Clean Screens: Screen shots from the latest version of Android, “Ice Cream Sandwich.” Left to right: the home screen; data usage controls that allow people to limit the data demands of individual apps; and a list screen used to manage multitasking apps.
You’ve said your design goal was for people to love Android. Are there tricks from the psychological side of gaming that you used to make them love it?
There has recently been much made of this so-called gamification of services, of kind of intentionally creating tiers or goals and rewarding users for their progress toward them. I actually think that is very slippery ethical ground, and that is one of the reasons why I left the games space. I wasn’t comfortable with it. When do the rewards you create become the thing that people are genuinely looking for, and when are they traps that you are generating that form destructive behaviors?
Do you mean like Vegas slot machines?
Sure, like that, or just spending too much time playing. In general I am very wary and highly critical of trying to create behavioral reinforcement for objectives that are not what the user clearly is intending to do. The things that we’ve embedded in Android to try to make users love it are really trying to make sure it’s an aesthetic experience that is beautiful. We are removing all the irritants that make it not aesthetic, all of the—what we call jankyness.
Were there any techniques from the game world you relied on in redesigning Android?
Games are often running on hardware that is a decade behind the state of the art. Similarly, all the growth we are seeing in gaming is mobile gaming, and so it’s the same challenge: you face very strict technological limitations. The immediate response is that you can’t do anything that is rich, or nuanced, or compelling, or animated, or subtle, because c’mon, this is a phone. What do you expect? But having worked in the game industry, I come from the mind-set there is always a trick, there is always a shortcut, there is always a way that you can pay attention to the experience and deliver something that is evocative of the things people see when they go to the movie theater. Android is an interesting system, in that a lot of its architectural roots are quite old. They were certainly born in a pre-iPhone era, before anybody thought of doing systems that had nuanced, animated transitions, or even touch interactions. So we had to do a lot of cheats to get Android to sit up and do those tricks. For instance, we invested a lot of time creating transitions between totally different activities that know nothing about each other, but despite that constraint, trying to make those transitions look good, and make it feel like one connected experience.
What do you think is the future of games on platforms like Android?
I think it will lead to even more types of games. As we start seeing phones and televisions and everything else get more and more intelligent, having all these devices talk to each other and create game spaces is something I think is going to outpace what any console manufacturer can do and make for some really cool games. You could take two phones that can detect gestures and touches and can dynamically show stuff, and a television as an output device, to create environments where multiple people are playing simultaneously. The possibilities are almost endless.