How DreamWorks And Microsoft Used Big Data To Create A New Category Of Mobile Gaming

The question, “Where does innovation come from?” took center stage in this weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal in a thoughtful column by Steve Jobs biographer, Walter Isaacson. In contrast to those who have predicted that artificial intelligence would have taken off by now, resulting in machine-driven invention, Isaacson persuasively argues that it’s the combination of human creativity and computer-driven data management that makes this an especially ripe time for innovation.

Last week, I moderated a panel on innovation at Social Media Week that I suspect Isaacson would have appreciated. That’s because  we discussed how Big Data sparks creativity. More often than not, “Big Data” implies manipulating or combining information sources to build a deeper understanding of a subject or problem. In contrast, the panelists demonstrated how they started with an objective and some problems they wanted to solve, used Big Data to help solve those problems, and, in the process, created a new social-mobile gaming experience.

The panel included the principal players who made this game for Windows and Windows Phone. It’s called DreamWorks Dragons Adventure: World Explorer. (You can watch a recording of the panel here.) It’s designed to be played on a tablet or phone by a child in a moving car. Before the trip gets under way, a parent can use his phone to set a destination for the car trip. That then triggers the maps software in the child’s phone to plot a route, prepare missions along the way, and, most impressively. transform a real world into a game universe that looks like the film, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

The map isn’t the only real world-based input that the game transforms, though.

If it’s raining outside, the game uses information from The Weather Channel to make it rain in the game.

Actual points of interest, such as restaurants, become Viking eateries in the game. It uses data from the social media app Foursquare to determine their popularity. Foursquare, which encourages users to share their whereabouts with friends via a mechanic called a “check-in,” provides the number of check-ins for these restaurants. The more check-ins an actual place has, the more Vikings will appear at its in-game counterpart.

All this information flows to the game and the child in real-time. Games start as the vehicle gets under way and end precisely when it arrives at its destination, and because Mom or Dad has a role to play in setting the destination, it results in a more social car ride.

Watch the recording to get a comprehensive history of the project. Here are the key conclusions on partnering and the creative use of Big Data that I took away from the panel.

  • Make sure all parties want the same outcome. Before getting under way, both sides took time to make sure our interests were aligned.
  • Define what success looks like. In this case, DreamWorks wanted new ways to engage users. That informed game design and the metrics we would track.
  • Identify problems innovation will need to solve. There was no shortage of customers this game had to satisfy. AT&T wanted an experience that would encourage cellular data consumption and the purchase of more than one device. Parents crave digital experiences that don’t isolate their families, including while driving. They also want content that enables them to regulate their kids’ screen time. Children want to explore and have fun.
  • Start with a vision, and then find the data needed to bring it to life. Once DreamWorks and Microsoft had an idea of the game they wanted to make, they set about finding the data they’d need. They even built a nascent software platform for aggregating and processing that data, and they can use that platform to create other experiences. In other words, they didn’t start by asking themselves, “We have all this data at our disposal. What should we do with it?”

Innovation, like any other expression of creativity, has an ethereal component. That makes writing an instruction manual on how to be innovative impossible to craft. It’s far easier to imagine the conditions that result in innovation. In Dragons Adventure, DreamWorks and Microsoft showed how partnership and the use of Big Data can give birth to creativity.

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