Enterprise Game Saga Episode 3: Open Worlds

exploringThis is Episode 3 of a continuing series about enterprise gamification, exploring aspects of game design that have relevance in improving the utility and effectiveness of engineering software and processes. If you haven’t already, go check out Episode 1: Press Start, which introduces the concept of gamification from this perspective. Episode 2: Achievement Unlocked tackles achievements/badging.

The mere utterance of the term “open world” resonates powerfully in gaming circles; it’s often a critical focus of contemporary game design. Open world play is seemingly now a requirement for all but the most esoteric AAA titles, and an important source of differentiation among indie challengers. But what, exactly, does open world design entail? Open world is a departure from the highly linear progression of traditional gameplay. Classical gameplay depends on a defined progression of levels, usually presented in a specific order of increasing challenge, or a highly scripted series of environments designed to carry a movie-like focused narrative. Open world is exactly the opposite philosophy, striving to provide as few barriers as possible into an experience primarily driven on the player’s whim. What’s the appeal? Open world caters to a specific human trait: the desire to explore and experiment. Curiosity isn’t just for cats, or the likes of Magellan.

When linear game design fails it’s rather obvious – you’re stuck. You have an idea of what you need to do next, but you’re struggling with the game design to move forward – often to a point of frustration. Sometimes this is a very jarring experience, requiring endless repetition, death, or a fist through your monitor until you’ve stumbled on to the solution. Sometimes that challenge is rewarding, but often it’s not. Arcade quarter-devouring classic Dragon’s Lairis famous for this: each scene requires performing the right sequence with exact timing, and if you’re off –even just a little– you are so very dead. Starting to sound a little familiar, eh? Games designed to contain you to a very specific path are often defined under their own genre: the rail shooter.  A label previously reserved for strict shooting galleries like Rebel Assault or House of the Dead, the rail shooter is increasing used to describe games with intensely linear scripting, such as the Call of Duty. While rail shooters can be fun in their own right, they don’t have anywhere near the universal appeal that an open world can provide.

Open world games are highly appealing because, when properly designed, the possibilities feel both endless and personal. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a sublime example. Sure, there are task and quests to accomplish to achieve progression on a larger narrative, but if I just want to start walking east to see what’s over the mountain ridge, and maybe run into a town, or an irritable wanderer, or a cave filled with assorted magical crap, I’m free to do so. That flexibility is very compelling. Skyrim for me emulates the same feelings I might get from actual back country hiking, except if I run into a bear or spontaneously spelunk down an interesting cave there’s no need to worry about broken limbs and associated hospital bills. FOS RO DAH, indeed.

It’s important to know that open worlds are a deft illusion. While certain elements can be generated procedurally, a great many are still directly scripted to provide just the right variety and depth. Scripting occurs at a quantity and scale, however, in that the design becomes less of a planned narrative and more of an outright simulation. Most importantly, underlying protection is added to avoid breaking the main game without creating artificial barriers (at least none that are openly visible). Open world design is a technology driven innovation – a design realization made possible only recently, as the amount of data processed, manipulated, and displayed in a game environment has exponentially grown. Open world and big data go hand in hand.

Gee, that’s nice, you might be thinking as you pour gasoline over yourself and look for a match. Now, what does any of this crap have to do with enterprise software? In short, enterprise software today is a rail shooter, but it needs to grow into an open world. Enterprise functionality at the user level needs to be designed less like a collection of precise inputs and more like a flexible tool kit. Let’s think about that for a moment.

If you look at how training occurs in the enterprise world it’s a highly regimented process, and often requires a dedicated training environment so you don’t put someone’s eye out in production. The result is people learn only the “happy path” on a carefully crafted generic scenario that is ultimately meaningless to them. Once the lesson is over, there’s little time to experiment and understand the underlying principles using the most proven learning method known: i.e. by doing. Instead, it’s back to production where any experimentation is wholly frowned upon and/or outright blocked. The result: people don’t get the big picture, leading to outright frustration and a comment I’ve heard far too many times: “Just tell me which buttons to push.” Push the wrong ones, and they’ll be bludgeoned with errors. It’s a rail shooter, all the way.

Experimentation in enterprise software should happen transparently. It should be encouraged. Let a user explore functionality or try something free of long-lasting consequences. In production. With production data. But won’t that cause the end of the world as we know it? There’s absolutely no reason experimentation can’t be compartmentalized either through the user’s own acknowledgment of even automatic detection. Let them try it. If it turns out badly, the whole exercise evaporates as if it never happened. Use that same deft illusion that open world games successfully employ and remove artificial barriers. If you expect users to understand enterprise software holistically, the keys to the kingdom have to be handed over. The open world approach may be just the right way to make it happen.