Why Game Design Isn’t Just For Engineers

Seth Sivak, Game DesignWe’ve all heard the buzzword. It’s a trend that’s sweeping through the business world and has taken new product design by storm. It’s transforming the way we learn, play, and exercise. It’s called gamification, and there’s a reason why it’s so hot right now. Incorporating gaming principles into products makes them more engaging for users and keeps them coming back for more. By including achievements like leveling up or collecting badges, users have goals to achieve, making it ever more enticing to play the game again.

So how can marketers and product managers apply these same concepts in their own fields of work? Intelligent.ly is bringing in Seth Sivak, CEO of Proletariat, a local game design company to teach you game design fundamentals. Seth has an impressive resume with extensive experience in the gaming industry, having been a former executive producer at Zynga, and graduating from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. He gave us the scoop this week on the basics of how to incorporate game design principles into your product.

I.LY: What are some important factors to keep in mind when designing a game?

S.S.: The two most important factors to keep in mind is the audience and the promise that you, as the designer, are making to them. It is easy to fall into a trap of assuming that the designer knows exactly what the audience wants, but the only way to know for sure is to test it. Any assumption we make on paper we try to test out as quickly as we can because if too many unproven assumptions stack up the entire concept can quickly collapse.

I.LY: We’ve seen gamification become a pretty hot topic over the last few years. How can companies incorporate these same principles into their own products or services?

S.S.: Gamification is all about creating a strong feedback loop. Players (or users) want to be given a goal, something that they clearly understand how to attain. Then they want to get feedback on their progress towards this goal and finally when they reach the goal they want a reward.

To use the example of foursquare, the goal is to check in at as many different places as possible and to try and become the mayor by checking in the most times. Foursquare does a great job of giving feedback each time a user checks in at a location and gives rewards (which are sometimes a surprise) to the player in the form of badges.

I.LY: You’ve been in the gaming industry for several years now, working for Zynga and even starting your own company. How has gaming changed on a design level with the introduction of new devices and software?

S.S.: The new devices in platforms are drastically changing both the way we design games and the games themselves. The rise of social platforms, mobile and tablet have unlocked entirely new markets of gamers that used to be inaccessible to developers, and these audiences have different tastes. These new platforms also evolve the way core gamers want to interact and that is all about delivering a traditional experience in a fresh new way.

I.LY: Although gaming principles may not directly relate to one’s company or product, how can an entrepreneur or a marketer apply them to their everyday jobs?

S.S.: At the end of the day games are just really complicated products with the challenge of delivering something as nebulous as “fun”. I would bet that developing a game is very close to developing a product like Twitter, where there is no clear evolution from an existing service. The amount of experimentation and iteration that went into understand Twitter and how the audience would interact with it is exactly like developing a game.

We are all trying to create experiences for our customers, so there is plenty of overlap between entertainment products like games and traditional products, especially with the rise of gamification.

I.LY: If you could learn any skill in the world by tomorrow, what would it be?

S.S.: Wow, this is a great question. Probably learn a new language, like Japanese.

Interested in learning more from Seth? Attend his Intelligent.ly class by signing up today!

How to Build An Idea for Success

In a startup there are two kinds of people: the ones who dream up the ideas and the ones who build them. The dreamers initiate the process and set out to solve a given problem and the builders go out and actually create the solution. While the two have different responsibilities, they both play extremely important roles in an organization and are equally as important.

There’s often a disconnect between the two when the dreamers feel ready to pass off their ideas to the builders, though. The dreamers, who have spent all their time conceiving the idea and mapping out the details might not realize that not everyone understands where the pieces of the puzzle they’ve just created fit together. It’s essential to create a clear road map of what the team needs to accomplish, and how.

Cort Johnson of Terrible Labs taught students how to do just that on Tuesday night at Intelligent.ly in his class “Getting Your Idea Shovel Ready.” He outlined the process of how to create a solid stepping stone for your engineer to jump off of in order to start building the product. It all begins with asking the right questions.

Ask Questions

It’s important to ask yourself questions in order to stay on track. Without doing so, you can  quickly fall victim to the dreaded scope creep. “Scope creep is like slowly loading up your plate with little portions of everything on the buffet until you realize man, this plate is getting heavy and omigod I can’t eat all of this, what was I thinking!” says Christopher Butler from Newfangled.

Every product or service out there exists to solve a problem and you need to ask yourself what it is you’re solving and only focus on that. Don’t think that once you’ve solved your problem you can move on to solve everyone else’s too–you’re getting ahead of yourself and can quickly become unfocused on your core mission.

Put Pen to Paper

Once you have an idea, you need to write it down, otherwise you’re prone to forget the finer details and you won’t have a concrete layout of how it will work. Putting an idea on paper forces you to stay organized and think about how the product should actually work. Make an initial plan and use it to make revisions. Reduce the amount of features in it until you’ve reached the bare minimum to solve the problem in order to start simple. Most people are lazy and need to do this in order to get others on board and help them understand it. Use the paper to help you organize your thoughts


After you’ve laid the idea out on paper, you can move onto the next step, which is wireframing. A wireframe, or a mockup, is a basic visual guide that represents how the product will look when finished. A mockup is not a design, so it doesn’t need to be pretty. We’re talking very bare-bones–just outlines and shapes to act as placeholders. For blocking out features, ask yourself what is my problem and what are the fewest steps I can take to solve it?

There are a number of tools to help you create a wireframe such as Balsamiq, Mockingbird, and Adobe Proto. They make it simple to design and share basic wireframes and can help out big time, especially when you’re new to the process.

User Stories

With wireframing out of the way, the can now put yourself into the shoes of the user and look at the prototype to see what works and what doesn’t. A user story, similar to a brand story, is an explanation in a few words or sentences about how a particular piece of the product will work. Use this simple framework: 

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>.

When you put yourself into the mind of the user, you can then either pare down extraneous features to streamline the user experience, or add in elements where the product lacks them.

After this step, the product will be ready for your developer to take over and build it!

Project Management

Just because you’ve handed your project over to the developer doesn’t mean that the process ends–it’s really only just begun. It’s essential to keep an open line of communication between teams, which is not always very easy. To help make this stage easier for everyone, utilize project management software to organize and distribute tasks. Any good developer will use one of these tools.

A tool like Pivotal Tracker provides simple, agile project management and does not cost a lot of money. Other ones like Trello, Assemblo, and Basecamp make great alternatives.

Check in with your development team often and make sure each side knows the other’s expectations and can meet them. Once they can, you’ll be able to complete your project successfully.

For more great lessons, check out the other guides on the Intelligent.ly blog, or visit our class page.

Engineering Your Ideas for Your Engineer

Everyone can come up with an idea, but not everyone can communicate one. What makes the difference between an idea that fizzles out and dies before it has even begun, and an idea that blossoms into prosperity, is engineers.

Without engineers, ideas go to waste. Learn how to communicate your ideas effectively and make them “shovel ready” for a developer with Cort Johnson of Terrible Labs in this week’s upcoming class. Next time that light bulb pops up above your head, (yes, like in the cartoons) you will be ready.

In lieu of the class, Cort sat down and answered a few questions for us:

Based on your experience, for a non-technical person, what is the hardest aspect of communicating an idea to an engineer?

CJ: The hardest part for anyone to communicate an idea is presentation. The difficulty with explaining an idea that lives in one’s head is that it’s unorganized and not thought out. Therefore when the idea is presented to an engineer, angel, VC or colleague it’s more than likely misunderstood.

What is the single most important thing to remember when working with
engineers to make your idea come to life?

CJ: To work most effectively with any engineering team, one should take the time to understand the development process. I’m not saying that one has to know how to set up a development environment or be able to explain the MVC framework, but take the time to understand how an idea is taken from conception to delivery. The more educated one is on this process, the easier it will be to tee up your product idea for an engineer to build.

Terrible Labs is known for some pretty eye-catching marketing tactics.
How do you come up with all the creative ideas?

CJ: We force feed espresso to Jeremy Weiskotten all day, he comes up with ridiculous ideas, we choose the ones that fit our company’s personality, and I go out and find a way to make them happen.

If you could be an expert in one skill by tomorrow, what would it be?

Time travel.

Interested in learning how to ready your idea for an engineer? Sign up for Cort’s class! Register here!