ow many times have you had a discussion where a friend describes a person, place, or thing? The description is vivid and detailed, and you can almost see it in your head. Yet, when confronted with the reality of the image, it doesn’t come close to matching up with the visual in your head. I don’t know about you, but I always have a moment of letdown when something like that happens to me. I’ve learned through the years that I have an active imagination. Every book I read is bigger and better than the movie makes it, and that kind of thing shows up in my life over and over. Can you imagine what it must be like having to be on the creative team that works with me? I feel sorry for them all the time.
It probably won’t come as a big surprise that I’m always concerned with the “experience of revealing the product.” Is that a weird phrase? Let me explain. Every time we buy something, we are buying it with the expectation of a certain experience in mind—no matter if it is a new car, a video game, or a new flavor of chips. When we are plunking down our money, we have an expectation of what will be a pleasant experience. If you roll off the car lot and get a flat tire a couple of blocks later (even if you run over a nail), your buying experience just got dealt a blow. You weren’t expecting to have an issue with your new car four blocks into the experience, right?
Think about it: if someone were to come up to you as you were changing your tire and ask what you thought of your new purchase, what would you say? Would you rave about the fuel economy, power-to-weight ratio, or any one of a million other positive things about the car, or would you gripe about the fact that you got fewer than four blocks in your new car and had your first break down? I’d like to think I would be positive, but my past experience doesn’t support that view.
When it comes to the D&D products that I am responsible for overseeing, I’m worried about the same type of thing. Sure, you’re not going to have a flat tire, but there are a million other things can ruin your experience. I spend a lot of time keeping these types of thoughts in mind as part of the creative process. A lot of you commented that you loved the direction we took with the 1st Edition premium covers that I talked about the other week. That wasn’t an accident. It was a lot of work getting to a happy place. If it was just about doing a beautiful graphic design, it would be easy, but it’s about creating a visual representation that supports and enhances the user experience—finding that sweet spot is much harder than making something that looks good.
Now let’s play the “what if” game.
What if I told you that we were going to create a product that had a price tag of $200?
Let me guess: the first thing you would say would be something to the effect of “Is it gold-plated? What’s in it? Does it have a million minis, or software, or. . . .” In other words, you are already starting to form your expectation of what a $200 D&D product would look like, contain, do, or allow you to do. If I dropped a plain cardboard box on the shelf, with cheap stamped graphics, no image of what was inside, and no description of why this thing is worth the money, you’d just laugh at me, right?
Now what if all kinds of bells and whistles were on the big, beautiful box, but the box felt like it had a single mini inside it. Would you assume that the beauty of the box would justify the product even if it weighed next to nothing? Nope, you’d wait for some sucker to buy it first, wouldn’t you?
Let’s take it a step further: what if it looked like a million bucks, had a nice heft and content list, and had a solid review on the Internet. Now we’re getting somewhere, right? Then what happens if you take it home and open the box only to realize that the print quality is a little iffy, the product just doesn’t look that good, or it is hard to use. Do you still feel like you made a good buy? Probably not—even if the product is really useful or has good play values. Let’s be honest: if we’re going to plop down $200 for a game product, it has to deliver.
Take the $200 price tag off the product, and stick any other sticker you want on it. Chances are good, no matter what the price point is, that you’re going to have some level of expectation based around that price point, right? I know I do.
Nailing the user experience is a challenge that the D&D Creative team is really taking on. We’re not interested in bling for bling’s sake, but we want to ensure that the experience befits the product expectations. This is really coming into play as we have discussions about the experience of D&D Next. Not only are we talking about how the product(s) will be used, but we’re also talking about the experience and expectations we think you will bring to D&D Next.
The challenge then becomes simple to understand: how do we match up expectations with reality?
Formulating a plan to address the challenge isn’t always easy, though. It’s a balancing act between trying to make the product look great so that it seems “worth it,” making sure that the contents “measure up,” and ensuring that the entire user experience meets or exceeds the expectations of you, the consumer.
How do we do it? Well, we start by understanding the goals and strategies of the business side of things. Take a look at some questions we ask ourselves.
Who is the product for? What will they do with the product? Why do they need it? Where will it be sold? How much will it cost? How will it be marketed? What are the competing products/services? How is it different from the competitors’ products?
Once we understand the business side of things, we dig into the consumer experience and try to understand how the product will be used. Will the books be read and then sit on a shelf, or will they be used constantly and referenced during game play? How many times will a given component be used during play? How will different components be used together? In what order do components need to be accessed? Is there a physical component that, if added, greatly enhances the experience? Is there a component that is causing a negative user experience, and if so, why?
Next, we try to marry the text created by R&D with good information design to create components that are easy to use and understand. How better to understand the challenges affecting the user experience than by playtesting elements of the game both externally and internally, as we’ve already started doing?
Then, after we’ve tackled all the questions above—then we start talking about ways to make it lovely.
We still have a big job ahead of us, but I can’t wait to see the results.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.