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Gaming academic Jesse Schell expounds on chocofication and motivating players to play and pay (interview)

Jesse Schell, a game designer and professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of the leading academic thinkers and communicators in video games. He raised his profile in 2010 when he gave a talk, “Beyond Facebook,” at the industry conference the DICE Summit that got more than a million views on sites such as YouTube and TED.

“That was shocking to me because I’m a college professor, and I’m not used to having people listen to what I say,” Schell, who is also the chief executive officer of Schell Games, said at his second appearance last week at the DICE Summit 2013.

In his 2010 talk, he urged Zynga to go to real-money gambling. That turned out to be prescient. He also predicted the iPad would fail because it was like a Swiss Army knife that didn’t do any one thing great. That prediction was a dud. He also foresaw that gamification, where non-game companies used game-like mechanics to spur customer engagement, could be applied to such a large swath of activities in the real world. That spurred the creation of a gamification industry, which was a strange side effect since Schell wasn’t saying this was a good idea at all. He also predicted an onrush of “authenticity,” something that fans expect and want from all of the entertainment, products, and services they embrace. His message in 2010 was that “games have crept out and are going everywhere.”

At this year’s DICE, Schell returned with a talk on “the secret mechanisms,” which was loaded with a million ideas and a million expert opinions. He made some keen observations about the hype curve and what’s hot in games. He noted that Zynga was hyped, it crashed, and everyone dumped on it, and it may now be poised for a more realistic comeback.

Schell thought that the gamification hype was off base because those companies are applying a one-size-fits-all solution, and they are failing to consider the nuances in what motivates people. He believes game designers carefully study the psychology of seeking out pleasure and how it is different from avoiding pain. Done poorly, gamification can be as dumb as “chocofication,” or making vegetables sweet so kids will eat them.

A good way for developers to entice gamers is to invite them to engage in plans, like figuring out how to reach goals in titles. But Schell worries about the mad rush into free-to-play games — not because it’s a good way to reach a wider audience. Rather, he worries about properly motivating players and distinguishing between work and play. When players want a game so much that they’re willing to pay $60 upfront, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you create a free-to-play game and then create frustrating hurdles so that the player is forced to pay money in a microtransaction, then it becomes a pain. If you trick players into playing a game that forces them to pay, they may resent you and quit.

jesse schell 5“There are different channels in the brain for seeking positive consequences and avoiding negative consequences,” he said. “These games promise you utopia, and then you find yourself in chains. That’s the part that’s frustrating.” It would “suck” to make a game like Skyrim into a free-to-play title where you have to buy things to make progress. He pointed out that Disneyland started out with tickets, or microtransactions, and then shifted to a single ticket price. Disneyland’s revenues have gone up because people like to pay one price up front and then do whatever they want. Payment systems have to be fair.

“People are willing to sacrifice to get into utopia,” Schell said. “Every single one of us is searching for utopia … . In utopia, you don’t screw people out of nickels and dimes.”

To get to that utopia in games, Schell advocates creating social games that don’t use gimmicks to get you addicted. Rather, he wants social gaming that makes you feel more connected to friends and family. He believes games with magical interfaces will be appealing. And he wants companies to make people into better people, or the people they want to be.

“We are shifting into an enjoyment-based economy,” he said. “And who knows more about making enjoyment than game developers. Fake marketing bullshit isn’t going to work anymore. You have to bring people to the promised land. Then you will be in an excellent place.”

Schell hasn’t figured everything out. He tried his hand last fall at an idea that allowed players to suggest the course of a game that designers were creating, episode by episode. Schell Games created Puzzle Clubhouse to crowdsource games, but it didn’t work out. Schell Games is moving on to an interesting new idea that allows players to propose their own ideas for a game that professional developers can then create.

After his talk, we caught up with him for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript.

GamesBeat: Tell us about pleasure and pain pathways and why it matters in games. 

Schell: For me, it was a huge insight that, when you’re looking at the neuroscience of the brain, we have different systems for seeking out pleasure and different systems for avoiding pain. When we think about it as designers, we just think about it as, “Oh, we’re incentivizing the player.” We think about just one thing. But you can feel it as a player when it shifts over.

This is one of the problems with free-to-play. It lures you in initially with pleasure-seeking or reward-seeking behavior, and then it gradually shifts over to pain avoidance. Don’t let your friends down. You’ve got this, and you might lose it if you don’t do something. You plant the strawberries, and if you don’t harvest them, you’re going to lose the money and everyone’s going to see your wilted crops.

jesse schell 2GamesBeat: This is what winds up not being fun — or frustrating players.

Schell: It’s part of the tool for slow seduction of players into something that isn’t fun anymore. Something that starts out fun becomes gradually less fun. You still want to do it as much. If you’re looking at the player incentive, it stays level, until one day it suddenly drops off. I love the way [my colleague] says it. People don’t just stop playing Facebook games. They divorce them. That’s why.

GamesBeat: Is it similar to gambling in that way? Gambling lures you in, but it doesn’t wind up being that much fun.

Schell: For some people, it does. You could draw the similarity to if you’re gambling and you fall behind. Initially, you start out, and you’ve got your pot of money. You hope to leverage it into a big win. I think about gambling a lot because it’s interesting, and it’s hard to think about. If you go in with a pot of money and you say, “If I lose this all, it’s OK,” then you never get into it. If you go in and you say, “I’ve got this much money, but I don’t want to lose it all. I’m OK with putting up half,” but then you feel like you should dig in to that second half, then you get into that bad place of pain avoidance. “I gotta get my pot back, or I’m screwed. I shouldn’t have bet the company payroll on this.”

GamesBeat: The gamification trend did happen, but you weren’t seriously suggesting that everybody should jump into gamification and make businesses out of it, were you?

Schell: Even though a lot of these things are possible, it’s much harder than people realize. In order to have one that’s successful, you have to understand something new about human psychology. You have to have a system that layers into it perfectly. People aren’t good at thinking about what it is that makes game structures work. They just see a game structure, and they say, “I’ll take that and put it over here.”

The problem is that game structures are very much based on psychological context. The frequent flyer mile system is arguably a gamified system that works really well. It’s been around for 30 years. But if you take it and put it into the grocery store, it doesn’t work there. The psychology is different. Other systems work in the grocery store because they work on grocery-store psychology. You have to understand the psychology of your environment. It’s great that lots of people are trying experiments, but it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be experimental. At least 90 percent of them are going to fail. They won’t quite get it right.

A common one is the notion of streaks. There’s a lot of these sites that are set up. “Hey, you want to learn a language or practice the guitar? Sign up here, and every day that you do it, we’ll put in a mark, and you’ll see your good streak. That’ll make you want to keep the momentum.” That sounds good. It gives you little rewards at five or 10 days in a row. The problem is, once you miss one day, suddenly you have a record of your failure. It makes you not want to look at it. It makes you not want to do it. It makes you disengage from the system. Suddenly, this becomes an embarrassment. It’s pain avoidance. There’s a lot of subtle things like that to navigate around if you’re going to make system like that succeed in the long term.

GamesBeat: Pain avoidance can motivate, but it can also be the thing that crashes you off-course and makes you quit a game.

Schell: Right. It can motivate you until the long-term goal doesn’t seem worth it anymore. World of Warcraft is a good example. People get into it. They’re leveling up. They see all these spaces for the first time. Gradually, they build a social obligation with their guild. Suddenly, you have to be there every Saturday night, or they’re going to be disappointed. Then you’ve squeezed a lot of the initial juice out of it. You still have that obligation, but eventually you’re like, “I don’t care about this anymore.” You cut it off.

bunchball gamificationGamesBeat: With a 90 percent failure rate in gamification, that’s kind of just like games, right? Ninety percent of games are duds.

Schell: Sure. And I don’t think there’s anything unusual about that. It’s the old Sturgeon’s law: 90 percent of everything is crap. There have been a number of people who’ve painted gamification as if it’s a magic wand that solves all your problems. It’s more like a surgeon’s tool than a hammer. You have to know how to use it right, or it’s not going to go so well.

GamesBeat: Some gamification companies — [like Bunchball] — have claimed some successes. Adobe Photoshop has a tutorial in it now that has a gamified rewards system.

Schell: Microsoft did the same thing. We did the Ribbon Hero experience in the new version of Microsoft Office.

GamesBeat: They’re claiming that more people complete the tutorials now whereas before nobody bothered with them.

Schell: Right. They seemed onerous. Why would I learn features I don’t need to learn? When you’ve got a system like that, it encourages you to complete them all. Even something simple like LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s got a little progress bar. It wants you to do things like sign up 10 of your friends. It does that near the end. At the beginning it’s like, “You put in your name. 20 percent progress! How about some other information?” People want to fill in that progress bar. They like to complete a task. They like to check a box.

GamesBeat: These things are no-brainers at this point. Are you waiting for them to take it to the next level, or do it better?

Schell: It’s always case by case. The people who try to take a general-purpose gamification system and overlay it to everything, I always put a wary eye towards that. The mechanisms that work for different things and different cases tend to be very different. I prefer to take the approach of, “Let’s get to the fundamental psychology.” If you’re trying to do this, you’re trying to solve a problem. You’ve got a system, and you’re like, “I want it to be different.” You have to get to the basics of, “Why do you want it to be different? How do you need it to change?” Then you need to gradually look at, “What are some systems that can enact that transformation?” Game-like systems may be a part of it, but they may not.

I get a little frustrated with the phrase “gamification” because people say it, but it’s not what they mean. They don’t mean they want it to be more like a game. They really mean they want the experience to be more pleasurable. There’s a lot of ways to make your experience more pleasurable. It could just be giving you simple feedback. Games do that pretty well, usually, but giving simple feedback doesn’t turn something into a game. Maybe your interface is ugly. Make it less ugly. Make it clearer and easier to figure out what buttons to touch. Games do that, but you can do that and not have it be a game. I tend to prefer the phrase “motivational.” Motivational design. People want to improve the motivational design of something, so that people have different motivations for using the system.

striiv gamificationGamesBeat: Fitness is picking up on gamification a lot now. I’ve got one of these health trackers myself. I talked to the Basis people, and they were saying, “We decided not to go too far with games and gamification because people don’t really think of their health as a game. They think of it is as more serious business.”

Schell: I know plenty of people who think of golf as serious business. It’s a game. The Olympics are games. People think of them as serious business. I get where you’re coming from there. I can see why they might say that, but that does feel a little weird to me.

GamesBeat: They do have the regular achievements and goals that you would set.

Schell: Well, then they have a game.

GamesBeat: But not something like the fantasyland Striiv [pictured right] has, where you collect coins and build castles.

Schell: There’s an interesting piece of psychology people don’t realize. It’s an interesting thing to notice about sports. The thing that all sports have in common is that they have no fantasy elements, which is a little weird. Chess is just an abstract game, but it has fantasy elements. It has kings and queens and knights. Sports never have that. There’s no sport that has a king or a queen or a castle or anything like that.

There is something about being in the real world. It has to do with fundamental ways of thinking. There are people in this world who are repelled by fantasy systems. They seem childish to those people. They lose interest in them. I think this is a fundamental psychological split. Some people paint it as the jock and nerd split, but I think it’s a little different from that. We’re going to be confronting it now that we’re having systems like the Fuel band and systems that can track you while you’re outside. More people are going to try to make them into fantasy games. There’s a lot of barriers to overcome because there’s something deep in us psychologically that repels us from playing fantasy games in a public context.

oculus riftGamesBeat: What are some things that seem like they’re in a hype cycle to you?

Schell: Google Glass. There’s inflated expectations about the potential of Google Glass. None of us know how that’s going to go down. As you and I know, no matter how good it is when it comes out, everyone will be disappointed. [Laughs] The Oculus Rift.

GamesBeat: Virtual reality?

Schell: Yeah. People are expecting that to be the second coming. It sounds like a good helmet, but helmets have their problems. We’re all going to face that. Oh, another one that’s getting a lot of hype right now is the Leap Motion. It’s a fingertip tracker. It’s about the size of an iPhone. You can put your hands in the space above it, and it can very accurately track your fingertips. A lot of people who haven’t tried it feel like, “Now it can be Tom Cruise in Minority Report.” We haven’t gotten to a hype cycle for Xbox 361 or whatever they’re calling yet, or the PS4, but that’ll be coming soon.

GamesBeat: In all of the platform wars going on right now, what do you think is going to happen? The iPad was a surprise to everybody, but does it eat everybody else?

Schell: Technologies always diverge. We know that. There are a few technologies coming into play at once, which will make the console wars hard to predict. Of the key technologies that I think will make the difference, number one is going to be the tablet. The tablet is going to fuse with the console in some way we don’t understand yet. The Wii U is an interesting first step, but the tablet can’t leave the living room. That’s not really a tablet. People don’t take that seriously as a tablet. It’s just a novel game controller. But someone’s going to make one that can leave.

The other part of it is, someone’s going to do a good job of fusing thumbsticks with the tablet. That’s sorely lacking right now because as magical as touch-screen interfaces can be, they are not good for navigating three-dimensional spaces. People have tried dozens of experiments, and there are some methods that are okay, but there are none that are great. Every single one of them feels like a less fulfilling version of the thumbstick. Someone is going to crack that nut. If they’re going to do that, they’re probably going to find a way to bridge between the TV and the tablet. Who it’s going to be, I don’t know, but that’s an important piece.

I also think cloud gaming is going to sneak up on everybody and upset the market. But who is it going to come from? Is it going to come from Sony because they bought Gaikai? Is it going to come from Apple because they have Apple TV in place? Is it going to be some dark horse that shows up and makes a deal with the cable companies, and suddenly everyone with Comcast has an awesome cloud gaming system? I don’t know.

The third part of that is, new devices may upset the market a little bit. Microsoft or Nintendo could cook up some crazy new thing for the living room that we didn’t see. That could tip things around.

kinectGamesBeat: Do you think that a more accurate Kinect or a gestural system would have a future?

Schell: These systems will have a future because people like to dance. But what we haven’t seen yet is anyone successfully using motion control to redefine a genre. New genres, sure. Dance games are a new genre. But you have not heard anyone say, “Wow, this is like Zelda,but better because it has motion.” We don’t have that yet. It’s a big question. Can we get there, or is motion more of a novelty that allows for new genres? If someone can do that, that’ll be a big deal because the important thing with the motion-sensing systems is that they’re not portable. They’re not going to be good for the PC. They’re going to want to be in the living room.

Eye tracking is going to sneak up on everybody. We’ve been using the LC Technologies EyeFollower at the school. I don’t know if you’ve seen that thing. It’s mind-blowing.

GamesBeat: I saw one thing, a demo that Intel showed at [the Consumer Electronics Show]. It was a Where’s Waldo game that would track your eye and tell you if you hit Waldo or not.

Schell: Yeah. We’ve had eye-tracking technology for a long time, but it’s always been kind of flaky. It doesn’t always work that well. The EyeFollower is a mind-blowing piece of technology. You can be doing the Kinect, and this thing tracks your eyes at the same time. We started making games with it at the school. I wasn’t quite sure at first — maybe it was going to just feel awkward trying to play games with your eyes.

We control our eyes much more unconsciously than we control the other parts of our body. More so than we control our hands. Our hands can be a little bit unconscious, but our eyes are just naturally, unconsciously controlled. When you get the game right, it feels like you’re just thinking about what to do, and the character in the game does it. It’s a great feeling.

I think the eye tracking is going to have implications for games and for user interface in general. My simple envelope math says that by the year 2020, or somewhere between 2020 and 2025, devices like tablets are going to have a high enough camera resolution that they can do good enough eye tracking and that can be part of your interface. That’s going to be a magical interface. I talked about magical interfaces in my talk yesterday. I think that will be a magical one. It’s going to revolutionize games and interfaces in general.

GamesBeat: The Google Glass people have observed that your eye is much more accurate at hitting targets than, say, your hand.

Schell: Oh, yeah. Your eye can track a target that’s just moving around. We have brain hardware that’s all about tracking targets. If you’re in a moving car and you look out the window, it’s very hard to keep your eyes still. Your eyes are grabbing everything because that’s what they do. They grab and lock.

For new interfaces to take over old genres, they have to be better than what you had before. So far, most of the new motion interfaces aren’t better. They don’t let me shoot better or move faster or be more accurate or put out less effort. Eye tracking could do a lot of those things.

jesse schell 3GamesBeat: One thing I’d worry about is the accidental eye click or something. You’re just looking around and you don’t mean to zero in on something, but it brings up a menu in your eye.

Schell: Oh, yeah. That would be a problem, obviously. The answer may be some mixed hand and eye system. Let the hands do what they’re good at, which is pushing buttons, and let the eyes do what they’re good at, which is motion in a two-dimensional space. What I do know is that for the games we’ve created, when you get it right, it feels really good. In fact, some of it makes for good game structure. I want to look over here, but I know that if I do that, it’s going to cause a problem. But I can do it for a little bit. The notion that taking a glance at my enemy puts me at risk for a moment, but I get information about the enemy, that’s a good game balance. There are parts of it that I think can work well. There will be big challenges, though, figuring out the right way to do it.

GamesBeat: Did that pleasure revolution talk generate a lot of feedback or create more learning for you?

Schell: I got some feedback about it. Part of the reason I like to give the talks is that it makes me think about things that I might be too lazy to think about on my own. The talks create a pressure to think about things. I don’t think I could have done the talk I did now if I hadn’t done the explorations that were part of that talk. For me, it’s cemented in a new view of human psychology. I’m fooling around with the idea of another book that’s kind of about that.

The way I tend to think of it is, I’ve learned to see certain mental structures as real things. I was talking about that difference between fantasy-oriented people and reality-oriented people. I’ve never heard of anyone formally studying that, but I feel like I can see it. I talk to people, and I get to the point where I feel like I can identify which one you are. Knowing about those real structures is necessary if you’re going to successfully navigate the games space.

GamesBeat: Have you found something that you think is a great mobile game? Something that could help the whole category take off?

Schell: I don’t think the mobile game category need any help taking off. It’s already taken off. It’s kicking everybody’s butt. There’s a ton of good mobile games.

GamesBeat: I’m thinking from maybe a company point of view. No single company except Apple is dominating this thing. It’s not like any one of these many, many games is starting to be the one that everybody gravitates to. It’s more like there’s this explosion of games all over that are doing well.

Schell: Right. That’s partly because it’s a massively open market. Apple doesn’t want anyone to get momentum in it, so they don’t allow it much. When the market is that open and it’s so easy for people to enter and it’s still exploratory, it’s going to be a terrifying red ocean. Not only that, but probably 90 percent of the people in the market don’t care if they lose money. Most of the indie guys are like, “Hey, I just want to get a game out there.” They cross their fingers a little bit, but they don’t necessarily believe they’re going to make money at it. Then you’ve got guys like Rovio.

They just kept buying lottery tickets until they won. It’s probably not fair to call them lottery tickets because they were honing their craft, and they were getting better and better. But have they had a string of successful new franchises since then? They’ve successfully riffed on their existing franchise, but the truth is, it’s just really hard to consistently find something new that’s going to succeed in a crowded, passion-based market. That’s the key. This is a passion-based market. People are willing to lose money in order to go for it.

schell-2We’re going to be making an announcement at [South by Southwest] about something new we’re doing at Schell Games that is all about that. You remember Puzzle Clubhouse from before, right? This is the next generation of Puzzle Clubhouse. We did Puzzle Clubhouse, and people liked it. We had a good response. But it wasn’t quite taking off the way we wanted it to. We looked at why, and we realized that with Puzzle Clubhouse, we were saying, “We’re gonna make a game a month. Come help us.” That’s fine, but people showed up and said, “I have a game idea! How can I get that in here?” We didn’t have a good way to really support everybody’s game ideas because of the way we had this rigid time cycle.

We’ve closed the door on it for now. The games are still up there, but we’ve kind of put it into a cocoon. We’re hoping this butterfly is going to come out at SXSW, which is where we say the opposite. We say, “You have a game idea? Bring it to us.” The community will vote on it, and we’ll start prototyping it. If it gets voted up enough, we’ll make it. We’ll sell it. We’ll split the money with you. We’re all very excited about that. We don’t have a name for it yet because we’re still fussing that through legal, but hopefully we’ll have that set for SXSW.

GamesBeat: Is there a model for that? Somebody else doing something like that in the film industry or something?

Schell: There are two systems that are closest to it. There’s one called Tongal, which is crowdsourcing of viral advertising videos. There’s another one called Quirky, which you might now. It’s for inventions. Someone invents a new broom handle, they bring it there, and this industrial design company might turn it into a product. We’ve watched both Tongal and Quirky and we’re looking at where they’re succeeding and where they’re failing. We’re trying to learn from that.

The game development cycle is very different. One of the things that’s exciting about the games cycle in terms of crowdsourcing is that people love to comment on what they like and don’t like about games. It’s very easy to put up an initial prototype. People want to say, “Hey, I like this,” or “I think there should be lasers!” People are very interested in that. I’m excited because it allows a level of participation that some of these other things don’t allow.

I’m very passionate about game education. In a sense, this is a new way to do game education. We can work with and mentor people in this very public forum.

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