You wake up in a small, enclosed glass cube. There’s a bed, a toilet, a radio playing music, and other bare essentials, but no door. You have no idea why you are here or what’s going on.
After a few minutes of looking around your tiny space, a calm yet creepy electronic voice begins speaking. The voice explains that you’re part of a testing program, and a moment later a door-sized, orange-tinged portal opens.
Portal, developed by Valve Software in 2007, is a first-person puzzle-platform game where you’re running around with a gun that shoots… doors. The handheld Portal gun allows you to create a doorway by placing both an entry and an exit portal. These portals can only be created on certain types of surfaces, and only a single portal pair may exist at a time. Using a combination of these portals, your beloved companion cube, and your brain, your character will experience a series of puzzles in test chambers where the goal is simple: get out – don’t die.
That’s the literal minimalist description of the Portal universe, but it explains little about how you’ll survive that universe or what makes it fun. To understand the universe where Portal exists, you have to play it, and then you’ll discover two things: it is a wildly entertaining place, and, while it is a game, it’s a game full of well designed lessons that teach you how to learn.
The First Universe
Portal is a nerd fantasy. You’ve got this gun and when you blast a wall with it, you literally rip spacetime wide open with an entry portal. Blast another wall and there’s the other half of your portal.
That’s the beginning of the cool and the simplest part of the game. As you progress through the increasingly complex puzzles, Portal does something even cooler. It teaches you the game, it teaches you how to improvise solutions to the puzzles, and it eventually makes you a master of the Portal gun and its associated physics — without a single page of documentation. You learn about the Portal universe intimately, but you don’t notice the learning because you’re too busy playing.
In addition to not knowing what the hell is going on in terms of the plot, the first time you play Portal, you have no idea how to play it. Like all games, the initial levels teach you the very basics: how to move, how to pick up an item, and how to use items to get things done. Yes, there is a heads up display indicating how to move, but it’s up to you to learn. Oh look, when I put the cube on the button, it opens the door… to where? The plaques at the beginning of each level seem important, but I don’t know why. Why do I feel something sinister is going down?
The mystery of the player not having a clue what the hell is going on is the initial incentive to learn. It’s the desire to discover the story that situates the player in the Portal universe. It’s a difficult balance to strike in designing a game or application. How much do you explain versus how much do you let them discover? Too much explanation and you get this:
Too much reliance on exploration and they may never discover what they can actually do. I’d include a great example of a game that was designed in this manner, but I can’t and that’s the point – you never played the game enough to understand and remember it.
Atomic Chunks of Understanding
Subsequent test chambers continue to clearly demonstrate additional rules of the Portal universe:
- Place a cube on a big red button to activate a switch.
- Portals have two sides. One end is blue and the other orange. You can enter and exit from either.
- Nothing can be carried with you from test chamber to test chamber.
The discovery of these rules is paired and reinforced with increasingly complex puzzles that continue to teach the player about the increasingly foreign physics inside of Portal. What happens when I enter a portal that’s on the floor, but exits on the ceiling? Which way is up? Success is not measured with points, timers, or headcrabs. Success is measured by the satisfaction you receive when you use the mechanics you’ve incrementally learned to solve the puzzle and exit the chamber in a not-dead state.
Testing, Testing, Testing (And the Second Universe)
As the game progresses, the increasing complexity of the puzzles introduces a bevy of hazards, including high energy pellets, goo, and turrets. The goal remains the same: get out – don’t die. This is a tricky inflection point for any game: the arrival of the puzzle which is no longer a straightforward challenge, and I believe Portal’s developers have solved for this moment in two ways.
First, Valve play tests the hell out their games. They are intimately aware of when a chamber is too laborious, too complex, or introduced before the player has learned the lessons they need to satisfyingly solve the puzzle in a reasonable amount of time. This is essential testing that must be performed again and again to find a delicate balance providing a sense of progress and accomplishment with just enough challenge.
This is a critical inflection point where the user is weighing the following: is the amount of investment I’ve made to date worth banging my head against the screen trying to figure out what to do next? An application like Photoshop doesn’t do this type of testing because they know you’re going to be committed to figuring out the challenge because you plunked down $700 for the privilege of owning Photoshop.
Yes, I’m going to compare Portal and Photoshop. Yes, they reside in two entirely different universes with entirely different motivations. This is about how these two universes should collide and that means what I’m really talking about is gamification. There’s a reason I didn’t mention this until paragraph 17 because there are a lot of folks who think gamification means pulling the worst aspects out of games and shoving them into an application. It’s not. Don’t think of gamification as anything other than clever strategies to motivate someone to learn so they can have fun being productive.
See, whether you’re developing a game or an application, you want to your users to experience…
Inevitably, you’re going to need to make a split-second decision in Portal. The floor will literally be vanishing from under your feet and you’ll have no time to consider your options; you will just improvise. It’s these moments of well-informed improvisation that I believe are Portal’s greatest accomplishment and best design. See, while you were busily having fun you had no idea that you were becoming an expert in the ways of the Portal universe. You now have experience using each of the individual tools and their behaviors to be able to combine them to handle the unexpected. The result: you are now able to effectively deal with novel and unknown situations.
It’s incredibly satisfying to sneak out of a tight spot by performing an action you didn’t know you could do, but created instinctively because of your experience.
That’s how I want to learn. Don’t give me a book; I don’t want a lecture, and I don’t want a list of topics to memorize. Give me ample reason to memorize them and a sandbox where I can safely play. Test me when I least expect it, shock me with the unknown, but make sure you’ve given me enough understanding and practice with my tools that I have a high chance of handling the unexpected.
Mastery is Well-Informed Improvisation
When someone raises their hand in that design meeting and suggests gamification, you have my permission to stand up, walk over, and poke them in the eye. But just one eye. While it’s likely they are merely parroting a buzzword they heard from someone else, it’s not pure buzz. Games like Portal have something to teach anyone interested in the motivation surrounding learning.
A video game has a very different goal than Photoshop. A video game is designed to be pure entertainment, while Photoshop is a tool by which you get work done. A game designer knows that if a game isn’t both immediately entertaining and usable, the folks sitting in front of the Xbox 360 are going to stand up, toss their controllers on their beanbags and declare, “Screw it.” Worse, they are going to tell every single one of their friends about this gaming disaster because they feel stupid for wasting their time and money on something that was supposed to be fun, but turned out to be lame. This is game death.
Photoshop’s goal isn’t entertaining unless you think the national pastime of bitching about Photoshop is a sport. Photoshop has no points or leaderboards because Photoshop is a tool and the perception of tools is that you must be willing to supply blood, sweat, and tears in order to acquire the skills to become any good at using them.
Make a list. Tell me the number of applications you use on a daily basis where there is a decent chance that you’ll end up in a foaming at the mouth homicidal rage because of crap workflow, bad UI, and bugginess. Is Photoshop on that list? Yeah, me too.
The plethora of online Photoshop tutorials demonstrate its power and its flexibility, but I believe they also demonstrate its poor design. Think about it like this: what if each time you plunked down in front of World of Warcraft, you had to spend an hour trying to remember, wait, how do I play this?
Great design makes learning frictionless. The brilliance of the iPhone and iPad is how little time you spend learning. Designers’ livelihood is based on how quickly and cleverly they can introduce to and teach a user how a particular tool works in a particular universe. In one universe, you sport a handheld Portal gun that cleverly allows you to interrupt physics. In a slightly different universe, you have this tool called a cloning stamp that empowers you to sample and copy any part of a photo.
Both are concepts easy to initially understand, but eventually tricky to master. One comes from a game and another comes from an application, but the universes and names aren’t important. When you master either, they both feel like magic.
Game designers have a different set of incentives to make their tools easier to learn via sandbox and atomically chunked learning. They may obsessively play test their games looking for user frustration earlier, but whether you’re leaping through a portal or creating masks of transparent elements in Photoshop, both use cases strive for a moment where you can cleverly and unexpected solve a seemingly impossible problem on your own.
Game designers and application designers might exist in different universes, but there is no reason one universe can’t teach the other.
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