Thriving in the coming game mechanics hype cycle

by Pascal Rettig posted May 10, 2010

It was the famous Jesse Schell video from DICE 2010 that finally convinced me that Game Mechanics on websites were here to stay. I had hoped once people got tired of mayoring-up and badges it would die down, but that video opened my eyes to the fact that it's here to stay.

Why wasn't I convinced before that? I think it might have something to do with the fact that currently implemented game mechanics don't particularly engage me. I love video games and play on Steam and Xbox but have never gotten into achievements, so I idiotically assumed that since I wasn't that interested most other people weren't either. Some recent conversations I've had have clearly indicated that's not true and that a significant portion of the population can be manipulated to change their behavior via achievements.

Two things someone said in particular amazed me:
1) People will buy a crappy movie knock-off game because they intentionally make achievements easier than normal games
2) People will pay to skip portions of the game to keep up with their friends (Farmville, WoW, etc) but don't think their friends do the same.
(Notice neither of these are actually "fun." In fact, they both constitute, in a loose moral sense "cheating")

Just like "niche social networks" were the big thing a few years ago game mechanics are the new hotness.

So I now very much believe, as someone poignantly wrote, Game mechanics are the new black. We are already heading into the overhype stage. Just like "niche social networks" were the big thing a few years ago game mechanics are the new hotness. The idea of "Game Mechanics" has filtered down to the client level and clients are asking for them. However, just like the "niche social networks" few of the multitude of projects are going to bring real innovation to the space for a period of time. Why? They don't need to - clients are going to be asking for plain-jane points and badges because that's what they've seen work - so most developers aren't going to push back and try to innovate because that's not what client want.

Most developers aren't going to push back and try to innovate because they don't have to and that's not what the client wants.

Simple game mechanics are going to sprout up everywhere soon and it's going to get painful. If you think constant foursquare twitter updates are already a pain - extrapolate that exact same idea to every area of your life. To use the example from the Schell talk, want you get your teeth-brushing-points? You'll have to let your your wifi enabled toothbrush tweet every time you brush your teeth. "Just made my teeth extra clean with #colgate!"

At an abstract level, one of the reasons for the success of points, badges, etc is that they guide our efforts. They place a clear valuation on our time and say "You can do A or B or C, but B is worth 2x as much as A and C doesn't get you anywhere." They are an effective way in our mentally-exhausting media saturated lifestyles to cut through the noise to a clear quantitative signal and feel rewarded for our efforts with tangible results. Once they are everywhere, however, their apparent value is going to decrease as the noise increases.

The argument for implementing basic game mechanics is that whether everyone's overdoing them doesn't matter because they will help engagement, expansion and retention on my site. That's unfortunately not necessarily true and let me try to explain why:

We call these things game mechanics but they aren't really. They are meta-game mechanics. Mechanics that operate on a level outside the game. For example in a 3D FPS, the game mechanics would be the running around and the shooting of aliens in the head. Your score and achievements are meta-mechanics outside of the game. Shooting aliens is fun. Getting points for doing so isn't, in and of itself, at all fun.

In a similar fashion, points and badges on Web sites operate outside of the core feature of the website. You could argue that on a site like FourSquare things get a little muddled - but even there the "Game" is the tips and location aware check-ins - the badges or mayor-ships you get for doing so are a meta-mechanic.

(As an aside has anyone come across a meta-meta game mechanics website? A site that gives you points for other points that you get on other sites - I'm sure there's at least one out there already)

To get back to why a focus only on the meta-mechanics might be bad, let's take the example of MySpace and facebook. The Game Mechanic, aka the "meta" is the number of friends you have in your social network. For a lot of MySpace users that was all that there was to it - get as many friends on your account as possible (well, besides ugly wallpaper and writing idiotic shout-outs on people's walls.) Because that was the game, MySpace grew like crazy, but once people got tired of adding friends it was done [a gross over-simplification I know]. Facebook was much the same at the beginning, with a focus on adding friends, but then they innovated the hell out of the game. Making it actually social by pushing other user updates to your wall and adding third-party applications kept users engaged and Facebook growing like crazy.

So a game mechanic can work to your advantage, but only if you don't let it dominate the show.

Companies shouldn't really care about Game Mechanics, they should care about Viral Mechanics

Sachin Agarwall made a great point in his "Don't be a douche" Barcamp Boston presentation. The Slides are sort of hard to follow but here's the gist: companies shouldn't really care about Game Mechanics, they should care about Viral Mechanics. How the game mechanics promote viral expansion of the user base is what is actually important to the bottom line.  Just throwing a couple of points into the system amounts to Cargo Cult Game Design. As Agarwall pointed out, the issue is that at some point notching the viral mechanic up in favor of the company will make it annoying enough that users will turn it off or leave.

To look at it another way, the fact that the simple game mechanics most people are talking about put the focus on the meta means that when it's all said and done they actually take away from the core of the game. As Jeff Atwood wrote a while back: Meta is murder. Even though he was talking about online forums and discussions, I think he had it right.

The tagline from FourSquare is: "Foursquare on your phone gives you & your friends new ways of exploring your city. Earn points & unlock badges for discovering new things."

FourSquare is more about the meta than the game...

if they don't provide real value, people will quickly move on to the next flash in the pan

Yet I never hear people discussing the great things they found or discovered on FourSquare. I have seen and heard plenty about that second part. Go to and watch the "recent activity." What is the Tip to Badge/Mayor ratio you see? The times I looked I saw a lot fewer Tips than other stuff. FourSquare is more about the meta than the game. That's obviously working well currently, but I wouldn't count on that continuing if they don't provide real value. People are always quick to move on to the next flash in the pan.

To go back to the Atwood blog: "If you don't control it, meta-discussion, like weeds run amok in a garden, will choke out a substantial part of the normal, natural growth of a healthy community." And yet with Game Mechanics we are intentionally adding meta-elements into our systems and making the conversation revolve around them.

Now as businesses we like the meta-elements because they take advantage of people's strong innate desire for personal-validation and self-aggrandizement, but more than just muddying the waters, they also unfortunately bring some bad behavior into the mix.

To put it simply: if it's set up like a game, people will play (and cheat) to win.

When users are playing against themselves, you don't care that much if they cheat, as engagement is king on the web and if plays are taking the time to cheat you're actually probably ok with it as a site owner. When users are competitive with other users however, bad things can happen. I stay away from Digg these days because the game part of it has skewed to dramatically favor the all-powerful Digg superusers and that means that it no longer feels like a balanced, social environment.

Summary / TL;DR:

Game Mechanics - at least the simple ones that people are talking about like points and badges, aren't actually the mechanics of the game at all. They are the meta-mechanics that surround the game built to induce behavior inside the game. But there's no reason it has to be that way, and so where you should focus your efforts to avoid launching a dud as we roll through the game mechanics hype cycle is on making the core of whatever system you are building more game-like (put simply, fun) and not just toss a thin-veneer of simple game mechanics around the outside. Read the literature and blogs on the subject and brush up on what makes a game fun.

Try to make sure your app is a game worth playing in-and-of itself before resorting to tricks.

I love the Mega-man games because unlike some other games that just pat you on the back when you complete a level, in Mega-man you get a kick-ass new weapon. It adds something of value inside the game. FourSquare's push to have mayorships translate to perks in real life is a great piece of value getting added, but unfortunately, because it's an out-of-game perk that is also a scarce resource it encourages cheating that has negative effects (think FourSquare wants to play check-in cop?) My opinion would be to try to make sure your app is a "game" worth playing in-and-of itself before resorting to those types of tricks.

And in any case, you'll have plenty of chances to do in-real-life rewards next year when we roll through an augmented-reality overhype cycle.

[ Update 5/20: Case in point "Badge" support on HuffPost ]