I was catching up on some reading this weekend. Something curious showed up in some Flurry Insights data: Gaming lost ground to entertainment, messaging, and social apps. I think this is kind of a big deal for those making apps and games.
From the report, “Gaming saw its share decline from 32% last year (52 minutes per day) to 15% of time spent (33 minutes per day) this year. This is a 37% decline year-over-year.”
Flurry suggests a few reasons for this decline including (1) a lack of new hits, (2) users become the game — creating more watching of games than playing, and (3) pay instead of play — players paying to advance instead of grinding. These make sense and I believe they do contribute to the shift. But I suspect there are two broader issues at play.
Other indutries are catching up design-wise.
Games, as a category, lead minutes-spent-on mobile from the start.
Why? Are games special? Did mobile suddenly make games more appealing?
I don’t believe so.
The game industry was in the perfect position to take advantage of the mobile shift when the iPhone came down from the heavens.
The game industry was full of entrepreneurs that had cut their teeth on earlier shifts: first with the emergence of free-to-play PC games demonstrating a new business model, and then with the gold-rush of Facebook games showing there were new, larger, audiences to be monetized. Just as both of those shifts were losing steam, a group of well-financed entrepreneurs were ready and able to bring their learning to the next wave: mobile. And it was a monster wave. As a new platform, game studios needed to learn quickly by making simple games. It was very easy to adopt an ultra rapid iteration process. These early developers learned quickly from vasts amount of near-real-time data and redefined what the user experience for games should be specifically for mobile. For a long time, games were really the only category truly designing for mobile.
That is not the case anymore. Other industries are not catching up — they have caught up. And in many ways are bypassing games in terms of innovation. (Except in my opinion, in the area of optimizing paid UA — game companies still rule here.)
People are looking for more meaning from their mobile moments
We expect alot from our devices these days. I don’t think people are as satifified with simple time-wasting apps as they once were. We know instant gratification is a tap away.
I think this puts mobile games in an interesting situation. Their customers are beginning to want to feel more fullfilled in those mobile-moments which mobile games based their design around. Yet many mobile games have stripped out their larger sense of meaning as they chase casino-like mechanics and monetization funnels. They have even ditched the language of storytelling and replaced it with the language of casino-operators. That strategy paid off in massive ways for the very best mobile game companies. I just wonder if this bit of data from Flurry reflects another shift and potential opportunity for developers with contrarian designs.
(First published on Medium. Follow me there @mhannus)
We are knee deep in development of the core platform for Bound, my new company focused on reimagining the user experience for prose fiction. I thought I would share how we went from concept to the first line of code. Bound has not raised any capital so over the last year I needed to get the most out of limited resources and tools before I could justify investing real money into development.
During my time in gaming, I too often saw costs grow as the team expanded to try to get an increasingly higher fidelity prototype without maximizing what could be done with simple tools. A very expensive prototyping process naturally leads to a desire to cut the prototyping process short before some basic design questions have really been answered.
It can be difficult for someone that is not a designer or developer to keep the cost of design and prototyping as low over multiple iterations.
When I first started thinking about Bound, I borrowed the idea of “black screen prototyping” from a game studio I had worked with in the early days of IOS mobile game development. We called it black screen prototyping because, well, the screen remains off. The idea is to try to nail down how the experience of using the appshould feel as you go about your day and encounter times in which you’d imagine using the app. This helps define some easy use cases (and thus design principles) for the app very early on before you devout expensive resources. I was basically trying to answer the important questions like: What I am I designing? For whom? Why? This was incredibly useful to me and cost me zero.
How does black screen prototyping work? You basically pretend the app exists. Then throughout the day and weeks that follow, you keep track of when you thought about using the app (e.g. arrived early to a meeting and have to kill 10 minutes) and the user stories that are associated with the moment. Pretty quickly you’ll discover how you want it to feel and discover when you might actually be using the app in real life.
Sketching the First Screens
Once I had an a good idea of how I wanted the experience to feel, I was ready to sketch a few screens on paper. In fact, it was very easy since I had a mental model in my head of exactly how I had been using the yet-to-be-designed app. I started with paper and pencil, and just a couple of key screens. It was actually very useful to focus in on just the core screen and not all the extra features I had brewing in my head. My focus became trying to design something that could repeatably produce a ‘strongly positive feeling at a specific moment.’ Again the concept of ‘desiging moments’ was something I had learned from some great game designers. The benefit of having simple paper-and-pencil sketches was that I could now start to share my thoughts with others and have some visual aides for them as I narrated a vision for the experience. Plus it is easy to annotate and make changes on the fly.
(Note: I kept it simple and cheap. I chose graph paper and loose leaf paper over notebooks or apps. I think it makes it more disposable. That let my mind experiment more freely.)
Keeping Track of Reference Apps
After I was pretty excited and fairly sure I was onto something interesting enough to pursue, I wanted to get a sense of similar things others had tried. I began my hunt for similar apps. Besides getting a good idea of the competitive landscape for Bound, I was able to get into the heads of talented designers. I enjoyed discovering what they had tried. I started taking screenshots of elements from various apps that I thought could serve in the design of Bound. I quickly got to know the top apps in my target categories and keywords. A simple Google doc helped keep track of it all.
Full Paper Prototype
Armed with a clear vision, some paper sketches, and guerilla market intelligence, it was time to start to put together a full wireframe of the app. I had used a number of software tools for this in the past, but I chose to still stick to paper. It was working for me. There was still not a lot of thought being given to visual design. I was really trying to map out some basic workflows at this point. I wanted speed with little to no cost.
Getting Early Feedback
With some basic wireframes complete, I could actually start to pitch the concept — complete with ugly workflows to key people that I thought represented Bound’s audience. There is really nothing better (for design or confidence) than getting feedback from people that you respect AND that represent your potential customers, partners, and investors. Getting valuable feedback early (still no code or designs locked in) helped answer some pretty specific questions before any hard money had been spent.
A Proper Prototype
It started to get a little less exciting running around with a stack of hand-drawn screens and wireframes. I can pitch an idea pretty well and people now wanted a demo! It was finally time to build a proper first prototype that could be demoed on my phone. I spent a lot of time (maybe too much) trying out various prototyping tools. I really felt I needed to be the one building the prototype. Tons of options exist out there. I ended up going with Proto.io (Proto.io) and I am very happy with that decision. It’s powerful and easy to use. Pretty quickly I had a great looking prototype.
Getting Some Design Help
With a skeleton of a prototype, it was time to make it look good. I was fortunate to have a friend, Jon Nowinski, jump in to lead the effort. We worked with a terrific team at Sidebench in Los Angeles to help flush out the design further, build out complete workflows, and do some early user testing.
We ended up with a process that allowed us the necessary time to get a killer high fidelity prototype with very little cost. We learned you can do a lot with a little these days. So if you are building anything, keep your costs low and get as much feedback as early as you can!
Do you want to start your own technology company, but don’t know where to get started? You are not alone. Every day millions of people go to jobs they don’t enjoy, but few do something about it. At the “Employee to Entrepreneur” event, you can hear the stories, tips, and best practices of those who left their jobs to pursue their own startup company. Listen to the experiences of people just like you that have made the transition, and discuss any questions or concerns that you have. How do you know if you have a good idea? What are the first steps in an entrepreneurial journey? Join us for a fun evening!
When: 2015-12-16 on 06:30 to 09:00 PM
234 E 17th street, #117 Plaza Sereno
Costa Mesa, CA
I love a well-told story. In particular, I love a good book. A book, or better yet prose fiction, is not just entertainment but a collection of life lessons and a cheat sheet on how to be human. As John LeFevre, author and@GSElevator creator put it, reading “allows you to borrow someone else’s brain.” (btw — I have no idea if it’s his quote) But if I love books so much why do I find myself unable to find time for them, yet I’m seemingly able to play countless hours of meaningless mobile games? This got me thinking about the current state of prose fiction consumption on mobile and I wanted to share a few thoughts.
The future of prose fiction will not be trapped inside a book
When I say prose fiction, many of you will picture a book. That makes sense since it’s a 500-year-old format and you have read books all your life. The format has proven very resilient to change. When I think about our options as readers to experience prose fiction today on mobile — things like ebooks, audiobooks, “interactive books” — they are nearly all a derivative of the physical format, often right down to the concept of a page and to the digital simulation of the turning those pages.
We experience things differently on mobile, right?
I am new to the publishing world, so I come to it with fresh eyes. As someone who spent the last 12-plus years in the video game industry (probably the most transformative time for gaming ever), I can make some observations based on that experience. Imagine taking a traditional console game and slamming it onto a mobile phone with minimal changes to the experience. You could call it a mobile game and, technically, you’d be correct. But it wouldn’t be what we think of as a modern mobile game experience. Reading on mobile kind of feels like that to me.
But it shouldn’t. The experience should be different. Better.
We spend most of our day on our phones — from alarm clock to alarm set.Mobile is the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth screen. We steal moments on our device to get things done and satisfy nearly every need. A mobile session lasts only about 5 minutes on average, yet we fit these sessions into our everyday existence. It can be tough to squeeze in some fiction time in those 5 minutes, so you spend your time doing other things, like playing games or checking Instagram. Sure, you can open a reader app and read a page or two — but the content was not really designed for that so most of us don’t enjoy doing that. But many of us would love to make better use of those spare minutes getting immersed in a story if we could.
The experience for nearly everything has been reimagined for mobile — why not for prose fiction?
I went to a public school so I had to look up “deep reading” and here is what I found:
Deep Reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text.
Hmm…I do this all day on mobile already. I get nearly ALL my information from mobile.
I’m sure I know way less on this topic than a neuroscientist, but I know you can deliver meaning, feeling, and information via mobile. That’s what I want from prose fiction. I think when simple text is presented in a book format, then perhaps Ms. Wolf might be correct. However, maybe I would just say it differently, “A big fat book on a phone can’t hold my attention.” The game industry learned very quickly that to succeed on mobile took a new approach — and that means a willingness to change everything about your business.
Change everything to expand the market and monetize reading on mobile
For most publishers and platforms, “mobile” has been a business initiative, not an exploration in delivering a compelling new experience. It’s been about changing their business in as small a way as possible to support their position in an old value chain. That leaves plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs to reimagine prose fiction and try to better fill those 5 minutes of your time.
The opportunity to make reading interesting in a whole new way to a whole new set of mobile users is really exciting. Consumers spend their time differently and communicate in new ways on devices that did not exist nearly 8 years ago. Publishers have witnesses bookstores close (and open); they have watched indie authors kill it without them; and they have strategized against an all-powerful Amazon that is both partner and competitor. There is a battle going on for your time, and prose fiction wants to regain some territory.
To do that, prose fiction needs to be designed, delivered, and monetized in a way that is natively mobile.
First, re-imagining the user experience needs to go beyond merely designing book covers with mobile phones in mind.
Second, creators of prose fiction need to be able to do a few things that game companies do well: run a service on a strong software foundation, manage their own data, and build a community (with actual community management.)
Third, they need to change how they market. Just Google “book marketing” and you’ll see endless lists filled with strategies that focus on email blasts, Facebook posts, book tours, and something called a website. All necessary but insufficient. Prose fiction is light years behind the video game industry when it comes to both user acquisition and franchise development.
The book has a bright future, but so do new formats.
In the same WSJ article referenced above, Judith Curr, publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books (one of my favorite imprints because they have Brad Thor) said, “The future of digital reading is on the phone. It’s going to be on the phone and it’s going to be on paper.”
I agree with Ms. Curr.
The book has a bright future, but so do new formats designed specifically for mobile. Traditional publishers have some more hurdles ahead if they intend to switch to a service-driven business model (free chapters on Amazon won’t cut it) — the same way that video game console publishers did 10 years ago. I am getting to know the publishing space and I am very excited to see entrepreneurs with mobile and service-driven business model experience really bringing fresh approaches to market.
Thanks for reading. If you found this interesting, I would love it if you would recommend it if you think someone else might find it valuable.
After over a decade in the game business, I am officially setting my sights on something a little different. I am very excited to turn my focus to a new mobile fiction platform – Bound. Bound started out as an experimental project at echoseven labs and has turned into something that we think it going to shake up how you think about prose fiction.
A Little About Bound
I’ll resist the urge to make the big pitch and just share that we’re taking everything we’ve learned from games and applying it to prose fiction. We’ve designed a new user experience from the ground up around a simple way to experience mobile storytelling. After prototyping for the better part of this year, we have a unique format that combines short sessions, in depth companion material, and integrated community.
Bound has already starting signing authors and content partners. Exciting stuff.
Who’s it for?
So if you love great world-building-though-story (you know books, RPG sourcebooks, maps, comics, etc.) then I think you might like Bound. We are assembling an all-star team including some of the best world-builders around. We will be announcing additions to the Bound team in the coming weeks. We are also hiring so watch our job board and Angel List for details if you think you might want to join our expanding adventure party.
Maybe a Launch Party
If any of this sounds interesting, I hope you’ll keep tabs on our progress or request access to the beta. We’ll probably also have a pretty good launch party complete with some super-special guests – so get your email in there and be sure to get an invite.
I read a bio of someone today described as a “serial entrepreneur”. I am unsure if that has good or bad connotations. If someone was adding an adjective in front of ‘entrepreneur’ when describing me…I would want something else. Entrepreneurs start multiple ventures (sometimes consecutive, sometime in parallel) these days. It is so commonplace to start multiple companies now, I don’t think using the term adds anything. Maybe in past generations you started one company and stuck with it for life – thus a need to distinguish.
I guess some others had thoughts on the term as well…