How Playing Online & In-Person Games Differ–Part 2

Online vs. In-Person Games

How playing them differs, Part 2

Read part one.

This post is the conclusion to my two-part post on how playing online and in-person games differs. While I first touched on visual collaboration games, this post will cover our virtual market games, otherwise known as Buy a Feature. I’ll briefly cover game production and design and then focus on differences in play and facilitation, finally detailing how post-processing results differ with online and in-person games.

Game Production

I’ve come to think of game production as a system of three interlocked phases of planning. The first phase is situating yourself in the Ideas Into ActionTM framework, so that you can be clear on the broad kinds of question you will 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 will choose open-ended games, and if you’re in the Prioritize phase, it is pretty certain you will choose a prioritization game. For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that you’re going to be using Buy a Feature.

Phase two 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 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.


Planning a Buy a Feature game can surprise you! Sometimes, the planning is quite easy, such as when you’re using Buy a Feature to prioritize a portfolio of projects with well-defined descriptions and cost estimates. And sometimes the planning is surprisingly hard, such as when a product manager has failed to include a clear description of the benefits or hasn’t worked with development to gain some costs. The number of items that you want to prioritize will also affect the planning (stay tuned!). These aspects of planning are largely independent of whether you’re designing an online or an in-person game.

Phase three is Play-Testing your assumptions. While experienced facilitators often consider this step optional, I recommend play-testing your games (even, and most especially, when you’re playing games with internal teams). Play-testing helps ensure that you’ve described your items properly, that they are reasonably priced, and that the balance of items within the game makes good sense. For example, you want to avoid designing a game with one very expensive item and many inexpensive items, as the algorithm for distributing money might not result in enough money to purchase the expensive item.

One of the unexpected benefits of using Buy a Feature to prioritize project portfolios is that the quality of the project descriptions improves through the use of the game. Here’s why: When you’re designing a Buy a Feature game, you are asking your players to purchase the best items. If a project isn’t described in a compelling manner, it won’t be purchased. If the benefits are not clear–or, more commonly, if the benefits are over-stated–then the project won’t be purchased. The result is that the consistent use of Buy a Feature to prioritize project portfolios results in better information for project selection.

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

Detailed Game Design

To understand the differences that exist between online and in-person games, let’s use the example of a company who wants to prioritize some strategic features for the next release of its product. Let’s assume that the team has identified a list of 12 to 20 features, and have described and priced them for the game. Now, let’s explore some of the differences between online and in-person games.

Differences between Online and In-Person Games

Game Information

Game information refers to the descriptions of the items within the game.


  • Online Games

Online games present information to participants using tooltips. These, in turn, are written in textile, which a simple form of HTML markup. That’s fancy language for saying that you can do things like linking the brief descriptions to images and/or additional information that describes the project. We’ve done that for companies like Cisco, in which we linked the brief descriptions to additional information in IWE, the internal Cisco collaboration platform. This allows for people who are familiar with a project to make their choices quickly while providing access to additional information for those who might need it.


  • In-Person Games

In-person games need to present information in one or two sheets of paper so that you don’t overwhelm the players. And while we’ve designed a variety of games, we find that simple tables work best.

In-person games also need tracking sheets so that the game facilitators can keep track of which players have purchased an item. Because in-person games can have more rule variations than the online games, you’ll have to make certain that your descriptions and tracking sheets match the rules of your game, something I will describe later.



The currency of your game should match the economic structure of the game. Most of the time this will be money, but you can use any scarce economic resource as the foundation of your game: Hours and points (for Agile Software Teams) can be used.

  • Online Games

Online games present money with a simple currency symbol that can be placed before or after the amount of money: “$56”, “£129”, “200 hours” or “34 points” are all valid.

  • In-Person Games

While we tend to use Monopoly Money as our default currency, the reality is that you can have a LOT of fun designing your own currency for your in-person games. We’ve designed “Scott Cook” bucks for Intuit, “San José Bucks” for our San José, CA, Budget Games, and other currencies for other companies.  If you need help in creating a custom currency for your games, check out our game design services.

One thing to avoid is using poker chips. We’ve found that players often take the game less seriously if they think that they are “betting” on a feature. You’ll get higher quality, more actionable results if your players are convinced that they are purchasing an item that actually impacts them.


Facilitation Scripts

To play your game, your players need an understanding of the goal of the game and how to play, including any special rules you’ve created concerning the items within the game. This information typically comes from your facilitators.

  • Online Games

Online Buy a Feature games can be played with, or without, facilitators.

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 script here. 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 Buy a Feature to provide feedback on potential product features.

These 18-24 people will be organized into 3 to 4 different teams based on various attributes (for example, 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 game–a special role that we call the featured retailer. This person will manage the flow of the game, keeping track of who purchased what and also managing any special rules. We strongly recommend that each game has a dedicated observer, as the action in an in-person game is too fast for feature retailers to 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, starting with the rules of play.

Rules of Play

The basic rules of the Buy a Feature are pretty simple: Review the items; buy what you want. And if you don’t have enough money to buy an item, convince other players to join you in purchasing it. And while these simple rules of play create amazing results, there are times when adding some variations can produce even better results.


Here are some of the variations we and other facilitators have used over the years:

Pool the Money. In a pooled money game, you don’t distribute funds to every player individually. Instead, you put the money into a pot. Players must unanimously agree to the purchase, upon which the money is taken from the pot. I don’t use this variation much, as it hides the preference intensity of players. However, some really great facilitators at places like Genesys Labs love this variation and as it reinforces the collaborative nature of the game.

Max Bid. A lighter variation of forcing collaboration, this rule simply limits the size of the maximum bid of a player. It is virtually the same as Minimum Buyers, in which you set the minimum number of players who must collaborate in order to purchase an item (usually 2 or 3).

Buy One of n. This is used when you have a set of items and you want your players to purchase one, but only one, of the set. In one game for a hardware manufacturer, we tested device configurations of 16Gb, 32Gb, and 64Gb. Players were required to purchase one.

Buy One or None. Similar to the previous variation, Buy One or None requires that players can only purchase one, or none, of a set of items. We’ve used this in our Budget Games when players could purchase such things as either increasing the number of police officers by 40 positions, 80 positions or none.

Purchase Prerequisites. Just as it sounds, this variation requires that before a player can purchase a specific item, the player must have purchased a prerequisite.

Price Bundles. Just as it sounds, this variation changes the price of a given item based on other items that might be purchased. Personally, I just avoid this rule, as managing price point changes in the middle of in-person games is way too complex. I might feel differently about this if we extend our online games to support bundling of items, but I don’t think so, as there has not yet been a situation in which this was absolutely required.

Start From Zero. We normally distribute between 40% – 60% of the total currency evenly among the players. In this variation, however, you start the players with zero and only give them money when they ask for or when they earn it in some way. This version is used in our Budget Games and We Commit! games for Civic Engagement.

Yup — there are a lot of rule variations that you can create in the rules of Buy a Feature–including differences in how people play.


Differences In How People Play

Facilitating (or playing!) Buy a Feature can be exhilarating! Fast-moving debates, bids being placed and changed, coalitions forming and re-forming, and complex, vigorous and yes, even loud, multiplayer negotiations, tend to make Buy a Feature one of our most popular games. But the fast-paced excitement does have a downside: It can be quite difficult to keep track of the negotiations among the players.

One of the most exciting outcomes from creating Buy a Feature online is the ability to analyze game results and player actions and behaviors in much greater detail because the system captures every “move” of the players as an event stream. The results have confirmed some theories that we’ve developed over the years concerning in-person gameplay.


  • In-person Games

As in our in-person visual collaboration games, players of in-person Buy a Feature games rely quite heavily on body language when negotiating items. They nod their heads in agreement or shake them in disagreement. They laugh or frown. They wave their hands and arms. They lean forward or sit back. They talk loudly or whisper. All of these forms of communication serve as the foundations of negotiations among the players. And that is why you need at least one Observer per table of players; someone who understands the culture and mannerisms of the players.

Quite possibly the most important rule of the game, however, is that an item must be purchased by the players if they want the sponsoring organization to take action against that item. This brings the verbal and non-verbal negotiations to a head, in that the players must actually spend their money on the items they consider most important. Watching how this happens, and what triggers the spending, can provide critically important cues on the intensity of the preferences of the players. For example, we rank items purchased early in the game with a lot of commitment from the players as significantly more important than items purchased at the end of a game, especially if a player says something like “I’ve got everything I want. Does anyone want my leftover money?”

The reliance on body language as a significant means of negotiation produces two outcomes: 1. Players have a great time and 2. learning the subtle reasons why an item is desired can be challenging to identify.


  • Online Games

Because online games can’t rely on body language as a means of negotiation or agreement, players must rely on the chat facility to make their points. And they do, often crafting quite compelling and elaborate arguments as to why an item should, or even must, be purchased by the other players. This generally makes post-processing the results of online games easier: You have richer and more concrete data that serves to shape the items and provide the reasons behind the purchases.

Online games have other advantages. Because it is easy to play a LOT of online games, you can amass a much larger set of data. The online system will generate graphs of purchases and make it easy to visualize trends. Finally, the online game data can be exported to Excel, which allows for even more sophisticated forms of analysis.


Are you a Collaborationist, Shark or Kingpin?

For a number of years, I suspected that there were distinct negotiating strategies that players were using in the game. I wasn’t really sure, however, because the in-person games played to fast, and our facilitators were not always able to keep up with the patterns of bids and arguments.

The online games, however, have allowed us to more deeply analyze player behavior. This is an emerging science, but preliminary results have already identified three distinct player negotiation strategies that may be represented as archetypes.


  • The Collaborationist is a player who makes a number of small bids to “get the game going” and to identify, or create, support for a number of items within the game.
  • The Kingpin is nearly the opposite of a collaborationist, in that he delays making any bids until the end of the game, spending most of the game negotiating. At the end of the game, when all of the other players have spent their money, the Kingpin comes in and exercises his power over the final purchases.
  • The Shark: Unlike the Kingpin, the Shark places a bid on an item, gets others to join her in purchasing the item, and then pulls her bid and uses negotiation to try and convince others to back-fill the required bid amount. We find Sharks fascinating, as they’re often quite convincing in their negotiations, but easily frustrated when no one back-fills their bids to purchase the item.


As we’ve explored these archetypes, we’ve identified several related and quite exciting outcomes:

  • People exhibit the archtypes described above in both online and in-person games.
  • People who have played multiple games tend to exhibit the same kind of behaviors across these games, suggesting that negotiating strategies may be a durable psychological trait.
  • We expect to identify more archetypes as we collect more data.

As you consider the results of your own games, I recommend you examine whether you can identify how players have negotiated, as this can help you identify which items are most important across your entire population.


Wrapping Up

I said it last month, and it seems to be true again: No matter how much I strive to write a short blog post, I end up writing a long one! The most important part of both these posts is this: While there are differences in playing online and in-person games, neither is better than the other. The key is to understand how each could benefit your situation and choose accordingly.

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