“Made to Stick” and Social Online Games

“Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath is a look into the “stickiness” of ideas and how this impacts product design, marketing and consumer behavior. It contains a wealth of ideas that are directly applicable to the design, monetization and community aspects of social online games.

In a similar vein to Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained”, “Made to Stick” it outlines why certain memes (be they religious or product related) work and survive – or don’t. As a simple rule, this often links to the pre-defined templates our brains use to rapidly interpret the constant stream of social/environmental information coming at us – and the critical mutations of data in those templates that lead to a new, unexpected and sticky ideas.

Unexpected outcomes to stories create stickiness. And highly unexpected outcomes which appeal to vivid emotional themes (death, disgust, fear and suspicion to name a few) can lead to a wide range of very successful ideas.

The “6 Principals”
The Heaths reviewed hundreds of sticky ideas and uncovered 6 principals that made them work. These principals can be applied to everything we do in game development: from the foundation narrative and character design for a new IP to the UI Design, monetization scheme, item naming, control inputs, marketing message and community building avenues we create.

How do we find the essential core of our ideas? A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once offered a definition of engineering elegance: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

We all know the curse of “feature creep”, that constant adding of new features meant to ‘improve’ a game in development. It’s a product of starting a development without a basic understanding of the overall design intent. Who is the audience? What’s the platform? What’s the genre? And most importantly, what’s the fun in this game?

Our goal should be to capture the design intent with a single, simple statement. For Akaneiro we might say, “It’s the Facebook version of Diablo”. With BigHead BASH it could be, “Deathmatch in a toy store”. In other words, “simple messages are core and compact”. They say a lot with little.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons that using fairy tales as the basis of our game narratives is useful – by bringing the characters, locations and pre-existing audience expectations to a new game we’re using shorthand to quickly communicate a huge amount of information about our design intent.

How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across? We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. A bag of popcorn is as unhealthy as a whole day’s worth of fatty foods! We can use surprise—an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus—to grab people’s attention. But surprise doesn’t last. For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year? We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.

Game designs and concepts are (usually) anything but unexpected. We’ve been reusing the same design concepts and narrative foundations (space marines, anyone?) repeatedly for generations. There are patterns in the designs, interfaces, play mechanics and marketing campaigns (among other things). In order for our concept, design or marketing campaign to be noticed it has to be unexpected (like The Spanish Inquisition).

Again, this is one of those areas where turning a known on its head can be useful – a gothic, bloody Alice. A “Red Riding Hood” tale set in Japan. But that’s not enough – humans adapt to patterns extremely quickly and then tune them out. In order to maintain attention things must change – people are extremely aware of changes; which is why we have to build change into our interfaces, content updates, marketing plans and designs.

“Gap Theory” is the idea that our brains are constantly seeking to answer questions and close open patterns (what will happen next?). In films there are turning points – each scene ending on a new question – which keeps us engaged throughout the film. Games present this in narrative (quests) or progression (leveling up) or collecting (what weapon/toy/hat am I missing). The critical thing here is that we must open gaps before we close them – i.e. build narrative turning points, progression and collection into our designs from the beginning.

Our challenge is to build the question of “what will happen next” into everything we’re creating – from our marketing campaigns to our content updates. In order to do this effectively we must create (and follow) plans which create the gap (question) first – “coming soon” signs on the shelves of the in-game store, three-part marketing trailers with a suspenseful mini-narrative and treasure chests without keys – then close it (answer) to reward people’s curiosity.

An example of a highly publicized gap design is the “10th Drone” in BigPoint’s “Dark Orbit”. 10 drone types are scattered around the world, people quest for them, then ‘go crazy’ when they can’t find the 10th drone (can’t fill the gap). The result was selling 2,000 of those drones for “1,000 Euros each” in just four days.

How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.

This is a huge one for game designers and audiences. As game designers we’ve become so enamored of our jargon that we neglect to present our design concepts in concrete terms. This is especially problematic when we’re trying to reach a new, casual gaming audience. What’s more appealing to that audience – a “+1 sword of stunning” or “Frostdire’s Rusty Ice Blade”? Or telling someone they are at 10% experience vs. giving him/her an evocative rank (name) and iconic badge?

“Curse of Knowledge” is how this is described in “Made to Stick” – and illustrated by way of the “tapping game”. People are asked to tap out (using their fingers) the rhythm to a well-known song, then ask the listener to identify it (try this). The ‘tappers’ are confounded when the ‘listeners’ don’t immediately guess what song they are tapping – because when tapping they actually hear the song playing in their minds. The listener is at a disadvantage, not being able to hear the song playing in the mind of the tapper. This same problem is frequently created when we, as game designers with years of accumulated knowledge, assume our “listeners” can hear what we’re tapping. This is especially critical when trying to reach new, casual game audiences.

The goal is to make these concepts (marketing, design, UI, etc) vivid and memorable. Abstract ideas (like “stunning” or “personality”) are not as memorable as concrete ones (like “bicycle” or “ice”). When we hear “bicycle” we actually picture it – when we hear “stun” what do we picture (nothing)?

How do we make people believe our ideas? When the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop talks about a public-health issue, most people accept his ideas without skepticism. But in most day-to-day situations we don’t enjoy this authority. Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”

This applies mainly to two domains we’re concerned with: marketing and in-game commerce. The question is: What makes people believe ideas? We believe trusted sources like our parents and friends. This is one of the foundations for the marketing/spread of social-online games. If our friends and family are enjoying it we’re more likely to give it a try.

We get some traction by including known actors (i.e., Nine Inch Nails sound/music for “Quake”). We trust the recommendations of those we want to be like. On that note: We MUST create in-game celebrities (high ranking/performing players) and make them spokespersons for weapons and items.

Falsifiable claims can be used to ask the audience to test the credibility of our statements. For instance, claiming that we have the “most action packed game on Facebook”. This screams, “see for yourself!” and invites people into the product. We just need to make sure we can back up our claims!

For in-game purposes: Try before you buy, ability to rate purchased items (a form of recommending to others), gifting (implicit recommendation), item sharing (use it while I’m not playing), these are all ways of establishing the credibility of an in-game item. In the store/UI we can use a credible figure (like a recognizable toy shop owner) to reinforce trust and inspire purchases. Statistics used to reinforce relationships can also be very useful with products: “A shotgun is 2x more powerful than a pistol” is much more meaningful than “A shotgun does 10 points more damage than a pistol”.

How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness. The statistic “37 grams” doesn’t elicit any emotions. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness. For instance, it’s difficult to get teenagers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it’s easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.

Simple fact: Appealing to emotion will result in higher average spend per player. When people are in an analytical state of mind they’ll spend less than when in an emotional state of mind.

Tap into resentment? We might ask core gamers (who seem to hate Facebook games) to try our Unity-based advance-casual 3D action games as an expression of their dislike of traditional Flash-based 2D social games.

We can actually prime people for emotional thinking by asking them emotionally relevant questions. For example, after a deathmatch we might pop-up a survey box (with reward for answering, of course) “How did that match make you feel?” Then provide three answers (which we might or might not care about analyzing later). Doing this will put people into an emotional state of mind and encourage more spending. (Might make sense to have our in-game store owners start with, “How do you feel today?”)

Use self-interest to sell our in-game items and weapons. For example, “My team laughed when I entered the arena… but when I fired off a round from my new RocketSpewer2000!” (This plays off a classic ad for learning to play piano). It’s not the features of a rocket launcher, but the benefits. “50 rounds per minute” is less compelling than “You can be the highest scoring person in the game”. When creating item descriptions we need to think “WIIFY” (What’s In It For You) – and sell on the basis of benefit for “you”, the Player (i.e. you’ll be winning matches, you’ll be collecting the most loot).

How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

We use stories as the foundations for our games. But we also create a space in our games for players to create their own stories. The challenge is in knowing how to spot the emerging stories (from our developments, finished games and from people playing the game) and amplify those to drive further success in our products.

The Heath’s illustrate three main plot types: The Challenge Plot (overcoming adversity, “David and Goliath”), The Connection Plot (relationships bridging a gap, “Titanic”) and The Creativity Plot (inspiration leading to breakthrough, an apple landing on Newton’s head). These types can be used to recognize valuable stories within our games and their social online communities. Once discovered, these stories should be plucked out, placed on a pedestal and spotlighted.

A direct application would be the integration of storytelling in a Player’s profile and achievements (think of the Timeline now being rolled out on Facebook).

Why is this all important? Say the Heath’s: “If you’re a great spotter (of stories), you’ll always trump a great creator. Why? Because the world will always produce more great ideas than any single individual, even the most creative one.” This is the magic behind “user created content” – and why we should push to create platforms for player’s stories within our products.

Further Reading
“Made to Stick” contains a wealth of additional info on these topics and is worth reading in full if you’re interested in applying these concepts to game design and social online environments. I also wrote a similar breakdown of the concepts contained in “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer. A link to both books can be found below.

Link to “Made to Stick”

Link to “Religion Explained”

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