking rolled around, our teams were already quite onboard with player-centricity, so they jumped at the chance to apply a new methodology.
A two — day design thinking workshop in Barcelona talking to users and gamers, led King to the following results:
- Users found value in premium offerings attached to greater meaning. As a result King developed an offering that partners with a charity to provide users with a sense of community contribution.
- King discovered that improved documentation was an opportunity to more clearly communicate the value of the offerings to users with the hope of driving increased and authentic incentive.
Designers at King are thinking about gameplay differently
Tapping into the user experience in this way shifted the way designers approached their work, as they more readily centered the player experience versus their own, and were able to observe how player insights could influence their design decisions.
R&D is now using a design thinking-inspired process called “focused ideation” to generate the ideas for our newest experiments.
Teams are insisting on having player insights and time for an “empathize” phase before going into any kind of solution mode.
Teams are now aware that they are not the users, or players in our case. For many, they had never actually shown one of their designs to a player in real life, which is always an invigorating and eye-opening experience. So designers are more humble about their work, eager to player test it, and excited to watch tests of other designs.
Results of the design thinking approach led King to create a game that was more engaging rather than a gameplay loop that simply increased in difficulty, and was able to incentivize users with offerings more closely aligned with their motivations. The process also uncovered the role design thinking plays in better understanding and empathizing with how a team operates and using those insights to cultivate an environment that honors existing methodologies and enables them to take on new ones.
One of the biggest insights we’ve had is that to drive player-centricity, you must first change the mindset of the team itself. To do that you need to make them your first “user” and empathise with them and their model of the world before you try and evolve it to include new mental models and to use new methodologies. When we hire designers that care about the team as much as the user, we leverage their design skill to push forward the change we are creating at King, while strengthening the team along the way.
Interested in bringing design thinking to your organization? The d.school Design Thinking Bootcamp guides leaders in introducing design thinking to their teams, to foster new ways of thinking and action new ways of doing. Learn more, here.
This article is authored by Sundai Johnson. She’s a dynamic storyteller, Stanford Graduate, and friend of the Stanford d.school.