Mike Sellers

Super-powered mental models & the bright future of AR gaming

Mike Sellers is a pioneering social game designer turned academic. Long before World of Warcraft was a world-wide hit, Mike & his merry crew of innovators – including John Hanke, the driving force behind Pokemon Go – created Meridian 59, the first graphical MMO – or massively multiplayer online game. Since then Mike has worked on many games for companies like Electronic Arts and Kabam – and is now a professor of game design at Indiana University. Like many of our Getting2Alpha guests, Mike has a deep & longstanding fascination with human psychology and social systems – and a LOT of experience wrestling with the challenges of bringing new ideas to life. Mike is one of my favorite people in gaming – he’s a deeply insightful and innovative thinker, with as astonishing breadth of knowledge. In this interview, you’ll learn what Mike thinks about early MMOs, super-powered mental models, and the pervasive future of Augmented Reality gaming.

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Mike’s Blog: Online Alchemy

Connect: LinkedIn @onlinealchemist

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Mike, to the Getting2Alpha podcast.

[Mike Sellers] Thanks very much. Great to be with you.

I’m so excited to talk to you and hear more about what you’ve been up to. Before we get into that, give us a whirlwind tour of your background. In particular, how did you get started in design and tech? Then how did you decide what to pursue along the way?

Since I was very small I’ve had interest in psychology. My father was a psychologist, and in college I did a degree in cognitive science. This is a long time ago so I had to construct a degree myself. I’ve always been interested in what’s next, what’s around the corner. So that has lead me to a lot of places like cognitive science. I went from there after I graduated to become a software engineer. Then I very quickly gravitated towards HCI and what’s now called UI/UX and usability. That actually led me eventually to doing game design professionally. I’ve been playing games as a hobby forever and eventually figured out we can actually make a company out of this. It was an entrepreneurial side of that as well.

Fantastic. You were one of the creators of Meridian 59. Those were one of the earliest MMOs. I think John Hanke was on that team.

That’s right. My brother and I started the company and we hired John very early on to help us with production and marketing.

John Hanke, as everybody on the planet at this point knows, is the creator of Pokemon Go.

Right.

What was your shared vision at the time?

We talked a lot at the time about making online societies and really digging into social systems and what could we do within an entertainment context, but in helping people create more community. This has been a budding interest of mine for a long time and clearly of John’s as well. The same time, we also worried a lot. This is 1994, 95, and we had no idea whether there was going to be a really broad audience for this or not. We knew there were text mods, text games with multiple people in them. We didn’t know if it was going to be really something that we could broaden out.

Our shared vision was to make a good game, try and see what we could do with social systems and then hope it went well.

How do you see that initial vision leading now into what you’re doing?

There’s a through line that I see that I don’t know in the work that I’ve done, I’m not sure if anyone else could see. I have been interested in systems of all kinds, social systems, neurological, cognitive, emotional, all these things. In all the work that I’ve done there’s been some piece of that. When I was a software engineer, I spent some of my time working with a medical company doing user interface design for them, like for neurosurgeons and radiologists. I designed the user interface for a CT scanner. Coming forward from my ancient history into aims, everything I’ve been interested in has orbited around systems, which is one of the big things I’m interested in now, systems of all kinds. I thing games really give us an interesting and unique way to look at systems. With a massively multi-player online game, like Meridian 59 or games that are highly systemic in other ways like the Sims and Sims 2, they all for me are part of a piece in terms of how we approach systemic questions through games.

Beautiful. Now that you are a professor and you’re training, and teaching, and coaching, and educating bright young students, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see first time game designers and developers making, in the early stages as they’re bringing their ideas to life?

By far the most common one I see is this inherent belief that if I have a good idea, it will make a wonderful game. That it will just leap fully formed from my forehead, or from the designer’s forehead, and it’ll be a wonderful idea and a wonderful game. Over, and over, and over again I have to teach these students as I have with other junior designers, about ego-less design. It’s not about you. It’s about the experience the player is going to have. Principles like the best idea wins. That you’re going to necessarily have to critique and evolve your own ideas and other people’s ideas, and it just almost never happens that you have an idea that survives from first inception all the way into the game.

A number of years ago I was talking to a bunch of game designers and I said that I think twice in my entire career I’ve had an idea that has worked the first time. One of them responded, “You’ve been very fortunate or you’re lying.” The idea that even as an experienced game designer you have ideas that work just doesn’t happen. That’s a realization I really enjoy seeing in the students when they realize, “Okay, it’s fine if the idea is terrible at first. It can get better.” It’s just never going to happen that it’s going to be the best thing ever right out of the gate.

With that said, how do you approach testing and the discovery process on your own projects? How do you decide which ideas to pursue and which ones to filter out?

That is such a good question. I say that because I think it’s an unsolved, at least from my point of view, sort of an unsolved problem or one that I’m continuing to work on.

There is certainly an intuitive aspect to it and then there’s just a practical aspect to it. The intuitive part is after seeing a lot of designs go by and after trying a lot of things myself, I think you do develop a feel for the curation of ideas, which ones are more likely to turn out well or not turn out well. If they all look like ugly ducklings, which ones are going to grow up to be beautiful swans and which ones aren’t.

At the same time you also learn that you can’t, or at least I’ve learned that I can’t, trust my intuition completely or nothing like it. I think the careful husbandry of these ideas and the curation of these ideas to see if they can turn to something else by exposing them carefully to other people. I say carefully because if I say go up to any random people they may give you random feedback. You have to be very careful to expose your idea to enough people who can give you actual feedback that you can use without narrowing that field so much out of a conscious or unconscious defensiveness, trying to protect the idea from the critiques it might get. I go through a lot of that. By saying a lot of it, what I mean is, I always have many ideas up in the air, ones I’m working on, and sometimes I just let them sit, for a month, for a year, or several years, and see if they’re still any good. See if they still get positive feedback from people or see if they need to be just thrown away or changed completely.

It’s an ongoing process, an arduous process I suppose, but also very, very satisfying when you find that piece of an idea that is really good and true, and that other people see it and you have the same vision of it … They had the same vision that you had to begin with.

Yeah, a shareable vision that other people get excited about is a key part of it. Then I just couldn’t agree more about carefully testing your ideas. A lot of what I’ve learned, in the parallel paths we’ve taken, is that concentric rings of testers that I think we both learned in game studios …

Oh yeah.

Where you start with the team. The team is bringing this really crude thing to life and then you might expand it out to the studio, then this careful friends and family round, then maybe you you’re early passionate customers, the ones that are on your mailing list and always saying, “When’s the beta, when’s the beta?” Then you do these rings, but you’re not just testing your earliest ideas with your end customer.

Right, that’s exactly right. I love the image of the concentric rings. That’s really, really applicable. I think it’s also really important to be looking for non-confirming evidence. This is something I’ve learned as an entrepreneur. When you think, “Hey, we have an idea for a company, for your business this might be a good idea, but before we sink a lot of time, and money, and effort in to it, let’s make sure. Let’s look very carefully for things that don’t confirm what we’re saying.” It’s real easy to listen to the praise of people who are going to be likely your customers and how much they love this, but you really have to listen carefully, too, for the things they don’t like things or the things that just don’t hit for them where you don’t have that shared vision.

Absolutely. The thing I like to say is, “Assume your first idea might not be right.”

Oh yeah.

How quickly can you find out?

Yes. How quickly, how cheaply, and with how little emotion expended, because those of us who are all working on new things we get very, very passionate about the new, and this new idea. Sometimes they just aren’t there yet. I hate to say they’re bad ideas, but sometimes for whatever reason they’re not there yet. The faster I can find out if an idea is something that I should invest in, whether financially, or emotionally, or whatever, I need to put it on a shelf for a while the better off I am, because the less likely I am to make an ego based mistake because I’m so invested in it already.

What do you feel is your superpower as a creator? What are the kinds of projects that light you up the most?

The one thing I’ve noticed, it’s so hard to say from my own personal point of view, because I have only my life to live, but judging based on what I’ve seen, and the kind of work I’ve done, and where I’ve been the most successful … I have the ability to come up to speed really fast in diverse domains. Going from working with a neurosurgeon one day, to a bunch of military officers the next day, to people doing heart monitors, or copying machines. These are all clients I’ve had in the past. I just love that experience of this is a completely new domain, I need to learn about it very quickly and be able to contribute to it. For me, the key part of that is forming an effective mental model of what is going on, what are their concerns, what are the problems that they have. A lot of this actually goes back to old human-computer interaction practices of doing goal analysis, task analysis, environmental and customer analysis, those kinds of things. That’s just what I do when I go in to a new area.

Now of those things, the ones that really make me light up are the ones where I can really apply some diverse thinking, blue sky design where there isn’t necessarily a solution known and a lot of people are scratching their heads and they don’t know how to approach something. That gets me going like nothing else.

Wow, that’s fantastic. What’s on your attention radar these days in other people’s work? Whose work are you paying attention to or are you influenced by? What trends are you following?

The first one I have to say is augmented reality. Clearly. Pokemon Go, in my opinion, is like the first robin of spring. This is the first introduction to augmented reality for millions, and millions, and millions of people. It won’t be the last, I’m sure. I’m watching that game to see how well it does, to see what kind of staying power it has. I hope, because John is a friend of mine and I think that the game has a lot going for it, that it does well. I’m also skeptical in some ways. I want to see what happens there. I’m also watching what’s happening with virtual reality. The way I think of it is that virtual reality is sort of the opening act for augmented reality. I think virtual reality is going to be a deeper, more specialized niche, but augmented reality is what people are really going to pick up in their daily lives. Just like we’ve all picked up the web, or smart phones, or things like that.

Kind of on the other end of the spectrum, I continue to be fascinated by all the changes going on in table top games, which I think of as sort of the … If video games or computer games are movies, then table top games are like the theater. They’re where a lot of new things get tried out, and it’s just a fantastic laboratory for design. I think there’s some really terrific things happening with what I’ve been calling artisanal design. Small companies, one or five or ten people … A new game coming out tomorrow, I think, No Man’s Sky is highly systemic, highly procedural. It was made by a team of fifteen people. These are the kinds of things that I’m watching to see how do they all come about. How do they all come together or are they just separate trends I think are operating sort of in the game space? Beyond the game space, there’s self driving cars and all kinds of wonderful things that I’m watching as well.

Oh, that’s fascinating. I think we may have to do a follow up in a few months to see where all this goes. I hear you’re working on a book?

Yes.

Tell us about that.

I’m working on a book that is using systems thinking in game design as mutually reinforcing or mutually illuminating lenses is one way to think of it. One of the things I say in the book is that I believe systems thinking is to the 21st century what literacy was to the 20th century. That you could get by in the first few decades of the 20th century without having to read or write. You may not do so well, but you could get by. Eventually it just became what you had to have to live in our society.

I think where we are right now is most people don’t really have a strong idea of what systems thinking is, or maybe even will be a little bit afraid of it, but I believe in the coming years and decades it’s going to be just what you need to operate effectively in the world. That’s one side. The other side is I believe games and game design provide a really unique way to approach systems thinking effectively. They reinforce each other. That in effect, systems thinking and game design together form a larger system that enables just new ways of thinking, and new ways of operating, both in terms of thinking about entertainment pursuits, like games, but also thinking about everything else from climate change to financial crisis or new modern politics. I think all these things can be viewed very effectively through a systems thinking lens, but that game design provides us a really pleasurable, fun, and uniquely clear way to understand what systems are, and how we can recognize them and create them. That’s what the whole book is about.

The world needs this book.

Thank you.

I can’t wait to read it. For everyone who plays a game, that’s their experience of engaging with a system, just like you said for Pokemon Go …

Exactly.

That’s their first experience of engaging with a smoothly working AR system. Hats off to them.

Yes.

You mentioned you’re watching it closely to see how long it lasts and what the limitations are. From your perspective, what do you see as the limitations of Pokemon Go? Where something else could reach further or where it could develop further?

I think they’ve done a really terrific job on the early game and the social and viral aspects of this. Just from conversations that I’ve had with complete strangers, and other stories I’ve heard where, “Oh, hey, there’s a PokeStop here.” “Yeah, I found this Pokemon over there,” with complete strangers. They have brought the virality of the game to a new level that I’ve never seen before. That said … I said I’m skeptical, what I’m waiting to see what happens is how long does that game player remain interested? How long does finding and evolving Pokemon stay interesting? Is fighting in gyms and fighting for control of gyms, is that sort of the end stage or is there something more? They’ve been doing terrific so far. That’s an understatement. I have no insider knowledge at all, but I suspect that, like any business, they had a low meeting and high case for how well they do in the first month, and they probably blew that out in the first week. I suspect there’s been a lot of scrambling going on inside, but I do wonder how they’re going to maintain tens or hundreds of millions of people playing this game for months and years on end. I think there are ways to do it, and I’m sure you do, too, just in terms of encouraging different types of involvement in the overall community. I’m waiting to see if they evolve the game to take advantage of that.

Or open up the platform.

Or open up the platform, exactly. There’s so much they could do there.

That’s the part that gets me excited. Yeah, when I think about the platform, I get really excited. I had an arc of game play where it was very entrancing and exciting at first. I played with my daughter and magical things happened. We haven’t really been able to recapture it since maybe level ten, eleven.

That’s … Yes. I hear that a lot, by the way. Right around level ten, people kind of go … The shine kind of comes off.

Well, if you’re in to battling, there is some teenagers in our neighborhood who have discovered battling for gyms and they’re kind of in to it. They cluster, as teenagers do, in to these mixed use gangs, and I see what they’re doing, but that holds no allure for me playing with my daughter. There’s a lot of co-op features that aren’t there, and if they were there, the servers probably would be even more taxed than they are. I’m glad they’re not there, like I get it. It was interesting, we were in Portland recently on a college tour with my son, I know you’ve done that a lot with your kids … You know, where are you going to go to school … We went to play Pokemon and my daughter was like, “This isn’t interesting. I just want to be here in Portland.”

Oh, wow.

“Put away the phone, Mom. Look at Portland. Portland’s beautiful.” It’s like sitting there in front of the slot machine going, “I’m not getting that fix I used to get.”

Right. I think this goes back to work that you did a long time ago on the different stages, and different roles that everyone has in a community. I don’t see they have those in there yet. I think that they may get them. If they’re smart, they will do so.

Yeah.

Or if they don’t, someone else will, whether using their platform or another platform. I think that kind of progression … It doesn’t feel like the highway is completely built yet. They’ve got a terrific on ramp, but then after that it just isn’t all built out yet. I want to wait and see what happens.

I love that analogy. It’s a perfect way to sum up. Thank you so much for hanging out and sharing what you’re doing, and a glimpse into your thinking. I just loved catching up.

Thank you, likewise. It’s been terrific talking with you.