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Exhibit Design Insights from 2018 Game Developers Conference

Game Developers Conference Sheds Light on Exhibit Design
Authored by
Miranda Due
Project Coordinator

Ideum is always learning from other industries to make our work stronger and more engaging. Recently, I attended the 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to glean insights about new ways of making interactive exhibits as compelling as possible.

Numerous features of successful games can provide useful guidelines for creating strong experiences in museums and other public spaces. For example, early on, game developers had to find ways to design intuitive feature menus for creating characters, well-placed and easy-to-use movement and view controls, and conventions for displaying scores and outcomes that present just the right amount of information in the best screen location. In the powerfully competitive game marketplace, games without such features are quickly forgotten.

But although they may put them to different uses, museum exhibits and digital displays for corporate and retail environments also rely on such features to make their experiences smooth and rewarding—and exhibit developers can learn much from the solutions game-makers have devised to meet these challenges.

However, there are important contrasts between game and exhibit experiences as well. One of the most important involves user acquisition and retention. In game development, a primary goal is to retain players for as long as possible. This is especially true in mobile games where consistent usage is a significant part of game developers’ monetization strategies.

In interactive museum spaces, the goal is often to acquire visitors and take them through an experience while recognizing that they will then move on within the museum. We always strive to create fun, engaging, and memorable experiences, but unlike games, exhibits exist in complex, even chaotic public environments, with many experiences competing for attention. Also, exhibit experiences typically last only a few minutes at a time, while a single game can go on for hours, days, or even more.

One of the latest shifts in the mobile game platform world is the addition of Facebook’s Instant Games and Google Play Instant. Both platforms allow for discovery of mobile games without having to wait to download a full app. One panel at the conference, Building Entertainment Experiences for Emerging Mobile Platforms, focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by moving games to these new instantaneous platforms.

The emergence of instant gaming platforms provides insight into designing for short attention spans and mitigating the friction that comes with introductions and instruction. Conference panelists discussed the importance of creating games that make it easy for users to dive quickly into gameplay. One strategy some game developers use to eliminate this starting friction is simply to drop users directly into a level of the game, where they are forced to learn by doing. (This is similar to the immersive language-instruction method in which the instructor speaks in the new tongue from day one.)

At Ideum, we face similar challenges when designing exhibits. Many curators do not want visitors to be slowed down by having to read a long list of instructions before exploring exhibit content. (In fact, some evidence suggests that lengthy instructions are associated with shorter exhibit dwell times.) In our design process, we aim to give visitors agency and creative ownership of an experience as quickly as possible. For example, ensuring that analog controls are designed and placed thoughtfully and providing visual navigation cues on home screens moves visitors smoothly into content as they learn to use the exhibit.

Making physical objects part of an exhibit’s user interface can also get visitors into content more quickly. Ideum recently worked with the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California to create an interactive experience featuring famous warplanes of World War II. At this exhibit, visitors are prompted to place plane totems on the screen, which then opens up information and images associated with the aircraft. As visitors interact intuitively with physical objects, they delve quickly into active exploration of content with little hesitation or confusion. Object-activation experiences like these use Tangible Engine, Ideum’s proprietary object-recognition software that presents onscreen imagery and information when objects are placed on the display.

Another topic explored at the conference involved finding ways to extend experiences beyond the user’s initial steps. In the gaming context, this may mean prompting players to download a full version of the game. In museum galleries, analogously, curators are increasingly seeking new ways to continue the exhibit experience beyond museum walls, so exhibits are increasingly coupled with mobile applications to help experiences live on in visitor pockets after they leave. Along these lines, Ideum recently worked with Omeka to develop Omeka Everywhere, a paired exhibit and mobile application to allow gallery visitors to view and seamlessly share collection items between devices.

Conferences like these offer valuable opportunities to explore how techniques used in one domain can catalyze innovation in another. We are excited to continue putting such insights into practice for our clients and collaborators.

Images by Official GDC 2018.