Zak Orner on User Centered Design and The Digital Gaming Space

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I ask, “why is the digital gaming sphere so fractured and segmented? Clinking plates as servers rush about the little Thai restaurant off Illinois Street in Chicago. I’m asking tough questions of my lunchmate, Senior User Experience Manager Zak Orner of Manifest Digital. He seems unfazed, downing beef and broccoli while I interject with further questions. User Experience, or User Centered Design, isn’t a new process, but it is one that gets overlooked time and again by gaming industries leaders. The UX design process encourages extensive attention toward the customer and end user’s wants, needs and limitations. Concerned with interactions, specialists in Zak’s profession carefully weigh business requirements against pivotal paths of interaction. Business needs are not abandoned, but rather considered as applied to the user’s behaviors, involving extensive research and best practice judgements. The effect is often streamlined user flow and architecture, clear attention placed where the user is most interested and headache-free user interfaces to lessen friction. The big win is that UX specialists like Zak help make sure your product is not created in the vacuum of corporate decision makers and marketers, but rather inclusive of business needs and customer/user needs. 

“I’m not sure any of the digital gaming segments have a clear understanding of audience overlap with other segments,” Zak says, thinking out loud. Our discussion quickly centers on the various pathways into gaming and how they have failed, as yet, to coalesce into a mappable customer/user journey. The console gaming leaders like Playstation 4 and X-Box One are still struggling to find their key user demographics in light of the continued pull of Smartphone and tablet gaming. What’s more, media streaming devices like Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and (presumably, in the near future) Apple TV are getting into gaming with low-price devices that avoid expensive hardware processing and rendering power by making cloud computing data centers handle the load. But there are successes and failures on all sides. “Wii U asked customers to buy a new casual gaming console despite omnipresent casual gaming on Smartphones and tablets customers already own. In contrast, Playstation 4 sold more units more quickly than any of its predecessors,” Zak says. Indeed, PS4 reached 7 million console units and over 20 million software pieces as of April 16, 2014. “And there have been clear successes in mobile gaming, despite continuously changing user preferences.”

Discussing console gaming, Zak could understand why customers found Wii U confusing, especially by integrating a new controller type with a second screen built in. “I’m not sure there ever was a whole lot of white space corresponding with the Wii,” says Zak, referencing a term meant to describe a market’s underserved or unserved audience. “The Wii was more of a phenomenon. It was affordable, social and attention-getting. But by the time Wii U came out, casual gamers and more rooted console gamers all had a Wii in a corner gathering dust.” According to Zak, the games suffered for their casual gimmicks, “providing quick fun but without the long term-value.” If there ever was casual gamer white space in the video game market, Smartphones and tablets fill the need. “Mobile apps are free or cheap to play. It’s also more convenient. Why buy a console to do what your phone and tablet already can?”

But Sony’s new Playstation 4 and Microsoft’s X-Box One are trying to adapt a few mobile innovations despite continuing to craft games for an audience willing to pay $60 per title. “The new Playstation user interface really is user focused. Like mobile apps, customers can download titles directly onto the console. No need for a cartridge or disk unless that’s a user’s preference,” Zak says. “I refer to these gamers as ‘console gamers’ not ‘hardcore gamers’ because there is a variety of game categories. But these customers, many of whom are older millennials who grew up with console video games, were ready for a new generation.” Zak points out another adopted mobile innovation: multitasking between various concurrently running apps. Playstation 4 and X-Box One make it simple for a user to jump between multiple ongoing games, Netflix, game stores and more. While mobile gamers and console gamers certainly overlap as an audience, it seems the consoles manufacturers are succeeding in finding their targets amidst the larger gaming audience.

Mobile gaming, on the other hand, continues to struggle with its audience despite nearly universal interest from an ever-growing Smartphone and tablet user base. “But there are two major game components that successful game apps include,” Zak points out. “Big games either include a simple game mechanic that can be accomplished over and over and/or social connectivity.” He muses that PC gaming offered massively multiplayer online gaming, but that casual audiences sought different engagement durations than those heavy investment games. “Threes and Quiz Up are fantastic examples of simple mechanics and social play,” says Zak, “and the consoles have yet to find their social sweet spot.”

But the mobile gaming market is always in flux. Rovio, usually a top dog in the space, witnessed a 52% drop in profits when comparing 2013 and 2012 results. Zynga and other known brands have also struggled to keep their footing. “Mobile gamers are fickle. These users don’t wait long before moving on once their attention lapses.” And the open and accessible developer market makes publishers’ jobs much more difficult than in the console space. “Publishers aren’t up against 10-20 publishers, it’s thousands,” Zak grins. “And the next killer app could come from anywhere.”

We share a laugh over attempts by mobile app developers and their console partners to bring games like Angry Birds to console. “No one is considering customer expectations when they decide to sell an app for $.99 (or free) and the same game on console for $49.99. Maybe there is more gameplay or better graphics, but it sure looks like charging 50-times as much for identical material.”

Less of a laugh is mobile gaming’s struggle to find acceptable monetization strategies. Where paid apps once seemed an alternative, many existing and new apps are choosing free-to-play with in-app purchases (IAP). “Download and play for free games quickly chase scale, and the inherent marketing power of that scale. Get eyeballs on ads or prompt in-app purchases,” Zak says. But he isn’t entirely sure that the strategy is working perfectly. “Incredibly addictive games can reap big revenue from IAP but many are choosing to do so in artificial or inorganic ways,” he notes. “Many games are timeboxed, forcing players to either wait a period of time or pay to continue playing.” While some apps have done well with paid timeboxing, the approach creates friction that prompts many users to drop the game rather than continue paying or waiting. “Inherently, the user knows this is an artificial money grab. It’s not fun, it’s frustrating.” Zak imagines a more integrated approach to monetization, carefully orchestrated concurrently to the game experience. “Create great content up front and monetize additional content like level packs, mini games and new experiences within the app. Look,” he says, “the days of Super Mario, Super Mario 2, Super Mario 3, etc. are coming to an end. There is no reason that an app cannot be continuously updated to keep fans interested.” But, regardless of the strategy, Zak cautions that users “need to feel good about the money they are spending. It has to be pleasurable.”

App update strategies received a lot of public attention over the last few weeks. Outside of the game space, App publisher Comixology made headlines for its acquisition by Amazon, then made headlines again a week later after disabling in-app purchasing from its iOS apps. Suddenly the app-maker’s massive user base was forced to purchase comics through a browser before returning to the app to download their purchases. “Comixology and Amazon will regret losing the asset of discoverability,” he says, shaking his head. Changes like that of comixology frustrate or outright piss off UX specialists like Zak who spend their days streamlining customer journeys to lessen user friction, not enhance it. “It remains to be seen how this impacts Comixology’s revenue,” Zak says, “but expecting users to forgive removing major aspects of a digital product is a major mistake.” Zak points to another recent example, Rovio and 5 Ants’ Tiny Thief game. Tiny Thief started its life as a $2.99 purchase. But when the app makers changed their monetization methods, even customers who had already purchased the game discovered that they would be forced to pay for levels and activities previously a part of their $2.99 purchase. Customers cried out and publisher Rovio Stars was forced to issue extensive refunds. 

Zak and I also talked about the many new combinative experiences being attempted. First, Zak noted a growing trend for console game developers to include secondary, yet connected, mobile experiences. “Console games often approach companion mobile experiences more like loyalty or rewards programs, failing to immerse that gameplay into the larger game,” Zak says. He notes a few other novelties like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto game allowing users to make license plates on a Smartphone app and apply them to vehicles used in the game.  “But there are some great examples that go beyond gimmick. Smartglass companion Airstrike, for Dead Rising 3, lets players use their Smartphones to call in airstrikes.” Likewise, The Division, a tactical shooter game, lets players control drones from their Smartphone or tablet. Zak’s favorite example of a companion app game experience is a recent Hitman app. On console, Hitman is a 3rd person action adventure game. But the tablet app refines the experience, injecting more board-game or table top-like play patterns. Graphics and gameplay clearly indicate that the app is not identical or similar to the console game, but instead an enthralling puzzle game.

Of course, the combinative experience conversation turned to the emerging gaming competition from cheap media streaming devices like Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and (presumably soon) Apple TV. Whereas console gaming demands customers substantially invest in hardware and software, Amazon, Google, Apple and Roku’s devices are media consumption tools carrying a fraction of the console price tag. Playstation 4, X-Box One, and Wii U consoles respectively cost $399.99, $499.99, and $299.99. Streaking devices range between $35 and $99.99 price tags. “The barrier of entry for console-like gaming is lowered,” Zak says, “but Fire TV and others like it will probably remain casual gaming devices due to their consumer connection to Smartphones and tablets, such game and app mirroring processes.” Zak theorizes that game makers don’t necessarily have a grasp on what customers will look for from second screen and media streaming gaming solutions. “It will be an entirely new process of discovery regarding engagement structures and the overall customer journey.”

The check comes and we split it two ways, because I’m not that kind of journalist. As we put on our coats to brave an unseasonably cold Chicago spring, Zak drops one more thought that solidifies his approach to game design. “App developers, game publishers, console manufacturers, Amazon and its Kindle Fire and Fire TV, or even Mattel and Hasbro with their game brands…they construct these carefully pruned ecosystems comprising the various customer interactions with their brands. Smartphones, tablets, consumer products and consoles fan out like spokes from their brand as a hub. But that’s inherently the problem. Only you think your brand is the center of the wheel. The customer or user arranges those interactions around themselves as they see fit. It doesn’t revolve around your brand. It all revolves around the user.”

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In his roles as Private Consultant, Hasbro Strategic Partner Development and ChiTAG committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids entertainment, and product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has been contributing to the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at a Chicagoland Toys R Us store. He specializes in cross-platform brand storytelling. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids you’re looking for.