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Formats Unpacked: Drawful
How a game format uses constraints to keep players laughing and returning
Welcome to another Formats Unpacked, the newsletter from Storythings that helps you understand the secrets of great content formats. If you’d like us to help you research, develop or produce content formats for you, hit the button below.
There are just a couple of things from us before we jump into today’s brilliant unpacking:
Thing 1 - If you’re in New York and want to learn more about content formats, measuring attention and getting workflow right, we’re running a new half-day workshop in partnership with our good friend The Content Technologist. The workshop will be in New York on the afternoon of Tuesday 26th Sept. Join us!
Thing 2 - Once a month we do a team show and tell and open it up to everyone. It’s called Proper Fancy. If you like chatting about creative work - design, illustration, animation, video, audio - then join us tomorrow, Thursday 31st Aug at 1pm (UK). It would be great to meet you. Joining me on hosting duty will be Ashley Pollack.
Right - down to the unpacking. Ben Templeton is a creative director at Thought Den, a small studio that makes games and playful experiences for arts and cultural organisations. He writes a newsletter about play, technology and sustainability.
Over to Ben…
What’s it called
What’s the format?
Ostensibly, it’s a drawing game but really it’s goofing around with visual gags and wordplay while you wait for Dominos pizza to arrive. It’s short enough that a new game invariably starts almost instantly because someone or other isn’t satisfied with their showing.
The game has four major components: drawing, describing, voting and scoring. Firstly, each player privately draws something on their tiny phone screen with a shonky pen tool. Their prompt could be something like “possum milk” or “I eat triangles”. In the second phase, the game presents one of the drawings and each player (except the author) privately writes a description. The third phase shows the selected drawing alongside the original prompt and the new descriptions. Finally, players vote on which is the real prompt, with the goal being to simultaneously guess correctly whilst fooling the other players to vote for your description.
In a nutshell, the format is about voting on your mates’ creative responses to a prompt.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Drawful nails the two aspects of a successful format: a familiar structure that attracts an audience and the well-defined constraints that provide an arena within which actors — players, in this case — express themselves and create the dynamics that keep us coming back.
At first, it might seem unfair because not everyone is a natural artist but in Drawful, you can compensate with humour, lateral thinking, psychology or double bluffing.
The core mechanic achieves the holy grail of game design: emergent complexity. From a single prompt and a limited way of responding emerges a rewarding social experience. Being creative in public can be exposing but the game guides players to embrace the vulnerability and bond over rubbish stick figures. The magic is about making people laugh with limited resources.
The prompt itself is an important part of the magic. It needs to be inspiring but also ambiguous. Humour is essential and striking the balance isn’t easy. Cards Against Humanity, which shares the core mechanic, regularly ran aground with insensitive, racist content that was passed off as school-boy humour.
The different stages of play are cleverly staggered so that no one is ever waiting. In Pictionary, you have to wait your turn. In Drawful, you’re always doing something and there’s always a tantalising reveal just around the corner.
Finally, there are the subtle touches that elevate a core mechanic into something uniquely satisfying. The sound effects, the timer animations that build tension and the real hero of Drawful: the two-tone pen tool. So much of the fun comes from wrangling this frustratingly simple but pleasingly sophisticated creative outlet.
In fact, drawing your profile picture at the start is probably the best bit.
Some prompts are better than others and some players are funnier than others but with each play, the fun comes from the chemistry that emerges. Dare I say this is a game of banter?
More than choosing a favourite episode, I enjoy comparing all the other implementations of the basic prompt-response-vote mechanic.
There’s lots to choose from but Drawful nails both the simplicity and social satisfaction.
There are cosy, old-fashioned versions and edgy variants. The structure can even be seen in the way social media bubbles over with people competing to create the best memes in response to current affairs moments.
Apples to Apples, from 1999, is the mechanic in its purest form. Different adjectives are matched with a central noun and the best adjective claims the points. In each round, a selected player reads the pairings, which adds a layer of strategy and humour. If the central noun is something like “My love life”, this relates to whoever reads that round and adjectives are chosen accordingly.
Dixit doubles down on the arty side of the mechanic, making for a softer, fuzzier game. Players pick from the array of bizarre and beautiful illustrations in their hand in response to the round leader’s verbal prompt. The aim is to come close, without getting too close and navigating this brinkmanship is the fun tension. Receive all or none of the votes and you get no points.
The puerile but undeniably popular Cards Against Humanity needs mentioning, despite it being a race to the carnal bottom. The team built an incredibly strong ‘brand vibe’ around the ‘choose the best creative response’ format. Their annual Black Monday promotions became ever more bizarre, from the anti-sale $5 price increase to replacing the contents of every box with actual bull shit and digging a giant hole until people stopped donating.
I’ll end with a cute variant called Totem, which uses the mechanic to build a collective compliment about whichever player is on the pedestal for that round.
See you next time for some more format unpacking,
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