Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

The Skyrim Opening: Shell vs Essence of a Game Design

Skyrim photo: Skyrim Markarth Side Markarth01_wLegal.jpg

Importance of Onboarding in Gamification

Most players experience video games as interactive story adventures, and the Onboarding Phase is essential in setting users in the right mood towards Onboarding. Besides making people feel smart (Core Drive #2: Development & Accomplishment), Onboarding should surface details of the game in terms of:

  • Setting the scene
  • Narrative elements
  • Context of the actions within the games.

This post has two focuses:

  1. How to really set the scene for a good Onboarding Experience
  2. How companies who are doing gamification just copy the SHELL of a game’s design but not the ESSENCE (very important topic!)

Gamification should not focus on the game mechanics but how users feel

Many of you know my disapproval of people who think they can just grab some elements they see from games, put it into their products, and their products will automatically be successful.

EVERY single game out there has game mechanics and game elements in them, but most games still fail because of bad design. Clearly, just because you took some elements that are even found in boring games and threw it onto your product doesn’t mean your product will become successful.

It depends on how you design for motivation (through the 8 Core Drives).

Gamification Campaigns that just copy the Shell of good design

When someone comes to me and says, “Yu-kai! I am creating a game! It’s going to be a ninja running around killing monsters. Is that fun?” I would respond, “…..I don’t know. It depends on how you design it.”

A slightly less subtle (which makes it even deadlier) sin in gamification is copying the shell of a game’s design but not the essence.

What do I mean by that?

Sometimes companies would see a site being very successful with a virtual economy system within it, and so they implement some type of virtual economy too that they think is the same as model. And this new virtual economy results in a colossal failure.

The reason? Virtual economies are very intricate systems, where you have to understand the anchors, input/output mechanics, rewards, tradability, labor-to-reward ratio, and much much more. It’s so easy to think that you copied someone’s solution but end up using your own “interpretation” or “creativity” and miss out on the core essence of WHY the successful virtual economy was designed that way. (This is why in Octalysis we always say, “Don’t talk about what the game elements are. Talk about WHY those game elements are there and how do they make users FEEL!”)

This is why, ironically, many games that are the most successful copy other successful ones down to the teeth! They basically switch up the graphics (like turn ninjas into frogs), or the platform (Facebook to iPhone) and become very successful, even though they don’t necessarily understand why those game mechanics are so addicting (I’ve talked to a lot of game designers now and realized a lot of them do things because “this other app does it successfully.” When I tell them about Octalysis, they respond, “Oh!! That’s why! Makes sense!”).

The games that copy the Shell of a successful game, but are “rough on the edges” in turns of what they copy, mixed with some of the designers’ own ideas, sometimes just fail miserably because they miss out on the essence.

Again, it’s not about what you design, but how you design it.

Lessons in Onboarding From Skyrim

One of my favorite places to learn about game design is the Youtube channel Extra Credits. (in order to apply to gamification – I encourage you to look into games more than you look into current enterprise examples, which only have the shell instead of the essence – we’ll discuss more on this).

This particular clip is about Skyrim which helps illustrate the relationship between the SHELL and the ESSENCE during Onboarding.

Many people find Skyrim to be a very exciting adventure. It is easy to get immersed into this world and let hours go by without even realizing it. As compelling as the game is, Extra Credits points out that the experience could be improved, particularly during the Onboarding Phase.

Extra Credits points out how the first 5-10 minutes is particularly important for gaining the interest of new players. This is a window of opportunity to make a powerful first impression. And the way to do this is by defining and shaping (what Extra Credits refers to as) the core engagement.  Throughout most of Skyrim, the core engagement is the motivation to explore and engage with a wondrous, mystical world.

Within the context of Octalysis, this is analogous to the drives of:

  • Core Drive #1: Epic Meaning & Calling: Being part of a journey that is beyond our own world
  • Core Drive #3: using creative problem solving abilities to overcome obstacles and broaden opportunities to explore.
  • Core Drive #4: Ownership & Possession: Feeling of ownership over one’s journey
  • Core Drive #7: Unpredictability & Curiosity: Drive to see what will happen and explore to satisfy one’s curiosity

The introduction of Skyrim offers very little appeal to these drives. During the initial experience of the game, players should be able to catch a glimpse of the various exploration opportunities in store for them. From a game design standpoint, onboarding story elements should be used to support the core engagement. This would help build a sense of anticipation and entice players to explore more of their journey.

Mistakes of the Skyrim Opening during Onboarding

Extra Credit points out several areas where onboarding decisions could be improved. These include:

1) Choice of the opening scene

2) Physical positioning of the players

3) Introducing players to the plot

4) Voice acting

At the beginning of the game, the players sit as prisoners being wheeled in a cart to be taken to their execution. Since their hands are bound, the only action available is to look around. The scene is a dreary winter landscape, which is the most unappealing location in all of Skyrim. Basically, these choices limit the core drive (#3) Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback. There is nothing much to look at, even with the player’s ability to move the head.  And certainly there is no opportunity to explore and satisfy one’s Curiosity (Core Drive 7) about this world. As a prisoner, you don’t  feel a sense of ownership over your experiences and overall journey.

The physical positioning of the players also works against Skyrim’s core engagement of exploration. The prisoners sit facing one another. So as they talk, your attention is completely on the other person, instead of the landscape and scenery.

In the game, the opening scene makes attempts to introduce the plot. And since Skyrim was marketed to a general audience, those who are not familiar with the Elder Scroll series would have trouble making sense of the new terms that are mentioned.

Extra Credit lists: Savvengard, Ulfred Stormcloak, Nord, Rorickstead, Kynareth, Akatosh, Elod, Divines, General Tuleous, Dalmore, and Helgan. The normal tendency is for people to tune out jargon, especially when there is no frame of reference available for them. Using all these names  does not serve to excite the players about the plot, or the possibility of exploring new terrain in Skyrim.

Again, the initial experiences of the game are supposed to create anticipation and make a powerful first impression on new players. Therefore even small details like voice work matter. Whether it’s a film or a game, bad acting can make people cringe. In the opening scenes of Skyrim, there are a couple of awkward and stilted character scenes which are somewhat cheesy, as Extra Credit points out.

Skyrim vs Modern Warfare: The Shell and Essence of the same Game Technique

Perhaps the greatest insight Extra Credits offers in their videos is the comparison to Modern Warfare, which ties back to my theme of Shell vs Essence of a game design.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a game launched in 2007 and had a very engaging onboarding process where the first person character is also tied up on a vehicle at the beginning, headed towards the character’s execution.

During this scene, the player can also move the character’s head around to observe the environment around (since both hands are tied). The big difference is, this design setup introduced the scene, context, settings, and anxiousness of the Epic Meaning & Calling (Core Drive 1) within the game. Even the head moving worked out great because the player actually feels like he is in control towards observing all the tension of that world, which is a small example of Core Drive #3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

This worked out very successfully for Modern Warfare.

So now comes Skyrim.

In 2011, Skyrim was launched as the fifth installment of the Elder Scrolls series.

Similar to Modern Warfare (and as noted by Ilya Bogunov in the comments, this is still in-theme of their own previous releases), during Onboarding, Skyrim introduced a main character who is tied up on a vehicle towards his execution, with the player being able to control the camera view (neck and head) of the character.

Yay, now that we do something similar to another successful game, our Onboarding is awesome right?


They just have the Shell of that technique but missed out on the Essence.

As Extra Credit Explains, they missed most of the important things that Modern Warfare retained – delivering the Core Engagement, making users feel anxious, good voice acting, ability to explore the surroundings, context setting, and the ability to start caring about the topic.

Game Design Shells during Gamification Campaigns

Sometimes I face this frustration myself.

Occasionally (I have learned to avoid this) some of my clients, when I am explaining some very important dynamics to them, will respond, “Okay, I get, I get it. Lets move on.” (Usually I will add, “OK. But remember, it’s VERY important that you do it this way.” And they will add, “Yea, for sure!”)

I move on, and the clients start to work with their engineers and designers to create the experience I designed for them (I also do Product Managing for a handful of clients because of this very frustration).

After a while, they show me what they have, and sometimes I’m like, “Wait? How come you didn’t do the Epic Meaning & Calling stuff I was talking about?” “We did! See! This entire section is about Epic Meaning & Calling!”

This is when my heart stops a beat. It definitely has some resemblance to the experience I was designing for them, but it’s just the shell and misses the very purpose behind the design. I almost don’t want to put my name on it.

To avoid miscommunications, I often create Concept Wireframes too so their engineers and designers know exactly what we want to created. However, sometimes I will learn a few weeks later that the client company decided to change a few things around because it “seemed like a good idea – this other company does it too!” and it completely broke the experience of the design.

It’s a tough challenge to solve, and it’s hard for my readers to just read and figure out how to differentiate, but the biggest thing I’m preaching here is that you want to focus on WHY something is there, and HOW it appeals to the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis.

Gamification within Onboarding

Onboarding is the introduction of a journey. Beneath the surface lies the core structure and design. A winning game will need to revolve around a human-focused design which appeals to the core drives of the player.

The Octalysis framework helps to serves as a reference for applying these drives to forge the essence of the game. Without a strong essence, the story, characters and other surface elements will not create a compelling experience.

In the case of Skyrim, the opening introduction is lackluster compared to full array of experiences that are later made available to the player. I believe this could have been improved by integrating various core drives at the very beginning and using onboarding elements to support this design.

I agree with Extra Credits who suggests subtle inclusions of visual story elements (e.g. brief exposure to some of the exciting landscapes in Skyrim) to help players feel excited about exploring this fictional land.

Engaging core drives within the opening scene would certainly help improve the experience of the first twenty minutes. Players should be able to get a sense of a vast, larger world and the potential for their new adventure, even if they are bound in a cart.

But once the player gets past the bleak introduction phase, the real allure of the game takes place.

Does your Gamification Campaign focus on the Essence or the Shell?

(Thanks to Christine Yee for tremendously helping me on this post! Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to also!)

Share the Post:

other Posts

17 responses to “The Skyrim Opening: Shell vs Essence of a Game Design”

  1. Been too busy with being a father… my Skyrim is still unopened in the box. Maybe when I retire I can enjoy a second childhood. WooHoo! Or, perhaps I’ll break it out earlier and play it with my children for some quality bonding. 🙂

  2. Although I agree on the topic, I must add that even when the introductionary stage of Skyrim lands out flat and lefts the user with little to no control of the game falling and failing the topics of Octalysis you mention above, Skyrim has an inmense platform of mods; for those who had played Skyrim I’m referring to the Steam Workshop and further the “Alternate Sart – Live another life” mod.
    The mod (and further the mod dynamics) offers different starts for the game, overloading the vanilla start and even changes depending on the race you are playing. If I did not misunderstood your concepts I feel that this experience fulfills the cores where the vanilla game has failed to accomplish, allowing the user to change and adapt the game to their personal game experience and need for inmersiveness. It will be really interesting to read your thoughts on this matter for I believe that the mod dynamics has made Skyrim a game that never gets boring.

  3. Point thoroughly yet simply made by Extra Credits. Good advice not to try to just lift the great work from someone without understanding, riding their coattails

  4. I am probably one of the few people who did know Skyrim game but never played a minute Modern Warfare.
    Anyway, i did feel something was wrong in the onboarding phase in Skyrim, now I can sense better what the reasons could have been.
    I always felt like the whole chart introduction is too long, i agree with Extra Credits when they say “too many information”, there is too much blah blah blah considered the onboarding situation in which, after all, you are going to die. Nothing we would really hear about what we are living.
    The real engagement happens although when Alduin the Black Dragon, “breaks the almost boring scene” unleashing havoc all around, changing everything, making it frenetic.
    That is the real introduction to Skyrim.
    Back to the topic of the article, i do agree with you Yu-kai Chou, The game is in the essence, not the shell.

  5. Great comparison and it would be good to see how the rest of the games compare vs the core drivers. Having played both (and having spent far too much time on Skyrim) at least for me Skyrim does a good job delivering through most of the game while MW4 never really delivers on the promise from the introduction (at least it did not for me).

    • Haha, that’s why all 4 Phases: Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding and Endgame are all equally important 🙂

  6. IlyaBogunov Ilya it is not about what was the story of Skyrim in last versions it is about of feelings of players who knows nothing about this game at onboarding stage, and role of core drives at onboarding phase.  It is about details not whole story. I love this article.

  7. IlyaBogunov Thanks. That’s very good information! (I’ll edit the article based on that). I haven’t played all the series (wish I had the time to play all the games in the world! 😉 )
    Appreciate your compliments!

  8. “They introduced a main character who is tied up on a vehicle towards his execution, with the player being able to control the camera view (neck and head) of the character.” –
    Ironically that`s how first(you are in jail for no reasons), 2nd(you arrive at boat and crash and get to some cave), 3rd(you arrive at ship as prisoner/fugitive ), 4th(you start in the cell as prisoner), and 5th elder scroll(you start as prisoner).
    All games in SERIES starts as : “You are prisoner/fugitive and taken to new landout of prison and can`t do nothing until you customize your character”, that`s not Modern Warfare copy, that just same as in previous games. So basically your article build on wrong assumption(thought interesting anyway – just wrong example).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *