Welcome Back, Workshop

Hello ClassWorkshops, when done well, have the potential to bring about the sort of giddy feelings in presenter and attendee alike that one feels after a successful first date. Nothing, it seems, can pluck us from cloud nine. But when they miss the mark, they send us crashing down to terra squirma faster than a singer stumbling on, say, a national anthem. (By the way, further proof that Canadians are nice.)

For us Baxters, we relish the chance to test our design and development principles in a truly participatory, emergent fashion. Understanding that not everyone is keen on corporate theater and ego trips, we attempt to strike that pitch-perfect harmony between doing, showing, and listening. Which is why we owe bucket loads of huzzahs to all who organized and attended our applied gaming mini-workshop in New York City, including hosts Engine Yard and Amazon AWS.

A couple years ago, before the 2010 Game Developers Conference, we made up a game with the aim of helping people make more meaningful connections. We worked from the mantra that doing well in business is about who you know as much as it is what you know, and named the thing Shmoozl.

Having reflected on that experience, and believing that hosting a great workshop is about how we learn as much as it is about what we learn, we set out to share our applied gaming insight by playing and improving it with our workshop attendees. We patterned our two-hour long event after competitive free-divers, going deep on substance and surfacing for context (and snacks) to reinforce the connections we would make between experience and example.

The gist of the game was to list a “Me Word,” a single word that each attendee felt best described their profession or personality, on the back of their lanyard and draw a visual representation of that word on the front. (Pictionary rules applied.) A series of brief interactions among attendees encouraged them to ask insightful questions of each other and avoid spilling the beans outright to their guesser. (Password rules applied.)

Those who correctly guessed the most “Me Words” were top dogs and had their scorecard entered into a drawing for Engine Yard and Natron Baxter products. Attendees had permission to not participate, which several said they appreciated, and all were encouraged to give it their best shot. Everyone neglected the bar, even at our urging.

Overall, the results were positive and promising. There are kinks we need to work out before we play again, as beasts of this nature tend to have, but nothing so severe to warrant tossing this game to the back of the cabinet. What has been your favorite workshop experience or moment? And if you were with us March 1, what was a “miss” in your book? We would love to hear from you.

Getting Back on Track with Engine Yard

TechRepairGreetings and apologies! It’s been five long months since the last blog entry, and to say Mr. Baxter was none too happy about that would be an understatement. (For unplugging the Internet again, Ben was demoted indefinitely to “Blog Janitor and First Zombie Responder”.) The crew here has been under the hood since October developing several big games and fine-tuning the alignment of our principles and processes. Indeed, we should never have gone so long without a peep.

To make amends and get on the good foot, we will soon open the tap and share our insights and epiphanies while taking an honest look at ourselves and Applied Gaming. Frankly, we want to openly express what it is we do, why we do it, and the ways in which we can make better hard-working games – and most importantly to understand and learn from you, beloved player.

So to get your motor running, the word around the water cooler is that our very own Nathan Verrill, co-founder and resident Stanley Tucci lookalike, is moderating an Applied Gaming mini-workshop tomorrow at Open House Gallery in New York City. Please join us in a hearty round of applause and endless hat tips to the brilliant folks at Engine Yard and Amazon AWS for helping make this possible.

If you’ll be there, come prepared to nurture some important ideas with Nathan. And if you can’t attend, we’ll post a full recap of the event next week for all to enjoy. In the meantime, what playful ideas are you nurturing?

Live Well, Do Good with HeartChase

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Break out your track shorts, knee high socks and sweatbands, champ, ‘cause you’re about to set a personal record.

We designed HeartChase™ to provide the American Heart Association a fundraising platform that helps people in cities across America lead healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. It also gives family, friends and neighbors from Fort Lewis, WA, to Fort Lauderdale, FL, a chance to actively connect with their communities and other health conscious folks who know how to have a great time while supporting a great organization.

Rockwall Map

Game map of Rockwall, TX

The directive from the AHA was clear: Design a modular, portable fundraising game platform that integrates with Charity Dynamics; that volunteers can organize and deploy with minimal effort; that encourages young professionals to participate in large scale community fundraising events; and connects, in a meaningful way, the contributions of individual and corporate donors to the game’s message and unique format.

In other words, “You’re all Olympians, right?”

And so it was that Team Baxter, after consuming a healthy amount of Wheaties and being our usual Socratic selves, arrived at the answer with a question of our own:

How can an urban race unlock the philanthropic heart of a city?

Key 1: Mobility

Getting the heart pumping means teams need a quick, portable way of staying informed of their progress and their competitors. Our real-time iPhone and Android apps provide participants a bird’s-eye view of the course map, challenge and donation notifications, leader board, integrated QR code scanner, photo uploader with Facebook sharing, and a synchronized game clock that ensures a thrilling finish. Because when the clock reaches zero, it’s the team with the most points that wins it all.

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Game map of Traverse City, MI

Key 2: Connectivity

In addition to the in-app notifications and updates, HeartChase events give individuals and businesses an opportunity to “hide” donations in and around the community. Teams use the built-in QR code scanner to collect these treasures and earn bonus points on their way to completing challenges and earning the title of HeartChase Champion and Honorary Cardiologist.

Plus, spectators can follow any race on HeartChase.org and see the action as it unfolds. From every player-uploaded HeartChase photo to every discovered donation and completed challenge, the site brings the day’s fun to screens across the country while giving viewers a chance to join a Chase of their own or make a general donation to the AHA on the spot.

Key 3: Customization

The decathlon of custom-designed mini-challenges included in the volunteer playbook (created by AHA training partner Left Brain Media) provides game runners a suite of low-cost, ready-to-play games that are designed to be fun, active, and related to the themes of heart health and teamwork. For example, the challenge “Blobstacle Course” uses local features such as playgrounds and public parks as an obstacle course that teams attempt to navigate while bound together.

And for those game runners adventurous and wily enough, a web-based map building tool (which employs the Google Maps API) empowers them to construct a virtual “game board” among their community’s distinct features. Heck, they can even invent their own challenges while they’re at it!

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Map building tool screenshot

Key 4: Measurement

Gameplay metrics allow subsequent HeartChase events to improve on design aspects like the layout of the game space and difficulty of challenges, and give event organizers an “under the hood” view of player satisfaction and reward.

All in all, HeartChase has us smiling in our singlets (a sight our spouses assure us makes everyone else grimace). And judging from the high scores and smiling faces of this year’s inaugural players, it looks like this game might just be what the doctor ordered.

Learn more about HeartChase, including setting up an event in your own community, at heartchase.org or drop us a line if you want to put the power of play to work for you.

Props to these turbo-smart collaborators:
Richards Group – Inspiration & Branding
Left Brain Media – Volunteer Training
Jaison Green at Greenwire – iPhone App
John Senner at MokaSocial – Android App
Max Williams at Pusher – Real-time web & mobile notifications
Adam Charnock at Playnice.ly – Google Maps API (challenge map builder)
Rails Hosting at Engine Yard

Knowing When to Fold ‘Em

For every plea to “stop playing those worthless games and get off of that computer,” there is a now lovely retort: players of the collaborative science game FoldIt have solved an AIDS-related molecular puzzle that has long kept scientists scratching their heads.

Says Zoran Popovic, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, “Foldit shows that a game can turn novices into domain experts capable of producing first-class scientific discoveries.”

A humble Baxter bows to the game’s players and designers. Read the full article here.

Musings on Decision Fatigue and Game Design

An intriguing article in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine had me thinking about the role of choice in games. The piece, “ Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” by the Times’ Science columnist John Tierney, served as an introduction to the concept of Decision Fatigue, and a related notion, termed Ego Depletion. The concepts focus on the idea that a person’s willpower can be thought of as something that can be used up throughout the course of a day: each choice I make during the day acts like a tiny withdrawal from my cognitive bank account, and at some point I’ll have made so many decisions that it will be substantially harder for my brain to make subsequent choices. And this is where things start to get interesting, because according to Tierney, once my brain throws up its figurative hands and says, “no more, I can’t take it,” I will likely take one of two shortcuts:

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.”

Interesting as this may be, what does it have to do with games? If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure. I started this post a week ago because I know that there is something important wrapped up in these concepts.  Choice is central to game play; no less than one of the elder statesmen of games, Sid Meier, summed this up when he noted that “Games are a series of interesting choices.”

In the words of Tracy Fullerton, in her superlative Game Design Workshop, choices in games only matter when there are consequences to these choices:

For a game to engage a player’s mind, each choice must alter the course of the game. This means the decision has to have both a potential upside and a downside; the upside being that it might advance the player one step closer to victory, and the downside being that it might hurt the player’s chances of winning. This concept is often called “risk versus reward,” and it is something we face every day in our own lives, not just in games. When Sid Meier says “interesting choices,” what he means is that the game must present a stream of decisions that directly or indirectly impact the player’s ability to win. This is because, in addition to story elements, drama and suspense in games can arise naturally from asking players to make decisions that have weight and consequence .

When we play really absorbing games, the consequences of the choices that we make – though technically restricted to the computers, consoles, or boards that enable game worlds – feel very real. As a result, games can be exhausting exercises: after playing 8 straight hours of Battlefield Bad Company 2, I’d be very suspicious of my faculty for judgement.

At the same time, games can provide framework for exploration of consequences of decisions so that the the next time we encounter a similar decision in real life we are better equipped to make a choice without having to take on the mental burden of trying to weigh the pros and cons of the alternative courses of action.

So, are games things that contribute to Decision Fatigue? Or do they have a restorative function, in effect helping to re-charge my decision making capacities? My guess is somewhere in the middle. And, by avoiding making a decision in this post, I’ve thus spared my limited mental capacity for a place where my decisions really matter: online games.

- Mathias

Everything is The Game

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Masterbaxter Mathias Crawford interrogates Keita Takahashi — designer of the celebrated PlayStation 2 title Katamari Damacy — in a Kill Screen ditty that puts the play just about everywhere. Sez 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.”

Round and round they go in the full article.

It’s Not About Us

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As we press on with our plan of forced sterilization better living through play, we’ve grown considerably more systematic in our efforts to distill and understand that which has worked (office ham cabinet) and has not worked (office wolf). Heck, we’ve even started writing things down in the hope of archiving the emergent truths discovered on Mr. Baxter’s Wild Ride.

One such scribble has summited the regular pile of drivel. It now stands as a proud declaration, like Tenzing Norgay in an “I’ve climbed Everest” T-shirt, and this declaration – we shit you not – shall henceforth be a part of the contract between Natron Baxter and our clients (folks what whom generally sign far more thoughtfully worded documents).

It’s a critical humdinger, we feel, because we navigate a wobbly slackline when we align game objectives with business objectives. Those objectives quibble like two enchanted ventriloquist dummies sharing a steamer trunk. But ultimately, we believe that a successful game – even one that abstracts the role of the business sponsor – is designed first and foremost to reward and delight the player. And our most successful clients* truly understand when to serve business objectives and when to serve player desire. To wit:
 

A Declaration of Player Stewardship

As co-discovered by Natron Baxter and their sexy, progressive, socially conscious clients (we’re looking at you, Maude’s House of Rugs).

1) We will put the player first, and check our decisions with a simple question: “Who does this serve?” We will only ask for something from a player – their time, their opinion, their hard work – if we offer something equitable in return. Gameplay, brand loyalty, and meaningful engagement all flow from this player-centric design.

2) We will learn what players want (and not presume to know). And sometimes, we will help them discover what they want. Regardless, we’ll treat the entire situation like that creepy tree stump in Flash Gordon, prodding various holes until something bites us. Only then will we say with certainty that players do not want our hand in their tree stump.

3) We will seek authentic, meaningful connections. We will not require players to like us on Facebook in order to play an amazing game; we will let them play an amazing game in the hopes that they will like us on Facebook. Because, um, a Facebook like is the most meaningful connection ever.

4) We will expose our intentions. It’s bad form to leave our business objectives lurking in the shadows like secret code within an episode of Little Orphan Annie, only to squelch the pre-Christmas cheer of a monocular youngster with an appeal to drink his Ovaltine.

5) We will make play voluntary, no matter how much money we spend, or how many hours we fritter away incorporating requests from every department, or the number of ever-deepening wrinkles on the foreheads of our superiors.

6) We will look inwards. If we discover that players are, en masse, cheating, challenging, or rejecting the game, we will first strongly consider what’s wrong with the game. If no one wants to dance with you, check for boogers.

7) We will violate these rules at our own peril, and only under the most compelling circumstances. We shall envision ourselves saying to our spouse “Yes, honey, I’ve been unfaithful … but check this out!”

Signed,
Messrs. Baxter
Principals
Natron Baxter Applied Gaming

Maude Furlong
President
Maude’s House of Rugs

* Cheers, of course, to the insightful, patient clients who have sharpened this appreciation of the fine balance between game and business objectives. And to those writers and designers who’ve blazed the trail with their own versions of a Players’ Bill of Rights, thank you. And to our moms – Doris, Leila, Shirley, Carol, Lena, Holly, Mélisande, and Colleen – we love you. Keep reppin’ that supermax.

Baxter The Future

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Rarely do the Baxters look forward to an all-nighter with tittering glee, but all bets were off at Write All Night, part of the New York Public Library’s “Find the Future” centennial celebration. Library chatter went unshushed, bibliophiles went berserk, dogs and cats … well, you know the drill.

Some 500 alpha geeks (our kind of people, really) spent their Rapture’s Eve tearing through the stacks in pursuit of the curious artifacts in the library’s collection. What they found was not only a connection to the remarkable stories of the past, but also the inspiration to, very literally, compose an epic future. By sunup, they had done just that: the collaborative writings of the 500 players comprised a hand-bound book and the newest tome in the library’s permanent collection.

[The fine storytelling was not reserved to the printed page, either. You can conjure the event by following the #findthefuture tag on Twitter; another heartening recap can be found in this New Yorker blog post.]

As always, the Baxters are as pleased as future punch to have helped sculpt the mayhem with designers Jane McGonigal, the big brains at the NYPL, preliminary game design by Playmatics, and a host of helpful souls, including Play Nice.ly Labs, Moka Social and Green Wire. Thirty-seven jump high fives are in order. And a nap.

Playful Acts of Kindness

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Begone, you heavy curtains upon the windows of Baxter HQ! Let our pale skin bathe in sunlight once again! Lo, the beachgoers love it!

Just one in a series of monster launches over the next few weeks, we’re proud to point a link to the iPhone mobile app of AOK, a “social game for social good” more accurately described thusly:

“AOK is a fun and challenging way to get recognized for contributing to, sharing, and becoming aware of the millions of Acts of Kindness already happening somewhere on this planet every day.”

Many moons ago, we were contacted by the talented, enthusiastic producers of AOK to help them sculpt a game-inspired experience that increased mindfulness of acts of kindness while maintaining the intrinsic value of Doing Good. We tucked into our game mechanics bag o’ tricks and designed a system that sat thoughtfully in the background, monitoring and nudging the little behaviors that make a social hero. With the help of many outstanding hands, we’re proud to see that collaborative vision spring to life.

A comprehensive web component and mobile iterations are stirring in the soil. In the meantime, you can read more from the producers of AOK on the Gameful blog, here, and ask yourself: “Can we make the world kinder by playing a game?”

Opening Day

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As the boys of summer look confusedly at the slushy drifts obscuring second base, it’s high time to recall the humble origins of our national pasttime, as documented firsthand by one Cyril P. Hooker, the 19th century wharfman many historians now assert to be the true father of modern baseball. From Hooker’s own journal, rescued from the wall of a Cleveland T.G.I.Fridays, he recalls his epiphany of gameplay — and perhaps reveals another invention for which we owe him thanks:

“Gregor and One Ear slouched across the field, braying and chortling in the misty stupor of the previous evening’s drink. Gregor had filled his hat what with handfuls of tall grass and proceeded to chase One Ear with a switch, striking him mercilessly on his ear pudding. One Ear, in turn, collected rocks and debris from the occasional bare patch of earth, and these he used what as projectiles to slow the pursuit of this his slobering [sic] assailant. Were two idiots at play, those, and it warmed my very heart.

I, for my part, avoided the melee at this safe distance, having recently violated the crypt of a man who were buried in freshly pressed trousers. I watched with amusement, tho, and surely began counting the effect of their tussle, what scoring the number of times Gregor agitated the ear pudding. One Ear must have scored the same, for soon his rock throwing increased in haste. It was all Gregor could do to bat away the relentless barrage of pipes, stones, and rodent bones! Enthused as I was by this new development, I began shouting to my beloved oran-utans so as to share in the revelry: “One strike! Two strikes! Three strikes!” And this, I found, increased the fervor still!

Late into the afternoon Gregor and One Ear scrapped, until finally the cruel grip of sobriety indeed suffocated them both. And I, along, bellowed scores and heaped accolades upon these giggling dolts, amused as I was at this game-o-fication of fooles [sic] horseplay, and with my humble aim to increase the engagement of these two besotted employees of the Devil’s workshop.”

So eat sh*t and die, Abner Doubleday.