What a game installer can teach us about the value of being intriguing


An intriguing experience can help you both win and keep businesses. That was something I learned from a 20 year old computer game and its install program.
Just like the fictional Frank Underwood in House of Cards, one of my favorite past-times is playing video games. I don’t play a lot of them and my taste is quite specific. I love games that introduce me to new worlds and focus on exploration.

My fascination with video games go back to when I was 10 or so. Console gaming on early Sega and Nintendo consoles was eventually replaced by gaming on home computer PC’s.

One of the standout PC titles of the mid and late ‘90s was Command & Conquer by Westwood Studios. The original game was released in 1995. It was one of those that raise the bar permanently and turns into one of those games which all games after are judged by.

C&C was, and still is, a so called “realtime strategy game.” In it, you command military units in a war in a not so distant future. It’s dark, apocalyptic and its design and music helps set its mood. It was immersive despite only offering a top-down view of its world and being rendered at a whopping 320x240 pixel resolution in glorious 256 colors.

The game isn’t remarkable by modern day standards. Kids today would play it and wonder what us old fans were raving about. But back then it showed a level of polish and production levels not seen elsewhere. And this showed in all aspects of the game. From the video cutscenes (which featured Westwood Studios employees mostly, and only one professional actor) to the music as well as the animations used. It was one of the first games that paved the way for the so-called “triple-A” titles with budgets close to that of a Hollywood flick.
Screenshot from Command & Conquer, the first massively successful real-time strategy game.
Screenshot from Command & Conquer, the first massively successful real-time strategy game.
I must admit I was a bit dismissing of C&C at first. It seemed just “too designed” to me at 14 years of age. I guess I didn’t realize that a polished surface is more than just eye candy. It actually says something about the product as a whole. As Jeff Raskin, original designer of the Macintosh GUI said: “As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product.” And so it was here. And it’s true, as long as the whole delivers.

With C&C, it began with the software installer. The installer was a program that set up the game so it could be played on your computer. Back in those days, most game installers looked like this:
A typical MS-DOS installer.
A typical MS-DOS installer.
This one is from Jazz Jackrabbit, made by the studio that would later be instrumental in creating a market for discrete 3D graphic accelerator cards with “Unreal” in 1998.

Westwood Studios didn’t skimp though. Someone there figured that it was worth setting expectations right from the beginning. They made their installer something out of the ordinary:
You’ll recognize the steps for choosing sound card (yup, those were discrete too back then) and its hardware address from the Jazz Jackrabbit installer above. But the installer, which is mostly a glorified file copier, turned a rather boring experience into something that led you into the game’s world. This was quite unseen before and set the stage for the game experience. It created expectations of things to come, and drew you in. You were intrigued. You wanted more.

Everything you do communicates something. Whether you like it or not. By designing their installer to communicate something different, Westwood set the expectations for the game experience to come.

The same principles apply outside the world of video games. In your business can quite effectively “set the stage” and use it for differentiation. If you have a good grasp of your customer’s journey, you probably know how most of them first hear about you. By designing those experiences to be intriguing and surprising, you increases the chances that they will follow through.

This is true outside the digital realm as well. When I advise companies that want to become more successful at pricing for value I stress the importance of communicating value. It touches on how you write, talk and even dress. It doesn’t necessarily need to be formal (no need for a suit). In many cases it’s even better if it’s personal, genuine and not quite expected.

The best intriguing experiences are authentic to you. It’s when you share a part of you that the magic happens. It can be early on in the customer’s journey or later. It can be something as simple as lighting candles for a first meeting with a customer to sending hand-written notes thanking your customers for their loyalty. It won’t be for everyone’s liking. But appeasing everyone results in blandness. In this day and age, I don’t think anyone can afford to be bland.

By figuring out what your analog to an authentic expectation-setting and intriguing game installer is, you can keep those customers hooked, wanting more, wanting more of you.