Create a more compelling experience for your users through game mechanics

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Ever wonder why some websites are so addictive? Certain sites always keep you going back, time after time after time. Well, I can’t speak for all of them, but there’s a subtle reason that some sites draw your attention on such a repeated basis: They’re actually games.

Wait, games?

Try a little thought experiment: If I say, “Yeah, he’s a ______ addict,” what are the first few things that pop into your mind? For me, top two are “heroin” and “World of Warcraft.” I’m not sure what that says about me as a person, but ignore that for now. What makes these two things so addicting? Why are they basically synonymous with the word “addict”? Lots of people smoke pot. Lots of people play Call of Duty. Lots do both, and in copious amounts. So why don’t they get the same label?

Heroin: it’s a hell of a drug

Yeah, that reference is to cocaine, another famously addictive substance. Oh well.

Heroin is the poster child for addiction because it’s got a built-in viral loop. That sentence sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. It’s very easy to start out with, as it’s snorted. No scary needles or anything. You get high really quickly, due to its chemical properties combined with the fact that your nose is already close to your brain. It gives a really intense high that is also fairly short. As you do it, you develop both a psychological addiction as well as a tolerance. You simultaneously develop a deep desire for more of the drug as you need a larger quantity of the drug to get the same high. Eventually, it becomes more and more difficult, but you’re so addicted that you get over your fear of needles and start mainlining.

World of Warcraft works the same way. It’s easy to try, as there are mechanisms to invite your friends, and the system requirements are fairly low for a video game. The first few quests are super easy, and so you hit that quick reward. You get addicted to “Ding!” but it takes longer and longer every time you do it. Eventually, you max out on levels and have to start doing other things to get your fix. It may sound funny, but it’s absolutely true. People talk about “relapsing.” They speak of “craving.” That’s why WoW has so many subscribers.

How to replicate this success

I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to make your site as addictive as heroin is, but many sites use the same basic psychology to keep you coming back. Game mechanics are one of the tools they use to develop that psychological addiction. This is something we’ve been seeing more and more of lately, but it isn’t really being talked about explicitly as a major trend. I really think that this stuff is really important and useful.

There are a couple of different mechanisms that web sites can incorporate that fall under the realm of “game mechanics:”

We’ve all heard these terms used in games. But in web sites? Okay, let’s try those things again:

The same feedback loop happens on these websites. You say something interesting on Twitter, you gain another follower or two. You say something else, another follower. You check in, oh look, you’re the mayor! You sell an extra hundred things and get your Power Seller discount.

That’s the hard stuff. It’ll get you hooked, and coming back for more.

Where’s all of this going?

This is the current stuff that’s being done with game mechanics. But where could we go, in the future?

A while back, there was a huge debacle over ReadWriteWeb and Facebook connect. To give you the basic idea, ReadWriteWeb is a blog that talks about everything Web2.0. They wrote an article entitled “Facebook Wants to be your One True Login.” Read the comments. Notice something funny? Due to some Google magic, if you were to Google “Facebook login” the day that was posted, that article would appear at the top under the “Google News” results. Now, RWW uses Facebook Connect for their commenting system, and a ton of people apparently don’t know how to use the Internet. So when they said, “Hey, I think I’ll go to Facebook today,” they Googled “facebook login,” clicked the news story, and went to RWW. They then ignored that RWW is a blog completely covered in red that looks nothing like Facebook, scrolled until they found the Facebook icon, clicked it, logged in, and then said “wtf, this isn’t my facebook? Why’d they change the interface again???” This happened a week after a middle-sized interface upgrade on Facebook, for extra hilarity.

Now, I won’t comment on those people or that situation directly. But one of my favorite Hacker News posters, patio11, posted a really interesting comment about the situation. I’m linking to the person he’s responding to, for context:

Pyre: Facebook can’t improve their interface to make users not type “facebook login” into Google as a way of accessing their site.

patio11: That is a failure of the imagination. They certainly could – whether it is worth doing or not is another question, but hey, that is what God gave us A/B testing to figure out.

“Hey user, it looks like you came to us today from Google searching for [Facebook login]. Did you know that there is a better way? Type into [blah blah blah]. Try it now and we’ll give you 5 free credits for [without loss of generality: FarmVille]!”

Great job! You should do that every time. If you do that to log into Facebook the next five days you use the service, we’ll award you a Facebook Diploma and give you another 10 free credits for [without loss of generality: FarmVille]!”

On the back end, you show the above prompts to N% of your users who you detect coming to the login page from Google search results (this is trivial – check the referer). You then compare any user metric you want for the “Was Shown Facebook Login Course” population and “Complete Facebook Login Course” population with the population at large. Kill the test if it hurts your metrics, deploy it sitewide if it helps them.

How cool would that be? Now the game mechanics aren’t being used just to increase engagement, but to actually teach people how to use your site or service. It’s classical conditioning; reward people for doing the right thing, and they’ll keep doing the right thing.

Game mechanics are your MVP

So how’s this stuff relevant to your startup? Well, I think this idea ties in really well with the concept of a Minimum Viable Product. Here’s the idea: Build your MVP, and then build game mechanics in. Unlock new features based on game mechanics. This gives you a few advantages:

  1. Your new users only get the most basic experience, which is still useful. It’s a simplified, streamlined experience.
  2. Users only get the new features added that are relevant to how they use the site itself.
  3. You can “fake it till you make it” by implementing the features that are most useful to your users. Is everyone getting Badge A and not Badge B? Implement Feature A Level 2 first!

I think that this makes for a really strong experience, if done right. Foursquare kind of does this already in a crude way with their Super User features. But I think it could be taken to a whole new level.

Think about this: Facebook, where you can only friend people, update your profile, and send messages at first. Soon you unlock the ability to use applications. Then the ability to create pages and groups. The interface slowly unfolds in front of you. What about Reddit, where posting comments is all you can do at first? A hundred upvotes gives you the ability to downvote. Ten comments lets you post stories. (Hacker News sort of does this already, with a minimum karma before downvoting is enabled.)

If you could pull it off, I think it’d make for a really compelling user experience. It does bring one extra design skill that many people may not have, though: balance. Game designers are used to this already, but your potential “Power Users” might not like having to wait to get more advanced features. Then again, this might also solve some issues, like spam. If you had to have 100 positively moderated comments before posting a story on Digg, it’d be much harder to just sign up for spam accounts to submit bogus stories.

This idea can be taken in a lot of different directions. I’m sure I’m only barely scratching the surface with this idea, but I think it’ll go really far. What do you think? Any interesting mechanics I’ve missed? Any really interesting thoughts for how services can incorporate game mechanics? I’ve decided to re-open comments, but if nobody uses them, I’ll just shut them off again. Let me know what you think.

This post has been featured on the Startup Pittsburgh blog, here.