Game Thinking OG: A tribute to Raph Koster

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing designers in my career — people who’ve influenced and shaped my approach to product design, and helped bring Game Thinking to life.

Today I’m celebrating one of my closest colleagues: Raph Koster. In addition to being lead designer on pioneering MMOs Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, Raph wrote the influential book A Theory of Fun and just came out with a compendium of essays called Postmortems. If you’re into online social worlds, these books are required background reading.

Raph and I share a passion for social gaming systems and online community dynamics — and we’ve collaborated many times over the years, as we discuss in this Game Thinking Live video showcasing Raph’s wisdom and career.

In addition to being a gifted designer, Raph is an accomplished writer — and he was kind enough to the write a preface for Game Thinking that captures the essence of what this approach to innovation is all about. Here it is.

Making stuff is hard.

We all know it. First, you aren’t sure what to make, then you start making it and you’re convinced it’s right, then it’s all wrong…and you go back and forth right up until the terrifying moment when you put it in front of someone else. And they hate it, or love it. Or worse, they are indifferent, that painful middle ground where you don’t elicit any strong emotions at all. That’s the moment when you sit back and wonder to yourself, “what could I have done differently?”

Amy Jo Kim has an answer for that, and it’s this book. It’s nothing less than what you could have done differently, laid out in concise, clear language, with diagrams, case studies, and processes.

I come from the world of games, and Amy Jo labels this approach “game thinking.” (I could only wish that all of our projects used a process like what she describes here!) She calls it that because it is inspired by the way in which we game designers think of our players and their journeys: as a process of learning, guided by feedback, of hobby- and habit-building. A process of getting players to care.

In games, we don’t have any utility to offer, you see. We just offer respite, enjoyment, a break from a busy day. We don’t have usefulness on our side, unlike most products. We have to rely on the real fundamentals: why does a human like something? Why does a human return to something? Why do they care? We design to elicit that caring, that emotional attachment.

That’s really what game thinking is about. It begins by pushing you to look at what your users actually care about, through its process of interviews and job stories. It asks you to listen — really listen — when users tell you what problems they have, and what solutions they wish were out there. It does away with hoary generalizations and made-up personas and goes right to the people most likely to want a solution from you, and teaches you, the designer, how to ask the right questions.

Then the book proceeds to guide you through the process of making that solution, in the right order, validating and confirming your premises along the way. Pushing you toward a design that’s about the player growing, changing, and learning through use of your product.

In games, we almost take that for granted. We just know that someone who starts out in a game has a lot to learn and that, by the end, they will be jumping, twirling, dodging, building, and trading like crazy, juggling a dense panoply of systems and intricacies. So we design for it. We build that journey into the very shape of the product, with levels and learnings that unfold as the player reaches the right competencies. It’s not easy, but we do it a lot, so much that we often don’t even talk about it.

That may be why everyone seems to get what we do so wrong.

These days, when everybody sprinkles badges and points on top of everything, it may seem a little late to say “you’ve all missed the point!” Because game designers don’t design badges and points systems. That’s not the heart of what we do. We build systems that teach you themselves. We build systems that enable people to do things they didn’t think they could do — whether it’s drive a race car, score a goal in the World Cup, or blast an alien monster in the face. What we do is build systems that unveil possibility. Points and badges and the rest are just markers along the way, and never the goal.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the systems, the products, the services we used today were about that? About unveiling possibility? Meeting needs? About putting the users before the bland and vague ideological mission, above the endless metrics? About enabling people to do what they didn’t think they could do? About expanding what was possible?

It isn’t only about what you, the designer, could be doing differently. It’s about what your customers, your users, your clients, could be doing differently. It’s about creating real value, not just using parasitic means of extracting revenue.

In the end, when we make games, we’re working to bring more joy into the world. That’s too big a task to be left only to us game folk. It should be part and parcel of every design. That’s what game thinking can really mean. And that’s what Amy Jo is documenting in this book: a method aimed at creating that core satisfaction a player feels when they turn to their partner and say “wow, that was great.”

So here it is. What you can do differently, to make a real difference.

— Raph Koster

Thank you Raph for your brilliance, your fellowship, and your overflowing creativity. We are all the better for it. If you want to know more about what Raph is talking about here…

grab your copy of Game Thinking & start innovating smarter today!

Want more? Can’t wait for your copy of the book to arrive? Read the Introduction to Game Thinking and explore the key themes in this book.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur