Meet Chelsea: The Game Design in SuperBetter

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Chelsea HoweChelsea likes making games that make a difference. At Zynga she designed and analyzed features that touched tens of millions of people on FarmVille, and at SuperBetter Labs she’s using research on positive emotion and social connection to make those touches more powerful, evocative, and meaningful. By night Chelsea designs award-winning indie games like The End of Us and Influence, runs the San Francisco Global Game Jam, and works with developers at Cornell University on experimental gameplay demos and youth outreach, all without a bat signal.

The Game Design Behind SuperBetter

For SuperBetter I wanted to bring that sense of delight and curiosity to the game – to get the most engaging experience for the greatest amount of players. Here are three places in particular where game design triumphed:

Welcome to SuperBetter
The first taste players get of SuperBetter is four quick, simple things you can do just about anywhere in under five minutes. Each activity boosts a different type of resilience, so that not only do you understand what SuperBetter’s about, you actually feel better after you’ve played.

The Game Design Deep Dive: Conveying a message to players is what all serious games try to do, but most try and do it through content – the text, characters, storyline, setting, art, or audio. None of those elements are unique to games, and usually fail to utilize the most powerful part of games: the systems that players naturally learn and discover as they play. By getting players to take actions that have been proven to increase resilience, we were teaching them the heart of SuperBetter – and doing it all with nothing more than gameplay.

Freedom to Leave
Some game companies pride themselves on making games that are ‘addictive’ – but if you look at what addiction actually is, it’s nothing to be proud of. We didn’t want players to be worried about the game when they were offline. We didn’t want to negatively affect their lives outside the game – that goes against everything SuperBetter is. You shouldn’t have to be anxious about losing points, progress, or missing opportunities just because you need to live your life. That’s why SuperBetter recommends a simple, lightweight amount of play a day: complete any scheduled quests you have, activate three power-ups, and battle a bad guy. That’s it! Then you can get offline without worrying about anything else; you’re free to leave.

The Game Design Deep Dive: When we are worried or anxious about a game even when we’re not playing, it’s no longer a game. Obligation terminates one of the core components of a game: that it is intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation means you’re doing something because you want to do it, not because you have to. The moment you have to do something, or feel like you should, is when a game becomes a chore. (This is why most gamification doesn’t work – people are using game mechanics to make you do things you don’t already want to do. It might work briefly, but it will never be a functional long term solution!)

Power Pack Journeys
Power Packs are at the heart of what it means to live a SuperBetter life. A Power Pack creates a series of quests that should take the average player two to six weeks to complete. We like to think of Power Pack as ways to form specific habits, or complete a short term goal. When you’ve mastered a Power Pack, you’ve adopted a mindset that’ll help you lead a stronger life.

The Game Design Deep Dive: Power Packs are the backbone of SuperBetter: they’re guided journeys that give players a clear sense of progress, a tangible destination, and every step in between. Even if the Power Pack doesn’t match up exactly with your goal, it’s a way to know you’re on the right track. There’s also the ability to fail in Power Packs: quests have a recommended completion schedule – 3 times a week for 3 weeks, for instance. You can still unlock the next quest if you finish 9 times, but you’ve only mastered the quest if you do it within the three week period. Grouping Power Packs also gives players a sense of a broader journey – they can master all of our resilience Power Packs, all of our healthy eating Power Packs, or the summer adventure Power Packs. This lets players customize their experience, mix and matching a unique path towards their best vision of themselves.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for these nuggets of thought behind the game design. They help me feel confident as I proceed. I keep thinking I’m not getting it because I’m not much of a gamer.

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