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If you’ve worked in games and technology long enough, you have your super fans, the people who you can turn to when you’re designing a product that is targeted at a certain group of enthusiasts. They are the high value, early customers. And sadly, with the state of the internet, you may also have your super haters. So, who should you listen to when you’re trying to be inspired to create something wonderful?

I talked about this subject with Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain and the leader of a movement that she calls Game Thinking. We spoke to a group of game designers and app creators at the recent Samsung Developers Conference in San Francisco, where the theme focused on connected thinking.

Our session was dubbed an “ask me anything” session, though we asked each other most of the questions. Kim was pretty clear that super fans will help you while super haters are a distraction.

I talked about my own experience with super haters who didn’t like the way I played Cuphead, which, at least in my book, is a fairly difficult new game for the Xbox One game console. I was a super noob at that game, and it showed in a video I posted. The whole internet seemed to hate that video, making me wonder whether they had a point. To Kim, it raised questions about just how accessible products should be. For me, it was a kind of therapeutic session.


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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Above: The Sims will continue under new leadership.

Image Credit: EA

Dean Takahashi: Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain, has been a game designer for decades. She worked on big games like The Sims and Ultima Online for Electronic Arts, Rock Band for Harmonix, and Covet Fashion for Crowdstar. She has applied that knowledge gained from game design and turned it into what she calls Game Thinking. When did you first start thinking about applying your game design knowledge more broadly to all sorts of product designs?

Amy Jo Kim: I had been working in game design. I was, at the time, working with the Ultima Online team. Do … any of you remember Ultima Online? The few, the proud. One of the pivotal experiences of my life. I was working with the Ultima Online team, helping them fix their reputation system. Maybe some of your ran afoul of the reputation system or the housing system or one of those systems. I’m a system designer. I was working on fixing the systems, balancing them, and so on.

At the same time, eBay brought me in and had me working on their reputation system. Also, there was no profile system. The “about me” system, the eBay profiles, did not exist. I helped invent those. The power seller program, where they had rewards for sellers, did not exist. I helped come up with that. Here’s the kicker — eBay’s reputation system, the famous reputation system that led them to success, when I started working with them, it wasn’t tied to transactions at all. Let that sink in for a minute. There were these huge arguments internally about whether we should tie it to transactions. Crazy, right?

But going through that, part of why they hired me to help and part of the heavy lifting I did, was translating for the execs at eBay why something like a tiered power seller system, as opposed to just you’re behind the velvet rope and you’re not — why that would be a good thing. Why you would create a low tier for people to get into and go to the next one and the next. That’s classic game design psychology. And then for the reputation system, why it was so important to tie it to transactions, how to do that, how to balance it, all of that. A lot of the knowledge I brought to eBay for those systems came out of my experience in games.

Takahashi: Games are engaging. One thing that’s engaging about them is climbing this ladder of achievement. The connection you draw for is product design … why don’t all products have this?

Kim: What was interesting is the history since then with gamification, how that rose and then there was some disillusionment, and now, it’s transforming into something else. When gamification started, which was probably eight or nine years ago, when the first bubblings came, a lot of people looked at my earlier work and said, “Oh, you’re the godmother of gamification. We’ll follow you.” But my work was really about creating a learning architecture over time.

The way you create a path to mastery, which is what this is, is not through visible mechanics. It’s through architecting your experience so that as your customer gets better, the experience gets better too. You’re not going to get that effect with a bunch of points and badges. That’s like inviting someone to dinner and giving them a plate of frosting. It’s the icing. It’s not the cake.

Takahashi: There has to be substance behind the badges.

Kim: The mistake most people make, and that you guys will never make again now that you’ve heard this, is to mistake the visible signs of progress that you can see in the interface for the thing that makes a game compelling and exciting. They’re not the same thing.

Takahashi: I went to one of your sessions, and people were very into it, almost reciting some of the points from your book back to you. What is the point you want them to get to? What do you want them to understand or learn as they go through this Game Thinking?

Kim: Where I want people to get to, and where I guide my clients and my students to, is to understand the process that the best game and product designers use to test and iterate and bring their idea to life. Not to copy the way it looks when it’s finished, the visible element, but to actually understand some key elements of the process. There’s a whole system, but let me give you three ideas to go home and remember and learn more about and experiment with: super fans, a mastery path, and a learning loop.

Super fans is shorthand for high need, high value, early customers. Something that most product designers get wrong, app designers get wrong, but that the best product and app designers — including eBay, including Ultima Online, including the Sims, including Rock Band, including Netflix — get right is focus on building something that a very small handful of very specific people absolutely love. Don’t try and build something, if you’re innovating, that your target market is going to love. If you test your idea on your target market, which is what people are taught in business school, and you’re innovating, you’ll get the wrong feedback from the wrong people.

The best game designers, and you can do this too, they focus on a very narrow slice of people that are defined not by demographics but by their needs. They’re desperate for this thing you want to build. And then, getting to an iterative learning loop with those people so that you’re bringing systems to life not with your target market — not with just your team, friends, and family — but with this layer of people in between I call super fans.

Huge, high leverage insight, counterintuitive — a lot of people ask, “Why do I design for a niche? Why do I niche myself down?” Key insight: These people aren’t who you design for eventually. They’re how you get there. That’s a different thing.

Two, mastery path. People say, “I’m just designing an app. What does a mastery path have to do with it? Can’t I just stick a leaderboard in there? Isn’t that how you do it?” A mastery path is where you think about day one, day seven, day 21, day 40, day 60 — what’s the experience you’re developing? What is your onboarding? What is your day 21 typical learning loop, the thing where somebody comes back? They’re not learning your product. They’re just coming back for their fix. What does that look like? How, on day 60, is your customer better and smarter than they were on day one, and how is your product opening up to them to make a better experience as they get better and learn more?

That’s how you design a mastery path. To do that you have to understand, not all those game mechanics, but what your customer cares about getting better at. If you have a product where your business model is tied into ongoing revenue — it’s not a fad, not a quick thing. You have stats. You have microtransactions, a subscription, anything like that. Your bread and butter is sustained engagement. The way to build sustained engagement is to create a mastery path.

The third concept is a learning loop. You’ve probably heard of habit loops or compulsion loops. There’s a lot of people that will show you how to do that. Here’s the thing you need to remember if you want to drive lasting engagement. Learning and mastery and skill building trump behavior manipulation. If you as a product creator say, “I want to use gamification, use this habit design loop that I’ve heard about, and track behavior and then reward people so that I’m manipulating their behavior and getting them to build habits,” you’re doing operant conditioning. It might work for a few weeks. It won’t work in the long term. Take a look at Zynga’s games to know that operant conditioning, compulsion loops, they don’t work in the long term.

There’s a shift from tracking and manipulating behavior to thinking about — how can I pull, not push, my client with desire and learning and mastery? How can I make this experience more interesting and rewarding for my client over time based on what they care about, not based on how I want to nudge them? That leads to long-term engagement. That’s how every product I’ve worked on that was a hit … was designed. I’ve worked on a lot of products that weren’t hits, and I’m not announcing them because you’ve never heard of them. A lot of them weren’t designed that way, and that’s part of why I’m so passionate about these issues. I can see the difference.

Above: The Forest Follies level in Cuphead.

Image Credit: Studio MDHR/Microsoft

Takahashi: That’s Amy’s shtick, and she does it very well. She does this at her seminars. We thought that the combination of the two of us could be interesting here because I have an interesting case study that I would like Amy to interpret for me in some way. I’ve encountered these super fans, as you call them, in playing this game called Cuphead.

I don’t know if you guys have heard of my whole episode here, but I played Cuphead at an event in Germany, in a preview event, and I recorded all 26 minutes of my gameplay. I put it up on the internet, and people went bananas. I had more than 800,000 views for this video when maybe 10,000 is typical for our videos. What drove them crazy was I played the game cold and for about two-and-a-half minutes, I struggled to get through the very simple tutorial. All you had to do, really, for this tutorial was do a jump and dash sideways. It’s a platform game.

This enraged people because I’m supposed to be an expert at playing games. I’m a game journalist. I’ve been writing about games for 20 years, and yet, I couldn’t get through this very simple part of the game. I was kind of messing around, but then, I went on for 24 more minutes trying to get through the first level of the game, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t proceed through this fairly difficult level to the next point.

Now, if you don’t know anything about this game, it’s an Xbox exclusive. It came out on September 29. It’s designed to be very difficult. It looks very cartoonish and inviting and simple because it’s done in a sort of 1930s animation style, but the whole point is to have a set of boss fights, a dozen or so boss fights, that are almost impossible to beat. One of my colleagues, he showed me up by finishing the game, but then, he noted that in the past few weeks, only about four percent of the people who’d bought the game so far had finished it.

It’s been an interesting experience. I got a whole lot of haters. I had to apologize for putting such a bad video up. I also made a plea, though, that we shouldn’t all be required to be experts at games in order to enjoy them. Anyway, those are all the details of this tweetstorm I had, and I wanted to shove that over you to interpret in some way. What does this mean for product designers?