Category Archives: Funware

Funware is a term, coined by Gabe Zichermann, that refers to applications that use game mechanics in non-game contexts (such as a frequent flier program’s use of badges, levels, points and challenges).

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

N00b Proof Your Funware. Tech Support Will Thank You.

Funware is only fun if people understand what the hell is going on. How hard is it to confuse people by putting a game where they weren’t expecting a game? Well, it depends on the user experience… and sometimes users are more easily confused than you ever imagined.

This post will explain the potential usability problems if you add funware to your existing user experience, and what types of users are most likely to be impacted (hint: it’s not the dumb-as-dirt minority you are probably scoffing at already). In the conclusion, I’ll give 4 actionable tips to improve the usability of your funware (and drastically lower the chance that your funware will drive users to drive their tech support staff crazy).

“I Have the Pac-Man Game and I Want to Disable That?”

Have you heard the audio recording of a tech support call resulting from Google’s super-cute interactive Pac-Man logo? This poor woman uses Google for productivity and instead she found a noisy game on the Google search page, so she called tech support to try to get the game removed.

Awkwardness ensues, but the tech support hero helps her work through the problem (which is mainly that the game sounds are still audible while she is trying to do other stuff in her browser, the way she probably does every day). If you’re a good software designer you are going “oh that’s a problem, hm… how could they have avoided this issue” but if you’re a less user-focused software designer you’re thinking “what a dumbass, there were several ways for her to work around this without calling tech support.”

If you’re in the latter camp, you need to go work in tech support for a while. Seriously, it is boring and repetitive and you rarely get to solve any interesting problems but you can’t design good software unless you understand what it’s like to be a “pure user” with no idea how to troubleshoot or work around a software experience that doesn’t match your mental model. Continue reading N00b Proof Your Funware. Tech Support Will Thank You.

Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

Just watched an interesting video of Nicole Lazzaro speaking about her excellent research and insights into how game players experience emotions (her most cited work identifies and explains the multitude of human emotions that most people just lump together as “fun”).

Why Lazzaro’s Theory of Fun Is Useful

Lazzaro’s work is comprehensive and she thinks outside the box of the mainstream video game industry.

Her insight goes far beyond just making a game fun for the sake of fun. Unlike design professionals in every other industry, such as architects and productivity software designers, game designers sometimes resent having to design games that produce other measurable, quantifiable outcomes besides fun. Creating a functional building, working within end-user specifications and other design constraints is essentially what an architect is paid and expected to do but there are obviously major perks for architects that also create enjoyable, livable, beautiful spaces too. The aesthetic component is there, as with website design, but the practical constraints really define the design challenge. It’s the same in a marketing game or gameified application trying to achieve outcomes above and beyond a good time for the player.

When the game has to serve a purpose beyond simply being fun to play, I think it’s best to look to designers like Lazzaro for insight rather than to the mainstream video game industry right now. Studying Grand Theft Auto or the intricacies of a good tower defense game WILL NOT help you develop a great social media title that engages your customers with your brand. Studying how and why players experience fun, engagement, and motivation while gaming WILL help you. Continue reading Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

Know the Limits of Game Mechanics

So, you want to add game mechanics to your new online product? Where do you begin?

Short of hiring an experienced game designer, how does a business or creative person learn enough about game design to effectively integrate social badges, leaderboards, and points systems into non-game products?

This is a tough question because every single one of the best books I’ve read about game design are too long, too academic, or too esoteric (for someone who isn’t a hardcore gamer or old enough to have played decades of the games referenced in the texts). I’m starting to see some short, simplified books describing the new Funware trend, but they tend to convince people that Funware is the new hotness, rather than help people actually apply it.

People need an accessible marketing-oriented book that instructs a game design novice on the finer points (and pitfalls) of using game mechanics in their product or user experience designs. I have not found that book yet, but parts of it exist in many related books. It’s not that this information is not out there, it’s just not available in an effective format for some of the folks who need it now.

So, no dream book yet, but I saw a FANTASTIC slideshow today.

If you’re a website or app designer, there is a good introductory slideshow now for using game mechanics effectively in non-game product designs, thanks to Sebastian Deterding. Continue reading Know the Limits of Game Mechanics

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

Game Industry Outsiders Weren’t Surprised. At All.

One thing that is always striking about the mainstream game industry is how surprised game developers seem when they learn about the success of games, virtual worlds, and game-like systems that wouldn’t impress professional game designers. I don’t think the problem is elitism, just that the world of entertainment looks very different from inside the fuzzy vertical market called the games industry.

Game Insiders Were Some of the Last to Know

This spring I sat dumbstruck in my home office, watching a video of genius entertainment designer Jesse Schell building the intro to his DICE 2010 presentation (about the future of pervasive gaming) around the idea that professional game industry people were surprised by mega-hits like Facebook’s Farmville and Mafia Wars. Really? Ok, maybe some people just took a while to get onto Facebook (I know I avoided it as long as I could because I needed another online social network like RollerCoaster Tycoon needed a movie adaptation). Some degree of Facebook cluelessness is comprehensible.

But Schell masterfully builds rapport with his audience by highlighting “surprise” hits like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit, and inquiring who in the audience thought the Wii would be the winner in the last gen console war (to which I wondered “who didn’t know the Wii was the only console with mass market potential?”). This makes more sense if you were following the games industry in the earlier half of this decade when every conference was full of game devs trying to comprehend how people could make money creating cheesy match-3 games instead of real games like Battlefield 1942 (thankfully, casual games are now given a lot more respect in the industry, but in 2002 they were a target of much dismissal and derision).

I know Schell was resonating with his target audience because I’ve attended these types of events myself and I keep in touch with game dev friends (though I’m in St. Paul, far from the game industry hotspots). There are certain mentalities and opinions that are oddly pervasive, until the overwhelming evidence and thought-leaders like Schell convince everyone that these other kinds of entertainment experiences matter. DICE gets more of a diverse crowd than GDC, but still people with too much games industry focus and too little attention to the broader entertainment industry and what most people actually do for recreation.

Still, you’d think the games business types would have seen the money, and lit a fire under their developers to learn these new markets.

Game Devs Didn’t See Where the Real Money Was

You might think it’s crazy that game developers didn’t see that the big revenue in Facebook games wasn’t really the “viral effect” of inviting as many people as possible, but rather it was the way the game design pushed certain players into socially competitive, almost irrational, behaviors: logging in every single day for repetitive low-production-value gameplay, paying real cash for game advancement, and participating in ridiculous sponsor offers for products players had no genuine interest in. There was next to no value in the twenty friends you begged to join you in Vampire Wars if they only signed up to help you out and barely played.

The real value was the power player (who invited all their friends just to increase their game influence, regardless of the friends’ interest in the game). The viral effect did pay off when power players roped in new power players who also started playing like it was their job. But overall, it wasn’t a volume racket, it was a social hack to put people into a hyper-competitive situation trying to one-up people they knew in real life (while clobbering random internet adversaries on the ever-present leaderboards).

So, even though many game developers tried to dismiss Facebook games as some bastardized multi-level marketing scheme that only served to collect as many registered users as possible, the real money was in the familiar place that game devs should have recognized right off: the passionate player. People were genuinely invested in Facebook games. And why was that so difficult to see?

Facebook Games Are Considered Shitty By Gamers & Game Devs

Bottom of the barrel. Any hack could design Fashion Wars. We’re talking text-based games that any beginning web programmer can whip up in a week, with one to three central mechanics, no audio or music, and scant 2D interface art. Who would play these games passionately? Who would pay to play them?

Schell explained to the DICE crowd that the sponsored offers and paid game advancement were psychologically justifiable because as the players did what the game motivated them to do (log in, invite friends, advance slowly, become impatient…), they had to justify their continued investment in the game. Eventually, it made sense to do the sponsor offers, to kick in some cash. It made sense to ask people who didn’t want to play to sign up anyway. It made sense to friend people and join groups just to find more people for your pirate crew or mafia gang. Basically, these simple bare-bones games that would earn you nothing but derision and eye-rolls from the pro game dev community had mastered something that many AAA games couldn’t get right: motivating the player to generate revenue for you.

Remember The Sims Online? It took a massive professional team, tens of millions of dollars, and over 3 million lines of code to launch that world of fail that barely motivated players to play, pay, or, hell, just keep logging in. If The Sims Online were free to play (and at the end, it basically was), it still would have bombed. That’s how awful the experience was, despite all the talent, craftsmanship, and innovation they tried to put into it. Yet here are these crappy online multiplayer Facebook games motivating the cash right out of player’s wallets for next to nothing in return.

You’d think game devs would be studying this phenomena to figure out what was pushing player engagement and motivation, but most game designers I’ve talked to basically dismissed Facebook games as shitty designs with repetitive, unimaginative gameplay. According to real game designers, these Facebook games were only successful in the sense that they had a lot of registered players, and they only got those players because of their viral invite features (which are simply the Request forms provided by the Facebook Apps API). It was unthinkable that these games were successful for any other reason.

Marketing Games Are Generally Considered Shitty Games

Now, I’m not arguing that the Facebook games I’ve played were original or even particularly fun, but I do maintain that many of them were extremely well designed to do what they were intended to do. They were marketing games pushing players toward the purchase of game rewards and participation in sponsor deals. They were 100% in service of a business goal.

Yes, players could have fun along the way. Yes, that was a key constraint in the design. But fun was not the only, or even the most important, measure of success for these designs. Success was motivating the players to generate revenue. As a concept, I know this pisses gamers off. And since most pro game developers are passionate gamers, designing a game with that primary measure of success is repulsive. A few designers dig persuasive games, but it’s usually in the context of promoting an educational, political, or social cause. When the design goal is just profits, that turns almost everyone off.

For professional game designers from the games industry, where fun is King (not conversions or content), there needs to be a shift in thinking from “hey, you know what would be cool?” to “hey, you know what would really engage and motivate people to convert for our sponsor?” if game designers want to be a vital part of the booming online entertainment and funware marketing industries. Thinking like a lowly marketer is definitely outside of the comfort zone for a lot of game devs, hence people prefer to work on real games (games for gamers like themselves). When do you ever meet a young person who can’t wait to work on advergames at an IGDA chapter meeting? Or someone who is working to apply game mechanics to persuasive messages outside of education or social causes? Gamer game designers don’t get excited about marketing games the way passionate marketers do.

You can see why some would look down their nose at profit-focused, pragmatic game design. However, the funny thing is… the market validated these Facebook games with huge participation. If these were really bad games, why did they make money? Why were they so popular?

It’s well worth considering the possibility that the pursuit of excellence in AAA games is like the quest to create fine art films that appeal to only the most sophisticated movie goers (while everyone else is happy as a pig in shit at Transformers 2).

BTW, These Surprise Hits Were Not for Socializers

Another misunderstanding (that isn’t touched upon in Schell’s presentation) is that game devs think Facebook games are all highly social games (because they’re on a social network platform).

Facebook games tend to tap the traditional gamer types of achievers, killers, and some explorers (the completionist variety who want to keep advancing in order to see what comes next). Interestingly, few of the mega-hits like Zynga and Playfish games actually provide a good social experience for the socializer gamer type (even though the games are technically hooked into players’ existing social graph, there was little opportunity to develop meaningful in-game exchanges with other players).

Players are much more likely to build and grow new friendships in a richer online game like World of Warcraft or Runescape, or  in a chatroom-focused game community like Habbo Hotel or Pogo.com. Likewise, there are few opportunities to achieve a positive social status in a helping or supporting role within Facebook multiplayer games. There is very little interpersonal contact to occupy the traditional MMO socializers who like to become organizers in their communities, guild leaders, and resources for fellow players.

Bartle’s familiar socializer and explorer traits won’t apply to some of the marketing games, pervasive games, and new hits in online entertainment. Many of the design theories in the game industry are going to need significant revision to account for the broader, previously overlooked reality of the interactive entertainment industry beyond just games.

Facebook Game Shock Isn’t Even the Tip of the Iceberg

The typical pro game developer is not surprised when the latest AAA console game sells well, but they seem a few beats behind when it comes to understanding how their craft relates to engaging, motivating interactive entertainment like Club Penguin, Stardoll, IMVU, Second Life‘s Ozimals, Foursquare, Polyvore, and HuffPost Badges.

People are starting to catch on, but I don’t really think game developers who were weaned on hardcore gamer culture appreciate how the gameification of life will impact the old school games industry.

To put it gently, the kinds of games that professional game designers like to design are no longer the only games in town. It might be a little disheartening to realize that what makes a good, fun game design in the land of game markets is not necessarily the same magic that works in marketing games, pervasive games, and persuasive gaming (though there are some folks who do think traditional game design skills are transferable). On the flip side, once pro game designers start thinking outside the games industry boxes, marketing games and more might improve dramatically.

Converging with Game Industry Outsiders

As Schell humorously highlights in his DICE talk, the pro game devs are generally not the folks designing these new hit entertainment experiences online. He jokes that it’s just whoever happens to be there, but the subtext is that many of the hot new entertainment hits online are designed by marketers, business people, and folks who hardly understand how their product even contains game mechanics (another reason that business-friendly concepts like Funware are so critical to get people framing these techniques correctly in the greater context of game and virtual world design).

When Schell described a day in the future, he only briefly touched on traditional game products (the game of Tetris on the bus, a game on the back of a cereal box, and some kind of multiplayer game played while watching television). Many of his other gameification examples involved the government, art foundations, businesses, and other non-entertainment entities handling these pervasive game services. And it’s true that game mechanics for government, non-profit, and business applications are HOT right now.

I expect that marketing people will be working on more games in-house as people learn how to use game mechanics effectively. With the convergence of traditional marketing and internet marketing, marketers need to learn about online interactivity. It’s very likely that there will be less need to outsource a game design in the future than there is now because the effective use of game mechanics will become part of the mainstream marketers vocabulary too. And a key take-away idea here is that game outsiders will be designing the experiences that compete directly with professionally designed games for player time and money.

People who make good games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Braid will be competing for customers and jobs with people who learned game design from studying the success of Farmville and Frequent Flyer Programs. I sympathize if you punched your desk or muttered an expletive of disgust just now.

Some Outsider Perspective Can Help Games Too

These outsiders might appear to bring nothing to the table for game developers, but sometimes a little perspective alone can be a welcome addition to a design team.

When I was about 22, I started taking a big interest in PC and console gaming. I loved chess, Scrabble and cards as a kid but I was never a gamer. My family never owned a console system. But once I played Civ III on a boyfriend’s laptop, I was hooked. By 24, I was reading game development books, following game developer blogs, playing as many games as I could, and subscribing to IGDA listservs to learn more about the mainstream game industry. I knew that these were the people who understood game design, the gamer markets, and the ins and outs of running entertainment software companies. I volunteered to work at GDC three years in a row just to afford the trip so I could attend the lecture sessions. So although I’m primarily an entrepreneur and marketer, I have a serious interest in game design too.

After about 4 years of that, I realized that the most valuable people to follow were academics and futurists, entrepreneurs, marketers, and economists. It’s not that the games industry isn’t full of experts in game design and execution. It’s that they don’t seem to have much vision for how to apply that knowledge in the problem spaces outside of console games, mobile games, web games, board games… games, games, games. They even call their industry vertical “the games industry” even though they are all really in the business of entertainment. The only thing more stubborn than their focus on games is their obsession with fun rather than the full spectrum of emotional engagement and motivation.

There’s an old marketing anecdote about the decline of the US railroads. None of the railroad barons thought of themselves in the greater context of the market they served. They only saw themselves in the railroad vertical, and they saw their only competition as the other railroad barons. Well, automobiles came along with many other technologies, national highways, and eventually certain freight markets and almost all passenger markets dried up completely. If the railroad barons understood that they were in the transportation industry, not just the railroad industry, maybe they could have developed trucking fleets and other products to meet the changing expectations of their customers.

Maybe when more people recognize the broader market for game design, professional game developers won’t be surprised at all when they see wildly successful non-game entertainment sites and crappy online games monopolizing users’ time and money.

I say “maybe” not because I don’t trust that the brilliant game developers will cotton on, but because I’ve been watching Gamasutra and IGDA for so long now that there is no excuse for anyone to be surprised by Club Penguin or its ilk. People have been talking about the new online entertainment options and all their ramifications for at least 4 years now. Yet every time, it’s the same chorus of “well, that’s surprising” which translates to “I thought that was a shitty product.”

Pour One Out For  Our Metaplace Homies

During this same period, some of the most celebrated game designers put their heart and soul into designs that were considered innovative by their game designer peers, only to see the market generally ignore them (I’m thinking specifically of Raph Koster’s Metaplace virtual world, which evicted its player-creators after a brief beta and quietly relaunched as a Facebook game company).

I only got into gaming in a big way as an adult so perhaps I’m just a lot more open to entertainment design ideas and trends from outside the games industry. But for the record, us outsiders were not surprised at all.

Were you surprised by the success of the products in Schell’s presentation? 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.

What ethical issues do you think game marketers should consider? Add a Comment