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Amy Jo Kim is a famous game designer who helped fashion some wondrously creative works such as The Sims, Rock Band, and Covet Fashion. And now she is extracting what she calls “Game Thinking” from the process of making games, and she’s applying it to other kinds of product design.

In years past, a superficial version of this was called “gamification.” But it turned out to be a bust, largely because it’s hard to bolt on game-like features onto products that are already designed. Kim believes Game Thinking is really more about a process, where you use playtesting, learning, and communication with super fans to get a product right before you launch it.

I attended part of Kim’s Game Thinking Live event last month in Burlingame, California. She ran it in a talk show format for both a live audience and others watching online from around the world. And then I interviewed Kim about it afterward. That helped me understand the scope of her movement to try to get the world to think like game designers. (Kim will moderate a session on science fiction, tech, and games at our GamesBeat Summit event in Berkeley, Calif., on May 1-2).

“Game Thinking is what gamification wants to be when it grows up,” said Kim in an interview with GamesBeat. “There’s widespread failure of gamification. And there’s growing awareness that the sprinkling of game mechanics on top of an existing product is limited and often backfires. More and more people want to harness what actually makes games powerful. That’s as much about how they are developed as the mechanics that they end up with. That’s what I am teaching.


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Above: Game designer Raph Koster with Amy Jo Kim at Game Thinking.

Image Credit: Game Thinking

The process that led to Rock Band and The Sims and Covet Fashion has also been used in other products, thanks to Kim’s years-long efforts as a product design and game design consultant. Game Thinking is an approach to creating compelling products, and it has been used by the developers of products like Slack and Kickstarter. (Kim didn’t actually work on those products, but they embody her views).

A lot of companies do this, but don’t have a name for it. And iterating by itself doesn’t always get you there. Among the game developers who also spoke at Kim’s Game Thinking Live event was Raph Koster, creator of games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Koster said that designers have to remember that everything is connected in a system, and when the user whacks on one part of that system, “everything wiggles,” he said. That is, there are consequences to each piece of a design and how they relate to each other.

“I’m not the only practitioner, but I am giving it a name,” Kim said. “There’s a Game Thinking Asia and a Game Thinking Europe being planned by totally different groups. They see the same trends that I do.”

The idea is to engage customers and put them on a meaningful path to mastery. Too often, products are “leaky buckets.” They have low retention, which means new users just don’t stick around for long.

Above: Amy Jo Kim at Game Thinking Live.

Image Credit: Game Thinking

Games, on the other hand, often generate super fans, or high-need, high-value early customers who can help you bring an idea to life. Game Creators use prototyping to figure out the core learning loop, which Kim says is a pleasurable, repeatable set of activities that build your customers’ skills, knowledge and relationships.

Kim didn’t work on Slack, but she spent a day with the team and understands it very well. She did work closely with Happify, a destination for better emotional health and well-being. That was created by a team of former game executives who started to work on a game and then morphed their product into something that wasn’t a game at all.

“That’s a good example of something that I had a lot to do with,” Kim said. “Game Thinking embodies bringing something to life iteratively, with a lot of experimentation to find out what is wrong with your idea as well as what is wrong with it. You have to be willing to challenge your own assumptions and find high-need, high-value customers that you can partner with. That is from the game designer’s playbook. Every good game designer I have met has used that.”

The principles include thinking like a scientist, testing your ideas, and being willing to admit you are wrong.

“Happify did that based on early feedback from early customers,” Kim said.

You bring the product to life starting with a core learning loop. And you map out your core journey that takes you customer to mastery. It applies to any product where a customer gets better at something, not just playing a game.

And you have to recruit your “super fans.” Happify had three hypotheses for their super fans. They discovered a set of people who weren’t who they targeted. It turned out that the key customers were stay-at-home parents who had recently left the work force. Kim worked as the lead designer on the product for about a year.

“Their brilliance and hard work is what made this happen,” Kim said.

Above: The core ideas of Game Thinking.

Image Credit: Game Thinking

Kim said one of the important things to find is an engaged trigger, or an internal urge to re-engage that kicks in when someone is invested in your system. These can be customized notifications, checking your score, or just meeting a goal.

Kim has been working on consulting as an outside contributor to projects for about four years.

On May 15th, Game Thinking will launch its 2017 Game Thinking Design Accelerator, a three-month program for startup CEOs and innovative product leaders who want to avoid “leaky bucket” syndrome and engage customers on a compelling path to mastery.

She worked on a variety of projects at Electronic Arts, mainly through her company Shufflebrain. She also worked at, and she was the acting creative director at Indiegogo, the acting community director at eBay. On the game side, she worked on everything from Ultima Online to Covet Fashion.

Kim is working on a book about Game Thinking for the past four years. She has a draft of it which she uses for her clients today. But she is also working on turning it into book.

“It comes out of 20 years of working with clients and bringing games and products to life,” Kim said. “I’m exciting about getting it into more people’s hands.”

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