Category Archives: Marketing Games

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 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

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.

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

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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