Archive for October, 2007

Matt Leacock's Pandemic game poised to infect the world

October 31, 2007

[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!

In my day we had to write our web-blogs by hand in html 1.0, barefoot in the snow, uphill all the way, against the wind

October 30, 2007

breathing.jpgI’ve discovered that it’s easy to remember the anniversary of your first blog post* if you’re as clever or random as I was and wrote it on your birthday. This then reminds me to crank out my yearly age-revealing, I’ve-been-blogging-since post.
And this is a special one, too, for what it’s worth. Ten years of blogging! Hard to believe. Well, and it’s sort of not true. It has been ten years since I started writing a daily journal (Peter Merholz hadn’t facetiously invented the word blog yet), but there are two gaps (or hiati as my Latin-loving friend might style them) each of at least a year, back near the beginning. More recently there are gaps of weeks, possibly even months here and there. Sure, when I started Radio Free Blogistan in 2002 I was lightly underemployed and able to post seven eight nine times a day, and over the years I’ve scattered my words onto many different blogs at many different urls, foolishly diluting my “personal brand,” so that perhaps you can say those days of many entries help fill in some of the gaps in those long silences, much the ways mountains are stripmined and leveled and used to fill in valleys.
breathing-room-thursday-30-october.jpgBut who cares? I’m still ten years older than I was the day I started writing Breathing Room at the tender age of 33 (I toyed with the idea of calling it “Outliving Christ”) and so I feel qualified to celebrate.
I’ve actually been enjoying my nearly daily blogging habit lately and I expect to keep enjoying it until the next major arbitrary event intervenes. Sure, for a month I expect to replace blogging with installments of a novel-to-be-named later, but to me this has *always* been about a daily writing practice and not so much about professional or career or geek or politics or I stubbed my toe and my cat barfed blogging, so if I do manage to do the NaNoWriMo thing, I will count that.
Those entries, by the way, won’t show up here. I have a tendency to write fiction that treads into NSFW territory, so I’ll post the entries at my no-holds-barred fiction blog – one of the few I’m still willing to maintain as a separate site – A Supposedly Staggering Infinite Work of Heartbreaking Illumination I’ll Never Read – which at the moment still sports the final installment of the first draft of my previous novel, For You, The Stars. If you want all your xian blogging or whatever you call it in one place, you can always follow it from monolog, where the novel chunks will show up alongside this more ordinary blogging.
And so, I’m 43 today, a prime number. My blogging is 10. I apparently was willing to letterspace lowercase letters and thus would “steal” sheep, as the saying goes, and breathing room was right-justified, horror of horrors, and it truly was handcoded daily – though I did eventually at least make a template – with an elegant little url structure, and so it still isn’t fully ported over here (and, no doubt, eventually into some future next blog of mine probably in WordPress). And I’m about to be late for my shuttle.
*I refuse to use that most hateful of all blog-derived words, blogaversary – or however you spell it – except in this disclaimer and even now I must take a deep sip of coffee to clear my pallette.)

Back from Oaxaca

October 29, 2007

devotional image from the Hostal de la Noria
Posting over low bandwidth. Consider this photo a down payment toward a great deal more imagery and tales to come.
This is one of the many artworks, most with religious themes, decorating the hotel I stayed in my first night in Oaxaca, the Hostal de la Noria.
UPDATE: (or del, I have to doublecheck that) thanks Alex!

Enumerating social media patterns: a work in progress

October 23, 2007

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.

Going off the grid

October 22, 2007

Very late Tuesday night – in fact so late that it will really be very early Wednesday morning – I’m heading down to Oakland airport to hop on a Mexicana plane and fly to Guadalajara and then Mexico City and finally to Oaxaca. Yes, it’s the OAK to OAX run. Once there I will spend three or so days at a retreat, an unconference organized by Jerry “Sociate” Michalski. I wanted to go last year but couldn’t swing it, and I’m grateful to have been invited to participate. The best part is I really have no idea what we’re going to end up conferring about.
The other best part is that I’ve never been to Mexico before, and I’m excited and a little nervous (doing anything for the first time makes me feel that way) about it.
The other best part is that I’ll be disconnected from my electronic life. I won’t want to pay roaming minutes for phone or data so I’ll be just calling home once a day to check in with my sweetie, and checking voicemail intermittently. I may not bother looking at my email till I get back, October 28, and I’ll definitely not be blogging.
I always think it’s funny when people apologize for not blogging. “Sorry I haven’t been blogging lately – I’ve had a flare-up of sciatica,” or “Light blogging ahead – we’re planning to levitate the Pentagon,” or what have you. Isn’t even the briefest pause in blogging actually a bit of a gift to your audience, such as it is?
It’s not that I have any shortage of things to blog about. The Big Star show I saw this weekend illustrated with my blurry iPhone photos. That’d be good. Or a long screed about how you don’t design sites from the front to the back or the back to the front but from the middle (that is, the information architecture) both forward and back. Or my long-tortured draft about social web apps that don’t play well with email. How much I’ve been enjoying the Games for Windows the Official Magazine and Chowder Eating Society Radio Podcast show starring Jeff Green and his sycophants I mean friends I mean underlings.
No, but there will be plenty of time for that (except maybe the Alex Chilton post, which won’t be very current after a while).
I guess I did want to mention this brief hiatus though, hypocrite that I am, so everyone knows I did it on purpose, man! I meant to do that. I’m not losing my edge. Oh, no. (Though I did wake up this morning feeling pretty low and then forgot to pack my gym shorts before leaving the house – what do I do now? Ride the stationary bike in my jock? Wrap a towel around my waist like a Roman? Skip the workout? I really don’t want to. But that’s hardly enough material for yet another blog post.

It's nearly that novel-writin' time of year again

October 21, 2007

November is National Novel Writing Monthg

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing National Novel Writing Month two years running now it’s that not only is it possible to write a (big chunk of a) novel in a month, but that – for me, at least – it’s nearly impossible to do it any other way.
So, yes, I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year. What am I going to write? I have no idea! That’s the best thing about it. On the first of November I will sit down and start writing something and start discovering what it is I *need* to be writing right now.
Anyone else care to join me?

Stanking up the gym

October 19, 2007

Got to work, checked some email, decided to stop dallying and head to the gym for 50 minutes on the stationary bike. Suddenly realized I’d forgotten to bring a change of gym clothes to work today, like I usually do. Briefly considered skipping the workout. Decided instead to re-wear my sweaty clothes from yesterday. Went to the gym. Took my clothes out of my gym bag. They were still wet from yesterday. Actually, I’d say, at least in part, soaked. And, yes, kind of smelly.
I felt bad for the people around me, but put on the wet clothes, grabbed and towel, fired up the Games for Windows the Official Magazine podcast (no I’m not a gamer, but Jeff Green is a friend and his crew is very funny), and did my five minute warmup, my forty minutes of interval training, and my five minute cooldown. Then I stretched, went back to the lockerroom, and got those stanky clothes the hell off my body. Stuffed em in a plastic bag, hit the shower, and shuddered until the hot water made the willies go away.

Set the terms of the debate

October 18, 2007

10questions.jpg
TechPresident, a project of Personal Democracy Forum (which I used to write for), in cooperation with the New York Times and MSNBC, has launched a site called 10 Questions where anyone can suggest a question for the presidential candidates and anyone can vote the suggested questions up or down.
It’s a kind of more open version of the YouTube debate concept or the recent mashup Yahoo! did.
In round one, you ask a video question, you vote on the best questions, the top ten questions get selected.
In round two, the top ten questions are presented to the candidates, candidates post their video answers, and (here’s the beauty part) you decide if they actually answered the questions.
(via Zephyr Teachout, who’s always up to something cool.)

Brown bag accomplished

October 17, 2007

brownbag.jpgThere is a cycle I go through in preparing for a public speaking gig. The UED (user experience design) brown bag series at Yahoo! is low key in a way. We do it in a medium-sized room with hookups to remote campuses, such as Santa Monica. It’s “all in the family” and thus not as stressful as a large conference. But it’s also your peers and colleagues, so there is a desire to knock it out of the park and not waste anyone’s time.
I gave a talk earlier today on the current state of the Design Pattern Library, my role as its curator, and how my cow-orkers could get involved. (It was called “The Design Pattern Library Wants YOU!” and I probably won’t publish the slides outside of y! but the YUI Theater guys videotaped it and they are probably going to edit something together for the YUI blog, in which case I’ll surely mention that here.)
I think it went pretty well. About two days before speaking I get quite anxious, no matter how well I am prepared. I’ve been taught be speaking mentors to view that nervous energy as “excitement” and as a natural part and parcel of summoning up the necessary vim to get up in front of people and engage with them.
The talk really only came together in my head several days or so, although of course it gelled from a series of thoughts and ideas that I’m wrestling with all the time. I finally got the outline down on paper two days ago and spent most of yesterday putting together the slides, until the wee hours of the morning.
This meant that I really only got about four hours sleep last night, which is really not a good thing before speaking, but oh well. I ran out the door this morning in the rain and left my badge at home, the one I use to open doors and buy food at the cafeteria. I spent all morning trying to get a seven megabyte powerpoint file compressed, but whenever I put it on my PC and used the image compression features in the Windows version of ppt, it ballooned to 10 megs, so I gave up on that.
The talk itself went well, I believe. The room was full. The questions were good. I hit my marks and people laughed in all the right places. I’ll probable even be able to adapt some of my slides and talking points for a few conference gigs I’m hoping to do over the next year.
In the rest of the afternoon, I was sort of braindead. Fortunately, we had a big quarterly earnings report all-hands pep rally slash Oktoberfest party, so I was able to ride out the end of the day. Never made it to the gym, unfortunately, to pump out the lactic acid left making my muscles ache from my short night’s sleep.
Also, I lost my in-box zero state of grace that I’ve maintained for weeks now, so I’ll spend tomorrow trying to get that back.

Do pattern libraries really work?

October 16, 2007

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.