9 min read

EGD News #27

Sent to mailing list on May 1st 2020.

The Truth On Game Design

Rahul Vohra is one of my favorite entrepreneurs. Super smart, total outlier, British techie who moved to Silicon Valley ten years ago. He sold his first startup to LinkedIn. Rahul is now building his second company, Superhuman. I’ve been a user of the Superhuman email client app for a year, and it’s the best email experience I’ve ever had.

In his previous life, when Rahul was still living in the UK, he used to work for Jagex as a game designer. In a recent podcast interview on The Twenty Minute VC, Rahul breaks down how he thinks that using software should feel less like work, but more like play, and like a game.

Rahul says that “when you make a game, you don’t worry about what users want or need. You obsess over how they feel. When your product is a game, people don’t just use it. They play with it, and they’ll find it fun. They’ll tell their friends, and they’ll fall in love with it.”

What is cool about this statement is that you can’t tackle games with a “problem & solution” approach, which is typical for tech startups. But preferably something that measures feelings, playfulness, and fun.

Harry Stebbings, the podcast host, asks, “What’s the truth on game design?”

Rahul: “There is no unifying theory to create games. We need to draw upon the art and science of psychology, mathematics, storytelling, and interaction design, and in doing so, I’ve found five critical factors. They are goals, emotions, controls, toys, and this curious thing that we call flow.”

Based on psychology, mathematics, storytelling and interaction design, the main features of games are: goals, emotions, controls, toys, and flow.

Let’s break down the features that Rahul talks about here: 

#1 Goals

The defining feature of games: goals. They make people to use the product, to return to the product, and to gain intrinsic motivation towards the product.

Rahul talks about Inbox Zero as the primary goal of Superhuman. “We set a very concrete goal, get to Inbox Zero. And good goals, must be achievable. The goal should be rewarding. When you hit Inbox Zero, you feel triumph over your email, a previously rare and incredibly rewarding feeling. Most business software don’t have clear goals, and if that aren’t goals, they are often unachievable, and unrewarding. If you want to build software like it’s a game, and we have to create goals that are concrete, achievable, and rewarding.”

#2 Emotions

“The best games create strong emotions because strong emotions are the foundation of our memory. Therefore, we must be able to analyze emotions. To do that, we need vocabulary.”

Rahul talks about Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, which illustrates the relationships between primary emotions and other related emotions. The eight basic emotions are joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. Rahul also talks about the Junto Institute’s emotions wheel being the best that he has found so far.

The vocabulary and the communication of emotions for game designers is hugely important. It’s a bond, a culture, a direction that a product is being taken into. It’s not just the designer who needs the vocabulary, but it’s a way for the whole team to communicate and share the effort of creating those emotions. When using the product, the end-user needs to feel these emotions. If they’re not feeling these emotions, the product is failing.

#3 Controls

Superhuman works best when you’re not using the mouse, but instead, you compose, send, archive, set email reminders and such with keyboard shortcuts.

Rahul says, “Controls can be the main reason why a game succeeds. Let’s consider the Wiimote. The Nintendo Wii sold more than 100 million units, and every single controller has incorporated motion. Games require much more robust controls than we typically make for business software. Imagine you’re playing a game like Street Fighter, let’s say, it would be incredibly frustrating if some inputs were dropped, and then your character flopped around, and then died. Yet, that is how business software works today.”

#4 Toys

There is a neat distinction there that Rahul makes: “We play with toys, but we play games. A ball is a toy, but football is a game. And as it turns out, the best games are built with toys. Why, because then they are fun on multiple levels, on the level of the toy, and of the game itself.”

“The toy in Superhuman is the Email Reminder auto-completer input box. You type whatever you want. It can be utter gibberish, and it does its best to understand you. For example, two Ds becomes two days, 3h becomes three hours, one and o becomes one month. Later on, users find other pleasant surprises. For example, they type 8 AM in Tokyo, and they realize that time zone math happens without them ever really having to think about it.”

“So consider the features of your products, and ask yourself this, do they indulge playful exploration, are they fun, even without a goal. And do they create moments of pleasant surprise? If so, congratulations, for you have a toy, and you’re on the way to building a great game.”

“I think the challenge though that we have when we’re designing toys is for it not to be a frustrating experience, because nothing takes you out of the state of mind that a toy can get you to, more than frustration.”

#5 Flow

Flow is a state of mind that has six factors. Flow is

1. an intense and focused concentration on the presence

2. so absorbing that we don’t think about the future, or worry about the past

3. so demanding that we don’t care what others think about us

4. so easy that we always know what to do next.

5. so powerful that it alters our subjective experience of time and time can flash by in an instant, or stretching out forever,

6. so rewarding, that the activity, becomes intrinsically motivating, which as we know from before, is the most powerful and effective form of motivation

How do we create flow, and what are the conditions to create flow?

1. We have to know what to do next and

2. We have to know how to do it

3. We must be free from distractions

4. We must get clear and immediate feedback

5. Fifth is the hardest of all: we must feel a balance between the challenge and skill. If the activity feels too hard, we will end up feeling anxious, and if the activity feels too easy, we will end up feeling relaxed, or in the worst case, boredom.

How did Rahul’s team get flow to work in Superhuman? In countless ways. Rahul gives an example. “In Gmail, when I archive an email, what do I see, well, I’m back on the inbox, and now I the user has to decide what to do next. And I have to make this decision — every single time. And for a high volume emailer, that could be hundreds or potentially even thousands of times per day. This destroys flow. In Superhuman, when I archive an email, I automatically advance to the next email. I don’t have to make any decisions at all, that creates flow.”

Finally, Rahul Vohra’s seven principles of game design are

1. Create concrete achievable and rewarding goals

2. Design for nuanced emotion

3. Create rapid and robust controls

4. Make fun toys and combine them into games

5. Make the next action obvious

6. Give clear and immediate feedback with no distraction

7. Lastly, the hardest one of them all: balanced high perceived skill with a high perceived challenge, and this may counter-intuitively mean making your product harder to use.

Where have people gone wrong here? There has been an emphasis on creating products that are easy to learn and easy to use.

Rahul points out that “if you study some of the theories behind game design and you go into flow, which takes you back into intrinsic motivation and why we choose to do things. And what makes activities inherently interesting and satisfying. It’s those activities that have a high perceived challenge, as well as high perceived skill. I think we’ve gone too far when it comes to designing software. We have made them too easy to use.”

And there’s more. Listen to the full interview here: https://thetwentyminutevc.com/rahulvohra-2/

More exciting and fascinating interviews with Rahul:


“I often see founders who’ve acquired a spreadsheet file that contains a list of three hundred VCs and their email addresses. These are happy founders. They think the spreadsheet is a goldmine. They’ll start emailing the VCs one at a time. They believe this will give them high odds at landing an investment. At least one from the list will provide me with the investment, right?” — 10 Reasons Why Investors Will Say NO


Emily Greer, Starting Something New — In this week’s episode, I had the pleasure to talk with Emily Greer, the co-founder, and CEO of Double Loop, a San Francisco based mobile games startup. Emily was the co-founder of Kongregate, the pioneering free-to-play platform, which started in 2006 as a Flash games portal, but later on, transitioned into one of the first free-to-play publishers in the west.

The topics that we cover with Emily include being a female founder in gaming, the learnings from Kongregate, how she learned to become a leader and a CEO, and how Emily approaches risk-taking in her day-to-day work.

Two Webinar Coming

Work From Home for Game Teams — This webinar is happening on May 15th. It’s me and Sophie Vo from Voodoo, who will be talking about best practices of working from home when you are developing games with a team. What has worked well, and what are common issues and how to deal with them. Sign up here. ​

Long Term Engagement in Hybrid Casual — In this 60-minute webinar, I’m joined by Nick Murrayto discuss the most crucial topic for free-to-play game development: long-term engagement. What is it, why it matters, and how developers in hybrid casual (think Archero) can take learnings from mid-core. There’s going to be a 15-minute presentation from both Joakim and Nick, followed by a Q&A session. Sign up here

Articles Worth Reading

How to build a breakthrough — Mike Maples, Jr. is an investor in Silicon Valley. He has a great podcast called Starting Greatness, and he often shares ideas that are just so new and fresh. In this article, he talks about new ideas and where do they come from. Mike defines “forecasting” and draws a contrast to entrepreneurs who live in the future and who “backcast.”

Podcast: Biggest Lessons from Gaming with Jori Pearsall — This is a necessary listen. Jori talks about his role at Scopely, how he built their product organization, with a focus on building the company towards mid-core games. Jori’s biggest lessons at Scopely came from understanding free-to-play monetization, what’s good and what’s bad. Jori gives us an insightful deep-dive into creating games that last for decades.

What Gaming Can Learn From Jony Ive — Think about the handle in the original iMac. It wasn’t there for people to carry the iMac around, but to build a bond with the consumer by encouraging them to touch the iMac. Jony Ive created futuristic, simple, legacy-free products. Instead of chip speed and market share, Jony built products by focusing on how people want to feel about them and what part of their minds should the products occupy. Jony did not feel he was making a product but instead was building the user’s perceptions and meaning of the product.

When Tailwinds Vanish — From 2011 to 2016, the mobile gaming space was a great place to start a company. Supercell, King, Playrix all captured the possibility to build billion-dollar companies. Countless others began at the same time and built amazing growth stories. In 2020, gaming companies have to face a zero-sum game, where costs are high. More ad dollars are chasing the same users. This article does a deep-dive into the tech startup dilemma of the 2020s. What is needed for growth to happen?

Early-Stage Gaming Investors Panel — Has the coronavirus helped or hurt gaming, and early stage investing? In this GamesBeat Summit 2020 panel moderated by David Chang of Juno Capital Partners, the panelists talk about how seed funding is proceeding under this new environment. The panel includes veteran investors David Gardner of London Venture Partners, Gregory Milken of March Capital Partners and Shanti Bergel of Transcend Fund.

Quote that I’m thinking about

“It’s never been easier to reach a mass audience, to monetize your work, to control your own destiny as a creative person” – Ryan Holiday on The Portal

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