Matt Leacock's Pandemic game poised to infect the world

· User Experience

[Not final image of the Pandemic board]
I have always loved games, though I find I have less time for them as I get older. When I was younger it was board games and card games. Later role playing games and video games. I used to change five dollars into quarters and squander it all on Major Havoc and Robotron and Pole Position.
In my work and in my attention to online and offline experiences I find that qualities of play can make all the difference between drudgery and delight. I’ve often theorized that Flickr is so successful because it feels more like a game than an asset-management system (and of course Ludicorp made Game Never Ending and built the first rev of Flickr on the GNE engine). Think about it. Given the choice, would you rather “work” or “play”?
At the retreat from which I just returned I had the opportunity to meet and talk to several game designers (Nicole Lazzaro, Bill Dunn, and Jon Blossom), which was enlightening in numerous ways. My old buddy Jeff Green is still editor in chief of Games for Windows (possibly the best job EVAR in that he and his staff are required to play games on the clock). And my colleague Matt Leacock, principal interaction designer for Yahoo’s community platform, has a new boardgame, Pandemic, coming out in November. Is the world trying to tell me something?
I think I need to pay attention to this. Game interfaces (or “PX” as Nicole calls it, to encompass the whole idea of the play experience) are light years ahead of productivity application interfaces and I think those of us working in the more staid spaces would do well to learn from the innovations coming from games. I’ve been mouthing an idea along these lines for years (along with other commonplaces, such as “learn from the children”) but so far I’ve failed to really dig in.
I asked Matt a few questions about his upcoming game:

wake up!: How long have you been designing board games?

Matt Leacock: I’ve been designing board games since I was a kid. When I was nine or ten I designed the first game I can recall named “The Sensation of Boxation.” It was a simple roll-and-move affair where the players were represented by corrugated boxes in an assembly line trying to make their way to a shopping cart. Many of my early games were drawn on the back of other board games that I found lacking. I recall playing games with my uncle and saying, “Is that all there is to this game? I’m sure we could do better.”

Do you design other kinds of games as well?

I focus on board and card games for two reasons: I’m able to handle all of the production tasks and I enjoy the social interaction that results in a good board game. As I experiment with cooperative designs though, I’ve been tempted to work on some computer-moderated designs to lighten up the bookkeeping that players need to do.

What are some of your favorite games?

My favorite game is Tigris and Euphrates by Reiner Knizia because it offers so many interesting tactical and strategic decisions with a fairly straightforward set of rules.

Your influences?

As for influences, I played Tactics, Acquire, and Civilization with my dad and uncle as a kid, roleplaying games in high school, then watched a new world of games open up to me as Mayfair and Rio Grande started importing German board games like Settlers of Catan. I favor games that play in 45-75 minutes, have a lot of player interaction, offer the ability to play intuitively, and provide the means for players to catch up from behind. Many of the “Euro” games offer this mix.

Where did you get the idea for Pandemic?

Hard to say. I wanted to try my hand at a cooperative game and was also interested in a game where chain reactions could occur—where things could rapidly get out of hand. The central mechanism came to me more or less by accident as I was experimenting with a set of cards while working on the first prototype.

How long did it take to design the game?

I started working on Pandemic in January of 2004 and signed off on the final rules in October 2007. I put together a quick-and-dirty paper prototype in about 30 minutes with a couple of sharpies, a standard deck of cards, some wooden cubes, and a few pawns. Unlike many games I’ve worked on, Pandemic showed promise right from the start – I could feel tension in it right away.

What was the process like?

For this design, I wrote down my objectives early which helped keep me focused. The process I used relied on many iterations. In each trial, I’d jot down a rule set and either try it out myself or present it to a group of playtestsers. After playing a game, I’d keep rules that helped make the game more engaging and do what I could to remove any rules that sounded interesting—at the time—but didn’t match up to the core objectives. I also sat out a lot of games and closely observed players to note what behaviors they exhibited during each game. Where did they get confused? Ask questions? Check the rules? I did my best to file off all the sharp, confusing edges by redesigning the game to fit players’ mental models wherever I could.

The two biggest hurdles are finding a novel mechanism that is fun and fine tuning the design for balance and learn-ability. For this game, the mechanism came right away and the bulk of the work was tuning. I’ve been trying to get more methodical about the second part of the process (tuning a balanced, learnable design) because I can get much better results in fewer trials if I’m actively listening and taking notes. I still haven’t found a process for repeatedly discovering fun and novel games, however. I suspect it has a lot to do with loads of fearless experimentation.

Have you got some other game ideas in the works?

I’m currently working on an cooperative game that could be used for training or team building in corporations.

You can pre-order Pandemic now at Funagain Games. Just $23.95! Fun for the whole family!

Enumerating social media patterns: a work in progress

· Design, Information Architecture, Patterns, Social Design, Teamwork, The Power of Many, User Experience

thumbnail section of social media patterns graph
At BarCamp Block earlier this year I led a discussion of social media design patterns. The slides I posted were really more just about patterns and how we deal with them at Yahoo! But the group exercise was to brainstorm a huge list of social media and social networking activities that could be described and documented as patterns.

These are not the patterns themselves, but at least one pattern could probably be written around each of these gestures. We found it easiest in the brainstorm to just rattle off a list of gerunds (“adding, blocking, friending,” etc.).

The list we came up is also not exhaustive or definitive. It’s one group’s idea of the various patterns that a social system could support. The initial list was posted at the BarCamp Block wiki. Then Kent Bye, one of the participants, took a stab at re-sorting it a bit and created a visualization. He also then hand-copied it into an outline format and sent me his “version two” of the list.

Since then I’ve made a few more tweaks and have produced a version 3 outline. I’ve been working on visualizing it myself, so I turned the OPML into an OmniOutliner file and then imported that into OmniGraffle. The map is so tangled that Graffle had a hard time displaying it without crossing lines, so I spent some more time dragging the various nodes and clusters around until they were each separate. The end result is that it’s huge of course, and still by no means final or exhaustive or authoritative.

In fact, it’s decidedly *not* the taxonomy of social media patterns we’re working on internally at Yahoo! Think of it as an open source, collaborative work in progress. The thumbnail image above links to a full-sized PDF you should feel free to grab to get a better look at the current state of play of this idea, and if you’d like the OPML file or any other format, just drop me a note and I’ll send it to you.

When I get a moment, I’ll drop by the BarCamp Block wiki and upload the file there in several formats too, at least until someone provides a better place for hosting this project.

Do pattern libraries really work?

· Patterns, Teamwork, User Experience

pattern-library-thumb.jpgI wish I could have been at the recent Chicago IxDA Pattern Library conversation, a participatory discussion about using pattern libraries in practice.
I appreciate the shout-out for the open Yahoo! pattern library and I welcome the questions about how our non-public-facing library actually works. In fact, I am currently putting together a brown bag talk I’ll be giving in Sunnyvale tomorrow to catch up and fill in our own user experience designers on what’s new in the pattern library, what have we changed, what have we learned, what’s been working, what hasn’t been working, and how they can contribute and get the most out of it.
While this is an internal-facing talk, I believe the camera guys from the Yahoo! Developer Network will be filming it so as long as I don’t slip and give away our secret plan to equip everyone on the planet with a jetpack (oops!) there might be an opportunity for the interested general public to see the talk.
In Chicago, it sounds like they raised all the right sorts of questions:
> Are we confusing pattern with component, pattern library with style guides?
>
> Is a lightbox a pattern or a solution, or is that one and the same?
>
> How do we have a group of people come to a consensus on what should constitute a pattern?
>
> How do we justify the time spent in creating the resource?
>
> Does this need to be tied back to code to be efficient?
>
> How do we institutionalize its use? Here you create this thing… does it die the minute you look the other way?
>
> Should an agency have one? How would that work across clients? Could it be high-level enough to be useful?
I think the answers to many of these questions are situational. There’s an interesting tension between pattern-language purity and practical usefulness. In my experience a working pattern library has to straddle that line between enshrining time-worn principles and providing handy reusable components.
I think a pattern library can be considered a sort of style guide, although the discipline of expressing patterns as solutions to problems in context takes it away from the more changeable, spec-oriented, visual-centric style guides most of us are familiar with.
The granularity question (lightbox? slider? carousel? etc.) needs to be answered in context. I’d say whatever works for the people who have to actually use the library is what you should do. Don’t get too hung up on semantics and purity.
Building consensus is probably the most interesting challenge, although of course it depends on the size and structure of the organization in question. This is something I plan to address at several conferences over the next year (organizers willing).
Justifying the time spent on the resource has to be based on time saved and efficiencies realized in the future. If you can’t get that “return on investment” it’s frankly not worthwhile to put together such a resource. However, do carefully look at what time and efforts are being wasted if a large team keeps designing the same interactions over and over.
Wherever possible, I think patterns should be tied back to code. I don’t consider the code samples to be part of the pattern language proper, but I think the best patterns are augmented by many visual examples (including animations), interaction and visual specs, code samples, reference implementations, prototypes, and templates and stencils for rapid reuse. You won’t always have all these elements available but the more the better.
I’ll leave the agency question for the community to discuss. I suspect it would have to be fairly high level to work at all. But then again what agency doesn’t reuse some tried-and-true wireframes or other conceptual documents and diagrams?
Janna Hicks DeVylder wrote on the ixda list, “It’s clear that people are interested in this, but it feels like we want to see its utility proven out past just the creation of the library. I would love to hear about the successes and challenges Yahoo has faced with their non-public facing library. Sounds like a great conference topic to me!”
I agree! I have a panel on this topic (Pattern Libraries: The Devil’s In the Details) under consideration for South by Southwest. The panelists include Austin Govella and Jenifer Tidwell. I’m also about to propose a slightly different talk with Austin for the IA Summit, this one focused a bit more on the information architecture and social organization of pattern libraries (for effective use). In both cases I will be drawing on the lessons we’ve learned at Yahoo: what’s worked and what hasn’t and how we’ve changed course and refined our ideas to continue building consensus around a core library.
I’ve also got a lightning-session proposal submitted for Interaction08 where I will talk about a new wave of social media patterns (and toolkits – a concept I’d love to explain further) we’re currently incubating in our internal-facing library.
I blogged just recently here on the “bastardization” as Janna put it, of the pattern term. I understand why it’s happening (and in general I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist when it comes to language use), but I will probably continue to speak up for the idea that to be called a design pattern something must at the very least be described in terms of context, problem, and solution.
Lastly, I want to note that I think the consensus from Chicago is dead-on when addressing the role of patterns in innovation. Patterns are inherently not about innovation. They are about tried-and-true dependable solutions. What they do is free the designer up to create and innovate on the leading edge of the design problem, without having to dedicate as much energy to “reinventing the wheel.” Inevitably, we will all end up retracing each other’s steps frequently as we learn to design, but whenever we can learn from the successes of the past, I think it behooves us to do so.

Selling Amazon shorts

· User Experience, Web Gossip

reluctant-editors.jpgIf Apple can sell electronic downloads of songs with no packaging for 99c a pop why can’t Amazon sell short little chapbooks electronically, download only, for 49c? The answer is they can, of course.
A writer on a mailing list I’m on recently alerted me to this feature (no idea how long Amazon has been at it), mentioning his eleven-page piece called Letters from Resistant Editors. In his own words, “Like almost all writers, I’m well acquainted with rejection and I learned long ago to keep faring forward when I get a rejection slip or letter. But one such letter started my mind tinkering with letters that some editors might write. Here is the result: letters of rejection that might have been written to some well-known authors. If you are a writer of children’s stories, or a reader of them, how would you like to get letters like these?
“It looks interesting and for less than half a buck, why not take a look? Amazon describes its Shorts this way:

About Amazon Shorts:

  • Amazon Shorts are available exclusively at Amazon.com; you will not find them anywhere else.
  • Amazon Shorts are delivered electronically; there are no printed editions.
  • Amazon Shorts are yours forever – after purchase, you can read them anytime at Amazon.com. (They’ll be stored forever in Your Media Library in PDF, HTML, and text e-mail formats.)
  • You are free to print Amazon Shorts to read in hard copy form at your convenience.

For me, this is déjà vu all over again. Back around 1988 I was packaging short “e-books” for a startup called Mightywords that had spun off from Fatbrain. They had detected this exact market: items shorter than a book but still worth publishing. Something like free-floating magazine articles. They were pricing them too high (typically $5 or more) and they were targetting technical subjects, and mainly they were burning through a bunch of VC cash (which I did my best to spread around to the various starving writers I knew). It was too early, the business model was wrong, and so on, but that idea really wasn’t a bad one.
I’ll be watching this Amazon experiment to see how it pans out.

Ambient info edu revolution

· Events, Information Architecture, Social Design, User Experience

Michael Wesch, who created the virally popular internet video called Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us (its success drew on a sort of meta-application of the very concepts it discussed), was the keynote speaker at IDEA 2007 last week. As part of his keynote, he previewed two videos he has now released to the web.
The first, Information R/evolution, examines the challenges we all face in this age of information glut and shortening attention spans:

The second, made collaboratively by one of his classes (Wesch is a professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, where he is launching a Digital Ethnography working group to “examine the impacts of digital technology on human interaction”), looks carefully at how we are teaching today and how out of sync it has become with the lives of contemporary students:

In some ways, for me, the highlight of the conference was Wesch’s story about how he frightened himself one night in the communal sleeping quarters in New Guineau when he thought his own arm, which had fallen asleep, was a snake lying across his body. This story became the kernel of Wesch’s reputation with the people he was studying and living among, and helped him realize that telling stories is a big part of how we gain identities and fit ourselves (and others) into society.

When is a pattern not a pattern?

· Patterns, User Experience

factoryjoe's design patterns collection on flickr
When it’s an antipattern? No, that’s a different blog post.
Actually, what I’m thinking about this morning is the drift in meaning of the word pattern, as used in the sense of a design pattern.
Going back to Christopher Alexander, the “pattern language” concept started off with a fairly strict, well defined structure. Alexander’s patterns all have a sensitizing example, a context (when to use or apply the pattern), a problem (expressed in terms of conflicting forces), and a solution (a way to balance or reconcile those forces). Application of the pattern produces a new context (and hence a way to “chain” patterns together).
The pattern language, then, is a vocabularly of patterns that relate to each other. In Alexander’s work, there was a hierarchical, or scale, dimension. His A Pattern Language book starts at the level of nation-states across the world and works its way down to things like doorknobs.
When the extreme programming folks involved with Ward’s wiki and the “Gang of Four” adapted the pattern metaphor to software engineering, they did not really preserve the pattern language concept. They also debated among themselves between what they called descriptive and prescriptive patterns (actually, I’d better check if those were the real terms they used). They were aware of the Alexander precedent and conscious at least about which parts they were applying to the computer software context. (Alexander himself foresaw and promoted this application, btw, in the 1980s.)
Later, the design pattern idea was adopted by HCI folks (and thus user-interface designers and so information architects and interaction designers). Pattern repositories began to be referred to as pattern libraries, but still the example, context, problem, solution model survives to a large extent. There’s a mailing list where user-interface pattern authors discuss these things, partly as a way of maintaining some commonality among our various libraries and while there are many more possible elements in a pattern, there’s a fairly strong consensus around those core “fields.”
The pattern “meme” if you will is strong. The metaphor is easy to understand and its spread somewhat outstrips the more formal concept. So this has lead, in the web-design world, to a slightly more loose sense of the word pattern. The meaning is similar: it refers to emerging solutions to common problems. What gets lost in translation is the formal structure for documenting and defining the patterns.
This may not be a bad thing, but it is a thing, so I am noting it. Over at the microformats wiki, they will speak of design patterns and then write up a sort of plain-English colloquial description of it. Nothing wrong with that, right? I agree, but part of me wonders if that’s really a design pattern or is it more like notes toward a design pattern or an unfinished or unwritten design pattern. Or maybe we need a different name. A design pattern sketch, or a design habit?
Likewise, factoryjoe has been compiling a fascinating and useful collection of interface images, recently noted in Metafilter. When I write (or help develop) patterns for the Yahoo Pattern Library, I am nearly always asked for more visual aids. More examples, more diagrams, more animations, and so on. Thus, I applaud any effort to audit what’s out there and thereby document patterns, emerging and well established, good and bad (the latter being those aforementioned antipatterns).
To me, these pattern galleries, as I like to call them, are a perfect complement to the formal written patterns. They take the concept of the sensitizing example and extend it. This is only a good thing. I just question whether the collections of images are themselves patterns. Aren’t they really, if anything, illustrations of patterns?
Of course it’s possible, in Flickr and elsewhere, to annotate the images, or comment on them (and people do). There’s nothing stopping an intrepid pattern-illustration capturer from writing up a context/problem/solution triplet for each set. But without that, I’m going to lean a bit old school here and say they aren’t really patterns.
This is probably a lot of inside baseball for most folks. If it weren’t my job to curate a design pattern library I probably wouldn’t worry about things like this myself.