Yesterday, I was thinking about the power of special event games versus ongoing games that are available everyday. One of the downsides to today’s pervasive gaming trend is that anything can become mundane and a bit less magical or thrilling if you see it everyday.
It could be argued that special events, like holidays and splashy promotional games, need to happen infrequently to retain their value.To understand the strengths of special event games, I think it’s appropriate to consider why we don’t have holidays every day. I’ll also discuss the risks in looking at a successful special event game like the annual McDonalds Monopoly game and thinking that it could be so much better if it were extended to an ongoing promotion, like a loyalty program. I can see where people would make this leap because if something is good in small doses, it must be great in bigger doses, right?
But when it comes to making a game event special, less is more (in so many ways).
Who Wants Christmas Every Day?
I think Christmas (both the secular gift-giving holiday and the religious Christian holiday) is more special, engaging, and inspirational because it only happens once a year (and in the dead of winter where the colors of twinkling decorations outside livens up the monochrome landscape to great effect). The bright punctuation of Christmas in the middle of winter is so powerful that Christian author C.S. Lewis was able to relay a very adult concept (spiritual awakening, or a thawing of faith) to children by setting the action of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in a “Narnian winter” where it was “always winter and never Christmas”—a state of dreary suspense. Many a kids’ show or book has centered on the literal or figurative quest to save Christmas because there is something inherently tragic about an eagerly anticipated once-a-year chance for a holiday that never comes.
I think it’s also true that there’s something tragically underwhelming about a Christmas that comes everyday. I don’t think people, even kids, would really enjoy a never-ending Christmas. Unless you’re Ron Wood or that badass Wizzard drummer with the afro:
UnBirthdays Just Aren’t That Awesome
Aside from the lack of novelty and anticipation, there is something untenable and impractical about constant, ongoing special events. We celebrate our birthday, rather than our un-birthday, because frankly nobody wants to give presents and make a big to-do over everyone we know 24/7/365. It would spoil the fun by becoming a repetitive chore, like doing the laundry.
That’s why it is a little strange to me when marketing game designers want to encourage more year-round pervasive games instead of infrequent, simple, and targeted special game events.
Think of a special game event like a limited-time marketing campaign. If you ran the same marketing campaign, the same copy, and the same creative year-round, your message would definitely lose its impact over time. I’m not saying the same is true for a well-designed ongoing marketing game program, I’m just saying that there are effects that are stronger, easier and cheaper to obtain using a special event game for a limited time rather than a long-term, ongoing game design.
You can combine special event games and long-term games (think of the limited-time sweepstakes mini-game or scratch-off game inside of a larger ongoing loyalty program), but in most cases, participating in the long-term game then becomes a barrier to entry for the smaller special event games (unless you specifically design to avoid this). The bigger, long-term game can also intimidate and turn-off non-gamers who think it all looks too involved to be fun.
Ongoing Combination McDonalds Monopoly Would Suck
I’m no critic of combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bells because they make sense. They could add a bong store or triple bipass clinic and I wouldn’t blink. But if there was a Pizza Hut and Battleship location or a Scrabble Taco Bell, it would be a little weird. Now, it should be obvious by now that I was very positively impressed by the Game Based Marketing book by Zichermann and Linder, but their suggestions for improving the successful, annual McDonalds Monopoly game didn’t click with me. Any suggestion that the Monopoly game promotion should be a continual year-round attraction is as weird and counter-intuitive for me as walking past a KFC Jenga in the food court (though if it involved using your teeth to remove pieces from a tower of extra-crispy chicken, I probably would try it… for science).
I’m not sure you even need the power of pervasive gaming when you have junk food that hooks people like crack. I’m not sure that Americans need another reason to pick up a burger, but let’s say I’m tasked with designing a game for a fast food joint. I don’t think pervasive is the way to go for a branded game. I think special event games are way more powerful for a fast food joint because ongoing loyalty programs don’t attract attention, viral marketing, or press the way a splashy limited-time contest does. The decision of which place to eat at is largely an impulse decision people make right before they go get some food. That’s when the publicity and viral effect of a high-profile limited-time special event game can be more valuable for driving food sales (my assumed ultimate game goal for this market) than a loyalty program that will still be there for another meal in the future .
Limited-Time Offers > Everyday Savings
I have a fond childhood memory of driving from the drive-thru at one McDonalds (with ice cream cones) to the next McDonalds (which, in a big city, is like 4 blocks away) to get more boxes of cookies just for the Monopoly pieces (because we were embarrassed to do all the transactions at one McDonalds). Being irrational like that, buying more food than you need, and making a point to go out of your way to a McDonalds is not something people will do indefinitely. Eventually, you’ll get sick of eating McDonalds. Or Wendy’s will run a splashy, limited-time contest and you’ll have to go there instead because, you know, that Wendy’s contest isn’t going to last and you can play the pervasive McDonalds game any time.
A few retail-oriented examples to support my take on this would be March Madness sales, double coupon days, and Black Friday. If you’re Wal-Mart, then you’ve got the everyday savings locked in for most basic consumer goods. But for every other retailer, where brand, quality, and other factors are more attractive to shoppers, the special event sale is truly a good marketing play. Instead of cheapening their offering year-round, they offer splashy limited-time sales. This has a viral effect because people want to let their friends know about the special deal before the opportunity passes. Limited-time sales can also bring new customers in the door, whereas I’m not sure how well loyalty programs function to acquire new customers.
Ongoing low prices are eventually taken for granted (and unless you have the massively efficient processes to make decent profits while still being a low-price leader, it’s not a good pricing or promotion strategy for most businesses). The viral effect and newsworthiness of everyday low prices are also limited because nobody feels pressure to share the deals right away. Everyday low prices may come up in conversation but they don’t motivate people to word of mouth marketing the way a limited-time promotion does.
A marketing game sometimes functions as a product or attraction in its own right (the McDonalds Monopoly game certainly does), and much like the everyday low prices, an everyday game offer can quickly be taken for granted.
How many of us have wallets full of half-finished punch cards for various lunch locations? If we only had one lunch option with a punch card, then yeah, it would encourage us to get lunch at that same place more often than not. But when we get loyalty cards from almost every lunch vendor within a mile radius of our workplace, then we might as well just eat wherever we feel like eating. We can always get our card punched next week.
But when you hit the food court and notice a special game event, like the Monopoly game, you know it might not be there next week. So you might be more motivated to get in that line at the food court before the opportunity has passed. That’s the experiential difference between a special game event and an ongoing loyalty program or pervasive game.
Special Game Events != Loyalty Programs
So while McDonalds might benefit from a loyalty program in addition to their annual Monopoly game, I don’t think that alone is a good argument for extending or altering the Monopoly game program to become a pervasive program. It would lost a little of its magic, and a lot of its viral potential.
Also, building out the Monopoly game to be a full-blown loyalty program would be a good example of what’s known as feature creep in software development. You can always add more features. What stops the insanity is the reality that you want to see this project launch before you die or you have a sensible functional spec that focuses on doing a limited number of things exceptionally well. Designing marketing game systems is similar in that you can always add cool stuff and try to target more and more KPIs (key performance indicators). Though over-extending increases the risk that you won’t be most effective at hitting your most important goals (and hopefully you know what those are, otherwise you probably shouldn’t be wasting resources to make a marketing game yet).
It’s easy to look at your marketing game design and think “wow, we could use this feature to drive engagement on our website… ooh-ooh, and we could add this other feature to increase opt-ins for our newsletter… and it wouldn’t be hard to add points and rewards here to drive conversions in our online store… and OMG, wouldn’t it be cool if people could visit our shops and geotag a tweet to get a coupon to unlock a lolcat with a special QRcode on its belly that you can snap with your mobile to download our app that lets you login for a badge you can show on your Facebook if you allow our FB app to access your complete medical history and contact information for two hot friends…” before you realize you’ve gotten somewhat off track from the original marketing goal of your game.
Focusing our marketing game designs on the most important KPIs is crucial. It’s also important that we judge the success of marketing game campaigns on whether they attain the specific results they were intended to achieve, not whether they accomplished every possible marketing goal with just one game.
The McDonalds Monopoly game event has stayed pretty focused in its goals over the years, though I recently learned their focus faltered a bit in 2009, and there was some negative response from consumers.
The Risks of Overgameification
Since everyone’s talking about gameification, and I enjoy playing devil’s advocate (or mirthful wet blanket), I’d like to also add the cautionary aside that extending the Monopoly game might suck the fun out of it.
Overgamification happens when game designers forget that most people are not gamers.
Most people like easy-ass games like scratch-off cards and solitaire. And sometimes there is really no significant business return (or diminishing returns) when you add a bunch of long-term strategic achievements to a game that is meant for the mass market. Yes, the power gamers will appreciate it and you will be able to hold your head high at GDC when people ask what you work on (saying “instant win games” probably won’t get you invited to any roundtable discussions). But easy, dumb features are more accessible.
More people own a DVD player than a game console, even though they both play DVDs. Deep down in your heart you know that all your non-gaming friends aren’t ignorant plebes who can’t appreciate the intrinsic beauty of a well-crafted game system. Gaming is simply a niche hobby, like knitting or pressing flowers. Ok, it’s a lot more popular than knitting, but it’s still not something most people want to do all the time. The idea of keeping score and ongoing strategic, nuanced decision-making can annoy non-gamers. And sometimes it only takes like 1 or 2 extra steps for a non-gamer to perceive a game system as hard or too much work, even though a gamer might think of the system as a mindless cakewalk.
New Online Features for McDonalds Monopoly
Turns out McDonalds already DID expand their Monopoly promotion in 2009 to try to drive traffic to their Facebook page, website, and sponsor programming (the Jay Leno show, apparently). By adding these additional targets to their game design, they probably got some results from the die-hard Monopoly piece collector but what was the net result? How did it affect the majority of their players (most of whom are not hardcore gamers)?
There is evidence that adding more online interactive features may have devalued the promotion by creating too much extra busy-work for the players. Going to the game’s Facebook site and website didn’t give all players enough value, leaving some players feeling like they were the ones getting played.
Maybe a better design, reward, or content payload could have helped, but I generally think the less you ask of your players in a mass market game, the more participation and goodwill you can build. The more you ask of people, the more they think “what am I getting out of this?” and it can be hard to cost-effectively provide enough personalized value for everyone in a mass market segment. If your game targets a narrow, well-defined market segment, then it will be a lot easier to make sure your game delivers value for actions that could otherwise be perceived as busy-work.
Three Tips for Special Event Games
- Keep special events simple and focus on easy, short-term achievements. Long-term goals and overgameification can actually reduce the brand value of a beloved annual special event promotion by making the game too complicated and focused on the business goals rather than the goals and experience of the player.
- Avoid overgamification and time sinks. Gamers have insatiable appetites for challenges and they appreciate an elegant, clever design. Mass market consumers are turned off by games that involve extra work, complicated rules, resources they don’t have (lots of money for purchases or lots of friends willing to do group challenges), or long-term rewards (saving isn’t as fun as spending or gambling for a reward today). Just remember how many people think Blackjack is too hard to play, so they go play a slot machine (which is not so much a good game as it is an amazingly addictive interactive entertainment experience).
- Limit the time horizon for a special game event. The value of a special event game is a lot like the value of a holiday like Christmas or a birthday. If you extend it to an everyday, commonplace program, you lose some of the fun and a lot of the viral potential (and free media exposure, though that really only applies if you’re big enough to get noticed by major media outlets). Even if you want the promotion to run all the time, consider limiting it to certain days of the week or set other limiting conditions to make it feel special and to promote impulsive participation.
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