GDD: Game Driven Development

Business software development has a lot to learn from the gaming industry -- they've solved problems we still struggle with.

GDD: Game Driven Development

Not so long ago, making an important decision in an app meant getting something like this:

Classic delete confirm dialog in Windows

Ah yes, I remember them well: dialogs that nobody paid attention to. Annoying pop-up windows that were clicked so quickly, it honestly felt like users were racing to see who could get these distractions out of their faces faster. Damn the consequences! Remembering these, I never understood why Tron fought for the users. They don't care about their data being unrecoverable, they just want dialogs to disappear!

Give it up, man! It's a lost cause!

Fast forward to the present. I was recently playing around in Mailchimp and came across an updated version of this very same dialog:

New and improved delete confirmation dialog (Mailchimp)

Nice! A little cognitive load to the dialog to give the decision some weight. Instead of a plain old confirm / cancel, now the user is forced to type a word into the dialog (and the text must match!) before the Delete button is clickable.

It is UX for the new generation:

  • Ensure big decisions still give the user a chance to confirm their decision, but
  • Don't let the user make the decision too quickly or irrationally.

It's slick!

It's also not new.

The first time saw it was late 2004, here:

Delete confirmation dialog (World of Warcraft)

If you don't recognize where that screen comes from, it's a video game: World of Warcraft. The "enter some text before you confirm a major decision" UX has been in their game for the last 17 years.

When it comes to usability testing, who among us doesn't know Steve Krug? I love Don't Make Me Think. Did you know he wrote a follow-up to it? In that book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, he steps you through the process of how you can set up your very own usability tests – vital to understanding how the real world consumes your digital product.

Snippet from "Rocket Surgery Made Easy" by Steve Krug

Sounds obvious! In the software development industry, it still isn't...and his book was published back in 2009!

...but do you know who was advocating usability testing (without even knowing it) even earlier than that?

Here's a snippet from a postmortem on Gamasutra, where the developers of Diablo II discuss their process:

We used what we call the "Mom test": could Mom figure this out without reading a manual? If we see new players struggling with how to sell items, we look at how they're trying to do it and make that way work too. We strove to make the interface as transparent as possible.

Diablo II shipped in 2000, nearly a decade before Steve Krug's book made it to shelves.

There's plenty more examples if you look close enough. Another one I can think of, just off the top of my head, is the proliferation of 2-Factor Authentication in today's security policy. Do you have your accounts secured with 2-Factor Auth? (Hint: you should!) Google is a pretty good litmus test of pushing technology; their Google Authenticator was launched around 2010, adoption grew slowly after that.

Blizzard was issuing 2fa authenticators to their fanbase back in 2005. Video games win again.

If you know of some more examples, send me them!

If it hasn't already been made official, I feel like I should state it aloud. Call it a hunch, a theory, a hypothesis (perhaps the Holmes Hypothesis?) if you will:

Any "innovation" in business technology can be traced back to a matching earlier innovation already achieved in video game technology.

Whenever we (in the biz-app world) think we've "cracked the code", it turns out that the video game industry has already solved it.

The next most immediate question becomes: why aren't we paying more attention to these innovations and adopting them? Is it because we think we know better? In 2021, do the adults in the room still think that "video games are child's play"? That was certainly the sentiment when I entered software development in 1997. It is a backwards way of thinking. Not all software developers are game developers...but all game developers are software developers.

The video game industry is challenged in ways we aren't. The customer base is far pickier. It's elective rather than proscriptive. It may even boil down to mindset: perhaps in our dry, dull biz-app world, we're not asking ourselves "What if it could be like x?" and instead, repeat the corporate mantra of "We don't operate like that around here." We don't have to break the rules, we make them.

The video game industry has no choice but be forced to make their products a joy to use.

And as long as we continue to stick to our old, ignorant ways, we'll continue to see video-game driven innovation eventually make its way into business software. That is, if our companies last long enough. I suspect there are a few of us who do embrace that innovation. Mailchimp is one. Wrapmate will be another. Who else is out there?

Maybe it's time to pay a little more attention.