Games Vs. Gamification

Thanks Zynga. You created an entry point for business people to enter into the game space. They’re turning it into a gamification space. I’ll explain: There’s games and then there’s gamification and it is very important to understand between the two. Games are those things that you play for fun. Gamification is the tactic of turning boring tasks into a game. Take for example any of TinyCo’s games. Would you consider them games or gamification products? Before you answer, you should play their games. How long did you last before you got bored out of your mind? Did you even finish the game? That’s what I mean. You see, games are designed to entertain you and take your mind off of work and the 50 other things you do on a day to day basis. However, TinyCo’s games do not do this. They are repetitive and they are boring. The game tells you what to do through the goals that they set for you and they want you to pay for the pleasure of doing things that you did not choose. Its kind of like you paying to be their slave.

Gamification started out as a way for merchants to reward their best customers. That’s where we got the “buy 10 get 1 free” idea. Airlines do it too. See “Up in the Air” for a reference point if you haven’t.

However, games today are over-doing it. Let me clarify: There are games that have gamification added and there are gamification tactics with a game added. Its very important to understand between the two. Since Zynga’s entry into the arena, we are starting to see more gamification being added to games. Zynga is merely the largest player. There are a bevy of companies that have created a gamification system that looks like a game. TinyCo, Pocket Gems & Lavasoft might ring a bell. However there are dozens of these companies. Spurred on by the works of Gabe Zichermann and Sebastian Deterding, more and more of these companies are focusing energy into their gamification engines and less effort on actual game design.

I definitely pushed hard for this when I was designing a game recommendation app at Hooked. Its important to understand why. Gamification is seductively simple and effective. You can add it to just about anything and so long as you put thought and effort into the integration it will work. White Hat experts like Deterding are those that emphasize the game side of things and less on the gamification side. He tries hard to actually make things into a game. On the other hand, Zichermann is more likely to emphasize the gamification aspect than the game aspect. I guess that makes him a Gray Hat. Marketers and Game Designers emphasize gamification because they want people to come back and play their games more and more and to be addicted to playing. In that sense, gamification can be an addiction. Its probably why your mom or aunt still plays Farmville years after you quit.

Gamification is used to make up for shortcomings: your app isn’t getting a lot of returning users? add badges! You want more purchases? Add a leaderboard! People aren’t clicking a random button enough? Add fireworks into the background when they do. Do it randomly and then you’ll really get addiction. If a user can  predict when they will get a reward then they are no longer addicted. If they can’t and you actually give them random rewards when they play, then they’ll be addicted. AKA don’t do the Pavlov model.

In addition, with Android Market’s algorithm of app rankings, there is an additional competitive aspect to it. The algorithm that ranks apps takes into account everything from install rate, retention, uninstall, time on app, etc. So while a game maker wants you to install their app and is willing to pay a company for it, they most likely have to add gamification to get you to return.

Why don’t they just make an awesome game? Well awesome games are usually made by game makers who have experience and have actually studied this shit. But, companies like Zynga, TinyCo and Pocket Gems are not loaded with Game experts. Think I’m joking? Look up their people on LinkedIn. You’re much more likely to see MBA grads as Product Managers and Coders as Coders than you are to seeing a game designer as a Product Manager. Therein lies the problem, these companies have created an algorithm that they believe they can add a variety of skins to and call those things games. Additionally, It’s because they are venture backed. It’s because they are a business. How on earth do you quantify the success of a game designer? Good question. I don’t think even they know. However, give an MBA a “secret brew” of gamification, add some graphics to it, call it a game and tell him or her to manage it is a far simpler task than finding a game designer and building an actual game. There are plenty of MBAs who you can throw at a problem. good Game Designers are few and far in between.

That’s the problem with these gamification startups. They are no longer produced by game makers but are instead produced by business people. business people are driven by profit instead of excellence. Its easier for them to justify their high salaries when they can point to projected charts that say they can deliver a billion dollars in 15 days. 🙂

Thankfully, more and more consumers are able to differentiate between games and gamification. Its the reason that so many of these gamification apps have high uninstall rates. Hopefully, these companies will realize that people want to play games and will become actual game studios rather than gamification companies.

TinyCo, I’m only picking on you for fun and because you’re the worst offender. There are others in the space with more interesting hiring practices (I’m talking to you Pocket Gems and your ex-investment bankers) and they are equally as bad. But TinyCo’s games could use A LOT of help.


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