03: Customization vs. Personalization

Emerging from the pit of despair, on their never-ending quest for the most usable game, our heroes go on a side quest to explore the role of customization.

  
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Introductory Guy  

Welcome to design thinking games, a fantasy and user experience podcast. Each episode, your podcast hosts, Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper roleplaying games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games, you can find every episode including this one on your podcatcher of choice. And on the web at design thinking games.com.

Michael Schofield

In our first episode, you mentioned something that really piqued my interest. You'd mentioned a game that early in your life gave you the options for the first time for you to identify with a specific character. You had a lilt in your voice about it. I wanted to explore this idea with you about gaming and identity. 

Tim Broadwater  

I guess when I kind of think about it, the type of games that I love, or gravitate towards, are games I can bring something creative to it. It’s important for me to just have an enjoyable game that's fun to play, but what I love about games that I seem to really gravitate towards is when it allows me to create and bring strategy into the game and make my own thing. 

I think the game that you're specifically talking about was HeroQuest. That was the first board game that I ever played that is like the training wheels version of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is super difficult. It has a high learning curve. But it was the first way that I kind of got a taste or exposure to what being a Game Master is like. And it gives you the kind of guidelines that you can follow. And then different scenarios that are triggered by different antecedents, and then the game can go kind of multiple ways. 

Michael Schofield  

What about the aspect of creating a character that you inhabit, whether it's like HeroQuest, D&D, Dragon Age …, how important is that to you?

Tim Broadwater  

I guess what's very important to me is total creativity and control within parameters. So like, I guess what it makes me think of is that HeroQuest gave you parameters. Here are all the minis, here are the maps, here are the stories and the techniques and the spells and stuff. And you can create your own stories, right. And that's cool. With Dungeons and Dragons, I can choose my race and my classes and my feats and then build out something unique that is for me, so I have a character let's say who was literally a gnome who is a summoner 

and she rides her summon into battle and she has a lance, and that's something that I can customize and specifically build. 

I guess that's what I like about Pokemon and Magic the Gathering, right? In Pokemon, I can build a bear team or I can build a poison team. I've been playing Pokemon, since Gen 1, and the video game, not the card game not any of the spin-off crap games, but legit Pokemon, and I've been transferring my Pokemon from Gameboy to GameBoy Advanced to DS to 3DS to Switch and I have the Pokemon bank, which is I think called Pokemon home now, and I pay a yearly fee to house all my Pokemon because I have a free evolution bird team that's named after Decepticons. It's named after Jet Decepticons from Gen one. So like, Skywarp and Thundercracker. I built this team five years ago, and I can still battle today.

It's the same with Magic the Gathering. Yes, in tournament play, you're limited to Type 2 or Type 1, which is like just the last two expansions, right. But essentially the appeal is that you're a wizard, you're building your spellbook - which is however you want the deck. The strategy is you're bringing a spellbook into battle. I still have decks that are my favorite decks that I fight and play against people. And they're not legal for the type to play, you know, in tournaments. But for friends who play like, hey, all Magic generations work. I have a flying city spellbook that lets me summon walls, make them fly, and make them attack. I can name tons of games that I gravitate to or enjoy, but it's that it lets me quickly understand the mechanics, understand the fair battlefield or the playground, and the fair physics and balance. And then I can work within that system, within those parameters to make my own thing and try it out. So I don't know what that is. When you look at Pokemon, I mean, it's just like, team building and battling. But it's kind of having that in lack of a better word, constrained sandbox or parameter game to where I can build and create stuff. And I hate Minecraft like, I mean, people say like, Minecraft is like, Oh, it's great. You can build stuff. And I'm like, it's work.

Michael Schofield

Yeah, man. That was gonna be my next question. I was like, oh, man, you must love Minecraft.

Tim Broadwater

No, I totally hate Minecraft.

Michael Schofield

Clearly, there is an obvious difference between Magic the Gathering and Minecraft but in the spirit of a loosely defined sandbox where you can do anything, what about Minecraft doesn't appeal to you?

Tim Broadwater  

I get that you can create your own server and you can have friends come on, and you can build and you can battle or you can play the game and fight to fend off death and you can make your own hideout and cool stuff. And it's like this creative space you log on to that's kind of like a clubhouse or what a lot of people now use with the Oculus and PlayStation VR - like a VR chat. It's like a social hangout thing and I'm not about that, I guess. 

I'm here to kick ass or have a purpose. I want to destroy the other player. I Love Street Fighter and Eternal Champions and Mortal Kombat and we talked about that in previous episodes. So it's also the layer of competitiveness added to it.

So having that with Magic the Gathering, you're fighting another wizard or multiple wizards. With Pokemon, you're fighting another Pokemon trainer. Even if you applied it to an MMO RPG, like one of my favorite MMO RPGs is —  and I will say is the best superhero MMO RPG that was ever created —  City of Heroes. What was phenomenal about the City of Heroes, is that you had more than any game I've ever known in the history of gaming 100% control over your costume. Then you had customizable powers you basically could get like a power set, but you can make it look like whatever you want.

Essentially, with the combination of your costume, writing your bio and your backstory, which people can see when they click on you in the game, and being able to customize your powers, you literally could make Wolverine you can make, you could make Avatar: The Last Airbender, or you can make your own thing. And so what I loved about that is that the story connects to the costume, which connects to the power, which is completely customizable. And so when you're in the game, and you see someone who's created something really cool and unique, and it's awesome. There's a kind of respect there.

The same thing with, characters in tabletop roleplaying games, or Pokemon teams, or even like when we talked about games to where you can control your costumes and build out custom parts and make your characters have combos to where a character can heal, but they can also hide or, you know. I like that kind of that customization. Because that lets me bring not just my creativity but strategy, if that makes sense.

Michael Schofield

What is the role of performance as applied to this customization? The way you're describing to me is that you have complete control in which to demonstrate to other players, whether that's like whoop their ass, or showing off that character that you built. In the case of something that's not player versus player or player with player, but like player versus world, something like a Red Dead Redemption, where you have a huge sandbox except you're not building your own character and there's nothing performative about it.

Tim Broadwater  

I see what you're saying. I don't care if it's collaborative or competitive. In that regard, I do like playing with other people. The board games that I gravitate to the most are quick setup tabletop board games that are collaborative, to where we're all working together to get a goal, or we all die. There's a bunch of games out there sure, like Castle Panic, or there's also Forbidden Desert or Forbidden Island - we aren't going to get off the island before it sinks. 

What I would like is, hey, if we're competing against each other, or we're collaborating together, that's fine. I think you need the other people, of course, and that's something I'm not much into solo games. You can sink hours into it and just explore and have fun, which is like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ghost of Tsushima, or Mad Max. It's just you're logging into a completely open world and, and doing that, and I like those games. I love the games that allow me to creatively build and, and strategize my character or monster or team or whatever, and then compete against other players or collaborate with other players to accomplish with large goals.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, it's fundamentally social. And you also know that these other players can also have the exact same powers of customization, the same choices for the most part. 

Tim Broadwater  

Monster Hunter is very much like this, because Monster Hunter allows you to have so many weapons and so many sets of armor, and then you can give yourself abilities. And you can also build decorations and charms that you put on your armor that gives you special effects. And so you can really make yourself like, I'm gonna make my armor, my weapons and my effects, or charms or decorations all make me max damage, so I can just do more damage to anyone else. Or you can make them to where Oh, well, status effects don't affect me or don't stick to me. So I never get knocked unconscious or I never get dizzy, and that's that open system that operates in the same parameters in which we all kind of the laws that we obey.

That what I enjoy. And I don't actually know if there's a gaming term for it. This is me, my naivety or ignorance here? I know what deck building is. So I can apply there. And then, but I don't know, like custom battle arenas or MOBAs, or whatever.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, that's interesting. Yesterday afternoon at work one of our early users expressed interest in being able to customize something they couldn’t. That doesn't have to be the case: how might we design for a wide variety of customization? Why are the constraints that we designed into like the first build of a thing, even present? Are they necessary? Are they technical constraints? And we admitted that they weren't. I don't know what the term for that says, either. It's some sort of degree of like, wiggle room, right, within the use of a service, whether that services a game that you're experiencing or some sort of some sort of tool.

Can we have features that allow us to diverge from the original design? More, I don't know, it's kind of like it's sort of like a user experience version of that Muhammad Ali, quote that, you know, your best plans. All plans are out the window when you get punched in the face or something like that. Yeah. And there's something about the deliberate design of, if I imagine a game but you know, kind of in our world and app or some other digital service, where you either assume in the build that people are going to use it exactly as you intend. But they don't. 

I've always been in awe of these games that are fundamentally creative and co-creative. Because yeah, it's funny, the lack of vocabulary to describe that kind of openness is huge. But I imagine there has to be some industry terms for that, because, you know, they're not going to do anything for the most part that allows you to break the games, there are real, deliberate design decisions behind letting you customize the powers in City of Heroes, or something like that in a way that keeps it fair and equitable, and technologically feasible. And that is a design, that is a style of design that is suddenly really interesting to me. And to your point, I don't know how to talk about it.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, you do. I've worked for years now in enterprise software applications. And one of the things that we dealt with years ago, and we still, to some degree deal with when we are designing for these giant enterprise software applications, I mean, essentially, all giant enterprise software applications are dashboards and tables, that's literally, now you're creating, like off the tables and searching the tables and stuff, you know what I mean? But it's essentially dashboards, and tables. That's every single enterprise software application. And the thing that we encountered a lot of the times is that when we would bring here some marketing person, here's a business analyst, here's a subject matter expert, here's an end user, a dev, whoever, and or CEO of the company, we brought them into meetings. They would all argue about, like, what columns of these tables are relevant to them, and what they need. And it's like, an operator will use this. And it's like, oh, yeah, but a mechanic will never use it. It's like, Okay, well, the accountant needs this. And it's just like, Yeah, but no operator would ever use that.

So I guess, something that we implemented. And I now we kind of do it all the time, for any kind of software enterprise applications we work on, is that for? Because I think we think it's, it's also kind of expected from any user exactly like what you're saying that there is this level of wiggle room or customization that, you know, in every user kind of expects there to be in the UI, that every table has a pattern that has a gear on it in the top right, essentially. And that when you click on that gear, you just get a flyout of a bunch of things that have checkboxes on them. And those checkboxes literally are the columns, yeah, you know, so you can turn on and turn off whatever columns you want, or you can drag and the columns to reorder them. It sounds so small, and easy, and not a big thing. But I can tell you, I can't tell you how many meetings I've been in, to where we're just like, we have to be able to fit all 14 columns on the screen. And it's just like, well, I don't know what devices your users have. But unless they have a monitor that is 3000 pixels wide, they're not going to get it and it's like, well, we need to make the font smaller than or we need to shrink it. And it's just like, you know, that's in, and what we're basically what the user expect, you know, expectation is now is that there is baked into every application, web app, you know, enterprise software application, that you have these, like customization, the basic lowest level of customization and wiggle room that you can afford to your end user, right. So turning on or turning off column rows or reorganizing colored rows. And the only say this is because this is something that kind of always at least once or twice a year comes up. And then we always just now say like, Oh, we have a gear, we've just put it on here that we use this pattern from like bootstrapper, or, you know, or material or whatever. So you the user can turn on and turn off the columns. I say one, is that good? Okay, then we can proceed. And that diffuses that conversation.

Michael Schofield  

Eventually that degree of customization becomes some sort of like convention if it's applied everywhere else, right. So your idea, like what you guys do with the tables is frankly would fast I'm going to steal it because we don't do that with ours. But it's such a great idea. But it's probably just because it hasn't become conventional to this point in the way that being able to skin your character in a video game is, right. It's almost weird that if you have any kind of avatar in a game that you can't dress them a certain way. We're not talking about personalization and in, in the biz, that is something different. It's usually the personalization of data.

Tim Broadwater  

You put your finger right on it, actually, there's the word is customization versus personalization. Yeah, that's what it is. I can make it in any video game. Most video games or like take at the beginning, you're making your character before you give them a name, you can customize what the avatar looks like, right? skin color, hairstyle, clothes, whatever, how wide their nose is how, you know, all that kind of stuff. And I will say out there for bald bearded men like myself, there's not a lot of outfits. And mostly because I want to make bald bearded men and they don't ever let you do that in Pokemon. It's that you always have to be young. And have anyways,

Michael Schofield

That totally set your spiky hair.

Tim Broadwater  

Exactly. It's like now I would rather have bald and a nice beard instead of face tattoos or blue hair, you know? So I want to see myself you know, but that is personalization, right? That is not customization. And I think if we kind of look at customization as applied to games, we've now reached a time where I think everyone, it doesn't matter what the app is, with a web app, enterprise software, application, native app, whatever. Everyone expects a light and dark mode now, just because everyone has different preferences and time at times a day, depending on light, you know, you want to see, oh, this would be better with a black background and lighter text or this is better with a light background. And I've noticed that that you know, kind of customization is something that people want. And all the time now it's just, I think it's because browsers are doing it your phone does it. Google Maps does it now automatically, but you can toggle back and forth because it actually does it, you know, based on the sunset, you know. And your phone does it based on the light and availability. Another customization that I think from the game side is and I mentioned Monster Hunter, because I know that does this but because once they're going to rise, this came out, and I'm kind of cracked up and playing on it all the time right now. But in general, and all the monster hunters. And this is something that you may be familiar with, I can customize my HUD, I can move around where my health bar is, I can move around where my map is, I can turn things on my head on and off, or it can move them. And that's something that I think a lot of games are starting to move to because they realize that, hey, I don't need the map or I don't want I don't want it or I want a minimal minimal experience or they're in gaming. I think more so than the software side. they've embraced customization. And now it's kind of an expectation that I think it's kind of bleeding over into apps, web apps, enterprise software applications,

Michael Schofield  

are we perhaps talking about something that we might call context customization, being the ability to tailor an interface for context. And that context is sometimes external, the time of day, or occupational, I am an operator, not an accountant, or I have many windows on my screen, many tabs open, many, whatever. And we're not talking about like, because it's the difference from personalization, which is, I want to see myself in experience . I want your newsletter to greet me with Hi, Michael. Or I want this character to be bald and bearded, like both of us. But what we're customizing and allowing for and designing for is context. What do you think? Yeah, I think

Tim Broadwater  

I guess that makes me think of a couple things. It's already out there because frameworks habit. And so bootstrap already has built into it a light and dark theme, right? That lets you whenever you're building your web app or your website or whatever, you can just kind of talk I got them back and forth, they have that built into the framework, a lot of work that we build in my nine to five is they have to work in command center mode, command center mode being like this needs to work on multiple screens, multiple monitors. And so one of the frameworks that we use a lot or adapt or or kind of, there's many frameworks that do this, don't get me wrong. 

But golden layout is one, I'm not sure if you've ever, if anyone has, like, checked out the golden layout framework, but the golden layout framework, lets you completely customize your UI, drag and drop stack, it treats everything like tabs, I can pop out those tabs into new windows on two different monitors, I can pop out a group of tabs onto a new monitor. Wow. And I can pop them back in.

Yeah, it's pretty slick. It's a pretty slick, you know, kind of framework. And so I think, I can say that the need is already there. And we're working with it. And the sign is, if the framework supports it already, then that means that the demand is there, if that makes sense. And I definitely think that it is context because someone who is running a hospital command center where they need, like, they have 20 monitors, right? And they have the I need video feed on the parking lot. So when the ambulances arrive, and on the life flight chopper, I said fly someone in, but I also need a screen that shows breadboards that shows how many people are currently in our er, and how many people are waiting for or and then we can move them around that when Okay, now we have a bed on the floor that's freed up so we can move someone from er to, you know, normal. That's a command center, you know, and that requires multiple screens. And so yeah, I think it is kind of context. It's like people need screens, people need controls, people need that wiggle room to configure what they need. And where I know, we talked in a previous episode about being pissed off with games that don't let you invert your access. I think that's just you're shooting yourself in the foot, you know, kind of at this point if you're not, because everyone's kind of expecting that contextual customization.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah. To your point. This sort of context customization is also probably fundamentally interwoven with designing for inclusivity. So the context perhaps being personal, something to do with your abilities at the time. It is as much as occupational. And I think you're right, I think the expectations either for gamers or users of the internet is one where your ability to customize your context is what I was saying? Yeah, that expectation is growing. This is a snowball, essentially, from almost 10 years ago, if not more - the advent of responsive design, right, where you are designing responsively for the context of the person screen size. And now that has just dovetailed into all sorts of other contexts.

It's this unspoken awareness that the user experience does not happen inside a bubble and is impressed upon from all sorts of different aspects of an ecosystem, whether that ecosystem is in like something that you were born with, or a job that you are employed in doing or whatever.

It requires that ability to adapt the tool that you've decided to use to shifting context, and those contexts may actually even change throughout the period of a day or an hour. Maybe you're in command center mode for x reason for a little bit. And then you have to walk away and use it again on your phone. Right? There are things like this that are fundamentally very interesting.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I agree. I remember like the response, our CSS, responsive server side, or just a responsive web design, our web, kind of came around. It was like, “Oh, no, all of this is totally affecting the web, and everything will change based on this.” And now when I look at like, oh, it works on different squares. Okay, so now what about if it's lighter, too? What if it needs to be on 14 squares? You know what if it needs to be, the user needs to adjust this widget or adjust this view because that seemed to be such a big deal back in like 2008 to 2010. Right. And now it's just like the expectation. It's more that it needs to work with people and work for them.

Michael Schofield  

Command Center mode. I never heard about that before. That is fascinating. I'm going to use this term.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the design thinking games podcast. To connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to design thinking games.com where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on