Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What the heck happened to Clippy? Ribbon Hero 2 released

Last year, Ribbon Hero, a game that teaches people how to use Microsoft Office came out.  It was one of the few gamification projects that tried to be an actual game instead of being just lame slathering of points and achievements.  Now comes the sequel.

David Edery and I have been helping the team over at Office Labs take that initial experiment and fulfill its fascinating potential.  I'm super proud of what Jen and crew made.  You can download Ribbon Hero 2: Clippy's Second Chance at http://www.ribbonhero.com

In it, you find out what the heck happened to Clippy after he was fired for being...well, an internet meme for failure.   'Tis a lurid tale of shame and angry mobs.  Apparently a spoonful of narrative makes it far more likely that folks finish.

Lessons in gamification

I've worked with a large number of teams on the applying game design real world activities.   Not all are successes. Why did the Office Labs team succeed in releasing a polished, effective, enjoyable game when so many gamification projects fail to live up to their goals?  Here's my take:
  • Identify the core game loop:  Ribbon Hero is a game first and foremost.  At the heart of the game is a light challenge where you demonstrate your knowledge of using Office.  The team searched for and found a fun activity to build their product around.  Very few gamification projects invest in the extensive prototyping necessary to identify their core loop.  As a result, they end up throwing away their budget  finishing a crap core mechanic. Your team needs to be willing to iterate in order to converge on the fun. 
  • Support the core game loop by killing extraneous features: Most application teams believe they win if they complete more features.  A good game wins by providing a great experience and more often than not this means actively removing and streamlining features.  Any feature that isn't fundamental to the core game is a stumbling block.  New features that cause confusion actively destroy value. Ribbon Hero 2 has fewer features than Ribbon Hero 1, yet is a substantially better game.   I've noticed this key concept goes against what most application teams dream about at night. Your team should adopt the mindset that features are your enemy and subtract all those that do not support the core loop. 
  • Master the art of polish:  Game mechanics are like musical instruments, not patterns you apply and get some predetermined result.  The difference between a well-executed point system that supports a player's intrinsic motivation and a pre-packaged badge API is the difference between a violin concerto and some imbecile screeching away on a busted fiddle.  Polish matters.  A good team takes the extra months to smooth away rough edges, emphasize rewards, add tiny details and make the entire experience glow.  During polish, no new features are added.  Instead, you observe and live with the game, making it better in a thousand little ways. 
  • Get long term buy in:  A game project often costs 3 to 10 times as much as a basic feature that serves the same functional task.  During large parts of the project (prototyping, early production and late production) the project appears to either be completely schizophrenic or stagnant with little visible change.  Very few companies other than game companies are culturally capable of dealing with such frustrating progress signals.  The Ribbon Hero team trusted the process of game development enough to double down on resources and extend the schedule when they needed.  Your team needs to do the same. 
  • Willingness to learn:  The team knew nothing about game development when they started. Instead of taking the easy path and trying to turn a game into an application, they admitted that their previous expertise wasn't enough.  In an act of humbleness that I find rare, Jen and crew buckled down to the task of learning a radically new discipline.  They visited GDC, participated in game design workshops, prototyped crazy ideas, and trained themselves to foster moments of delight. They found out that game design is to application development what dance is to running. And in the end, after years of training (and re-training), they learned to dance. 
Very few teams successfully apply game mechanics to real life because making a game is an exhausting iterative activity.  It takes immense political will, dedicated resources and deep belief that the right experience, not just the right feature, can change the world.   Games are no silver bullet.  Instead, real gamification is a master-level exercise in passionately pursuing great usability and user experience.  Most such projects fail because few teams have the skill, the patience or the values to pull off making a great game.

Was it worth it?  The metrics will be the final judge.  However, I joked with the team that if the Ribbon Hero managed to get played by enough people, it is likely more effective at helping Microsoft's brand than any of the last billion dollars they spent on PR.  This simple game is probably the most human thing to come out of Microsoft in years.  Take that for what you will, but I'm happy to have been part of the journey.

take care,


  1. Good reading as always. Thanks for the interesting insight !

  2. I'm also on the path of making an innovative platform with gamification. Your article really helps empowering my determination. Thank you very much!

  3. Nicely done! This is definitely the most refreshing thing to come out of Microsoft in a really long time. Also their graphic design seems very good, how did that happen?

    The Clippy story works on many levels, that's a very good idea for a story hook. It makes me think of David Sirlin's recent post on Big Ideas (http://www.sirlin.net/blog/2011/4/13/design-dilemmas.html), in that it itself seems like a decently-sized idea. After all the iteration dust has settled, does it seem like things sorta boil down to a few big concepts, or more like a lot of little ideas working in concert?

  4. Completely agree with all your points. Game mechanics and iteration is key to any great game. I feel like hundreds of mini steps are essential to get the experience right.

  5. > Was it worth it? The metrics will be the final judge.

    So it's a year later. What did the metrics say?