2010: the year of “game mechanics”

Ryan Graves wrote a great piece on why Foursquare is his ride of choice. Worth a read as an overview of the check-in space>


I was taught to believe messaging matters and in my conversations with entrepreneurs, I always want to learn about their marketing strategy. A trending topic in my conversations about customer acquisition and loyalty is adding “game mechanics” to a consumer internet service. It reminds me of Josh’s post on viral marketing and the more recent article by Dave McClure encouraging start-ups and Vc’s to focus on marketing and design in consumer internet businesses.

Just like “viral” and “social” before it, GAMES ARE HARD TO BUILD and cannot be bolted on to the marketing strategy.

crack pipe

Well designed game mechanics are addictive

The ability to define value for the consumer with in-game rewards that motivate behavior that reveals consumer utility is the magic of game mechanics. Tony Adams makes my point with his list of business models available to Foursquare. Each of these models is dependent on the user’s willingness to expose their location to the system. If Dennis and Naveen had decided to ask users to click a button every time they went somewhere the utility of Foursquare would have never been discovered. They knew this and they built a game. You start out “playing” foursquare and you end up “using” it (as you might use crack).

The fitness game that I built in 2003 (now licensed to Ubisoft as YourShape) and my work with MTVGames taught me a lot about how to use game mechanics to motivate specific consumer behavior. We offered rewards within the game to support consumer engagement long enough for the player to discover the utility of the product. The combined effect of in-game rewards layered with real-world benefit was an incredibly sticky experience.

When I designed the fitness game, here are the three high-level things I focused on:

1. On-boarding: Give them the perception of managable choice, meaningful rewards and at least one clear/obvious path toward the next discovery item. Make the choices easy and include understandable consequences for every action

2. Capture: once the consumer enters, there have to be lots of reasons for them to keep going. Give them managable choice, meaningful rewards and at least one clear/obvious path toward the next discovery item

3. Deep engagement: Create emerging complexity with layers of simplicity that interact so as one is mastered, another is being discovered. Encourage experimentation by making it obvious that you can find your way back to a stable place (allow them to hit CTRL Z).

When you build these three elements into the design of the game from the beginning, the user floats between a sense of mastery (that could lead to boredom) and a sense of overwhelming complexity (that could lead to frustration). Done right, the optimal gaming experience looks like this:

good game design user experience

A well designed game experience looks like this

If you are using game mechanics that help users discover the utility of a service or motivate a significant consumer behavior change let me know in the comments, @phineasb on twitter or by e-mail  Phin@firstround.com. I would love to talk.

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  • U nailed it. Transitioning a user from mastering one activity to discovering another without being burdened by being presented by the latter too early is definitely the secret sauce of keeping long-term users.

  • I will be out of the office until Monday, April 12th -- and will only be checking my inbox infrequently. I hope to respond to everyone when I return.

    If it is urgent, please email my associate, Fiona Parker-Givens, at fiona@firstround.com<mailto:fiona@firstround.com> and she will direct your message to the most appropriate person.


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