Online vs. In-Person Games: How playing them differs

We get a lot of inquiries about the differences between online and in-person games. Quite often, these inquire have some not-so-secret agenda, as when advocates of one or the other forms of play try to convince me that one is clearly superior to the other. Ha! Those questions may be cleverly worded, but they forget that we’ve been playing games for more than 10 years. After writing the book — and then writing the software platforms that power in-person and online games, I’m far too crafty to be fooled by these questions.  However, there are indeed differences between online and in-person games, and this blog post fulfills a tweeted promise to write about those differences. In this post, I cover some of the differences we see when playing online or in-person visual collaboration games. Stay tuned for a second post covering some of the differences in our virtual market games.

We’ll start with the game production and design, and then cover differences in play and facilitation. Finally, I’ll cover how post-processing results differ with online and in-person games.


Game Production

I’ve come to think of game production as a small system of three interlocked phases of planning. The first is situating yourself in the Ideas Into ActionTM framework so that you can be clear on the broad kinds of question you’re going to ask, the goals you’re trying to achieve, or the kinds of puzzles you’re trying to solve. This phase is independent of whether or not you will play online or in-person games. If you’re in the Discover phase, you’re going to choose open-ended games, and if you’re in the Prioritize phase, it is pretty certain you will choose a prioritization game.

The second phase is Detailed Game Design, in which you’ll select and tailor the game(s) you’ll be using. This planning template can help you in both high-level design and detailed design. You can also find inspiration in this blog post, which describes how your goals, your nouns, your verbs and your context will help you choose between online or in-person games.

The last phase is Play-Testing your assumptions. While experienced facilitators often consider this step optional, I always recommend play-testing your games (even, and often most especially, when you’re playing games with internal teams). Play-testing helps you calibrate that the background image and items you’re using are effective for your goals, helps you fine-tune your facilitator scripts and provides a sample of the kind of results you’re likely to acquire. Play-testing is required when you’re producing large numbers of games, as your facilitation team will need to experience the games before playing them with customers.

So, if the high-level planning phases are the same, where do we start to see differences? Let’s start with Detailed Game Design.



Making Banana Pancakes: Detailed Game Design

People who have taken my classes typically hear me refer to the games as “the pancake batter of customer understanding”. Sticking with pancakes for a moment, you can make lots of different pancakes with a few basic variations. Starting with basic batter, you can make banana pancakes by adding bananas, blueberry pancakes by adding blueberries, and apple pancakes by adding apples and some spices. Similarly, Innovation Games like Speed Boat or Prune the Product Tree provide an amazing design palette for gaming.

The Detailed Game Design phase is where you will start dealing with all of the details of the game that you’re producing, much like the distinction of which kind of pancake you’re making.

Online games allow for greater flexibility in the selection of items, in that you can use any 25×25 pixel image in your selection. In-person games are least costly when you’re using items that you can purchase from a store. Apples and leaves from elementary school teacher supply stores are great options. You can also design and print custom items for a considerably higher price.

Using Prune the Product Tree as our example, here are some key areas where online games differ than in-person games.


Differences between Online and In-Person Games

Background Image

The best background images are simple, clearly understood, and typically based on light colors. Hand-drawn images are just fine. Of course, if you need help in creating images, check out our game design services.

  • Online Games

Online images need to be sized for the platform and prepared in advance.

  • In-Person Games

In-person images can be drawn by hand in real-time or poster printed before the game. If poster printing, make sure that you’re using a hi-resolution or vector based image so that it doesn’t look pixelated when printed. Decide up front if you want your images printed in black∓white or color, and estimate how many images you’ll need, as this will affect production costs.


Item Images

Item images need to match the metaphor of the game. So, for Prune the Product Tree, you’ll use items that match the tree you’re creating, like apricots, apples, leaves, or even coconuts. Don’t let your metaphor constrain you, as you can also have some fun with images that don’t perfectly match the metaphor. For both kinds of games we recommend limiting the total number of items available to players in the games.


Initial Items

Visual collaboration games allow for the placement of two kinds of initial items: items that a player cannot move and initial items that can be moved. For example, when using Prune the Product Tree for road mapping, you might have two kinds of roadmap items. One might be regulatory requirements that simply must be done, while the other might be suggested roadmap items. It turns out that handling these scenarios is exactly the same in both games: add the items that can’t be changed directly to the background image and add the items that can be changed as initial items. Remember that any items you add at the start of the game must be explained to your players.


Placement of Items

It is usually important to capture the placement of items in a meaningful way. Not an X-Y coordinate, but something more meaningful, like this apple represents a new feature that we want in a few years vs. this apple represents a feature that we want in the next release.

  • Online Games

Online games have the ability to add layers and regions to the image to know where an item was placed. This is a tremendous advantage when playing large numbers of games, as this makes it easy to post-process the results. To better understand how to add layers and regions to your online games, read this.

  • In-Person Games

In-person games capture the semantics of image placement by printing guides on the background and adding observers to the game session.


Facilitation Scripts

To play your game, your players need an understanding of the goal of the game, the meaning of the background and items, and the rules of play. This information typically comes from your facilitators.

  • Online Games

Online games typically involve many more games, more facilitators, and a more controlled setup. In these games, we recommend preparing a facilitation script and having each of your facilitators introduce this script to the players in the lobby before the game begins. You can see sample facilitation scripts for the Agile Alliance Conference Retrospective and the Scrum Alliance retrospective. For online games, it is also helpful to prepare an overview of your games before the event and email this to your players, along with instructions on how to play. While most of your players won’t read this, you’ll be satisfied that you’ve done all that you can to help your players prepare for the game.

  • In-Person Games

In-person games are typically structured as one or more groups of people who are playing the game at the same time in the same place. For example, you might be producing a Customer Advisory Board meeting where 18 to 24 customers will be playing Prune the Product Tree to provide feedback on the product roadmap. These 18-24 people will be organized into 3 to 4 different teams based on various attributes (e.g., you can group participants by role or by vertical). In this case, the lead facilitator will introduce the game to all participants, and then hand control to the facilitator of each tree. As such, the per-tree facilitators only need a few short bullet points to stay on track.

Now that the games have been designed and introduced, let’s explore some of the differences in how people play online and in-person games.


Differences In How People Play

There are significant differences in how people play games online and in-person games. Since our story started with in-person games, I’ll explore those first.

  • In-person Games

There are two clear patterns for in-person games, depending on how the facilitator frames the preferred interaction model for the players. The first can be called “Discuss first; Move second”, in which the group will discuss any moves before making them, and then, once the agreement is reached, they will make the move. This is common in games where the facilitator puts the group in control. Continuing with our with Prune the Product Tree road mapping example, we’ll typically see that one or two people who are standing closer to the tree will take the lead on discussing items and then moving them. Note that this is not strictly true for every part of the game, and you will, of course, see people add or move items independently.

The second mode, “Move first; Discuss second”, is embodied in games like Speed Boat, where players are asked to silently write their ideas, add them to the game board, and then organize them a bit before the facilitator manages the discussion. This approach is also common in many retrospective games from the Agile community, in which a team generates ideas and then discusses them. Both of these modes are straightforward to implement during in-person games because you can rely on the physical presence of the facilitator and structure of the room to guide interaction. For example, in the “Move first; Discuss second” model of interaction, the facilitator often stands and has the participants stay seated.

  • Online Games

The power of real-time interaction in the online games makes them overwhelming “Move first; Discuss second” interaction models. Specifically, once the game begins, players will add items to the image until they start to run low on items. It is then that the facilitator will start to explore specific items with the group. As a facilitator, you will have to refer to items explicitly, because you can’t rely on the physical structure of the room to capture items.

Facilitators of online games also cannot rely on body language to indicate player state. For example, in an in-person game, a player might nod their head in agreement with another player’s explanation of an item, or they might cross their arms and lean back in their chair in a subtle expression of disagreement. A skilled facilitator will use these physical cues to help them manage the discussions to the most important items. During an online game, facilitators should use both the public and private chat facility of the games to encourage players to express their thoughts.


Differences in Processing Results

The essential activity in processing results is making sense of the items and looking for actionable patterns in the data. This is easier for online games because you can simply download all of the information across all of the games you’ve played in a single Excel spreadsheet [Pro Subscription only]. Skillful use of layers and regions makes this even easier!

In-person games require more work because you have to photograph and transcribe all of the results of in-person games to make post-processing easier. However, there is an undeniable emotional punch to in-person games because the items were created in the “human font“. Over time, of course, this will diminish, as our online games will allow for direct input in increasingly individualized means. For now, though, I have to admit that hand-drawn and hand-written articles pack a lot of information.


What Differences Do You See?

It seems that no matter how much I strive to write a short blog post, I end up writing a long one. I do hope you enjoyed this one and will consider sharing some of your experiences with in-person and online games.

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