The Next Big Game

Apologies, all, for the silence on the Baxter front these days. We like to use this space to tip our hats to friends and colleagues, and keep you updated on our goings-on. This update is, alas, of a different sort.

With heavy hearts, Founders Nathan and Matthew are putting Natron Baxter Applied Gaming back in the box and back on the shelf. We feel the decision to wind down company activities is the right one at the right time, as obstacles and opportunities have become either perfect or imperfect, depending upon your perspective.

Nathan, Matthew, and the Baxter spirit remain dedicated to the art and craft of hard-working games and the expansion of human potential. We hope to maintain a voice in an exciting and evolving field. We hope to stay connected to our mentors and peers in the industry. And we hope you’ll reach out to say hello from time to time.

Lastly (though first on our minds), we must offer our sincere, profound thanks for the many clients, collaborators, dreamers, creators, inspirations, and problem-solvers who have made this journey so worthwhile.

Looking forward to the next big game,

Nathan & Matthew
Natron Baxter Applied Gaming
gameon@natronbaxter.com

With respect and appreciation for families, friends, loved ones, magical folks unnamed (and accidentally omitted), and:

Aaron Dignan
Aaron Maniam
Aaron Silvers
Adam Charnock
Ala’ Diab
Amy Jo Kim
Andrew Hicks
Andy Patton
Anthony Casey
Antidote Media
Ash Warren
Asi Burak
Austin Wintory
Avichal Jain
Barry Kirk
Ben Smith
Bill Reynolds
Bob Hawkins
Bob Stillwell
Boulder Focus Center
Brad Dunn
Brent Rinne
Brian Burke
Brigitte Mader
Bruno Medina
Cami Thompson
Caro Llewellyn
Carrie Myers Jaynes
Cesar Castro
Charles Palmer
Chelsea Howe
Chris Freeland
Chris Guiney
Christian Caldwell
Christiana Chae
Christy Dena
Creative Circle
Dana Bowler
Danielle Cooley
Dave Gray
Dave McCalpin
David Neenan
David Pescovitz
David Weiss
Dipti Choudhary
Dylan Hassinger
Dr. G
Ed Gaible
Eliot Frick
Elizabeth Merritt
Elliott Draper
Emily Lonigro
Engine Yard
Eric Cohen
Erica Gangsei
Estevão Ribeiro
Gabe Isenberg
Greg Boyd
Heidi Boisvert
Ionut Dan Popa
Ira Liss
Jack Llewellyn
Jackson Maynard
Jaison Green
Jack Llewellyn
Jake Dunagan
Jane McGonigal
Jean-Michel Blottiere
Jeff Ramos
Jessica Charlesworth
John Simanowitz
Josh Holland
Joshua David McKinney
Joshua Lebowitz
Jason Penrod
Jim Babb
John Ferrara
John Senner
John Yost
Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan West
Joseph Baksha
Julie Colbrese
Julie Gant
Kat Kavanaugh
Kathi Vian
Keith Turner
Keith Wagner
Keith Yocam
Kenny Younts
Kevin Werbach
Kim Gurksi
Kirk Bergstrom
Kiyash Monsef
Larry Byars
Lauren Van Kurin
Lee Sheldon
Linda Abrams
Linda Boff
Linda McManis
Lou Rosenfeld
Luisa Perkins
Lynn Liss
Marcos Soledade
Marcy Campbell
Marina Gorbis
Mario Cau
Mark Borcherding
Martin Kalvatovic
Mary El Pearce
Mathias Crawford
Maureen Kirchner
Max Williams
Michael Bond
Michelle Byrd
Mike Bishop
Mike Lucey
Mindaugus Gudenas
Monique Dondersteen
Mourylise Heymer
Naomi Clark
Nate Maton
Nathaniel Fruchter
Nick Kellet
Nicole Amaral
Nicole Lazzaro
Nina Simon
Nique Fajors
Noel Bay
Patrick Olds
Perry Maple
Patricia Novick
Pete Eveleigh
Peter Arvai
Peter Glatzer
Phoebe Elefante
Rachel Romanski
Rachel Wright
Rafael Savi
Rajat Paharia
Reinhold Steinbeck
Ric Edinburg
RJ Dugan
Rob Hudson
Ryan Fill
Ryan Larson
Sal Cardello
Sarah Winifred Searle
Satya Krishnaswamy
Sean Ness
Sebastian Deterding
Sergio Schuler
Simon Brookes
Stephen Anderson
Steve Turkowski
Stuart Candy
Susana Ruiz
Tatiana Schreiner
Terri Falvey
Terry Torok
The Tiger Team
Tom Henderson
Victor Hwang
Viktor Kelemen
Wendy Smolen
Zia Yusuf

… and countless others.

Baxters at Columbia College Chicago

Matthew engages in some fierce Spaceteam action in a recent workshop.
Columbia College Chicago Interactive Arts and Media Department, are you ready to rock?

Or are you at least ready to talk about Applied Gaming for a bit?

Problem-solvers and troublemakers Brad Dunn and Ryan Larson share the theory and practice of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming on Tuesday night, April 23, at 6pm. Their work exists somewhere in that sticky nexus of gameplay, experiential storytelling, and interactive design — which means that, hey, you might be interested if you work in that sticky nexus of gameplay, experiential storytelling, and interactive design.

During the brief conversation, they’ll review Baxter projects, highlight upcoming work, and discuss emerging ideas and trends in the field of Applied Gaming. Though they’ll be talking, they hope you’ll talk back.

Interactive Arts and Media Visiting Lecture
Tuesday, April 23, at 6:00 P.M.
Wabash Campus, #150 916 S. WABASH, CHICAGO, IL

Cold Claim: a Resource Strategy Game for iPad

Download Cold Claim for iPad from the App Store, recruit a couple of friends in the Game Center, set aside 30 minutes, and see who’s got the grit for fortune-hunting at the frozen end of the Earth.

The year is 2049. After the collapse of the Antarctic Treaty, nations, corporations, and enterprising individuals are in pursuit of Earth’s most precious resource: Paleo Water. As an expedition leader in charge of securing untold bounty, you’ll navigate harsh terrain, prospect for wealth, discover artifacts, and claim coldly contested land … if your rivals don’t beat you to it.

In the footsteps of Settlers of Catan and Kingdom Builder, Cold Claim is a resource strategy game for two to four players via Game Center or pass-and-play. The spirit of the game harkens back the the Wild West, we like to think, and a time when The Law was just a cute concept, and fortune came through hard work, determination, diplomacy, and sometimes things quite sinister.

Players of Cold Claim are likewise faced with a clean start, icy twists of fate, and ethical dilemmas that thwart or clinch victory. And like the entrepreneurs and opportunists and altruists before them, they’re asked: what does it really mean to win?

Jump high-fives to the Baxters on the Cold Claim team, our collaborators at Green Wire and Jackson Maynard and Antidote, composer Jack Llewellyn-Karski, and the forward thinkers at Reynolds Family Foundation. Time for a cold one. You’ve earned it.

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Here is a game.

A recap of the SMS scavenger hunt designed for the end-of-2012 Baxter Invitational.

bean_sm

First Evanston succumbed, then Skokie. Zombies. Lake Michigan bubbled with gassy green froth, moreso than usual. Beachgoers, used to minor rashes and mid-coast flotsam, transformed and quickly brought the infection within city limits. And The Drudge Report felt compelled to precede the headline with “CHICAGOLAND:” as if this stuff happened every day.

Were it not for the spirit of mirth and teamwork of the Baxter Invitational, all would have been lost. But the SMS-driven scavenger hunt designed by crafty Baxters @mark and @kat brought out the best in ‘em. Their premise, designed to challenge and amuse their fellows, was as simple as it was topical: some scoundrel known as the @baxterzombie had targeted Chicago, Illinois (location of the Invitational) for zombified, green-gas destruction.

As the Baxters trickled in to the Windy City, so too did the mysterious text messages of nefarious intent. Some players received direct threats, while others received news reports of nearby mayhem. They pieced together the story and, with the help of a backpack o’ clues, set off in response. After all, @baxterzombie threatened to unleash his undead terror if they didn’t comply.

env_sm

The race-against-the-clock scavenger hunt to follow, punctuated with chin-scratching riddles and wordplay, was a bit of ingenuity and a case study in design-for-context. Players tweeted photos in response to riddles, or as proof of arrival at a designated time-and-place. SMS messages kept teams and the villain in constant contact. Things got a bit grimy on Lower Wacker Drive. But ultimately, @baxterzombie was defeated, and the Baxters walked away with another set of snazzy tricks for location-based game design.

The foresightful designers kept a record of their successes and triumphs. And before we seal it in a rocket and jettison it into space for the benefit of carbon-based life forms everywhere, we’ve collected a few choice bits of their report below, shared in their own words:

Item 00308 – Familiarity

“We had never been to the city before creating the game. This forced us to scour over Google Maps looking for interesting locations within a reasonable distance. Without experience with the logistics travel, queuing at locations, or potential danger of certain routes (e.g. biking down Michigan Ave) we were left to make reasonable assumptions about what was appropriate.” [Editor's note: No casualties.]

map_sm

Item 001815 – Technology

“An ‘App Free’ game interface: we knew we wouldn’t have time to build a mobile app for the game so we needed to create an interface with commodity features of the phone. Voice, SMS and Twitter came to mind. Kat [located in the UK] pointed out that iMessage would have allowed SMS messages across the Atlantic without extra charge. ”

Item 00754 – Urgency

“While the urgency was designed as part of the game, it really wasn’t necessary. Players were enjoying interacting along the way. Any attempt to push them to hurry would have detracted from that social interaction which is more valuable.”

Item 04471 – Adaptation

“The game would work best on an open schedule that would let you investigate each area for as long as you want. It was difficult to determine how long people would want to look around or chat before heading off. Also, with our physical delivery of destinations it was difficult to change the order after the game has started. If those had been virtual, at the time each location was delivered, you could adjust information based on your current location. (e.g. something isn’t always “West” if you skipped a step.)”

Item 00095 – SMS Comms

“SMS messages allowed us to send text instructions to the player. We had a limited number of characters we could send, so we delivered very brief instructions about which clue envelope to open. We could send a series of predefined game messages via the command line, and leveraged an existing tool called “rake” to run game commands, as follows:

rake game_start
rake intro_1
rake goto_aquarium

There was also the ability to send ad hoc message:

rake send_all MESSAGE=”Everyone one will see this.”
rake send_random MESSAGE=”Who knows who will see this.”

What was missing was the ability to send message to particular people:

rake send_reply MESSAGE=”Your guess is wrong.”
rake send_to_dipti MESSAGE=”Who should I zombify? Nathan or Matt?”

The addition of both would have let us deliver a more targeted experience, but in a larger, more automated game, might not be necessary.

SMS also allowed for information to be sent back to the game masters. The interface didn’t bridge SMS to another medium. It simply echoed the SMS messages back to the admins’ phones. For example:

Player sends: “orange…your shirt is orange”
Kat’s Phone: “REC: orange…your shirt is orange”
Mark’s Phone: “REC: orange…your shirt is orange”

In addition to echoing player text to admin phones, admin phones could send all the commands available on the command line with an abbreviated syntax; sa=send all, sr = send random, c = command”:

sa: Hi everyone
sr: You’re running out of time.
c: goto_aquarium

Although only admin phones could issue these commands, nothing was secured on the API. Had someone stumbled onto the API, they could have easily spoofed an admin phone. This would be solved with more engineering time.

Twitter was a good mechanism for delivering photos and ensuring they would be available for other to see. Almost every phone has an app that can post to Twitter so we were assured people wouldn’t need to download anything.”

Item 19075 – Conclusion

“Civilians saved, lessons learned. And we may be onto something, too. The simplicity of SMS and open APIs allowed us designers to execute decisions with a high degree of confidence. Could other cities be next? We’ll have to pay a visit to Joliet, where the @baxterzombie is locked up and seething …”

What do you do?

We’re often asked the same questions by people interested in what we do: What’s with the name? What do you do? What is applied gaming? Who let you in here?

And while we’ve used this blog to share our thoughts on what goes into creating provocative, rewarding, participatory experiences, we haven’t talked much about why it all matters to us.

Back in 2009, when our co-founders Matthew Jensen and Nathan Verrill launched Natron Baxter Applied Gaming, gamification was but a glimmer in many a marketer’s eyes. Traditional advertising and marketing were awaiting the next big breakthrough and Angry Birds had yet to take flight.

The Baxters-in-chief struck out to do what they’ve always loved – make and play games that solve real problems – and left behind predictable careers in digital design, user experience and software development to enter the gauntlet of play-based learning and achievement. They recognized early on the promise and potential games had in improving the ways in which people work together and started their business on the principle of “Fun is not the enemy of work.”

Since then, their focus – and guiding principle – has sharpened. Where gamification seeks to reward the outcomes of a person’s choices and behaviors, and is frequently limited to digital experiences, applied gaming seeks to reframe how and why people do what they do by focusing on intrinsic rewards powered by challenge, autonomy and social connection.

The nuance matters because the player matters most.

Marketers see games as gimmicks to gain market share, drive purchase and trial, and add an element of fun to otherwise “unfun” things; they see gamers as money-makers, shoppers, and social currency.

We see games differently, and are convinced our original principle formed a few new wrinkles in its infancy. Fun isn’t everything – or even the most important thing – when it comes to designing a game. Instead, we make games that are intrinsically rewarding, work hard, that command attention and effort, that solve virtuous problems, and reward players on their terms. We seek out and create these “gameful” opportunities in a few ways.

- We make games that make people better and improve their lives, and we do it by designing from their perspective, for their various contexts of play.

- We make games that align player objectives with organizational objectives, and have been commissioned by Fortune 500 companies, startups, cultural institutions, and charitable foundations to do so.

- We make games that matter by crafting remarkable stories that resoundingly answer the question, “So what?”

The more we learn about the people playing our games – the people who buy your products, visit your event, and talk about their experience – the better we get at making gameful experiences, wherever they exist.

We don’t assume a digital solution is the best one or believe all problems can be solved through play, but we inquire, consider, and try our best to understand the world beyond ourselves so that we can confidently say, one way or the other, how we might do the most good.

Want to play? We’re more than happy to talk about how we might consult, design and develop an applied gaming solution. Drop us a note.

Speaking of Applied Gaming…

We enjoy sharing our brand of game design with willing participants and audiences wherever we travel, which is why we fiddle with the format in the hopes that it honestly reflects our values while respecting your smarts and sensibilities.

Our next workshop is two weeks from today, this one hosted by Engine Yard at The Standard hotel in Los Angeles on July 26, and we’d like to make sure we nail the latter square on the head.

So, if you’re thinking of going and aren’t certain, we’d love to learn what you would love to learn. What would make it, without a doubt, absolutely worth your time and dime?

Leave your requests and thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll come up with an agenda tailored for this workshop.

Cheers, and game on!

“Hello, My Game Is: How Productive Play Trumps Social”

The Standard Hotel
550 South Flower
Los Angeles, CA 90071

5:00 pm PST

Museum Visitors Are Players, Too

DoNotTouch

The sharp cookies at the Center for the Future of Museums recently published TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future wherein they cite seven potentially (and preferable) transformational pivots they believe are “highly significant to museums and their communities”:

1. Crowdsourcing
2. Threats to nonprofit status
3. Mobile, distributive experiences
4. New forms of funding
5. Creative aging
6. Augmented reality
7. Shifts in education

    The report is chock-full of foresightful goodies and current/recent examples of these trends in action. What sent our collective mind buzzing was how applied gaming clicks with most, if not all, of these categories.

    In fact, our own Mathias Crawford presented at SFMOMA’s “Museum as Game Board” panel discussion in April about this very topic. He said:

    “When we talk about where museums and games might intersect, I think that there are a few dimensions that are useful to articulate. On the museum side, it is helpful to get a sense of whether we are talking about the physical space within a museum (e.g., the lobby, café, gallery floor) or about the mission of the museum itself (e.g. providing education about a particular time) regardless of where the public intersects with that mission.

    On the game side, on one hand we can talk about games that are designed to draw attention to things that already exist within the museum space, or we can refer to games that are intended to serve as physical, emotional, or intellectual experiences in line with the museum’s content – that is, not as a supplement to the museum experience, but as an entirely other way to experience the museum.”

    Ultimately, the seven trends they identify weave together several themes present in our work: context, usability, and reward. And at the center of each of those is a person – a player – motivated by expectations that are deeply informed by prior experiences with similar alternatives or by remarkable experiences with something new.

    Dr. John Falk, president and founder of Institute for Learning Innovation and author of the book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, classifies this idea as “identity-related visit motivations”. That is to say an organization must design its services (in our case, games) from its customers’ perspectives; in other words, their context.

    Only by rigorously attempting to understand and design for individual contexts can we create systems, interfaces, stories, and you-name-it that not only satisfy a player’s or group’s expectations based on their motivations and identity but increase the probability that she, he, or they will enjoy a rewarding experience time and again.

    Call it flow, replayability, churn, or whatever floats your bloat. The basic idea here is that motivations and identities ebb and flow over time. “Here today, gone tomorrow,” so the old saying goes. But since we all have a say in it, let’s make museums better for generations to come.

    Museum as Game Board

    This post is cross-posted on Mathias Crawford’s personal blog.

    A couple weeks back I was invited to participate in a fantastic discussion at SFMOMA entitled Museums as Game Board. Held in conjunction with the museum’s inspiring ArtGameLab, I was joined on the panel by GlichLab’s Sarah Brin, Ian Kizu-Blair and Sam Levigne from Situate, Tom Russotti, an experimental art/game designer who was Skyped in from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and SFMOMA’s superlative Erica Gangsei, who also served as the moderator of the panel.

    Before an hour-long discussion (which will hopefully be available as a podcast at some point in the near future), panelists were invited to talk briefly about their work, and what they see as the intersections between games and museums. Ever since my cover piece for Kill Screen last summer, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about play in the context of a museum space, and so I was thrilled to get the chance to articulate some of my ideas. The following is the text that I prepared for April 19th panel. Although the actual presentation was differed slightly in specifics, my overall theme was the same.

    Natron Baxter Applied Gaming designs and realizes blended reality games for social good. Across web, mobile, and no-tech platforms, we use games to solve real problems for organizations, inspire new perspectives, and bring out the best in people.

    For us, applied gaming refers to the thoughtful application of game design to address problemtunities from a novel perspective. Game design is by one such tool available to contemporary organizations, and though games are by no means the magic bullet for every situation, in the case of museums I believe that there are some fundamental synchronicities that make games and museums a great match.

    I believe that at their core games and museums strive for the same goal: namely, providing people with emotional experiences. Whether in the form of a particularly striking landscape, or a tense round of chess, at their best both seek to move individuals.

    When we talk about where museums and games might intersect, I think that there are a few dimensions that it is useful to articulate. On the museum side, it is helpful to get a sense of whether we are talking about the physical space within a museum: the lobby, café, gallery floor, etc., or about the mission of the museum itself (e.g. providing education about a particular time) regardless of where the public intersects with that mission.

    On the game side, on one hand we can talk about games that are designed to draw attention to things that already exist within the museum space, or we can refer to games that are intended to serve as physical, emotional, or intellectual experiences in line with the museum’s content – that is, not as a supplement to the museum experience, but as entirely other way to experience the museum.

    While there is certainly tremendous value to games that make use of existing museum exhibits in the context of the physical architecture of these spaces – indeed, Natron Baxter has helped produce exactly these types of games, most notably Find the Future with Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter Labs and the New York Public Library – what I’d like to address is the second type of game. Because I think that given the overlap between the goals of game design and museums, I think there is a real opportunity for game designers to partner with museums to produce fundamentally new ways to interact with the traditional domains of museums such as history, art, and science.

    (Image via)

    I mention science because growing up in Toronto, Canada and Canberra, Australia, science museums were a huge part of my childhood, and I think that they offer a great perspective on why games and museums are such natural bedfellows. These are some pictures from the Ontario Science Centre, which was a staple of my youth: I both visited the science centre on countless occasions throughout my formative years, and ended up working at the science centre during high school. What science museums show us is how the use of well designed artifacts can offer a type of learning that is altogether distinct from what we might think of as “display-oriented” museum exhibits. Rather than relying on absorption of knowledge through reading and observation, science museums make use of an embodied learning – one that relies on tangible, experiential interactions with artifacts. This type of procedural learning is great because it maps what the subject of the learning with the experience of the subject, and it is in this respect that I think games can do great things with places like SFMoMA.

    (Image via)

    What we see here is a picture of SFMoMA’s rooftop garden. This is a great image because it shows us the space where we as patrons of the museum are put most proximate to the artifacts that populate this fantastic space. What I think is sad about this image, however, is that while this space offers so much potential for bringing visitors into tangible contact with works of art, the space is still organized around the logic of a divide between the art and the viewer. The benches in this picture really drive the point home for me: families are expected to sit in a row, like spectators at a baseball game, and not to forge connections with and through the art.

    What is heartening to know, however, is that this has not always been the case. In fact, for a time during the middle of last century SFMoMA’s sister organization in New York was engaged in projects that sought to both forge new connections between visitors to the museum and the objects within the museum, as well as to extend the mission of the museum outside the bounds of its physical location

    In the 1950s, MoMA sponsored a competition which was, according to a press release from the time “to encourage the design of new kinds of playground equipment which, by its shape and use of colors, would stimulate children’s imagination.” Stimulating imagination — as an aside, to me that sounds exactly like the type of goal that game designers and museums might try to pursue in collaboration. The museum received 360 submissions, and pictured here is the winning result, which was put into production by Creative Playthings.

    And throughout the next decade, MoMA repeatedly partnered (with varying degrees of success) with artists, architects, and industrial designers to bring this notion of engaging with the museum to the world outside the museum’s walls. What we see here is one of the results from this partnership. Built in Brooklyn, NY, Charles Forberg – the architect of the playground – described its logic beautifully: “This design intentionally accepts traditionally rugged and indestructible materials with the belief that these can, in provocative arrangements, provide children with play excitement which does not depend on the materials themselves, but rather on the spaces they create. All of the parts are stationary, but they are intended to intrigue the child to move and to give him rich and varied spaces to be in, run through, climb up…

    Images from Kill Screen 

    Coming back to the present, what we have now is an opportunity to try to re-visit the types of partnerships that MoMA forged in the mid 20th century. 

    My friend Keita Takahashi, designer of the celebrated PlayStation 2 title Katamari Damacy, offers us a nice vision for how we might go about this type of project, since his career trajectory shows an unconscious harmony with the goals of 1950s MoMA. Between jobs as designer of digital games, Keita took on a project to create a playground in Nottingham, England. When I spoke to him about why decided to make this shift in his career path, he corrected me, pointing out that game design and playgrounds stem from the same core. To quote Keita:

    I prefer to make things that are entertaining; not just videogames. That’s why I want to make a playground, and if I’ve got a good idea, of course I want to make games too. I think developers now are too fixated on what’s on the screen. Since your job is to create fun experiences, I think it’s good to expand your horizons. It’s so wasteful not to.

    What I am encouraging here, therefore, is for museums and game designers to expand our horizons: for us to come together to dream up new ways to create meaningful experiences that we are uniquely suited to bring to the public. As Keita said, it’s so wasteful not to.

    Everybody’s Doing the Baxter Shuffle

    Nice moves, Sue!April is over already? Yikes.

    We’ve been hunched over the keyboards, catching red-eyes, and working dutifully on lots of promising things these past several weeks, such as supporting and improving SuperBetter so that it can better help more people; monitoring fundraising games that strengthen American hearts and communities; developing a solid foundation for EVOKE 2; crafting a statement of work so mighty that our own daughters chimed in with advice; and tending to ourselves by spending a few days together finding harmony in Music City.

    Indeed, all things that matter greatly to us and our livelihood are possibly not that interesting or inspiring to you. Or maybe they are! The growth spurt we’re in now has left us feeling some trippy growing pains and made it damn near impossible to see straight.

    Curse you, hormones!

    Uncovering exactly where it hurts has been enlightening to say the least, but our hope is that “talking it out” by documenting it here will serve as a waypoint of sorts, for us and those of you who feel (or have felt) our pain, too.

    Putting pep in our step.

    We’re constantly fiddling with how we design and develop games, from creating more ambitious project proposals that better align our corporate wants and needs with those of our clients’ to implementing workgroups and progress reports that encourage meaningful and rewarding collaboration to honing our processes so that they facilitate agility and uproot apathy. Every effort to improve the ways in which we work together will ultimately make future player experiences as lush and lovable as possible.

    Or so our moms say. (Early Happy Mother’s Day, moms!)

    Actually accomplishing these goals is rarely easy, and the challenges are made that much more grand since we have at least one person working in each mainland U.S. time zone, including several mates in the U.K. And in an industry where doubts and prophecies about the potential for games to bring about the level of societal, environmental, and economic improvements we pursue rain down like badges from the heavens, we’re reminded of former NFL head play-caller Brian Billick when he said, “Son, your potential is going to get me fired.”

    Well said, coach.

    We’re growing up, learning new ways to do what we do, and often fantasize about making games that players – and we – love so much that awkward poems soon begin filling volumes of spiral-bound notebooks and comment boards everywhere. As fun as fantasizing can be, it does little to help us figure out which games to chase or let come to us.

    It’s in moments like those we look in the mirror, flex our scrawny muscles, and take a good, hard look at ourselves. It isn’t always pretty, but it helps us spot and sort our wants and needs. Keeping tabs on our changes early and often is one way we’ll turn our potential energy kinetic and transform ability into duty.

    We put our mind to it in many ways, some more abstract than others. For example, we remind ourselves of our principles when impulse steps on the toes of patience (which happened at every winter formal we went to) and ask tough questions about them to help regain our bearings.

    Principles such as, “Put the Player First,” “The Story is the Thing,” and “We’re Already Playing,” function more as understanding chaperons than finger-wagging parents on our journey to make games that bring out the best in people, especially when our primitive instincts try to spike the rational “play it cool” punch bowl. As such, we occasionally take on tasks that don’t bring out the best in ourselves. Challenging, sure, but are they worth the cost?

    Everybody MOSCOW now!

    Practically speaking, we’re getting better how we admit and take to heart the things we do when working on games and game platforms where a rewarding play experience is the desired outcome (which is to say, always). For example, the MoSCoW method is a useful mnemonic tool we use to pick out and prioritize wants and needs during a round of “Name the Requirements!”

    And when applied to how we work, they help define the boundaries, roles, and responsibilities on various projects while making our efforts more focused and gameful. Specifically, we poke and prod our answers to the following four questions before, during, and after a project.

    What are the decisions / activities we:

    • MUST make / do
    • SHOULD make / do
    • COULD make / do
    • WON’T make / do

    We don’t always agree unanimously on the first answers, but they lead to more questions that, in turn, prompt deeper and more reasoned responses. It gets a bit Socratic after a while, but we believe some things are more important than reaching consensus. It’s the same idea that lies at the root of our contextual inquiry process: If we know the outcome from the start, then we aren’t making the best game possible.

    It isn’t always a pleasant feeling to disagree with someone we respect, trust, and care about; someone whose personality and insights end up making our company stronger and more “mirror-friendly.” We openly share our disagreements with each other because we respect, trust, and care about game players and the work needed to make better games. We care about each other.

    And when one of us claims to “know” something about a player or a game or anything without sharing why, it’s a signal for others to ask questions. Empathy and mindfulness go a long way to help clear obstructions when our view of an answer’s merits and facts are clouded by opinions or a belly full of butterflies.

    If it sounds at all tortuous and cumbersome, you’re right. We won’t argue with you there. Yet in some weird way, it’s how we keep things simple. Calling on this routine from time to time helps us do the hardest work first so it isn’t as difficult the second time, the time after that, and so on. It helps us get on the dance floor faster so we can perfect our moves throughout the night. It gives us a chance to pinpoint exactly where and with whom to dance next, and allows us to do so confidently. And it keeps us humble because one wrong move could find us flat on our bums.

    In short, MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could, Won’t) helps us prepare for and find novel solutions to problems created by time, space, movement, and Principal Skinner’s electrified dance floor.

    Twist and sprout!

    Keeping a business running when its key players are working together over a span of 3,000+ miles and up to ten time zones between them is loaded with unique challenges. In turn, they have the potential (there’s that word again) to place a crippling strain on getting things done.

    We each work within our own domains under minimal or no supervision with responsibilities that shift throughout the day, so even “little things” like passing a design to be marked up and hooked up can make for some tricky hand-offs. And where one of us works alone behind a desk all day, others enjoy the luxury of meeting in a central studio, even if working on a troublesome problem is, itself, not quite a luxurious responsibility.

    How do we know, then, that we’re making the best games we can?

    Traditional symptoms of being productive (or unproductive, in some cases) include measurable traits such as hours worked, cost per unit produced, revenue generated, net profit, and so on. They make it easy to take a quick glance at the crowd and see how things are going. Typically, a packed floor is a happy floor. But one DJ’s Electric Slide is another DJ’s Teach Me How to Dougie.

    In other words, traditional tools aren’t for everyone. And in some respects, they fail to represent what we’re capable of doing.

    Collectively, over enough time, they might help us spot deficiencies and opportunities hiding in plain sight. If, for example, we notice after a long project that we spent more time and attention maintaining a game than expected, it’s good to know where along the way we lost the beat so we can adapt and improve. It’s Agile Development 101 (make, test, breakdance, improve, repeat).

    At worst, retrofitting an operating framework into our world because it is the most familiar framework might severely impair how we make games. Living by the books to standardize a process in hopes of striking the optimal performance-to-reward balance (“We do X, expect Y in return, and get Y in return) threatens to stifle some of our basic needs. And when decisions are made based on symptoms rather than on the traits to which we as a company are naturally disposed, we end up limiting our ability to fully express our values (“We enjoy doing Z, and will work to optimize the return in relation to our effort until we satisfy a condition”).

    We aren’t considering doing an about-face from the system that got us this far. And we aren’t suggesting the old views are less meaningful or important. Instead, we work to augment and edit it with a careful touch and mindful awareness of our nature. We aren’t biologists, but we’ve learned from smart ones that an organism’s growth potential is limited directly by its ecosystem; as fish in a pond, for example. Where our survival and ability to thrive reaches escape velocity, though, is when we identify new methods for investing in outcomes.

    In light of ongoing research that suggests we long for purpose (a story we tell ourselves or buy into that frames our lives), relatedness (finding and maintaining close social connections), and expertise within our domain, adopting or creating a model based on more humane conditions might better suit the way our business runs.

    It is becoming more apparent, in our practice, that the relation of people, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, platforms, programs (or anything, perhaps) impacts the success or failure of a game – and game design company – more than the quality of each and every piece within it. And if our moms’ weekly Dancing with the Stars recaps are to be trusted confidently, the old saying “It takes two to tango” endears us to this line of thinking.

    It’s a subtle yet elegant step in the move from object-oriented programming and design to outcome-oriented programming and design. On a tangible level, it’s a balancing of short-term gain with our possible, probable, and preferable futures. And for a company who tries earnestly to apply to itself the lessons we learn while making games, the move is one we must become more comfortable and confident making as we moonwalk our way across the floor.

    The Baxters Battle Bad Guys with SuperBetter

    Get 'em, boys!
    There are several categories of things that affect our work and our ability to work. In this post, and the next two that follow, we’ll take a look at what they are and how the design and development of SuperBetter helps people – and our business – become more resilient.

    Resilience. It’s a funny one, that word. Just when we think it’s tapped out or overworked, it pops right back up in our faces when we log in to our SuperBetter Secret HQ. That’s right, Natron Baxter is getting SuperBetter at working together so we can make better games.

    Let’s start with bad guys. They hide just about everywhere in our offices, it seems. They take many forms, from the echo chamber that is a sometimes wonky Skype call to the nap-inducing cushion of a living room sofa to the ad hoc and wasteful ways of getting things done. We battle these various traps, blockers, symptoms and triggers in the name of finding more rewarding ways to develop games.

    And it seems to be working.

    When telecommuting tools stand between us, we brush them aside in favor of face-to-face meetings. When the creature comforts of home tempt us to take a break, we find a common space to help us concentrate and collaborate. And when we aren’t clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing, we take a few steps back and see where we went awry before mending the problem.

    Ryan Larson, Natron Baxter creative director and resident Milwaukeean, put it best when he said recently, “Something we can’t lose sight of is recognizing that there’s more than the project keeping the group together. There’s the shared experience in that, but there’s also the shared experience of us all being people. In order to appreciate things together, to appreciate each other, we still need that personal connection no matter how many time zones are in between.” Not only are we each working toward individual goals and epic wins, we are each other’s best allies.

    Rebounding from the little – and sometimes big – bad guys we encounter is made all the more possible when we turn to our allies for help. In developing SuperBetter we met and worked with several linchpins who, in turn, introduced us to other talented people when the unexpected happened. Our allies, it turned out, were often our power-ups when bad guys appeared.

    But sometimes power-ups weren’t people at all. Kat Neville, SuperBetter front-end coder and founder of the Liphook, UK-based web design agency Capra, spends much of her day coding, writing, and designing apps for clients. Her day is loaded with bad guys. Being able to grow stronger in the middle of a 13-hour workday is a priceless luxury for Kat, and the power-ups she uses to plow through them result in better work and work relationships.

    So when her Spaniel, Kenny Dogleash, needs a walk, she relishes the time away from the home office to grab lunch and clear her mind. Undoubtedly a simple pleasure, her example perfectly illustrates the effectiveness of good design. As she and Ryan have each said, “The best design works well.” Being able to apply the principles of fighting bad guys on her walk to lunch makes fighting the ones that face her on screen that much easier.

    But when it doesn’t, when design feels tedious or antagonistic, finding a remedy as convenient or effective as one might hope is often challenging to the point of exhaustion. And it’s exactly in this moment when resilience comes into play. It tells us to keep going, to iterate, to improve upon “good enough.” It reassures us that we can make mistakes and live to fix them. Put simply, it reminds us how strong we really are and propels us on our quest for an epic win.

    Bad guys will always stand in our way of making great games, and confronting them head on is the only way we will win.

    Now that you know some of our bad guys, what are yours and how do you beat them?