In a new series by Facebook Curated, Jay Morgan from Creative Shop talks to New York-based digital design studio ustwo about the rebirth of play
Author: Georgina Safe
A bouldering-inspired game by digital design studio, ustwo, offers powerful insights into how brands can better connect with consumers.
As Covid beat a path around the world, ustwo studios, part of the same group famed for creating Apple’s Game Of The Year ‘Monument Valley’, were acutely aware of a few things happening. “We’ve seen a huge growth in games during the pandemic, partly because people are inside and finding new ways to connect with others,” says ustwo Design Lead Chris Marotta.
Of equal – if not greater importance – is the simple fact that games are fun.
“The idea of play as a medium of connection is something that we’re embracing more and more deeply, because technology has advanced to the point where everyone with a smartphone has the ability to access these rich, joyful experiences,” says ustwo strategy lead Maz Karimian. “People convene over shared interests and passions in that digital third space now, and Instant Games are really about meeting people where they are and letting them play the way they want to play.”
It was this philosophy that led the New York studio to create Go Go Bots for Facebook in June. The game offers players the choice to play as one of five robot characters to complete a series of climbing-themed challenges set in a cyberpunk universe. In the real world, the exhilarating adventure offers a primer for how brands can better engage with consumers by offering joyful experiences. Go Go Bots was developed to showcase the unique features of instant mobile gaming on the Facebook platform, like letting people connect through a shared passion for play – a mission that has profound applications for other brands.
Designed to deliver business value as well as player enjoyment, Go Go Bots gives Facebook a new route to engage people in ways that incentivise them to stay loyal to the platform. Innovative games like this generate new revenues in exchange for genuinely joy-inducing experiences.
Owing to the logistics of working across different locations and timezones — the Seattle-based Facebook Gaming group sits on the opposite coast from the ustwo team in New York — Go Go Bots was largely created through dispersed collaboration, augmented by cutting edge technologies and “digital native” practitioners with plenty of experience working together while remotely located.
Does it spark joy?
“More people are recognizing the importance of feeling some joy in the pursuit of carrying out tasks,” says Karimian. “It’s not about putting roadblocks between you and the thing that you want to do, it’s about providing joy along the way in ways that feel true to your brand. Start by asking ‘what’s my brand’s perspective on joy? What’s my brand’s contribution to positivity?’ Once you’ve figured that out, it’s a question of execution. Play experiences offer one way for brands to engage consumers and deliver value to them in a more interactive and enjoyable way.”
How Go Go Bots was born
When it came to developing Go Go Bots, ustwo began with a two-day workshop with the Facebook team, who shared what the experience needed to look and feel like for players, and what it needed to achieve for the business – chiefly, making the most of the platform’s unique features.
As the platform features games in HTML5, which means players can access them instantly on a phone or mobile device wherever and whenever, the new game required a snackable and one-handed experience.
“We wanted to take the things that are amazing about games to a new audience and, because of the platform, in a way that was inherently social and accessible,” says Marotta. “Something that you could pick up and play for two minutes or 30 minutes and that you could do with your friends or strangers.”
The first day of the workshop was spent identifying the audience for the game, and how best to engage with them. “It was about going much deeper into the concept: defining who the player is, defining what their primary challenge was going to be,” says Marotta. “Is there an overall theme of the game that we want to be expressed through play?”
Out of that came player experience goals that offered a roadmap for trialling four concepts before the team landed on Go Go Bots . “Those are the things that we hope that the player experiences while playing the game and it has to be more than the fun and interesting scenarios that we hope players find themselves in,” says Marotta. “Different mechanics produce different dynamics, which produce certain feelings. Fun isn’t fundamentally a task; it’s a sense and a feeling.” “The whole process is as much about finding the fun from a game design perspective as it is about the technology and figuring out what’s possible and what’s not,” says ustwo Delivery Lead Zack Rosenberg.
Beginning with the emotion you want a player to feel when they are playing a game offers a powerful primer for brand experience design.
Play offers the ability to turn the passion points of anything from a telecommunications company to a clothing line into an immersive and dynamic experience that goes far beyond traditional advertising – and it’s by no means limited to Instant Games.
“It doesn’t need to be in the context of a pure-play game,” says Karimian. “It can be rethinking your product through the lens of play generally. The fact that our relationships with brands are often based on little more than bloodless data transfers is just crazy. There are so many more opportunities to strike the right tone with customers. Say you’re going through an initial ‘account creation’ flow. Why not playfully bring out your brand principles and get the customer excited about the products and services they’re about to experience? Why not try to make a great first impression during that all-important initial interaction?”
One example is Apple Music’s on-boarding process, which sends consumers a range of bubbles and allows them to pop the ones featuring the artists they like, to receive a recommendation list in a fun and engaging manner.
“Brands can leverage the pure-play game experiences by making their content and their messaging interactive,” says Rosenberg. “There’s a lot of things you can abstract from a 30 to 60 second advert and make into an interactive gamified experience that helps to maintain that message, but also makes some folks brand advocates.”
Give them what they want
Responding to what consumers actually want, rather than what a brand thinks they need, is key.
“We’ve really tried to think through the lens of ‘how are consumers behaving already and how can we respond in a way that complements and enhances that?’ versus the prevailing view, up until a few years ago, of ‘how can we get consumers to behave differently?’,” says Karimian. “The move towards more user-centric design represents a really positive trend in digital, and Go Go Bots is really a manifestation of that trend in the gaming space.”
From the playground to major digital players
As kids, Rosenberg, Karimian and Marotta all had aspirations to become racing car drivers – “it probably had something to do with Hot Wheels” – and palaeontologists (“because of Jurassic Park, it was one of the first words I learned to spell” laughs Marotta). That sense of imagination and excitement required to build games endured, with Marotta working in the digital arms of Young & Rubicam and Fjord, Karimian at Young & Rubicam in advertising then AKQA and Rosenberg as a consultant at IBM then in design and product development at AKQA before the trio united at ustwo.
When offering advice to brands on how to make their campaigns and products more interactive, Rosenberg recommends sprinkling a little of the same gaming magic dust, but with two important caveats: keep it simple and make it fun.
“Even the simplest novel interactions that have the fun factor are an experiential difference maker for any user,” says Rosenberg. “They create a connection and build loyalty to brands. They make the mundane incredibly interesting and are also relatively simple.”
According to Marotta, [Go Go Bots] was a great opportunity for something like play to really inject itself and stand out from the crowd. Fun is incredibly elusive and that’s why games are more like art than utilitarian products. Any time you’re making art it becomes more subjective and difficult, but also more emotionally resonant.”
This kind of thinking flows throughout all of ustwo’s client work, whether they’re crafting solutions to help people save time (functional products and services) or spend time (games).
We are in the rebirth of play, so now’s a good time to have some fun.