I often look for inspiration from people outside the gaming industry who spend time thinking about play/games/fun/etc. and how it fits into our culture. Product design consultants Jack Schulze & Matt Webb have posted the slides from a recent presentation that they gave at Yahoo!. (Incidentally, the next time I work for a large corporation with lots of money to throw around, I want to work at one that sponsors lectures by smart people for no apparent reason other than that they want to share in the smartness.) The talk is mostly about the importance of experience design, and the ways in which consumers are becoming less concerned with simply using products to perform tasks, and more concerned with how said products relate to them and make them feel:

A video recorder doesn’t need to be seen to perform a task, just to be for the task of recording a programme. It can be – it is – an actor in your social life and life with media, and is helping along something that wants to happen already: You want to have a relationship with a soap opera; you want to discuss TV with your friends tomorrow. These are the important moments of engagement a VCR is participating in, and we should focus on those, not the fact it is incidentally being used to record broadcast programming.

What the video recorder does (store TV shows) is only half the story; how it does it (magnetic tape, internal hard drive, whatever) is practically irrelevant. What’s really important is how the device influences the complex activity that we refer to as “watching television,” and in the process, influences the ways in which we develop our relationships with media, with producers, and with the rest of the audience. The shift in focus from task-oriented design to experience-oriented design allows us to look at how we can maximize the satisfaction that users get out of the “moments of engagement” they have with the products they encounter.

When we start thinking about games in terms of their moments of engagement with players, they become much more than a set of rules and fictions bound within in a magic circle. Think about some of the points at which a potential player might come into contact with a game before actually playing it: a blurb in a magazine preview article, a promotional web site, featured placement in Steam, a box on a shelf at the store, a downloaded zipfile, an installer that takes forever to finish. All of these things shape the player’s relationship with the game before he or she technically is a player at all; they’re part of the overall gaming experience. We had a very different relationship with games that came in zip-loc bags with mimeographed manuals than we do with the Collector’s Edition of Oblivion, and that difference went way beyond the content of the games themselves.

The console manufacturers understand that the experience around the game is as important as that within the game, and the current generation of consoles reflects this. Xbox Live is about making sure that as many moments of engagement as possible take place within its framework, by providing a unified shell and APIs, discovery and download services, multiplayer opportunities, and user communication tools. The Wii is about changing the ways in which we interact with games, in disrupting our understanding of what a console video game is about and reshaping it, not only with the physicality of its controls, but by putting the emphasis on a broader audience and a more generally inclusive vibe.

Games in the wild world of the PC display a ridiculously broad range of experience profiles: $9 budget titles moldering on the shelf at Target, played and forgotten by only a few; Massive first-person shooters whose technical requirements will drive a generation of video cards; Crackalicious little Flash games that you play until they’ve burned into your retinas; MMORPGs that spawn entire constellations of informational databases. I could go on and on about handhelds, cell phones, board games, ARGs, pencil & paper RPGs, etc., etc., but hopefully you get the idea: The experience of playing a game is much more than what happens within the game itself.

It’s on us as game designers to keep all the possible moments of engagement with our works in mind, and not to let ourselves think that our job consists of nothing more than AI pathing algorithms and difficulty factors. Or perhaps, if our job actually doesn’t consist of anything more than paths and multipliers (which is where I seem to be stuck at the moment), we need to keep all that other stuff in mind anyway, and think about how the little things in a game contribute to the overall experience.