Nicole Lazzaro Applying Her 4 Keys 2 Fun | Episode 150

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Nicole Lazzaro, immersive media trailblazer, entrepreneur and game industry veteran has run XEODesign for 27 years. She discovered how game mechanics create emotion, designed the 1st iPhone game, and the 4 Keys to Fun used by millions of leading developers worldwide. Her 4 Keys are baked into the AI for the Sims and inspired IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis. Her game Tilt World planted 16K trees in Madagascar. Recent XR accomplishments include Follow the White Rabbit as well as Unscramble the Oracle, a choose your own adventure for AR headsets that inspires healthy play walking around the block.


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Full episode transcription

Rob (5s):
Welcome to Professor Game Podcast, where we interview successful practitioners of games, gamification and game thinking, who bring us the best of their experiences to get ideas, insights, and inspiration, that help us in the process of getting the students to learn what we teach. And I’m Rob Alvarez. I teach and work at IE Business School in Madrid, where we create interactive and engaging learning materials. Want to know more? Go to Start on our email list and ask me anything!

Rob (37s):
So welcome engagers. Once again, we are today with once again, a very, very special guest, but Nicole, before we get started, are you prepared to engage?

Nicole (49s):
Well, I’m ready to engage. Let’s go.

Rob (51s):
Yeah, game on. Let’s do this because Nicole Lazaro is an immersive media trailblazer entrepreneur and game industry veteran, and has run XEO design for 27 years. She discovered how game mechanics create emotion, designed the first iPhone game and the Four Keys to Fun used by millions of leading developers worldwide. And those four keys are baked into the AI for the Sims and inspired IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis. The game Tilt World has planted 16,000 trees in Madagascar.

Rob (1m 27s):
Recent XR accomplishment includes Follow the White Rabbit as well as Unscramble the Oracle a choose your own adventure for AR headsets that inspires healthy play walking around the block. So is there anything Nicole that we’re missing from that intro?

Nicole (1m 42s):
Oh goodness. I think we’re, I think we want to get started essentially. I think I’m a serial innovator. I always love to be on the, on the cutting edge of technology because that’s where there’s the most “blue ocean” and we’ve got we, can we have this opportunity to unlock, you know, more human potential through play?

Rob (1m 60s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s do this because the first thing we always like to know is, you know, beyond the introduction, those, those grand words and those grand things that you’ve already done, what is this, you know, being Nicole in a day like today, look like, what do you do? What’s, what’s the result of your work? Like what does that look like?

Nicole (2m 18s):
Oh my goodness. Well, I get up and I think, okay, is today Lake day or not? And if it is, if the answer is yes, I go run around the Lake. Yeah. Especially during the lockdown, we’ve got, you know, such limited, you know, time and opportunities. So getting outdoors is like the first thing just to clear the air. But a typical day generally involves a lot of different things. If it’s not a Lake day, I’ll often just rollover. And literally with my eyes closed start scribbling because the first hour or two, you know, after I regained consciousness, after a good night’s sleep is often the most productive in terms of my creativity and brainstorming.

Nicole (2m 57s):
And so, you know, one of the, I don’t know, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a secret cause a, you know, people like Pablo Picasso and Edison did this as well. They were regular nappers and or idea nappers. And they would often at the, you know, just when you start to wake up, there’s often like a solution to some problem, some challenging, you know, game solution, game design problem. In fact, I had to get used to this because at the end of the day, I would often, you know, go home and, you know, eat dinner really, really frustrated.

Nicole (3m 27s):
And I found that I just had to give it a name to help me through it. And I just call it design frustration. I, if I haven’t solved a problem, you know, by the end of the day, I’m often pretty like, you know, testy intense about it, but I just label it. Okay. You know, it’s just, we’ve got an unsolved problem. It’s design frustration. Let’s go, let’s go to bed. And in the morning we will probably have an answer and, you know, eight times out of 10, something like that, or maybe, yeah, something around that I’ll have a little sketch or a couple of words or a visualization, that’s a solution to some of these bigger challenges.

Nicole (4m 2s):
I always like to push myself. And so I will go past what I did yesterday, you know, any design can get better than a, that it was the day before and tomorrow is going to be even better still. And so when you have a, when I load into my design space, you know, five or six or seven, or, you know, 20 different parameters, it’s often hard to even navigate the design space of opportunity, much less, you know, come on that one solution that, you know, collapses, you know, 50 features into five, which is what a lot of my designs are really known for being very simple in the execution or in the interaction, you know, demands from the user or the player.

Nicole (4m 41s):
But yet it has a whole lot of great emergent, fun and emergent value.

Rob (4m 46s):
Wow. So many insights just from understanding what your day looks like. So it seems like we’re off to a great start, Nicole. And we always like to frame this because you know, guests like you, who are awesome, who have been doing in your case, all this awesome stuff for 27 years, so much experience, so much success in doing awesome stuff. We also like to, you know, humanize you a little bit as well and learn from some of that experience. And we found that learning from fails or first attempts and learning is very, very key from our guests.

Rob (5m 18s):
So can you tell us a story of a failure or a fail first attempt in learning when creating one of these game designs that actually set up, you set you up for future success for learning, you know, how did that go? And we want to, of course, we’re going to be there with you and sort of emotionally invest ourselves with that story.

Nicole (5m 35s):
Great. Well, I think the first thing is that the, for me, I’m such a positive individual because I’m very optimistic because a whole lot of things don’t work out. So I really don’t like to use the word failure, but I will, I will humor the question for sure. And I understand its spirit, the cause when I start using negative language, then I just, my whole brain just sort of shuts down and you know, I’m not, I don’t go anywhere design-wise but I’ll tell you some dude real doozy like probably one of the largest ones learning opportunities. So you win some, you learn some that’s, that’s kind of my motto.

Nicole (6m 7s):
And so if you imagine back, go back to 2007 and the iPhone had just come out. We had this amazing success at the iPhone dev camp with Joe Hewitt. He did the engineering. I did the design for this little app. We JavaScript game, we created called tilt. It was a top hack of the iPhone for Wired magazine. So I built on it. I invested a lot of my I self-financed, a new version of the game, you know, with that was going to be going out on the app store. We were actually a launch title on iPad because of this failure.

Nicole (6m 38s):
And so I’m at alpha when I’m making this game. So it basically you rotate the phone to play. It’s kind of like a four D Tetris, you know, you’ve matched green blocks one way and then rotate the phone. You match blue box that the other way. So we created this whole character and a story and you know, nice things. And then in alpha, we noticed that players really were not, not having fun. They weren’t having fun. And so a core, assumption that I could just, you know, put random, you know, different colored blocks. These were seeds and, you know, carbon molecules and that sort of thing.

Nicole (7m 8s):
But I can just randomize what was getting fed into the, into the game and players would enjoy, you know, moving the little character, named flip little carbon, eating tadpole. She jumps around and eats it. That was all, that was all great. But the level design was super flat and people were like, well, it’s you, if it’s just random, it’s not fun. And so there went like fundamentally fun on the fundamentally, you know, a fundamental error was that people just didn’t like, people need patterns. And that’s what I learned is that people really need to recognize patterns. And the, the recognizing of the pattern, you know, is the first step, then mastering a strategy around the pattern is the second step.

Nicole (7m 44s):
And then, you know, executing and like really, really owning that really succeeding is a, is like the third step. So that was a big aha moment for us. And it doesn’t, it has, it goes nowhere near the classic, you know, if you’ve defined gamification as, you know, points and badges and all that, which we don’t, I personally don’t

Rob (8m 3s):
Absolutely not!

Nicole (8m 5s):
Yeah, it’s got, there’s a lot. There’s a lot to it. So we now look at patterns, you know, in patterns for discovery and patterns, for mastery in everything that we do in the way that we gamify these engagement loops inside of games, like tilt world, but also inside of applications, you know, like a, you know, finance, you know, personal finance simulator or, you know, a work that other work that we do for our clients. And I should say that I ha I do have two hats. One is for XEODesign, which is a consulting company where we work with, you know, companies like IBM and Citibank and, you know, the, you know, Oracle and that kind of thing.

Nicole (8m 42s):
And a lot of startups actually recently. And then the other hat I wear is with XEO play and for Xeo play, I do our original games. So Tilt World is one which plants, trees uses player points to plant trees. Oh, there was another good failure with Tilt world, too. If I can go get a two-for out of this question, is that so, okay, so now we master, we’ll go a little bit forward and I’ve done level design. Okay. So it means I sequenced the little items that the carbon eating tadpole chomps on. So that it’s interesting.

Nicole (9m 13s):
And then we’re about to launch it in the app store for the iPhone and then Apple, like literally that week changed their policy and you could buy no virtual, you could buy no physical goods with virtual currency. And so I couldn’t actually plant any trees. You’ll basically want to say like, okay, buy the game. And then you will plant a tree in Madagascar done, right. Or, you know, stuff like that. And so that was now forboden right. Not a, you know, not, not happening on the, on the platform, the Apple platform.

Nicole (9m 43s):
So, I mean, I totally understand of course what their logic behind it and that kind of thing, but so that meant, okay, now we have to redo the game design. So the monetization as it were, or the real world, the serious fun, and we can talk about the four keys in a bit that game I had to really, I had to completely revamp redo in a way that still made sense. You know, if I was just, if I was just planting trees based on a financial transaction, that’s really easy. That’s a marketing cost, right? So one tree per game by trees per game, you can just build a spreadsheet.

Nicole (10m 14s):
Instead, what I had to do is I had to create a tree planting currency, an intermediate currency. So in this case player points, and then I had to do a conversion of those points to, you know, actually planting trees in the ground. And so that was, you know, our failure to anticipate that thing in the Apple store really wasn’t a failure on our part, but it was like a gotcha, okay. Man, about six months worth of work, where we had to redesign that, like, you know, how can we convert player activity into trees and the ground? Cause I wanted that feeling, the serious fun of like, Oh, I just do this little simple thing.

Nicole (10m 47s):
And then now there’s a tree in the ground and now we’ve got lots of trees in the ground. You could see the progress from space! You know, that was the big thing. And actually now a couple, I guess this year, it’s like, we’re hearing about India and China last year, India and China were competing for how green their countries were based on their tree replanting effort. So I I’m pretty stoked that we were, we were the first, but in any case, so that’s, so that’s the thing. So you gotta be very flexible. And, and so in the first case, it was, you know, on game design and level design and players, really like needing patterns. And then the second one was really big learning on, you know, monetization or the, the metagame like, what, how, how do you collect player activity into some kind of activity that’s happening in the real world?

Nicole (11m 29s):
And sometimes you had to, you know, you just, we just hit a constraint and we had to design a whole new, a whole new system.

Rob (11m 34s):
That is fantastic. I’m getting there a couple of things. Of course, one was the flexibility that you were mentioning. The other one, I think that one of the things that are hidden behind and for you, it’s a natural thing. You’ve been doing it for so long, but for, for many of them, on the audience, I would guess that you know, play testing, play testing, play testing, and playtesting. That’s where he got a lot of insights as well. Right?

Nicole (11m 55s):
Yeah. Yeah. Especially in the first case for level design and, you know, I was, you know, I was, I was really crushed.

Rob (12m 3s):

Nicole (12m 4s):
Yeah. I was really crushed well, because I invested so much. And then here we were, and the, I had invested so much with the idea on the Greenland on the assumption that we could just be, bejeweled and bejeweled doesn’t need a pattern of blocks. I mean, I think do you know, they do to make it a little bit more exciting, but it really didn’t need it Tetris doesn’t it doesn’t really need a pattern, but my game definitely did. And so not only did we have to do that big bunch of work, but it was like, Oh my God, do I really want to design this? So it ended up with being about 500 pages kid.

Nicole (12m 35s):
You not of script files that I wrote over a summer that sequenced all the blocks, that sequence all the different seeds that flip a flip piece. And they’re awesome. I mean, they’re really fun. They’re really fun, little levels and they’re hand polished and tuned and all that. So, you know, it’s, you know, you have to be that flexibility. You have to, you know, it’s just like actually the character flip, you know, she doesn’t give up, we wanted the people to change, have the experience of, you know, something that was eco. That was, I mean, if you think about ecology often, it’s like, you know, you have to involve sacrifice. It’s hard.

Nicole (13m 5s):
You’re the only one doing it, you know? No, no social recognition for what you’re doing. You can’t see the impact. So we wanted to create a game where all of those were the other way, where it was super easy. You can see that it was like fun to share with your friends and all of that. And so, you know, so that’s it. So there’s also this entrepreneur thing, depending on where you are in our case, I, you know, I run, I’m the founder and owner of XEODesign. And so you, you know, you have to make these decisions of, you know, you see these, you get these setbacks and what do you do to push forward and how do you get resilience, you know, to move forward.

Nicole (13m 38s):
I have actually a talk about resilience. That’ll be going online pretty soon. Cause it’s really required. You know, I was funding, fundraising for my next game and, you know, a week before I was supposed to hit the road to Santa Rosa and stuff, you know, the app store pulled all of the launched apps. So now I was now suddenly a developer without a portfolio. Right. And you know, and then we, and then we almost got it ready. And then they, they deprecated the version of X code we were using. Cause we’d built a custom engine for it.

Nicole (14m 9s):
So, and again, so there, you got four questions. We should probably move on to some other questions. I can talk about failure or resilience, getting

Rob (14m 17s):
Resilience. It’s I, I like that better

Nicole (14m 20s):
Basically. It’s like, it’s like, you know, you gotta think about it. Like it’s the art of are the heart of key. It’s basically the art of, you know, keeping it, keeping going, right. It’s the art of showing up, keep showing up and it’s kinda like a skateboarder, you know, you hit these little bumps, these road bumps, you know, on the road. Right. But every time you hit a bump, you gotta catch a little air and you know, it’s, you can get a little bit more skilled at it as you go forward, you know, in life and in your business and in design.

Rob (14m 47s):
Absolutely. So let’s flip it around very quickly and go for, you know, a challenge t hat you faced. It could be Flip It, it could be any of the other things that you’ve done. It was a challenge and you actually solved or you had success with it using of course all, all those game design skills that you, that you’ve accumulated all this time.

Nicole (15m 6s):
Yeah. So I think the biggest one, I don’t know if it’s the biggest, biggest, but probably most recent top of mind is some in some of our XR work, for sure for Follow the White Rabbit, which is a game that we’re gonna be putting out in virtual reality. Maybe it’ll go on headset. We’ll see. What’s it depends on the timing of these AR glasses. But what we found is that we were, you know, constrained on getting a, a, we were on a three doff headset, three directional headset, which basically meant you sat in a swivel chair. You couldn’t like walk forward or lean left or lean left or right.

Nicole (15m 38s):
Or, you know, any of these other, you couldn’t actually move around. So what I did was I said, instead of you going to things, you know, they would come towards you. And so you’re in this world, it’s a game about a magician. Who’s been a charlatan all his life until one day, his magic actually works and the rabbit disappears wearing a diamond bracelet. So now everyone wants to follow the white rabbit. So we’re in this escape room, we started in Paris. It’s 1889. You it’s the world’s fair the Eiffel tower is like out the window in this cafe, sunlight streaming in and the Eiffel tower is like still under construction.

Nicole (16m 11s):
Right. It’s so it’s this age of wonder. So instead of me going to, you know, things I’d have things come to me. So I used a gaze cursor. I built a, I was the engineer on this one and I had things come, you know, kind of come to us in instead of that instead of, you know, us going.

Rob (16m 27s):

Nicole (16m 27s):

Rob (16m 27s):
And what would you say is, is one of the, as you have your four keys to fun, which we’ll talk about right in a second, but what would you say is one or several of the keys that you found to, to get to this success with this, with this game?

Nicole (16m 41s):
Yeah. So I’d say that we were, let me see, could you say the question again?

Rob (16m 46s):
Yeah. Like, I mean, you arrive to a great success with this game and we would like to know what, what is, what would you adscribe, you know, what are some of those keys? What was the key to, to get to that success? We want to, you know, take some lessons as well from, from that experience.

Nicole (17m 1s):
Yeah. Well, we really looked at the psychology of it, or I looked at the psychology at the time. The platforms are very constrained. So often as a technical thing. So you take that technical limitation and turn it around and flip it on its head. I think as you said, and create an opportunity. So you really work with that limitation. So I make a list of limitations at the very start of a project, especially on new tech. And then look at that list, you know, can I come up with a list of design or look at the design opportunity that those constraints have? So in, and again, it was gear VR is a mobile game jam for gear VR.

Nicole (17m 34s):
So it was a phone slapped into a stereoscopic headset. So low pro low processor. It was, it had a lot of what we call a screen door effect. So the dots you can see the pixels really bad really well. And so it looked like you were like looking at the world through the screen door. So what I did there, I took advantage of the, so I, I stylized the art. Brandon Jones is the, you know, the art lead on follow the white rabbit for this, for this version, for this chapter. And I did sort of a Magritte surrealism with a little bit of pointillism and, you know, you know so that it’s got impressionism so that your eye, the, the art was stylized in such a way so that your eye kind of filled in the gaps.

Nicole (18m 12s):
And so you couldn’t see the screen door because the art itself, you were interpreting, you had to interpret a lot already. So you are already blurring things. So it made it. Yeah, so we did. So basically that approach is, you know, really, really super, super important. And so likewise with the, the low processor, we actually baked in all of the lights. This is on the technical side so that we could get, you know, get the performance, but those are kind of technical side, I think in terms of four keys, what we did is we really wanted to dial in on the sense of wonder, you know, that’s what, you know, VR is really a trip to Wonderland.

Nicole (18m 49s):
And I, you know, in a sense, I grew up in Wonderland. I grew up in the Middle East, you know, as a kid, when my, my parents were stationed overseas and, you know, so I rode camels, I climbed pyramids, I explored file temples. And yeah, I wanted to go back and feel that the same experiences I had as a kid and VR was the first platform that allowed me to do that, you know, and then share that experience with all my friends. So with curiosity, it’s all about, it’s the first key, it’s easy, fun, it’s all about exploration. And so what we did is we designed a mechanic, we chose a genre, like a mystery or an escape room, you know, so it’s a, it’s a, it’s a genre that was very much around, you know, curiosity and wonder and surprise.

Nicole (19m 30s):
And, and of course, then we chose magic as the other, as another theme. So we took these themes that had a small, a strong emotion, you know resonance, a strong emotion profile that fit very well with the easy fun key. And then the looking around, you know, was really a big part of the gameplay. So I have worked on, you know, three in the mist game series. And so I had the honor of doing that. And so I took a lot of that. You know, a lot of those experiences as inspiration for the, what we did in this particular game.

Nicole (19m 60s):
And then the, you know, then we, then we worked it into, you know, the other keys as well, which I can, which I can talk to talk about directly.

Rob (20m 8s):
Absolutely. And in fact, you’ve been talking about the keys and I always like to know, like understand what the typical process of a game designer is. So I would like for you to, I’m guessing it is around the keys. So if you want to explain the keys and then how that bakes into your process, or if that is the process itself, we would really like to know, how does it look like for you when you’re creating a game? And of course, you’re using those four keys to fun.

Nicole (20m 29s):
Great. Yeah. So it’s what I did in 2000 to 2004 is I actually watched people play games, which is something that I do for a lot, for a lot of things, everything from, you know, diner dash to Star Wars, you know, The Matrix I’ve done a lot of, a lot of players studies, a lot of design consulting on these games. And so I use Paul Ekman’s facial action coding to measure the emotional responses on people wildly played and you know, everything from Tetris to Halo across genres, multiple genders, wherever there was, they played.

Nicole (21m 1s):
And so I came up with reasons for reasons why people play, they played for novelty, they played for a challenge. They played for friendship and they also played it played for, you know, meaning and value. And so I called these the four keys to fun and each one is created is a collection of action emotion pairs. So it’s all about, it’s an interaction design language that allows you to design emotion in an experience. And that as a concept is one of the bases, the core research foundation, if you will, for the practice of, you know, gamification.

Nicole (21m 34s):
And it was one of the, you know, the, the four or five different models that went into the, the start of the start of all of this as it were. So what we do is we look at curiosity, that’s the hook. It pulls you in. It’s the ability to, you know, explore, to fantasize, roleplay creativity. It’s like dribbling a basketball. It’s fun, just all on its own. It’s the bubble wrap. I like to say of game design. And it’s just fun because there are no points. There’s no challenge. There’s no, it’s just fun just to do so.

Nicole (22m 4s):
That’s a very valid way of having fun. It’s often the first thing that people do. And then from there, what we look at is, but just like dribbling a basketball, it’s more fun if there’s like a hoop, right. And the hoop isn’t just big. And in front of us, it’s small and overhead you with the backstop, which is the second key. So second key is all about it’s called hard fun. So it’s the heart, it’s the fun of accomplishing something hard, requires goals, strategies, and obstacles. And it’s that feeling of frustration that leads when you succeed to the feeling of fiero , you know that, yes, I got the, you know, the boss monster or I won the Grand Prix and the feeling of Fiero.

Nicole (22m 42s):
Is a very big, it’s one of our bigger emotions. It’s full body. Nobody else it’s not social. Nobody else has to witness it. It’s just all about us and a personal sense of accomplishment over accomplishing a goal or triumph over adversity. So that is the second case. So hard, fun and players will go back and forth between easy and hard fun, you know, you’ll, you’ll win the level and it unlocks a new level and then you’ll have the easy, fun to exploring that second level. Then what we do is we all know that winning is always more fun when in the context of friends.

Nicole (23m 14s):
And so that’s people fun, the third key. And so we found a lot of social interaction, created emotion. In fact, people playing the game, same game, same room had more emotions than people playing the same game in different rooms. And so there was, even more, there’s so much more emotion, more kinds and frequency and intensity of emotion with people in the same room with co-located group play than the other three combined. So that’s the heart of you, what people fun is, and it’s cooperation and competition communication, all of these things amusement is one of your first, you know, most, most easily visible on the face or in the audio amusement, laughter right?

Nicole (23m 51s):
And then we’ve got, you know, Schadenfreude, and envy and, you know, friendship, all of that, you know, all those really great, great emotions that are coming.

Rob (23m 59s):
And a question here with this because you know, the, the evolution of online gaming with things like Fortnite, like you’re, you’re there with a hundred other people. I mean, for me personally, and this is something very personal, I’ve always enjoyed more like having somebody like next to me playing, I remember playing like Teenage M utant Ninja turtles in the Nintendo. It was absolutely amazing when I had friends to play with. And we were playing together with these online ways of playing and, you know, the headphones and maybe seeing each other’s face and Twitch and all these things have that, you know, sort of from a general perspective, has that brought people a bit more together, has that, is that still as powerful as having it next to you or at least more powerful than it used to be?

Nicole (24m 41s):
Yes so what we did as a part of this original research was really early in that. So we were doing WOW. It was one of our world of Warcraft was our first, you know, was, you know, one of our, part of our dataset. And at the time we, there were people were Jerry rigging, you know, TeamSpeak and, you know, video conferencing and stuff like that. So I could really tell that that desire to have at least a visual of someone’s real face was a very strong, you know, strong motivator and just chat wasn’t as nearly as nice as being able to talk to somebody audio-wise.

Nicole (25m 11s):
So it was in-person best, you know, connected with video and audio, you know, in some sort of window the next best. And then audio-only the next backs and then chat. And finally, at the very end, we don’t have holographic 3D projections of people yet at mass at scale. So we don’t know where in the spectrum that will be. Hopefully, it’ll be a little bit, quite a bit better. We’ll see at that point, they’ll have to project the game and the projection of your friends in your living room or wherever you happen to be gaming.

Nicole (25m 42s):
So we don’t know what that’s like, but yeah, we do lose a lot from, you know, not being, because it’s actually a lot of it is the physical jostling and the, the feeling of, of these, of the presence of other folks here, like literally sitting, you know, sitting next to you, that is, you know, part of that, you know, feeling like you’re in the same space, but at the same time, you know, you can get into some very intense, you know, conversations, you know, like we are here just in audio and you can actually create a, quite a strong social space just with, just with the voice, you know, going back and forth.

Nicole (26m 17s):
So we’ll have to see, you know, what, what comes next. We do lose stuff without being physically present. And so just like a technical constraint, like I mentioned at the very beginning of the, of the episode is that you want to have it be a, you know, really take advantage of that constraint somehow in the design, but in any case. So there’s really, it’s all about social people want to play because they feel, they feel they want an excuse to go to be closer to their friends, right. They want an excuse to be with their friends. People will play games. They don’t like people play games, even though they hate playing games just to spend time with their friends.

Nicole (26m 50s):
And then the last key is a yes, we have easy, fun, hard, fun people fun. And then the last key is serious fund, which is all about gamification, right? And at the time there were very few games with series purposes outside of training. When we, when we first launched it, now there’s quite a bit more there’s festivals and all that good stuff, all that great stuff. And so was serious fun. It’s all about people playing games to change themselves or to change the world around them. And so it’s serious fun. It’s all about the ability for a game to have an intention and then have that gameplay, do, you know, do something in a fun way.

Nicole (27m 25s):
So it’s, it’s a collection and completion and repetition and rhythm are, are, you know, kind of the, the interaction patterns that go with it and that feeling of like desire or want, or, you know, I, I, something I’d like, and being able to satisfy it is that closes that serious fun loop. All four keys are loops, you know, they are, they’re not just, you know, kind of a one-shot thing. It’s important to design a complete loop when it’s broken. It’s usually because it’s one of those loops or many of those loops are broken, so you don’t complete the cycle.

Nicole (27m 56s):
And then you also, it’s better if you have more than one loop going at any one time, a lot of folks focus on, Oh, well, we’ll just do serious fun for this, or we’ll, Oh, just do easy, fun for this. But really it’s the work, when they’re working in conjunction that gives players more than one option at any point in time, and then allows them to give them control of what kind of game interaction, what kind of interaction they want to have with the experience.

Rob (28m 20s):
Absolutely. And that makes a lot of sense. That is, you know, it’s a, it’s a big reference that, that the whole world of game design and gamification has had with your four keys to fun. Just a quick break before we continue, are you enjoying this podcast? If you’re listening through a podcasting app, please subscribe and rate us on the app! This will be of great help to reach more engagers so we can change the world together through gamification. Nicole, what would you say is, is, of course, it probably has to do with your four keys to fun, but you know, maybe quick advice or something that you would say, well, if you consider this, if you, a best practice that you could do is doing this and when you’re creating a game or a gamification project, would you say that there’s is a, a key in that sense?

Nicole (29m 6s):
Well, I think that probably the biggest mistake or the biggest, the biggest, the most challenging, one of the most challenging mistakes we have, we’ve talked about, you know, the game side, I should also talk about, you know, the more serious side is in like an educational game. For example, the, the thing that’s the hardest for, you know, developers and for the sponsor of the project to get their hands around is you have to have, you know, fun failure states. and you have to support fun failure and you have support failure and you have to support and make it fun.

Nicole (29m 40s):
So that’s very hard for a lot of folks. So my, my classic example is that, okay, you’re, you’re basically designing a nuclear power plant, you know, managing game, right? And you need to train people on how to properly, you know, run nuclear power plants safely. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do, if you’re a student sitting down at the console for a nuclear power plant what would you do?

Rob (30m 2s):
Screw up?

Nicole (30m 2s):
Exactly. I mean, 99% of folks would, would, you know, it’s a game. So 99% would go for core meltdown, right? The very first thing. Right? And if nothing happens, they’re gonna be, you know, very mightily disappointed and say, okay, this is a, this is a glorified animated set of flashcards. On the sponsor side. It’s like, no, we’re not going to teach people how to, you know, run a, you know, cherry picker through, you know, downtown Oakland, right?

Nicole (30m 35s):
Pulling up, pulling down all the lampposts or whatever. Right. But if you, you know, but if you really want it to feel like the real thing you’ve got to have, you have to have the ability to push the edges and, you know, so you just, you know, reset, but there’s gotta be something, you know, something that happens. If it’s fun, then people will be laughing that opens the mind a bit. And then they’re going to feel a lot more at ease with simulation as well. I mean, depending of course, on the feedback you want to make them laugh. You want, want you to be fun in the fun, in the amusing sense. You don’t want to give them real-world consequences for failure.

Nicole (31m 7s):
Right. That’s that would be anti the a, that would be against good education design, but you get, so you get the point. So that’s probably the, the hardest thing for sponsors to say, because like, I don’t want a dead patient with my tumor removal simulator. Right. Or, you know, I don’t want to show you, but you know, it’s a …

Rob (31m 27s):
It’s kind of the point. I mean, if you’re making a simulator, it’s precisely for them to be able to make those mistakes and not make them with the actual patient, nuclear plant or whatever right?

Nicole (31m 35s):
Right, right. Exactly. So you need to be able to overdose your, your pay, your chemotherapy patient. You need to be able to, you know, decap, you know, accidentally cut the limb off. If you know, you can, I mean, obviously you can, you don’t have to show like a lot of blood or whatever. You don’t, you have control of how you represent that failure state. You can simply, you know, go white screen and then come back or go black screen, you fade to black and then come back again at the start of the event yet. But the, you know, it does have to have some edges, you should be able to go beyond an edge, a boundary that you have in the real world.

Nicole (32m 7s):
Otherwise, it seems a little bit, it feels like a little bit disingenuous and not a, not a, not a full if I can, if the guardrails are on too hard, it doesn’t are too close. It doesn’t feel like it still feels like I’m being baby. Right. So I need to be able to push the edges.

Rob (32m 26s):
Nicole, if after hearing these questions and the, the vibe of the podcast and understanding the audience, is there somebody that you would like to listen to in an interview like this one in for, for professor games, somebody you would like to recommend to be on the podcast?

Nicole (32m 37s):
Well, you talked already about Jesse Schell.

Rob (32m 40s):

Nicole (32m 40s):
And then of course, you’ve, you’ve spoken to like Raph Koster and

Rob (32m 46s):
Raph Koster is a missing link here. Definitely.

Nicole (32m 49s):
Okay. Yeah. He’s, he’s a really fun guy. He wrote a theory to fun and I’m sorry, a theory of fun, a theory of fun. And he’s got, it’s less on the emotion state than what I’m doing less than the emotion side is much more about logic and puzzles and stuff like that. So he’s, he’s great, he’s always a great, very deep thinker.

Rob (33m 10s):
Absolutely. And he would be fantastic for sure. And you mentioned Raph’s book, is there a book that you recommend to the Engagers to read?

Nicole (33m 17s):
I think both of the both Raph’s book and Jesse Schell’s book on game design are great examples of books for the, yeah. The practice of game, game design. We’ve got for, you know, and then, you know, you can interpret it for serious context. And the reason why I say that is the, you know, so much of serious games are so many serious games are just not fun. And so it’s like, yeah, earn some points.

Nicole (33m 48s):
I got some animation and then it’s like, well, but you know, it was that, did I feel empowered? Did I feel, you know, games do all kinds of really fun things inside the body. And so, you know, having that, having that ability is really, really good. And I can send you some more links offline too, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Rob (34m 7s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And in that same sense of recommendations, what would you say is your favorite game? And this is a difficult one

Nicole (34m 16s):
Favorite game, you know, still it still has to be Myst because it was a, you know, it was an adventure and the ability of it to just take you to a whole new world, there’s this layer of, you know, you’re on, it’s almost there’s that you could just that exploration, it’s almost like you’re on vacation, especially ribbon to the Myst two. There were these amazing vistas and the story with Myst one is that I had gotten an early copy from Broderbund and was reviewing it for a column. I was writing called good bits.

Nicole (34m 48s):
And I was driving. I remember getting up on the freeway here outside of Oakland, you know, I was going ahead. I was heading out to my work and I had this just, it was a gray Monday. I was like, Oh, I had that Monday feeling of like, oh, I just want to go back. I want to go back on vacation. Where was I? I had this odd feeling. It’s like, Oh, I had just spent, you know, most of the weekend playing Myst. It’s like, Oh, I was there. So the ability of a game to transport you to another reality, I think is amazing. And the kinds of games I like are ones that don’t have a very tight dopaminergic, you know, loop in them.

Nicole (35m 23s):
I like much more open-ended exploration and story and narrative, you know, style games. Those are ones that I appreciate the most.

Rob (35m 32s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. Those are great games and we’re arriving to the end, but I would like to know, would, what would you say is your superpower that, you know, that sweet spot, where, where you find that you do at least better than most other people in the world when, when it is all about game design?

Nicole (35m 49s):
Well, the, obviously the emotional result of play, being able to fine-tune an example. So for example, being able to take a task that needs to be done. So like in the work context, you know, you’ve got to, you know, your photo editing or something, and there’s a series of interactions that you go from the beginning of the process to the end of the process, there’s a series of steps and it’s ridiculous at most interfaces, user interfaces are aphasic. They don’t have, they don’t recognize or induce different emotions depending on which part of the phase you’re in for that project.

Nicole (36m 25s):
So you want to be very open-ended and laughing and amusing, you know, amusing yourself or whatever open, you know, coming up with new ideas at the beginning of the project, in the middle, you need some social feedback. And in the end you need to like to dial down and stop brainstorming and, you know, ship. But, you know, and we blame ourselves, you know, for not having the right, you know, cabana board or, you know, a, you know, Asana or, you know, a, you know, Pomodoro method, you know, but really it’s the tools that are causing us a lot of this distress in my view. So my superpower is a bit with clients that we work with in consulting is to be able to take their process and fine-tune it to people’s needs at the moment.

Nicole (37m 4s):
And I think that’s a really big one. The other one I think is just in terms of the, you know, the history of my career, it’s really, you know, if I were, it’s not very glorious, but I’m superpower, but you know, if I were a superhero, I would be the mole and the mole. I mean, you know, I, in the sense it’s like, you know when I see re you know, I see someone provides me a reality, someone provides me a narrative. Someone provides me a frame, and first I recognize it as that. I don’t recognize it as truth. I don’t recognize it as reality. Right. I just recognize it as a frame or a narrative or something.

Nicole (37m 37s):
And then like the mole is basically, I just tunneled down underneath it until, and I keep going digging lower and lower and lower until I find that bedrock, that actual truth that everything else is built on. And that’s how I, you know, when I was at G the game developers conference, and I said, Hey, you know, famous game designers, you know, have you ever done player studies and like ask players what fun was? And they said, no, that sounds stupid. That was a long time ago. And, you know, and then I said, well, like what kind of emotions can games praise?

Nicole (38m 9s):
It’s like, okay, well, these, you know, I mean, I love them anyway. A lot of them were my mentors and they said, Oh yeah, well maybe it’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the theory, you know, the feelings of the, you know, the Coliseum, but nothing more. It’s like, okay, I know you guys are wrong on this one. So yeah. So those kinds of things, you take their reality and say, okay, the, you know, well, what is real? What is, what is my experience, Leonardo DaVinci in his biography? I was, I was reading, did a lot of this as well, like based on experience, what kind of things about, in my experience, can I, or how can I give myself experiences so that I can gather the data to, again, dig down to what’s like, what’s the baseline, the baseline truth.

Nicole (38m 47s):
And that’s what I did with the four keys to fun. And it really changed the industry, the game industry, as well as now, you know, obviously, industries outside of games is because I looked at how do I measure the internal state of the player without them having to have them understand it, self observe it, and then express it. Those were two very big things. Not many people can do either let alone both. And so that’s what I did. That’s why I used the facial recognition, fax coding. So that would be my superpower.

Nicole (39m 17s):
And then I’m also just really, I hand-coded. I mean, I, I hand-code all that Vinny. I, you know, hand-cut at all the levels for tilt world. So I also have a bit of resilience and perseverance in the face of obstacles. So there you go, make that into a soup.

Rob (39m 33s):
I love it. I love it. And those are those superpowers. And one of them is, is related to what I like to call when I do workshops on these things. I like to call the five why’s and it doesn’t have to be five. It doesn’t have to be four. Doesn’t have to be 10. It’s like going deep and really understanding what’s beneath the surface. I really like really enjoyed that one in particular. So Nicole, we’re running out of time, but before we go, of course, if you want to have any, any final words, any final piece of advice, of course, let us know where we can find you. If we want to find out more about XEO design, about what you do about Nicole, four keys to fun all these things that we’ve been talking about before we say it, I know your phrase is game on, but you know, at the end we will have to say, at least for now that it’s game over

Nicole (40m 14s):
Or until next time anyway. Yes. Level up. So there we go. Yes. So we’ve got the, yep. If you want to find out more about me, you can follow me on Twitter. That’s where I do most of my microblogging. So at Nicole and I C O L E Lazaro, Laz Z a R O and a, the company name is XEO design You can find out more about the four keys on that website, or there’s a short code, which is And that’ll go right to the white paper and the download.

Nicole (40m 47s):
There’s a nice poster you can download for free. You can feel happy to reach out to me on a, on either of those of those platforms. And we’re, you know, coming out with new versions of, you know, Tilt World, follow the white rabbit and unscramble the Oracle all three soon. So stay in touch. If you want to be on our mailing list, you can go to forward slash F w R beta. And you can sign up for our beta list and you’ll have some more announcements of that game. And if you are around at the game developers conference GDC, summer 2020, next week, I am giving a talk on spatial audio and the design of it for Unscramble the Oracle, which is a choose your own adventure.

Nicole (41m 27s):
You play walking around the block 5:00 PM on November 4th, Tuesday, November 4th, we’ve already recorded the session. So it went well. And then, but I will be around for a live Q and A afterward. Yeah. I think this is what the lockdown is, giving us all this power of time travel. So, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I definitely think you, if you’re interested in, you know, pursuing this as a, as a career, if you want to add more games, I think the biggest thing is not to think of it as adding points or badges or tacking stuff onto a like wallpaper.

Nicole (41m 59s):
It’s really to think about the core. What is the core loop? What is the core set of actions or verbs that you’re designing into your space that create the outcome that you want and connect those in a way that is compelling, engaging, and fun and intrinsically fun? So we want intrinsic motivation, not the extrinsic, you know, put the icing on the cake or something like that. So make it, keep it extrinsic and we can, you know, keep it, keep it fun. So we’re all about unlocking human potential through play and games are a great way, a great way to do that either in-game, game land, or in, in the professional, like serious, you know, other let’s do other stuff, land sort of stuff.

Nicole (42m 37s):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Well, if we think about it, you know, games are really huge, it’s human nature to play. In fact, all mammals play and some crustaceans play and birds fly, you know, there’s a lot of play and play is all about the role of play is to learn. So, you know, all, you know, all play, you know, teaches you something. So when you look at it at its core, you know, if you’re, if you’re doing anything that involves, you know, mastery over time, definitely play, you know, whether you call it gamification or I like gamifying is a big part of what you want to, what you want to do.

Nicole (43m 11s):
Not only is it in the enjoyment part, but in the relationship between serious fun and, and easy fun. There’s really interesting stuff that happens that reinforces learning is enjoyable in and of itself. And so the way that those two keys work together is really, really helpful for mastery. So it’s in the process of learning the process of going through the steps where you would acquire the learning, right? You want that to be fun, but also in the way in which that actions, those actions of thoughts, those, you know, whatever activities that you did the way in which those translate into some kind of change in the brain that is, you know, knowledge or wisdom or skill the play is actually setting the brain up to kind of this, you know, this highway, this fast track to getting it really deeply embedded in the brain.

Nicole (43m 59s):
So a play is, you know, ignore, play at your peril. So hopefully we can all have more fun together in the future.

Rob (44m 6s):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And as you can tell Engagers, we could spend all day just talking about this. I’m seriously considering going into Tim Ferris’s format and spending like, you know, three, four hours in a single interview because I’m having so much fun. I really enjoy this. I think there’s a lot of value. However, you know, as you know, our format is a bit shorter than that. We are around 40 something minutes by now. So at least for now, and at least for today, you know, we, might get back into this, but for now it is time to say that its Game Over! Engagers, it is great.

Rob (44m 38s):
It is fantastic to have you around and this podcast, as you know, it only makes sense with you. So let’s connect on Twitter so you can let me know. Would you like to have what questions you have? So you can see some new content that I post there every now and then, what questions can you have? What other guests like the amazing Nicole Lazzaro, what are we can help you with? Just let us know. You can find my Twitter account on

Rob (45m 8s):
I’m always sharing stuff on gamification, game-based, learning game-based solutions, especially of course, around education and learning. And of course, before you click continue and go to your next mission, have you already subscribed using your favorite podcast app? Please go ahead and do so! So that you can listen to the next episode of Professor Game. See you there!

End of transcription

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