Years ago I remember playing the original Halo game and marveling at, among many marvels, how the game seamlessly taught me the controls as part of the storyline of the game. I had not owned or played console games before then since my old Atari days. The complicated controllers with multiple joysticks and buttons and seeming focus on button mashing over strategy hadn't excited me. Games  for PC and consoles tended to come with complicated help cards that described all the button sequences you could perform and it just seemed a little overwhelming.

But here was this game that invited me to check out the function of my armored suit by having a lab tech take me through the paces. When I remarked on this experience  the next day at work, several other folks from Office mentioned they had the same reaction.

Although Office doesn't offer joystick controls, its button count outweighs the Xbox controller significantly. We spent some time wondering how we could build that "in game" learning experience into our products, especially OneNote which I was working on at the time. These days many games - all the major ones at least it seems - use the approach of building teaching into the gameplay. Whether the teaching is part of the plot or not, players are eased into the game and do not need to learn all the options until later stages.

For us, this concept morphed a bit and became the OneNote Guide notebook for OneNote. The idea was that rather than rely on the help system which operated outside the product, people would be more open to looking at OneNote's capabilities in situ, and if the Guide encouraged them to try some features and see what happened we could make some progress educating users on some simple yet novel concepts we were introducing (e.g. the click anywhere to type editing surface, tags and tag searching). The guide tested very well with new users, especially as we refined it to make it look less like dry help and more like a fun interactive experience. But we did not build any actual gameplay into the Guide or OneNote.

The challenge of designing a product like Office is considerable. Each of the core applications has over a thousand "features".  Each feature was added for a set of people who needed it. Each is used by some set of users. Collectively all are used by the user base of Office. Although each user only uses a certain fraction of the feature set, the collection of features each person uses is slightly different from the others, so that a randomly selected group of just a couple hundred users will collectively cover nearly all the functionality of the suite in their normal usage over time.

Even organized into activity-centric and contextual groups as with the Ribbon, it is a lot of functionality to expose and expect hundreds of millions of people to navigate. We hear all the time from people who say they are sure Office can do something, but don't know where it is, or wish that we would add some functionality the product already has, or simply say they don't have time to discover what the product can do. Although the Ribbon has been controversial with some users who were very proficient with the old UI, all these problems were more pronounced with the earlier menus and toolbars. That's in part because that interface was designed when the products were much less capable, so as commands were added it became unwieldy and impenetrable. You may be able to use the old system well for what you already know, but learning to use anything new (especially that it even existed) was very difficult.

Now it is 2010, and my team, Office Labs, has a released a new project called Ribbon Hero (and on FaceBook) which is using gaming to expose users to the capabilities of Office. Although I was initially doubtful that a game could be built on Office that was any fun, the Ribbon Hero team surprised me. From early builds I've been a fan. I was surprised that some seemingly simple gaming features drew me in and engaged me.

Since I used to lead the design team for Word, I enjoyed scoring easy points in all the areas I knew so well. But I also enjoyed the challenge of decoding exactly how the challenge authors created certain end results. And since I didn't work on Office 2010, I found a few capabilities especially around images that were new to me. Although I know them well in many ways I'm still just a user of PowerPoint and Excel, so for both of those I learned several useful capabilities (e.g. around slide show control, transitions and animation, and charting). Often I knew that certain features existed, but had never bothered to use them. After completing the challenges I felt familiar enough with them that I have used them since.

Although I learn quite a bit about Office as I play Ribbon Hero, to describe Ribbon Hero merely as "training" does it a disservice in my view. It is best described as a game, albeit one that as a side effect increases your awareness of Office capabilities. I found that I could play a couple of challenges in a few minutes of downtime, and then once I started, I had a hard time stopping. I wanted to maximize my score. When I learned something new about Office that only made me want to play more - what other hidden gems were in there? When the team added sound effects the desire to score more points intensified: I wanted to hear that cha-ching of points being added - so satisfying. When the team enabled score sharing I suddenly found I wanted to beat some people who were ahead of me. Some were barely ahead and I felt I could pass them quickly so I always felt I was making progress.  Definitely a game.

As a casual game, Ribbon Hero appeals to more than one type (or "persona") of gamer.  There are people who want to get credit for what they know. It's positive and affirming to score points doing something you know how to do. These people are motivated to get a high score so they can feel accomplished. Enjoy scoring 100% on a test? Ribbon Hero is for you.

Although Ribbon Hero does not yet have a strong competitive element, there are those who want to see how they stack up against others. Partly to see where they land, sometimes to do better than someone else. Then there are people who just like gaming and diversions - Ribbon Hero appeals as a set of challenges that people are measured on and they can improve at, hence it is a game (see a great analysis of what constitutes a game and Danc's comments on Ribbon Hero at Lost Garden)

When we released Ribbon Hero we weren't exactly sure what the reaction would be. From talking to folks internally at Microsoft we knew there would be initial skepticism from some (just say the phrase "a game based on Office"). We also knew that if people played it, that skepticism would change since just about everybody converted to some sort of fan (from grudging to enthusiastic) after trying it. We really had to get the game out into the wild to see what the full range and distribution of reactions would be. The game has been downloaded 25,000 times already, which is pretty exciting. We're collecting the feedback now. Early indications are people are pleasantly surprised that Ribbon Hero is entertaining, and they are even happier that they are discovering truly useful capabilities of Office they didn't know about.

Some sample tweets about Ribbon Hero (these reflect my own feelings):

  • I'm finding Microsoft Office 2010 funner to use with Ribbon Hero installed. Makes me get creative w/what I'm working on.
  • But i wanna play Ribbon Hero all day!! Memo to self, play ribbon hero all weekend.
  • Really enjoying Ribbon Hero - surprisingly addictive (and pretty useful too)

I don't want to overstate what Ribbon Hero is. It's our first game, and we're learning. What is available now is also only our first release. We have a number of improvements in the pipeline that should keep things interesting. This is only the beginning!