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Design and the Art of the Game App

Illustration: Doug Wittnebel.

We sat down with design director Doug Wittnebel in the Gensler Oakland office to discuss how the emerging world of virtual game apps is exposing a universe of spatial journeys and strategy experiences that are challenging us to see and create space in new ways—and how they may impact design’s future.

How do these game apps affect our perception and experience of space? How they can shape it?

This new generation of gaming apps allows users to learn about 3-dimensional space in a way that’s far more engaging and revelatory than ever before, inside or out of the gaming universe. Each game app is essentially creating an imaginary world that your character is journeying through, negotiating unique spatial environments in search of the next step or challenge. Interacting with these imaginary places can completely alter your sense of space while enhancing your ability to perceive spatial topologies and to manipulate space by the moves and decisions you make. The experience is similar to moving through the world of an M. C. Escher piece—requiring a very different, complex logic that may actually be truer to how 3-D space works. Similar to athletic training, where the body becomes more adept, your brain becomes better at predicting and manipulating objects and spatial environments through these gaming experiences.

Lumino City was created as a set of real-life architectural models before being converted to a digital game based on the architectural model of a miniature city. The unique experience of wandering through the model, seeing the rough edges and cut cardboard shapes, completely changes your sense of the real 3-D world of models and the constructed 3-D virtual world. Image © Lumino City/State of Play Games.

How do these games connect one’s imagination with built reality?

As designers, we use modeling and sketching to show what a space could be. It’s difficult to draw and imagine how a space—an office building, for example—will actually be in three-dimensions or as it experienced in real-time. These game apps challenge us to reexamine how we think about and design real spaces, and can enhance our vision and process. They not only train how we see space in its full dimensions; they exercise our ability to understand and guide different ways someone might experience a space. In our daily practice, we propose and illustrate sets of user journeys/scenarios through spaces, but as tools, these games can further develop that sensibility.

Can you talk about the role of storytelling in these apps and in design?

There is an intimate relationship between the space or landscape of a game app and the character’s journey. The player alters the outcome of the game only through moving through and interacting with the spaces and places she comes across. The story provides the rationale and motivation for action. For designers, it is increasingly important that we consider that experiential dimension of space, and examine how a space conveys a story that people can relate with and make their own somehow.

In the game Monument Valley, the player navigates and modifies a fantastical, labyrinthine world in search of her goals. Image © Monument Valley/Ustwo Games.

Within these gameplay experiences, does empathy have any role or influence?

As designers, empathy is a core part of our work; in each project, we try our best to put ourselves our clients’ shoes, and see things from their perspective. Empathy gives another depth to an experience. The newer version of the Monument Valley game involves a mother and daughter pair that you have been asked to help navigate through an upside-down world of inverted spatial models. You can feel the real virtual tug on your heartstrings when the mother and daughter are suddenly separated because of the fracturing and splitting of the virtual world into sub space universes.

How might these games point to where design is heading?

The digital tablet has been a catalyst for the introduction of game apps quickly and in a very accessible format. They are becoming more immersive all the time. Game designers are creating apps with that richer, enhanced user experience in mind. There are overlaps between the design of these virtual worlds and the real world, and designers of both are deepening their understanding of space and the human experience. For example, immersive design—the use of augmented and virtual reality to make users participants and experience a guiding factor in the design process—is a growing part of design practice.

How might this type of game impact next-gen designers?

This is applicable to anyone involved with the thoughtful act of creating a space, even if they’re not trained in the field of space design. If used as a tool, these apps can expand users’ design abilities and help them explore multiple scenario-based solutions for everyday design problems. The solutions can be more responsive to changing conditions and users; they are not based around a single fixed idea. Games that offer different journey paths and different endpoints/goals can also improve your “decision path” thinking.

Samorost 3, Amanita Design's most recent adventure game. Image © Amanita Design.

Some new game apps have been developed with scenarios where the user learns the design and decision tools needed to understand and eventually solve real-world challenges—including urban design issues of mass transit and urbanization. Equipped with these tools, even non-designers can have a means for reimagining their communities and personal spaces.

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s Oakland office. With over 30 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.