Love, desire and submission to ritualChelsea Howe wears many hats: indie game designer, community organizer of local game jams & QGCon, a Creative Director of Electronic Arts Mobile, creator of successful mobile games, and champion of underdogs and outsiders everywhere. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and cut to the chase – a woman after my own heart 🙂 She’s fascinated with the role of love in game design, and the submission to ritual that’s embedded in free-to-play gaming. Always stimulating and original, Chelsea is a force of nature – and a rising star in the gaming industry.
[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Chelsea, to the Getting to Alpha podcast.
[Chelsea Howe] Thank you.
How did you get started in this field and how did you decide what to pursue along the way? Tell us your story.
I’ve been playing games my entire life, like most people who wind up in games, but it had never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that it could be a career, even when I started doing computer programming in high school. I actually went to college for linguistics because I wanted to make fantastic worlds and stories for people. Then I wound up, while I was there, seeing this ad for a game design, essentially, mini course. Like a little, “Come in for 3 hours, and I’ll tell you the basics.” That was kind of like this light going off in my head. I was like, “Oh, that’s the future of my life. That is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It was this really moving moment of finality and closure. I kind of settled. I was like, “Okay, that’s it. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
I designed my own major. I combined HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and psychology with digital music, music theory, 3D art and animation, creative writing, computer programming, you name it. If it’s remotely involved in games, I shoved it into a major and slapped the title Interactive Multimedia Design on it. The cool thing about that was that I got to do independent studies every semester. By the time I graduated, I had 12 games that I had made and produced with other students from all over the college. One of them got a publishing contract, so I started up a little game studio at a college with a friend. We published a game on iOS, got a bunch of featuring. It was super fun. Then I realized that I don’t want to run businesses and I joined Zynga. I got hired by Zynga and put on the Farmville team back in 2010 when they were at 32 million DAU (Daily Active Users). It was amazing. I learned more than I ever thought possible in a very small number of months that feels like years.
From there, got pulled away by Jane McGonigal. She came to me and basically said, “I’m doing a new startup, I want you as my director of design.” She’d been one of my heroes for years so I couldn’t say no to that. That got me into more of the psychology-backed applied game design stuff. After that, I went to Tiny Co., well I did a bunch of consulting in between, went to Tiny Co., was the lead designer on the Family Guy game and then now I’m at EA as the Creative Director.
I’ve been free-to-play or mobile my entire career.
Outside of the indie stuff. Yeah.
In addition to being a hands on maker, you have also done some speaking about game design and you’ve organized game jams and other kinds of conferences. What prompted you to begin to do that, to share in that different way?
One of the things that was cool about realizing that games are what I wanted to do, was it gave me a little bit of a focus. It really made me want to give back because of the fact that I hadn’t even realized it could be a career until I was in college, was a little bit mortifying for me in hindsight. I really wanted to kind of bring games to a much broader audience. Game jams helped do that and game jams are incredibly fun and that’s how I built up the portfolio that let me get hired at Zynga, which led to all of these other fantastic opportunities.
Teaching is kind of the way that I validate the mess and chaos of ideas in my head. When you have to teach, you really have to learn how to structure ideas and come up with frameworks and you learn a lot from just how people respond to what you teach. With the speaking, that was another way to get validation and give back and share. I’m always much more creative when I’m working with other people so those are all kind of ways for me to reach out to a community or try to help build a community.
What are the topics that are nearest and dearest to your heart?
Oh man! There’s so many. Diversity inclusion and accessibility, so getting more voices into games and making games a safe place for everyone. Fractals and infinity, how we look at systems across different scales and how we can capture things that are infinite or things that are otherwise incomprehensible. Things like randomness and how that can just kind of stun the human brain. I’m a real big fan of time and talking about how attention changes over time. How emotions change over time, thinking about brands and systems, and things that age and what age does to an experience at kind of evolution and how communities can change over time.
I found that a lot of game design, especially from folks who have a more traditional background like console or board games, you design a complete experience. There’s something really beautiful about free-to-play, which creates infinite experiences. Games that don’t have that conclusion. It really forces you to design in a fundamentally different way.
I’m also really interested in love and relationships and human connection in games. We have kind of an unofficial clique called Team Heart, that works on making games that are about love or about intimacy that I really, really enjoy.
When you set about to create a new game and you’ve done this many times, how do you start bringing your ideas together and how soon do you start prototyping? I’m particularly interested in this as you’re talking about free-to-play, because it’s a different style of game play, it’s less completely crafted and more perhaps systems built. What have you learned about the smart ways to start vetting the ideas, bringing them to life in the really early days? Everyone’s got their own style, how do you go about it?
Yeah, absolutely. It really depends. I have two kind of fundamentally different ways that I go about designing for a free to play game. The first one is a mechanical approach. Recently, we were investigating…
One of the other things that I’m a little bit obsessed with right now, are ILE RPGs (Integrated Language Environment Role-Playing Games). With an ILE RPG, we were interested in that genre and that mechanic so we prototyped basically first thing. It was like, “Can we make a system where a number goes up and you can accelerate the rate of that number going up in a way that’s interesting and compelling?” That was kind of purely mechanical. We prototyped immediately because when it’s about the mechanic, you need to feel that mechanic.
With some of the other licensed work I’ve been doing, when you start from kind of a brand or an emotion, like “This is the journey I want people to have.” That’s very independent of what’s happening moment to moment. Or the moment to moment game play, which is usually what people prototype is just such an incredibly small part of that overall holistic player journey over days and weeks and months and onward.
Where the meta, I guess what usually people refer to it, is much more important in terms of why are people going to pick this game and invest in this game for months and give this game so much of their time? For that, we still haven’t really done a prototype. We’ve got a bunch of wireframes and walkthroughs, but those are more for us to organize information than they are to be put in front of players and used to validate ideas. We’ll get to that, but probably not for another few months.
You’ve done a lot of giving back, you’ve run game jams, you’ve talked. You’ve had a lot of exposure to first time game creators. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see first time creators make?
Oh, there’s so many. I love watching new people make games. They bite off way more than they can chew. That’s the first one. No one knows how to scope, even professionally. It’s very rare that you get a team that actually knows how to scope itself. Agile helps that a little bit but the reality is that all agile happens within this kind of waterfall system of here’s your ship date. Good luck. Have fun. Newbies just bite off way, way, way more than they can handle.
They also have a tendency towards developer difficulty syndrome. You don’t see newbies testing a lot so they wind up making a game that is fun for them. Of course since they’ve been working on it the whole time, they get exceptionally good at it and need very high challenges. A lot of times if they actually do put it in front of other people, it’s either incomprehensible or just excruciatingly hard and difficult. That’s another big issue that I run into.
Feature creep is another one. They’ll start off with an idea and then they’ll change their idea and then they’ll change it again. They won’t really have a consistent hypothesis or a consistent razor that they’re judging their ideas against. It’s all just kind of, “Oh, shiny. Oh, shiny. Oh, shiny.” Then they’re off and running.
One of the other ones that’s a little bit more subtle, and this usually has to do more with like a professional environment than with a game jam environment, but game design is such an iterative process and there are a lot of people who lose sight of the iteration when they see, in the moment, things getting thrown out. It’s very hard for some people to see whatever you want to call it, see failure, see trashed work, for the learning value it brought as opposed to just feeling like that was wasted effort. Teaching people that failure is part of an iterative process and it’s silly to assume that 100% of what’s created will make it to launch. In fact if it does, then you’re probably not doing robust enough testing. Making that mental shift is really difficult.
Let’s talk more about prototyping. At what stage do you start prototyping? Do you tend to prototype quite early in the design process?
Are we talking about internal prototyping or are we talking about stuff that’s going to be put in front of consumers?
Let’s talk about both because differentiating between them is very valuable.
Okay. The thing that we’re doing that’s really, really helpful is wireframes and walkthroughs. Not necessarily paper prototype, but digital sketches of the step by step by step of what different stages of the user experience might look like. We’ll look at the one that everyone should look at, “what are your first five minutes?” We’ll also look at, “Okay, if I’ve been in the game for a month, what does my five minute session look like?” And, “Okay, if I’ve been in the game for a year, what does my five minute session look like?”
You have kind of these really great, again, insights into your goal experience and a lot of the nuance and edge cases that you may not have caught otherwise when you’re developing across those different time scales.
Wow. Then when do you start building internal prototypes?
It really depends on the mechanics. A lot of people talk about innovation in two different ways. There’s innovation which is, “Here’s a completely new thing, you haven’t seen this mechanic before.” Then there’s, “This is innovative because it combines things that have never been combined before.” When you’re doing combinatory innovation, there’s a lot more known factors and it’s a little bit easier to extrapolate the experience.
Again, that’s risky, it’s always risky to assume you know anything, but you can kind of delay it a little bit longer. Have it kind of at the pre-production phase as opposed to the concept phase, whereas if you’re trying to come up with a new mechanic and A) It’s probably not new and you probably just haven’t looked hard enough, but B) You should do it very, very, very early.
The cool thing with free-to-play is that you can basically open the app store and consider all of those things prototypes. It’s very easy to find some small thing of what you’re looking for. Either on the app store or on congregate. I kind of consider, and this is a little bit of hubris showing, but I kind of consider moment-to-moment engagement a solved problem. To me that’s not what’s interesting anymore.
What’s interesting is the, “How do I keep someone’s attention for months at a time? How do I make them come back the next day and then how do I make them come back the next week, the next month, the next year?” That hasn’t been solved and that’s what’s hugely, hugely interesting to me as a designer.
Me too. I’ve spent most of my career delving into that and there’s clearly not one answer but there’s some really deep truths. Maybe a little later we can come back to that topic. I want to follow up though on what you’re saying about prototyping internally and then prototyping externally. Because a lot of people that aren’t in game design think about a prototype as, “Oh, perhaps it’s a fake landing page or it’s a website that’s got most but not all the features.” When you think about prototyping externally, when does that come into your development process and what hypotheses are you testing when you’re doing that?
Yeah, hmm. It’s so variable. I think that, and again it depends on the brand, because I’ve worked with a lot of licensors who are like, “You can’t even soft launch if you’re going to have our brand attached to it because we need to have complete control over when knowledge of this product goes live.” So essentially, you can only do internal play tests. You don’t really get a test run.
There are more tools now so that you can do more controlled external testing, Apple took over Test Flight and kind of ruined it as a tool, unfortunately. but Google’s got kind of a beta program that lets you give limited access to very specific people but at scale, so thousands of users, which is super, super useful.
In an ideal world, if you’re doing something where brand restrictions and what not are not an issue, I usually try to get it in front of other people the moment you have a prototype. If you’re not hampered by license restrictions, you should never just use your internal folks to validate. Whether that means… We have some folks in HR who don’t really play very many games, so we use them a lot. Usertesting.com is another group that we love… Love going to U, because you’ll get the video and the facial expressions sometimes, which is fantastic.
Then we actually have our own lab now, which is super, super exciting. Complete with the one way windows and what not.
You’re able to do testing there?
Yeah. A lot of times those hypotheses are… Again, we start with the moment-to-moment. Does this concept grab you in some way? Do you hear it and do you perceive value? Do you perceive the emotions that we want you to? Then once they sit down and play, it’s okay, we start validating the mental model that we’re building. After the end of a 10-minute session, how do you think these two things are related? What do you think the cause and effect between that action and this feedback is?
Then it’s a lot harder to do longitudinal testing because you actually need content to sustain attention for multiple weeks, but once we can do that, then it becomes about validating our assumptions of engagement over time. That’s usually, “Is our mid-term goal interesting? Is our meta game interesting?” When I say interesting, I just use that as a term for, does it sustain attention? Does it sustain engagement? Do people continue to perceive value in it and delight in pursuing it?
For those who aren’t game designers, let’s dig into those terms a little bit. They’re really interesting. You talked about the midterm game and the meta game. And we could also probably talk about the elder game so what are those and could you just give an example? Not to give anything private away but just kind of an example from something you’ve worked on on what that midterm game might be versus say, the first five minutes of the onboarding experience. Then what a meta game might be and maybe two or three different examples of that. That’d be fantastic.
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s do Farmville, for example. When I think about Farmville, you have that kind of almost pre-game, right? Which is the kind of the marketing and the fantasy and that basically comes down to create your farm, right? Right off the bat, you get asked, “Is that something that sounds interesting to you?” This fantasy of the kind of rural, nature, animal-based collection and investment. That’s sort of like your pre-game.
Then you have your moment-to-moment. In Farmville, that’s basically the plowing, the planting, and the harvest. Their iconic core loop: plow, plant, harvest, plow, plant, harvest. That’s what you’re doing every time you go into the game. That’s what you’re doing from moment-to-moment, from second-to-second is you’re plowing, you’re planting, and you’re harvesting. That’s giving you coins and essentially, coins is the way to where you get to the mid-term, what I would call the mid-game.
The mid-game is about, “Okay, I’ve got all of these coins. I’m going to start building buildings. I’m going to start extending my farm and getting trees.” Which is kind of a new way to engage with plow, plant, harvest, except all I have to do is click to harvest on the tree. I kind of have accelerated my core loop and that acceleration of engagement is very, very exciting. That’s kind of the mid-term.
The mid-term is like, “How does the core loop evolve in an interesting and compelling way and provide goals that are a little bit longer term?” For Farmville, it was, “Let me complete this set of trees. Or let me kind of get one star mastery of a crop.”
Then you have your elder game. I actually think elder game and meta game are different. People at EA refer to what I would call elder game as meta game, but I will go back to the definitions that I prefer. Elder game is basically, “What are my really long term goals?” In Farmville, one of the iconic ones was, “I want to buy the mansion.” It was the biggest building that you could get and it was something like a million coins, and it really was one of the things that represented an end game. It was essentially the most expensive thing you could possible buy. If you could buy that, you had kind of mastered the coin game, the meta coin game of Farmville.
Another big one was, “I want to master all the crops. So if I get three stars on every crop, I have essentially done everything I can do with that core loop. I have done it as many times as I can, with every crop that I can do it with.” That would be another thing that would be your elder game.
Meta game then, refers to kind of things that aren’t explicit within the systems but things like our Farmville community page or our fan pages. Ways that people kind of relate to the game at a higher level. For me, it’s usually a social level and because, and you and I both believe that social is that key to unlocking and sustaining engagement over time, that’s why I’ve kind of started using meta game and elder game more interchangeably. Just everything that goes on socially outside of the game, is part of the experience as far as I’m concerned.
What is your focus these days? What’s on the horizon for you? What’s catching your interests?
Oh, man. This is a funny question because I literally was just speaking to my partner about how I don’t feel focused at all right now. I just feel like I’m being pulled in all of these different directions. Yeah, I have so many little projects going on right now that I really just need to figure out what my focus is.
There’s… One of the other things that I’m curious about right now is real world experience, like augmented experiences and going beyond the sense of sight. Almost everything that we do with games right now that make money are just us and a screen and so if things that are tactile, things that have really rich audio, that’s one of the things that I want to do.
I want to start writing more about time in games because I think that it’s such a compelling question and a bunch of people have thought about it in a lot of different ways. I want to kind of bring all of those together.
I’m working on kind of a critique of free-to-play under the guise of kind of aggressive versus submissive tendencies and how free-to-play really puts us in this place of… I guess traditional free-to-play where you have energy mechanics. Essentially, it makes the game in a position to withhold pleasure from you unless you comply to the game’s desired behavioral patterns. It’ll say, “Okay, you’re done, no more pleasure for you. Come back in two hours.” I think making that narrative more explicit is really fun so I’m toying with that.
Gosh, there’s so much…
Oh my, that’s very intriguing. Is there anything more you can say about that? That could go in a lot of different directions.
Well, it originally started as a Fifty Shades of Grey project so…
I must admit that is what ran through my mind, but… Right, sort of a BDSM…
Yeah, because it is, right? It’s about pleasure withholding and it’s about behavioral compliance and it’s about obedience. Fundamentally, a lot of designers approach free-to-play by figuring out how to get players to be obedient to their… What they perceive is an optimal behavior pattern, which is super interesting.
Yeah, it’s an aesthetic that I just find … Because when you talk about attention and engagement, those are situations where there is a lot of attention and a lot of engagement and we just don’t talk about it, because it’s kinky and taboo. But I lived in SF (San Francisco), so I get to talk about whatever I want.
As a game designer, how do you reconcile that aspect of free-to-play with your desire to create an experience that makes people better than before? To make people more skillful or more insightful or more connected or more something. How do you reconcile that? I know you’ve designed some games that aren’t just sole sucking money extracting machines. How do you walk that line as a free to play designer?
Well, I think it comes down to… I think I was talking on Twitter with someone about how a lot of people approach game design in the free-to-play space with the product in business’ best interest in mind, above the player’s best interests. I think it’s that… That fundamentally, whether you prioritize your business above the player or the player above your business, is what really makes the difference.
I think most people who are actually making games that do have positive impact, see that prioritizing the player fundamentally will lead to successful business. That just affects all of these little, tiny choices that add up to make the difference between the game that feels great and a game that feels manipulative.
Right. That leads us into applied game design. We interacted on Twitter a few days ago and you were sad that you had been reminded of somebody talking about the seven deadly sins as a way to manipulate game players and isn’t that great. I think for many of us in game design, we bristle at the word gamification, because that word has really come to exemplify using game mechanics to manipulate behavior versus creating a compelling experience.
Yeah, and using game mechanics in the most misunderstood way as well. Not even using game mechanics so much as using operant condition. That’s that whole time scale thing. Operant conditioning is how you shape behavior, A) In a way that’s usually pretty negative and B) Not for extended periods of time. If it’s just, “Here’s your cookie. Here’s your cookie. Here’s your cookie.”
We’re essentient human beings, eventually we’re going to ask the question, “Well, why do I want cookies?” Or “Why am I just eating these cookies?” If there’s not something more there, if there’s not something more substantial than just cookies, we’re going to snap out of it really fast. People don’t seem to get that. They don’t seem to understand what keeps people playing games for more than a few days, which is why all of the gamification you see has these really big spikes and then just dies horribly.
Right. As an alternative, I think the idea behind gamification, many of us are excited about, which is applying games broadly to many different areas. You talked about augmented reality, the inspiration you got from Jane McGonigal and her approach, which was visionary and very early. What does applied game design as opposed to gamification mean to you?
To me, it means actually understanding in a very deep way the psychology of what motivates people and helps people to flourish and utilizing that. Not these kind of mechanics and systems that provide brief spikes of engagement, but actually looking at things like clear goals and clear progress indicators and moments of delight and wonder and awe, curiosity.
Understanding the emotional component and then understanding at an even higher level, why people still play WoW (World of WarCraft) even years after they’ve lost interest in “the game”. Because that’s where they go to hang out with friends, that’s where they go to bond, and people need to kind of climb a little bit higher up Maslow’s hierarchy and realize that games can satisfy almost all of that because they essentially give us a controlled simulation of our own lives.
The same things that make us happy in real life, like the idea of progress, the idea of social status and importance and validation from our peers and all the way up to metaphysical satisfaction or comfort. Those are all things that drive us as human beings and that help motivate us to act in ways that can improve our lives. There are things that games give us, for better or for worse.
And sometimes they just make us beg for our pleasure.
Yep. Yep. Yep. I’ve played those games too.
I guess, depending on what you’re into, that could be the best thing ever.
I’m imagining that it will have its audience.
I know you and I are very into cooperative gaming and I’ve learned a lot from you about indie cooperative games and just that subject in general. What are you seeing these days or playing these days in co-op that’s interesting to you?
Well, we’ve got the whole Twitch thing so that’s obviously what’s the forefront of my mind right now.
Tell us about the whole Twitch thing because not everybody is aware of what’s going on there.
Yeah, so Twitch.tv is a game streaming service and it’s co-op in a different way. It’s kind of almost old school co-op making a comeback. Because all of the games that I played when I was a child were co-op, not explicitly because I played them sitting on a couch with my brother next to me and my mother and my father watching. My father telling me where to go while my mom drew diagrams of the Zelda dungeons. Games were cooperative, even if it wasn’t something manifested systemically. It was something manifested in the meta.
Twitch gets us back into that feel of games being cooperative or collaborative through observation and giving the observer a more active role and making it much easier to get observers. That alone is super interesting. What my partner, Michael, is working on and what I’m helping him design is games actually take those observers and make them active participants again. Twitch plays Pokemon was kind of the first game that got a lot of press for doing this. It was interesting because you could go and watch this game be played and then you could kind of touch in and play it as well.
To me, that just opens up so many possibilities. You can have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, watching a Twitch channel. Wouldn’t it be absolutely phenomenal to play a game with a hundred thousand people that let everyone engage and let everyone feel that sense of connectivity that’s again, usually reserved for religious ceremony. Or sporting events.
That’s what you’re working on, huh?
Yeah, that’s the thing that is in the ether right now.
What is your super power as a designer? What’s your sweet spot?
I think the one thing that I found that I seem to love and enjoy that most other people don’t, is actually working with brands and licenses. I know a lot of designers who are like, “Oh, if it’s not mine…” They just can’t get invested in it the same way.
I really take a lot of joy and pride, I guess, honestly, in my ability to kind of look at “What are the central tenants of an IP or of a brand? What do they make people feel? What associations do people have with them? What is the heart of what this brand is?” Then basically, transliterating that into mechanics and figuring out how I can create a system and a set of goals and progression layers that make people feel those same things and give them that authentic experience.
Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today and sharing your stories.
This was great fun. Thank you.