Thursday, July 8, 2010

Game Mechanics 101

With Foursquare’s $20 million new investment and $95 million valuation, everyone in the web space suddenly realized the power of game mechanics. People don’t generally think about Foursquare as a ‘Game’ like World of Warcraft, but it’s fun and engaging, which is the essence of game mechanics on the web.

One fundamental dilemma I’ve been wrestling with is – what hard problems do sites using game mechanics solve? Penny auction sites such as Swoopo has very clever design and insane economics, and I stayed up until 2am many nights just to watch the item I’m bidding. It’s incredible how much time and money I’m drawn to spend on such sites, but, what pain does it solve?

Is it paying too much for high price gadgets? I don’t really need an iPad, it’s nice to have, but I don’t feel pain trying to get it, and I’m probably OK with paying as much as everybody else does. Is it boredom? I could have watched How I Met Your Mother for the 5th time, and that doesn’t explain why I’m willing to stay up way past my bedtime and end up with panda eyes (a girl’s nightmare!). Is it my emotional need to win over other people or seek pleasure from seeing others lose? Maybe, but it’s not like fulfilling this need is such a hard problem or pain in my daily life.

Ultralight Startup’s panel discussion on Gaming Mechanics and Marketing was an excellent intro to game mechanics. Gabe Zichermann, who recently published Game-Based Marketing, answered my doubt with a simple question: Who don’t like to have fun? Maybe the pain IS that we don’t have enough fun in our daily life, so we resort to games like The God of War and SpillDaMilk or ‘entertainment shopping’ sites like Swoopo to stimulate our nerves to release the chemicals that make us feel good?

Looking deeper on what people are looking for when playing games, Bartle’s Player Types tells us: contrary to popular belief, only about 20-25% of players are there to achieve an objective or win (Achievers). The majority, up to 75% of players are there to interact with others (Socialisers). A fraction of players are there to discover (Explores) or to see other people lose (Killers). So when design game mechanics, we need to address both achievement and interaction. I think Foursquare is great at addressing both, which is their sauce for success.

Valuable advice on game mechanics design from a fantastic panel consists of Ty Ahmad-Taylor, Eric von Coelln, Chris Sullivan, and Gabe Zichermann:
  1. Reward early, reward often, don’t penalize failure
  2. Every step has a small pot of gold but the holy grail is always outside of the immediate reach
  3. Non cash reward is better than cash reward
  4. Not only design to make game fun, but also think about preventing people from gaming the system.
  5. At the beginning, don’t over-think. Just leave some room for scale and design for flexibility
  6. How to measure if it’s a good game design:
·         · Can this game make you smile occasionally?
·         · Can this game make you lose hours of your time?
  1. Stay away from real world redemptions, either cash or prize. Implication in legal, financial, tax, regulatory, etc.. It’s much easier if everything stays in virtual world.

On a side note, I wonder if Bartle’s Player Types, which is mainly based on MUD players, is transferable to all web user behaviors. It may be too generic as web user in different categories may demonstrate very different behavior types and various statistical distributions of such types. Though using Bartle’s methodology or other analytical and statistical tools, ambitious researchers can embark on a quest for online user behavior types by category (could be generations, gender, industry, ethnicity, region, etc.), and maybe someone can even come to a statistically valid general conclusion of all online consumer behavior types and their distribution. Now that’s what I call a breakthrough!

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Holly! You were taking careful notes at the event.

    BTW, for anyone wanting to view the full-length video of the panel, it will be posted in the next few days on