Category Archives: Marketing

Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Effectively using humor in marketing is tricky. If you know your target market well, humor is great linkbait. The most viral web phenomena to date have all been funny… to some people. The problem is knowing if the market for your website or app has a generally homogeneous sense of humor.

Sometimes we are so immersed in our personal subcultures that we fail to see how anyone can NOT get the jokes that we take for granted.

Nowhere is this becoming more of a problem in my media diet than in the realm of gamer humor. Something happened this past week that made me wonder if gamer humor has crossover potential or if the misapplication of gamer humor is going to become a problem now that gameification is the new the black.

Gameification may be encouraging game designers to apply the stock tools* of game design to applications that might be much better without even a whiff of Leeroy Jenkins’ chicken.

*If chainmail binkini and “<blank> of <blank>ing” jokes are any less of a stock game tool than “badges” I’ll eat my lush dwarven beard.

But Everyone I Know Thinks It’s Funny!

Obviously, the more edgy or weird your jokes are, the higher the risk/reward potential is for creating a spectacularly offensive dud or the next big viral joke. Geek culture may be cool now, but gamer culture is still a niche experience, regardless of our powerful self-referential presence on teh Interweb. Continue reading Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

Gameplay during commercials may be an effective way to get more people to pay attention to sponsored ads on broadcast television. Interestingly, it is very rare to see any type of contest or game-like promotion to reward people for watching commercials, even though that behavior is highly desirable to broadcast advertisers.

  • Can gameplay be used as incentives for attentive t.v. commercial viewing? Could games help television advertisers cultivate the interactive engagement and motivation that lead to direct response after ads are viewed?
  • Are commercial games rare because games were not effective in this role in the past? Or is it because so many marketers assume any type of game has to involve an expensive prize or legal consultation to make sure the promotion is on the right side of gambling and lottery laws?
  • What types of games would be compelling during live broadcast commercial breaks? What issues would need to be addressed to prevent people who did not watch the commercial from simply scraping the commercial contents from a web resource after the actual broadcast?

Zapping and Zipping Commercials into Extinction

Since the development of the home VCR, advertisers have been concerned with zipping—fast forwarding through commercials during recordings of sponsored television programs. Newer technologies have only increased advertiser paranoia that television viewers are prerecording shows and then skipping the commercial breaks. A similar concern was raised with the advent of remote controls which let users change the channel during commercial breaks with very little physical effort (zapping). Continue reading Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

Three Tips for Special Event Games

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.

Got tips to make the most of a special event game promotion? Add a Comment

FTC Advergame Pimps Aducation to Kids

Apparently, the FTC thinks our kids need a little help understanding the persuasive intent of advertising in the media.

Whether that’s based on the assumption that our kids are kind of dense or that parents are failing to explain how media advertising works is irrelevant here. The bottom line is that the FTC used a chunk of its limited resources to pay a major advertising company (Fleishman-Hillard) to create Admongo: a persuasive game that “aducates” kids about the world of overt advertising (the examples don’t really touch on some of the most popular forms of internet marketing, such as how search engine results or affiliate ads work).

Scholastic (the education mega-corp) helped too, creating curriculum so that this advergame can worm its way into middle-school classrooms (you know, because the public school system has unlimited time to teach our kids all sorts of trivia and is in no way struggling to instill basic literacy, much less media literacy).

There is no indication that parents were involved in the creation of the game and parental figures do not appear to perform their key media literacy roles (telling kids “no, we’re not buying that junk”, monitoring kids’ media usage, and discussing media issues directly with kids).

Admongo = a lot of money and effort spent to teach kids ad awareness.

Since we are pretty ad-aware here, let’s look at this a bit closer. Beyond the unforgivable puns, there are a number of things we should be questioning about this advergame product.

What is the desired outcome of Admongo?

The FTC seems to think that ads work because people don’t recognize the advertiser or the persuasive intent, as if awareness of the advertisement will somehow render it powerless.

What exactly is the expected outcome from Admongo? Kids will be able to neutralize ad effectiveness? Kids will respond to ads they see with a moment of thought and self-reflection? Kids will challenge our consumerist society and begin a bold new world by virtue of identifying product placement messages in a video game? Suuuuure…

Au Contraire, Apple! I am not a Mac!   It is I that shall mark my brand upon you. Ha-ha!

If this were the case, then it would be impossible to advertise effectively to professional marketers and educated adults. I think it’s apparent that this is not how the world works, and ad awareness campaigns are interesting, but unlikely to protect kids from the influence of advertisers, even if kids learn to think like marketers.

Everybody Persuades Kids, Not Just Businesses

What’s ironic here is that the education industry, now including the FTC advergame Admongo, is constantly trying to use the tools of marketing and ads to influence kids. Teachers and parents relentlessly try to influence kids; tell them what to think, what values to have, what to believe in, how to spend their resources, and how to think and feel about themselves and their world.

Kids are bombarded with persuasive messages, some of them very troubling and deeply scarring, from many more powerful and authoritative sources than commercial advertising. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot more psychological baggage from family and grade school than I have from the breakfast cereal commercials I watched as a kid.

If people want to help kids develop into happy, healthy adults, I am not convinced that aducation is going to do much to change lives. Commercial advertising influences us, but we also gravitate toward certain media, brands, and ads because these things reflect some part of us or appeal to us as we already are. I don’t think the advertisers create our internal fear and desires (though they certainly profit from them).

Ads Don’t Make Us Who We Are

Just taking one example that I know a bit about from personal struggle and research: teen girls with eating disorders are typically acting out against a perceived lack of control in their life (typically due to family or interpersonal issues) combined with peer pressures and internal self-image problems. Though you often hear media and thin models being scapegoated for our children’s anorexia, the problem, more often than not, started with interpersonal relationships, not media exposure. Additionally, we gravitate toward media that resonates with us, so in many ways, the messages our kids receive is a function of our kids’ expressed preferences (especially with online advertising initiated by the clickstream of the kids themselves).

Media literacy is a good tool, but I doubt it is going to reach the heart of the matter for many of the serious problems kids face. Furthermore, effective ads play on emotion: fear and desire. No amount of awareness can really overcome a visceral, emotional response. The lack of rational control over emotional response is why people often act against their best interest, and it’s a matter that goes much deeper than media literacy.

If the government spent these funds to create a persuasive game to help kids sort out the negative influence of family, schools, peers, and poor self-image in their lives, I think there would be a greater net positive outcome than spending money teaching kids how to think like marketers.

Advertising Derives Authority from Society

Just because someone runs an ad, it does not guarantee the ad will resonate and convert persuasive intent to consumer action. Advertising is only effective when it gels well with how people are already perceiving the world and themselves. Society and all its collective fears and desires—that is the real source of marketing power and authority. To change which advertisements resonate well with us (and which products or ideas sell), we need to change the way people think and feel. 

In modern times, educators and advocates are using the tools of marketing and ads, such as marketing games, to promote helpful messages. The fact that the FTC has resorted to advergaming to push its ad awareness agenda here is telling.

Let’s use the ad awareness lessons taught by Admongo to analyze the advergame Admongo.

Who Paid for the Ads in Admongo?

The FTC paid to say this to youth:

One government agency works to protect consumers from being hurt by advertising. This agency is called the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.

If anything, Admongo does a great job promoting the FTC as the good guy trying to help protect kids from advertising. I wonder if that’s the real message of this game, and whether the target of the message is actually the parents and public opinion in regards to FTC’s performance on the ad regulation front. If parents think ads are relentlessly invading our privacy and targeting our kids, they might start to wonder why the government hasn’t done more to protect kids (such as Sweden’s ban on advertising targeting kids younger than 12).

What Is the Ad Actually Saying?

Admongo is telling kids that advertising is everywhere, that (among other things) ads give us information to help us decide what products to buy. The messages in Admongo are really that weak. There is no attempt to vilify advertisers (probably a good thing) but it also leaves the player feeling like it was a lot of work for very little revelation. Ads aren’t made out to be very evil, influential, or worthy of this level of scrutiny.

Higher-impact, specific messages with consequences kids care about might have made the experience stronger (fatty food ads linked with obesity and getting teased for weight at school, or athletic shoe ads that promise better sports performance but don’t deliver any changes).

What Is the Ad Telling Me to Do?

Here’s the rub: the advergame Admongo tells you to collect ads. Seriously. You advance in the game by identifying advertisements. The rewarded behavior is PAYING ATTENTION TO ADS. I’m not sure how else to emphasize my confusion and sense of fail with this game design.

If there was more involved, like analyzing or predicting the effect of ads on certain NPCs or designing effective “counter-ads” with helpful messaging that defeats the negative harmful ads (like kids finding a cigarette billboard and creating a new anti-smoking ad to put up in its place) then I might comprehend the messaging in this game. As it stands, the gameplay simply motivates kids to pay closer attention to ads and literally “collect them all” to win. Read into that what you may.

Admongo Summary

  • Admongo teaches kids to recognize ads and some advertiser techniques
  • Admongo’s desired outcome seems to be ad awareness, not encouraging critical thinking or value judgments about ads
  • Admongo raises awareness of the FTC brand and suggests that the government, via the one agency that “works to protect consumers”, is helping so kids don’t get “hurt” by advertising
  • Admongo does not address helpful ads and harmful ads, or how kids might tell the difference

Admongo is trying to influence kids through the medium of an advergame, but failing to explain to kids that some persuasive games and ads might be promoting helpful messages and that others might be promoting harmful messages. This mixed message reduces the overall effectiveness of Admongo.

By asking kids to be media savvy, but not encouraging them to question the value of the media delivering the media literacy campaign, it promotes the idea that kids can trust some messaging (from the FTC, from schools, from Scholastic, etc.) but it doesn’t give them any insight into how they know they can trust certain messages. Evaluating the source of a message is key to understanding its value, so I am surprised that isn’t a central part of the gameplay.

I’m going to have my kids, ages 11 and 13, play Admongo and discuss it with me before I give a final verdict, but so far, the project looks like a slick, glossy advergame that provided a lot more tangible value to the creators of the game than it will provide the players, our kids.

What do you think of Admongo? Does it provide value for kids? Add a Comment

Fear and Longing in Game Marketing

I’m still digesting Game Zichermann and Joselin Linder’s book Game-Based Marketing. Not even twenty pages into the book, the unmentionable side of game marketing hits the fan:

According to Zichermann and Linder, frequent flyer programs “are particularly and extraordinarily powerful. They routinely cause players engaged in the game to make decisions that are counterintuitive to their well-being—and checkbook—in order to “level up.”

And the book then gives the ridiculously evil (but true) example of well-to-do people taking “mileage runs” (flights to destinations they do not want or need taken only to earn more points), despite the huge costs of air travel to the buyer and the environment.

Is the future of game marketing compelling people to do wasteful, absurdly unproductive things to gain points or a competitive edge in game marketing systems that basically pressgang customers into unwitting contract jobs, driving them to execute purchases, marketing, and PR tasks for relatively minor rewards?

It’s a joke that MMOG players are the only people who pay their employer (the game publisher) for the privilege of hour after hour of menial labor (referring to the grinds in most mainstream MMOs that happen once you are established and invested in the game). It seems that customers of products in many non-entertainment markets will join the grind soon enough, and maybe for far less entertainment value or personal benefit than MMOG players receive.

Games + Marketing = Persuasive Power Up

Anyone who knows the power of marketing already understands that persuasive marketing messages can change minds, spread ideas, and prompt actions.

The power of marketing can be used to promote things that are good for the audience or things that are bad for the audience but good for the person promoting the message (and every shade of mutual benefit in between those obvious extremes). Sometimes, the marketing message benefits the marketer more than the buyer or the seller of whatever is being promoted.

Although I love marketing and am deeply fascinated by it, there is a damn good reason consumers hate marketers and are suspicious of our intentions. We actively seek to manipulate their thoughts, feelings and actions by tapping their deepest desires and fears. What’s not to like, right?

So, here is the ethical dilemma with games in marketing: if television and print ads have the potential to be propaganda for war, racism, sexism, agism, sizeism, and [insert your most reviled ism here], imagine what an unscrupulous marketer can do with the power of game mechanics?

Recreational Games = Consensual Fun

Any gamer knows how a good game consumes you.

Often, this consumption is mutual: the gamer can’t get enough of the game, and the game can’t seem to get enough of the player’s time and attention (and money, in the case of games with ongoing subscription or micropayments). But because gaming is traditionally in the realm of entertainment and recreation, quitting the game is also often fairly trivial. Painful for certain people, but easily accomplished because there is no rational everyday situation that forces you to log back into World of Warcraft or start up a new D&D group. Either you want to do it, and knowingly participate in it, or you choose not to participate at this time.

The world of videogaming is optional, though powerful. You can avoid recreational gaming’s siren call, despite its impressive ability to manipulate our behavior and retain our interest at nearly irrational levels (it’s not uncommon for a gamer to grind achievements and game progress like it was their job).

Marketing Games = Pervasive, Hidden

The world of marketing is not optional; it’s pervasive and inescapable. I’m marketing to you right now. You don’t need to think about it, choose it, or even notice it. But I am marketing these ideas. We are all marketers when we communicate and present ourselves and our ideas. We all refer friends and family to products and services.

In the new world of always-on pervasive marketing games both conscious participants and oblivious participants are compelled to make “counterintuitive choices” (as Zichermann and Linder politely phrase it). Economists often talk about demand as if it is this natural force in the world, but everyone knows demand is crafted by marketers using the raw materials of people’s inner fear and longing. Human nature and survival does not demand fluff like ringtones or diamonds. Marketers ensure that people demand these things by creating markets, and so gaming too will be used to create demand for all sorts of products.

What effect do game mechanics have on the natural forces that keep market-based economies working well? Could a well-designed game encourage consumers to change markets in ways that are undesirable overall? How do we design games that contribute productively to a market, rather than distorting or detracting from natural market equilibriums?

Will the FTC respond to protect consumers from the intense draw of marketing games as gambling and affiliate marketing have both come under fire? Will there be a consumer backlash? And if so, will that backlash have a chilling effect on recreational gaming (optional games for entertainment)?

Conscious Consumer-Marketers

The conscious consumer-marketers have increasingly recognized their ability to get or retain something of perceived value for sharing stuff with others or simply doing what they’re told (for example: “login to Coke Rewards at least once every 90 days or you’ll lose your points” does nothing to provide real value to customers, it simply uses fear to coerce reward program participants to execute a desired behavior, increasing engagement with the brand (and inflating site metrics) at the expense of the customer’s time and energy).

Imagine what a drain on collective productivity it would create if even 20% of the brands we buy regularly demanded that level of participation and attention from us (on top of the energy and time to actually buy and use their product)? Would we consciously give that much of our time to rewards programs if there were many programs competing for our attention? It is possible that frequent flyer and credit card reward programs have enjoyed such great success, in part, because they are not competing with a reward program or game for every brand.

Remember the 1-to-1 marketing trend last decade and how, eventually, marketers had to admit they were maybe asking for too much from their customer relationships and coming off more like an annoying, desperate suitor who continually wants to be more-than-friends with customers? A 1-to-1 relationship between a customer and all the brands they buy is as untenable as participatory gaming between customers and all the brands they buy. Is the solution meta reward programs that simplify the customer relationship or would that divert the loyalty and business benefit to the meta reward program company rather than participating brands?

Marketers need to be careful not to start thinking of their customers (who pay the bills) as their employees who can be sent on quests to build website metrics or generate leads from friends and family for token rewards. It might work in the short-term, but once it catches on in a big way, it will become a major pain for consumers.

Oblivious Consumer-Marketers

I’ll visit the concept of the oblivious consumer-marketer in a later post, but it’s a really important, transformational trend in our culture right now. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and more conspire to make us all into PR independent contractors, marketing affiliates, and brand evangelists. And the scary part is that we might not even notice.

Ethics Checklist for Game Marketers

As I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years researching, testing, and devising ways to apply game mechanics and interactive entertainment software to marketing (particularly in the adult entertainment industry), this ethical issue is always gnawing at the back of my mind. We know what games can make people do. We know what marketing can make people do. Both tap the fear and longing that lives deep inside of us, often in ways we do not fully appreciate while it is happening.

Here’s a short list of ethical issues to address when you’re leveraging the power of games for marketing:

  • Does this game collect too much personally identifiable information about individual players? Does your game really need to know your player’s full name, e-mail address, or phone number? If no, then don’t ask for it. Save the player time and save your company the responsibility of securing excess personal data.
  • Does this game give players privacy controls? This point is especially important if the game hooks into any part of a player’s online social graph.
  • Does this game always provide a reward when the player executes a desired action, or does it maintain participation based on fear and negative feedback alone? Is the player coming back to get something or to avoid losing something? Negative feedback might get results sometimes, but it wears on people and can build deep-seated resentment. Not exactly the kind of experience you want associated with your brand.
  • Does any part of this game offer a viable solution to a problem the player cares about? A marketing game can be a viable product in its own right, such as a charity contest that motivates fundraising while engaging the players in a competitive game that also solves a real-life problem the players care about.
  • Does this game encourage grinding or mistake sisyphean ordeals for gameplay? Are players pushed into repeatable busy-work or impossible challenges because your game mechanics are poorly designed or inadequately play-tested with no regard for balance or real player feedback?
  • Did you playtest this game and balance it from a player perspective (or hire someone who knows how to accomplish this)? Marketing games are not broadcast ad channels nor are they social media channels for conversations. They are game systems, which are notoriously easy to dream up (or copy) but very challenging to balance and execute well. It’s not enough to know what game mechanics to use; you need to know how to use them in a way that doesn’t leave your players upset that they wasted time actively playing.
  • Do you really understand the total cost of providing the rewards promoted in your game and can you deliver on the rewards promised to your players? I worked with one client who literally told me that it was fine to have a broken points-redemption system because at some point in the future, they could change the value of the points. Now this was a very simple program where xyz points = x cash rebate. Can you imagine the customer backlash if people played along, did what they were told, and saved up points to acquire x cash rebate… only to find the value of their points nerfed unceremoniously in the future? Please, please, please don’t do this. Design a rewards program that you can afford at any given volume of participants.
  • Does this game respect player’s limited time and energy? We all have families, significant others, jobs, errands, hobbies, and countless entertainment options. Time is more valuable than money (thought it’s very, very easy to convince people otherwise). We do our players and customers a grave disservice when we compell them to squander their time with us, whether it’s on a laborious, crappy shopping cart system or a laborious, crappy social networking game.

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Fun Is Not the Holy Grail of Engagement

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Gabe Zichermann’s article Top 5 Ways to Make Your Site More Fun. Hallelujah! I am very excited to see more people finally connecting the dots between successful interactive entertainment software (video game) design and effective engagement design in software and websites for business. This is the kind of stuff I preach to clients, colleagues, and my (polite but bored) boyfriend on a regular basis.

Game Design for Business Apps

Game-inspired engagement and motivation techniques that seemed obvious to me 10+ years ago are now being recognized as useful tools for user experience design in all kinds of business applications. I’m sure many game designers feel some sense of “duh, we knew this already” but that’s why the development of business-friendly encapsulations of staple game design techniques ( like Zichermann’s Funware concept) are exciting.

Zichermann is doing a great service by framing discussions of rewards programs and social network sites in terms of how they use game mechanics effectively. He is distilling a lot of tremendously valuable information about what works in interactive software design to non-gamers and people outside of the somewhat myopic games industry.

People who design websites, business apps, marketing campaigns, and fundraising events can now learn why game mechanics get results.

But Is Fun the Point?

However, I do have a minor quibble with the focus on “fun” as a main reason to use game mechanics in your website or application. My objection here is pretty much an extension of one I have with game designers in general: the obsession with entertainment that only culminates in a warm, fuzzy feeling of achievement or at least a satisfying resolution (winning, saving the day, completing the so-called Hero’s Journey, finally saving up enough points to buy a virtual item you covet, etc.). The focus on fun alone is also why game design, as an artistic medium, has not yet produced a Schindler’s List (or even a Life Is Beautiful), though at least we got Train.In game design, it’s largely presumed that fun is a positive experience with nothing but good, productive stress, and many an overly-serious Game Design book has been written trying to explain how FUN is crafted. People think of games as the candy in our media diets, not the whole grains or the steak.

The problem with fun, is that successful, effective entertainment does not need to be fun. People can be deeply engaged, motivated and, ultimately, entertained by experiences and media that is down-right disturbing, sad, and leaves us with more questions than answers, more tension than resolution. Moreover, people can be entertained by games, media, and experiences that are patently dull, repetitive, and frustrating as hell (for example, the grind to get xp in your favorite MMOG… sure it has a pay-off at the end, but it isn’t always fun while you’re doing it).

Interesting to me is that even when people seem to understand the trend of pervasive gaming, gameification of everyday life, they still focus on the element of fun. As if life, work, and everything important in the world can or should be primarily fun. I suppose with rose-colored glasses on, everything might have fun potential, but realistically, I don’t think every experience does have the potential to be fun. The feeling goes double for a lot of the mundane transactional chores we do in marketplaces for goods and services.

Rather, I think the savvy marketer will employ game mechanics to promote engagement and motivate key behaviors, with fun regarded only in proportion to how the consumer feels about the product and exchange of value. Big-ticket purchases like airfare and hotel rooms are considered both expensive and interesting choices by consumers. Household staples like toothpaste and toilet paper… not so much. The gratification your market will get from the game marketing you employ will most likely be a function of how much interest or expense the customers already associated with your product (before they even play your advergame or participate in your rewards program).

Motivation for the Win

The holy grail of engagement design, game design included, is not fun. The holy grail is motivation. How do you make someone WANT to keep doing something? There are many ways, and game mechanics are some of the most tried-and-true techniques software designers have to keep end-users doing whatever it is you want them to do.

If you’re making a mainstream video game, then fun is important. If you’re designing a rewards program for the loyal users of Charmin toilet paper (in order to sell more TP), then what you really want from game mechanics is motivation that drives your measurable, performance marketing campaign. Fun and whimsy doesn’t come into it as much as you might think.

Besides, what do you think will happen to the “fun factor” when every damn thing you buy or use wants to make that experience into a game? Do I want points and levels every time I buy more toilet paper, or is that just adding another distracting layer of complication to my already complicated life? Think in terms of motivation and choose your game mechanics accordingly, rather than trying to “gamewash” everything in sight.

Gamewashing = More Work Than Fun

Apparently, I just coined the term gamewashing. And by gamewashing, I mean applying game mechanics to shoehorn gratuitous fun into utilitarian experiences nobody cares to enjoy. The net result is often that the game and meta-gaming adds more busy-work in its misguided quest to make something more fun.

Case in point: Chore Wars. I mean aren’t chores time consuming enough without adding a meta-game process that requires me to keep a log whenever I scrub the toilet or fold the laundry? I’m a hardcore achiever in games and getting XP for life work does sound tempting… but not if tracking and awarding the XP actually creates MORE work (though I am perverse enough to want to write a strategy guide for Chore Wars, you know… for people who want to put in the extra time to meta-game their Chore Wars group in order to get maximum XP for minimum actual work). The longer I dwell on it, the more I think Chore Wars is just a brilliant way for one person (perhaps the neatnik or parental type who fusses the most over chores) to motivate others to do more than they were doing previously. In which case, it’s more of a social exploit, or a persuasive marketing game that people can use to influence their family, roommates, or co-workers. Chore Wars is certainly not a game one plays for the personal satisfaction of playing, though it has loads of entertainment value as comedy fodder.

Challenge = Motivational, Not Fun

Ever played a game well past the point where it was actually still fun? You kept playing because fun is just a positive side effect of the deep engagement—the motivation—created by any game, or any experience (since this whole concept of engagement goes far beyond games). We keep doing stuff, even when it is not fun, because something motivates us. Sometimes the challenge of the game experience feels quite frustrating, but we persist because we are effectively motivated to beat the challenge. Thus, experiences of frustration rather than fun, can sometimes be a big part of why a game is effective at engagement and motivation. This reality runs counter to what you might expect (especially if you think successful games are 100% focused on fun).

Nobody will argue that Tetris is not a successful, effective game. But unless you’re a real glutton for punishment (or expert player), Tetris is simply not fun at the higher, fast-paced levels. It pisses me off. But it also makes me want to become a better Tetris player, so I keep trying. One can argue that a frustrating challenge is a type of fun, but when I’m tense and exhausted from getting soooo close to beating my high-score, only to fail yet again… fun is not the first “f” word that comes to mind. Sometimes good games are not fun 100% of the time. Sometimes good movies, books, and life itself are not fun 100% of the time. But they can still be engaging and entertaining despite the lack of wall-to-wall fun (especially in retrospect, where the real “assessment” of value is made by the participant).

So remember the most addictive (yet frustrating) game you’ve ever played again and again. Or, if you are not a gamer, remember the most challenging romantic relationship you’ve ever had (more than likely, there were plenty of times it was more “engaging” for you than “fun”). Sometimes we need to build engagement without cultivating fun (for example, if your website and community is about bereavement or bankruptcy… maybe fun is not quite the right experience to shoot for).

Game Mechanics Don’t Enhance Everything

And it’s also fair to note that the mere presence of game mechanics alone does not create fun.

Coke Rewards is a successful rewards program that offers enough value that I don’t mind saving the codes and asking my kids to enter them (they also get to claim the points). However, I would not describe the experience of participating in Coke Rewards as fun. Entering the codes is a chore. It’s a chore I am happy to delegate to kids who are still young enough to thrill at a free pop redemption, but it’s not a chore I would spend my own time on, regardless of the points system, sweepstakes, and many well-designed features. There is moderate motivation in the program (stronger if you are broke or a freebie/coupon hobbyist) but generally, it’s more work than reward. Coke sure gets a lot out of it though, in site engagement, page views (ad views), and collection of some market research data. It’s gameified, and effective, but I do not think most participants are having fun the majority of the time they are participating in the Coke Rewards program.

There are also many applications and experiences where you just can’t shoehorn a genuinely fun experience into them because the engagement and motivation is too directly task or outcome based for the user. In these cases, any active game mechanics are only getting in the user’s way. Passive game mechanics might be useful, but there is no such thing as an entirely passive game system (at some point, to even be experienced, the game system needs some amount of attention from the user, else it is invisible and not really experienced at all).

As Zichermann says in his article, Quicken doesn’t leave you feeling elated and I suspect it’s because most people would be pretty depressed if they realized using Quicken was a highlight in their day. Remember that little bastard Clippy who tried to add some fun and personality to MS Office apps? I know he was part of an elaborate help feature that was supposed to assist you with MS Office tasks, but most people just found him (and his other fun, cute cartoon friends) an annoying interruption that actually created more work (you had to click to make him go away).

Don’t add so much “fun” to your application that you get in the way of people trying to USE your website or application. Again, it’s really the motivation and engagement that you want, not necessarily the fun.

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Fan Service – Feeding the Superfans

World of Warcraft Magazine Logo
World of Warcraft Magazine is for Superfans

An old marketing adage that remains true in most cases is that it costs much more (sometimes many times more) to acquire a new customer than the costs to sell additional products or services to existing customers. At a time when World of Warcraft has an amazing 11.5 million players (market saturation yet?), it’s safe to say that the costs of acquiring new, virginal WoW players is likely to be significantly higher than simply creating new things to sell existing fans, particularly the superfans.

In geek and mainstream culture, the superfans are the ones who stand in lines to get new releases, tickets, and merch, and they are the people who create and consume fan art and fan fic, immersing themselves in the likable bits of their chosen fandom. Nearly everyone goes through some phase of fandom in our lives, whether it’s a particular kids’ show that we had all the toys for and made a point to be in front of the television at a certain time each day like it was our job, or whether it was a particular brand of shoes or computer that made us feel kinda cool just for owning them. Apple and fashion brands make a killing from superfans. Niche media like comic books practically live or die by catering to (or alienating) their superfans.

And the great thing about superfans is that they genuinely want to buy more of whatever it is you’re selling, so long as you are respectful of the things they truly love about your offering (in other words, you don’t fuck with their emotional attachments and badges of social status). Sure, if you mess up, a superfan can go incredibly sour on your company (think Kathy Bates’ character in Misery when she discovers her favorite fictional series is ending in the next book). But that’s a small risk when all you need to do is find out what your fans love, and build off of that.

This is why the Blizzard magazine makes sense. Maybe not for the long haul, but for right now while the superfans are hungry for more. This new magazine has nothing to do with the overall prospects for the mainstream sorts of magazines you see (but probably never buy) at the grocery store. The WoW magazine is actually an extension of some of the community features Blizzard has already identified, via their web site and popular 3rd party sites, as endless oceans of superfan joy. Fan art, especially beautiful painterly and comic style art, has been prominently showcased on the WoW community site for several years because the fans can’t get enough of the stuff. Ditto for WoW humor (how many dwarf beard jokes do we really need? “A plethora, El Guapo,” says the superfan). In addition to the t-shirts, action figures, and multitudes of other swag offered to superfans over the years, a magazine is just a natural extension of the art, fan fic, comics, strategy guides, developer interviews, and other popular fare that superfans already consume for free. Except now, Blizzard wagers the superfans are going to pay for it, at least for a while, because it will be in print.

And I believe it would not be a viable offering if the magazine were digital. Why? Because the lure here is to get all that free stuff superfans love in tangible, glossy dead tree format. The superfan collector will slide her issues into plastic covers to save them for some future auction or convention. The superfan art patron will have particularly beautiful color pieces from the magazine hung on the wall (matted and framed if she’s artsy herself). And all of the superfans who snap these precious (and probably short lived) rags up will have a touristy souvenir of Azeroth in their hot little hands. Like when that girl in the first Freddy movie pulls his hat out of a dream and into her world, except, uh, in a fun way. The magazine, like the action figures, is a means for superfans to get hold of a little bit of the dreamscape, the virtual place that they have lived so many hours of their life in. It really makes sense as fan service, and as a potentially high-margin new product aimed squarely at existing customers (a coffee table book is nice too, but a periodical feeds the superfans ongoing cravings for fresh, timely, I-just-saw-this-exclusive-shit-before-you-did content).

All that remains to be seen is 1) whether the editorial and graphic design staff do a good job of catering to the superfans above and beyond what is available on the many excellent 3rd party WoW sites, and 2) how long Blizzard can milk the epic cash cow that is WoW.

What I would love to see is a Second Life subscription-free digital publication (with optional pay-per-issue print-on-demand issues) highlighting all of the excellent Second Life user-created content. Partly because things don’t live long on the grid, and partly because SL graphics don’t look so hot in the viewer but can look stunning after light post work in a graphics program. It would be a small revenue stream (and additional advertising vehicle to augment the janky SL in-world classifieds) as well as a nice (and MUCH needed) way to show appreciation for all of the content creators who take a loss to build the experiences that make SL relevant. What SL superfan wouldn’t buy a print issue if their build, art, or avatar was featured in the magazine?

News via Mashable

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