Gamification for Software

I spent 5 years working at Pocket Gems, a free to play mobile gaming company in product management where I helped design, develop, and manage most of our products.

Nail the ‘Core Loop’ first

I often get asked by friends about how they can incorporate gamification techniques into their products. Most of the time, folks are asking about these tactics prematurely before they have a ‘core loop  established and before they’ve reached product market fit. 

The core loop is the set of actions that a user completes over and over again and this must be inherently satisfying and / or useful before applying gamification tactics. 

Some examples of core loops:

  • Instagram: Take Picture, Post/Share/Tag picture, Review / Respond to likes and comments
  • Uber: Request ride, Take ride, Rate driver
  • Candy Crush: Play level (consume life), Complete level, Progress to next level, Request/Buy life

Once you’ve defined your core loop and this is already inherently satisfying (or provides utility) to your users, then tactics from free to play gaming can be very helpful in improving core metrics such as retention and monetization which ultimately drive improved LTV.

Understand user goals and motivation

When designing products always start with the user goals (short, medium and long term goals) and design the meta-experience around these goals.  Once you understand user goals (and ideally map them to business goals) you can then design a set of tactics to help incentivize behaviors that help users achieve these goals.

Here are a few principles of player motivations in games that can also be applied to lots of other products:

  • Purpose: All great games have a meta-objective (e.g. Save Princess Peach in every Mario game) that players can easily understand. This gives players purpose, and these principles also apply to utility products where purpose is already clear and does not need to be manufactured.
  • Progression -> Completion: People enjoy the feeling of progression. The simple act of completing a level, or filling up a progression bar is very satisfying to many players and is a very tangible feeling of making progress towards a meta objective.
  • Mastery: People like improving at the core action in any skill based game. It’s important to communicate to players explicitly when they reach different mastery tiers as these are typically moments of great satisfaction.
  • Status / Peacocking: People like to show off their status to their community – I’m a VIP or important in some way and there are lots of examples of this both online and offline. Some examples include – Yelp Elite, Instagram Verified, League of Legends Platinum and Rank/Awards on military uniforms.
  • Expression / Creativity: People like to create and to express themselves with easy to understand constraints. Lego or Minecraft are both great examples of having some constraints but also allowing users to be incredibly creative within those constraints.
  • Collection: People like to collect things and we’ve been doing it for a very long time – coins, stamps, etc. They like to be able to see what they have collected and admire it, as well as identify what is missing and know how to find it. Loot drop mechanics combined with collection can be very powerful. A game like Hearthstone does this very well.

Not all of these principles or motivations apply to every player, and many of the best games pick a few and execute them very well vs. trying to be all things to all players.

Apply Gamification Tactics

There are a number of effective tactics in gaming that appeal to some of the player motivations described above.

  • Levels: Even a simple leveling up system allow us to hit a lot of player motivations – Progression, Mastery, and Status. It’s a relatively cheap way to reward behaviors in your product and incentivize continued engagement in the core loop.
Candy Crush leveling system is simple and clear
  • Ranks / Tiers: Ranks are quite useful to differentiate between players and allow them to also communicate to others that they have a higher status (either earned or purchased) in their community. In League of Legends, players rank up by playing competitive matches and it’s used to both signal skill as well as find other players with similar skill levels. This can be applied to users outside of gaming with ‘VIP’ Tiers or ‘Elite’ Tiers for customers who are either highly engaged or high spenders.
League of Legends Tiers
  • Rarity: Collectors, Expressionists and Status seekers all enjoy finding items that are exclusive and rare. When combined with randomness this can be a very powerful mechanic. Some of the most successful free to play games like Hearthstone allow rare items to be both earned through skill, purchased (usually through loot drops), or crafted (usually very expensive).
  • Randomness (loot drops): Packs or Boxes which have an unknown set of rewards are very appealing to players. Sometimes just the act of opening these packs as just as satisfying as the rewards. You can integrate mystery / loot drops into your products by running a mystery sale for example where players need to open a box to reveal their custom offer.
Pack opening / Loot drops in Hearthstone
  • Quests: Quests are one of the most useful tools in free to play games to incentivize user behavior. They allow us to guide the user in a specific direction for a clear reward. Quests are quite easily applied to lots of products outside of games – e.g. 3 blog posts in 3 weeks for WordPress.com for $10 of credit towards your next purchase or 10 rides in your first month for Peloton for a badge displayed on your profile.
An example of a quest screen from Clash of Clans by Supercell
  • Badges: Badges are a very quick and easy way to reward ‘good behavior’ from players. In the example below from Peloton, you get badges for beating a record, cycling with a friend, or working out 10 days in a row. I like to look at user behaviors that result in improved retention (or another metric) and then create rewards for those behaviors – badges are one way to do that.
  • Gating: Gating prevents users from accessing parts of your product until they have completed certain tasks. Level gating or item gating are a simple way to do this in games. For example, in Links Awakening, you can’t access any of the water areas of the map until you’ve found the flippers which allow you to swim. You could apply this tactics to many complex products where users need to have complexity exposed to them gradually.

I hope that folks find this useful – it’s not meant to be a playbook but talk about some of the principles and tactics that we use in games. Remember none of this is a substitute for having a product which is inherently satisfying or useful at its core but act as a multiplier instead.

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