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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“Game Recommendations on Android”

Everyone is doing it. Hooked, Heyzap, Openfeint, Applifier, Appreciate, Appsfire, TapJoy, RadiumOne, Getjar, Flurry and Appbrain. It’s kind of sad that all of these guys are dedicating so much time and energy into it. Especially when the solution is so simple and anyone who has 24 hours to spend thinking can solve it. In truth, there are two kinds of companies that are doing it. First, there are the big boys and girls who are already doing PPI campaigns and are adding a touch of personalization to convince both business and customers that they are the best. On the other side, there are the smaller ones who do a good job of actually doing game recommendations (Hooked, Appsfire, Appreciate). As someone who has actually designed a game recommendation system, I can tell you that these three are the ones that you want  to reach out to. That being said, they are not fooling anyone by not addressing how they are going to make money. I’m not going to spell out how these smaller players intend do to do so. But anyone who’s in the industry and spends 5 mins thinking about it will quickly figure it out.

Then there is the third kind. The evil/black hats guys. They come at this from the advertising world and their solution is to get at much info about the user as possible. They do so by buying data about users or by buying apps that users will use from where they can collect personal data. This data is then combined with the other data that they have purchased. All of a sudden, a startup with $33.1M in venture funding has tons of data about you. It’s going to be funny what they recommend on Android. Since most of the Internet is porn, are they going to recommend the porn games on Android. I will laugh my ass off if they do, and not be surprised at the same time.

Back to the point at hand, the field is currently divided into two camps: small and accurate on one side and big and faux-accurate on the other.

Here’s a solution: Why don’t the big players buy up one of the small players. At that point, you have a technology that has been designed to recommend a game partnered with the scale of accounts.

Before you bring up RadiumOne; they don’t really count. Focal Labs and PingMe are just ways to scoop up data about the end user.

But really: just buy a small startup. You’ll have a better proposition to the early and late majority without the creepy, big brother image that those users will have of you if you just buy data about them.

Just some thoughts, Happy Sunday!

My story

I’ve just graduated Berkeley in December 2011. I graduated with a degree in Political Science. The things you’re going to read about me are not going to make sense if you come from the paradigm of “only coders can do X or only business grads can do Y.” That’s bullshit. You know it as well as I do…..

Previously I was a marketing analyst intern at Yoo-Mee Games where I crunched numbers and made recommendations to bosses who were in a turf war over who would get me for their projects. My boss, a director of Marketing that will remain anonymous was in a turf war with the CEO over who would get me for their pet projects. Why me… Why a Poli Sci kid and not some biz whiz? Well for one, I worked my ass off on everything. Everything. For two, I actually did have business knowledge, I was previously a business major as a freshman and left the field to study something more interesting: South Asian Politics. For three, I was taught business by my parents who own 7-Elevens in the LA area… I worked there as a sales associate until I proved myself and then transitioned into the back office where I figured out ways to make money more efficiently. In a sense, by the time I got to Yoo-Mee as a 22 year old I had already had 13 years of business schooling. So I outperformed my peers there and tried to make my bosses look good when they weren’t pirating my ideas. Eventually, Yoo-Mee games was slated for merger with another company. The parent company, Hooked Media Group had certain goals in mind that my bosses were not meeting. They were laid off and I was given a new chance to lead my own group and ideas.

I became a product generalist for a stealth startup group within Hooked Media Group. By that I mean that I did Product Management, Business Analysis, Marketing and Business Development. The idea of the CEO was to create an app on Android that was “fun, social and gave game recommendations to the user.” Off of these ideas, I developed an overall plan for the product. Working along with 2 other interns, I designed wireframes, wrote specs and created a product plan. The coders among you will say that this is impossible since I don’t have a coding background…. I have nothing against coders, but you don’t need to be a coder to be a product manager and you certainly do not need to be a coder to write specs and draw wireframes. It’s interesting how many people who have interviewed me disqualify me as a candidate since they think that it is impossible that I could do all of these things. Anyways, after that I focused on the competitive strategy for the product where I analyzed all of the competitors in the space such as Heyzap and Openfeint but also Appreciate as well as looking at what my peers in iOS were doing. Then I wrote the entire marketing plan which was interesting given that everything on Android is disconnected. I took the initial iteration of the game recommendation system that another intern had made and simplified it after researching Amazon, Pandora and Netflix recommended to the end user. Look up Amazon’s patented recommendation system when you get the chance, that this is AMAZING! Netflix was the easiest to copy, at best it was a system that classified movies into 4 dimensions. Too easy.  Finally I worked on Business Development, which I initially hated because of the cultural image of traveling salesmen. Its surprisingly rewarding as a career choice, given that many CEOs came up through the business development division if their companies. I left Hooked in October 2011 to wrap up my education at Berkeley (I was in danger of failing at least 1 of my classes at the time) and to party 1 last time at Berkeley. They made a great offer that has not been matched since, but I chose to turn it down.

Now I’m a Social Media Marketing and Business Development Intern at Keiretsu Forum. I go to parties, network and check out if there are any interesting startups that should be funded. I market on Meetups, if you are a member of any of them, you might have gotten an email from me about the Ahead of the Fashion Accelerator (shameless plug). I also do it on Linkedin, which is a much friendlier beast surprisingly.

I’d love to be at a VC in 10-15 years after I get my MBA. Something about finding new opportunities and nurturing it is very appealing to me.