Can Game Mechanics make Serious software ‘sticky’?

Robert Scoble has an interesting post about Incentivizing social behaviour in your app. Coincidentally, during the week I was listening to Amy-Jo Kim‘s excellent Mixergy interview about Game Mechanics and wondering how the concepts could be applied in more ‘serious’ software. (Edit: Alan O’Rourke also directed me to this excellent presentation on the subject. Another great presentation by Amy-Jo Kim here.).

When I was still at college I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing MUD. This is like the text-driven grandfather of World of Warcraft or similar online games. Looking back, it looks like an antiquated relic – no graphics, grindingly slow, and you’d be randomly disconnected all the time; but it was as addictive as crack cocaine. Playing MUD became an obsession. My friends and I would try to cram in 10 minutes playing before lectures or exams, and often hang around the computer labs until we were kicked out.

Amy-Jo Kim nicely summarizes a lot of the essentials of Game Mechanics in her Mixergy interview so¬† instead of repeating them I’d advise you to go and listen to it. One fundamental concept she mentions several times is to create “Braggable Moments” for your users. We see this happening organically on a service like Twitter, where the ‘re-tweet’ evolved as users wanted to share a quality tweet from another user. Being re-tweeted by a famous or popular user is the very essence of a Braggable Moment.

Scoble’s blog post defines the sort of social mechanisms he sees for software such as FourSquare, but I see these applications as being designed specifically as games. I don’t see them solving a particularly pressing pain point for a customer that can’t already be solved in a more direct way – E.g. “Where are my friends? Well, I guess I’ll ring them and ask.

Defining a “Braggable Moment”

I’m going to create a loose definition of a ‘Braggable Moment’ as a shared action which elevates an individual user in status among their peers. Akin to the “retweet” example from Twitter, we have the “like” button on Facebook. Someone “liking” your status update is something which adds kudos to the original poster’s content, elevating the user’s status. At it’s most basic it’s pandering to the user’s ego, but if used correctly it can be used to encourage the types of behavior you need for your software to be successful.

Implementing Game Mechanics in ‘Serious’ Software

So how can similar addictive elements be utilized to make more serious software ‘sticky’? Ebay has a leaderboard and a ‘level’ system for it’s power sellers. Amazon has a ‘top reviewers’ leaderboard for people who have contributed the most reviews. In a very simple example which Max Klein describes humorously as Pavlovian conditioning, the bell sound added to lead conversion software was a very prominent braggable moment – When a lead converted into a sale, the salesperson’s software made an audible sound to tell his peers that he had sold something. Furthermore, these sorts of features drive the users competitive nature – encouraging them to use the software more.

Implementation Ideas

  1. Leaderboards – probably the most accessible method for enterprise software – Create a top ten list of the most active users (rewarding only actions which add value to the system E.g. Adding useful comments to a data service, Most Sales).
  2. Sharing of added content – The re-tweet concept. If someone shares a valuable information added by a user, let the user and their peers know somehow that their information was considered valuable. Display a list of their items which have been shared in their profile or create badges or levels for being shared a certain number of times.
  3. Elevate Individual items of merit – Prominently display a “best comment of the week” or similar added content, solved problem, or whatever other purpose the software is designed for.

Game Mechanics and Customer Development

The first thought after I read Scoble’s blog post was to explore the idea of baking these viral concepts into software directly from the initial Customer Development process by identifying not just the pain points but the types of things that pander to the user’s ego. My feeling is that unless you’re either developing a social application, designing a game, or innovating in a market where the problem space is well understood you’re probably trying to paint the boat before the hull is finished – aim for the absolute minimum deliverable and iterate. The whole idea probably reflects that I’ve been reading too many articles on Customer Development recently.

With that said, If you’re trying to innovate in an existing market where the problem space is well understood, I’d hold up something like StackOverflow (which uses badges, levels etc) as a great example of how to increase ‘stickiness’ and reward desirable behavior with braggable moments. Question and Answer forums have been around since the dawn of the consumer internet and the problems and opportunities in this area are well understood. Adding game mechanics to this area has increased usage, attracted more knowledgeable participants, and greatly improved the quality of the content.

5 thoughts on “Can Game Mechanics make Serious software ‘sticky’?

  1. Thank you for reminding me not to try and paint the boat before the hull is finished. Read the same post yesterday and my brain was busy thinking up imaginary scenarios involving yet more code… and more time… to make our soon to be released app “sticky”, but we have a long way to go yet. Better to just get it out the door and see what the users do first.

    Do you think “sticky” always has to be equated with addictive? I don’t particularly want to be developing stuff that people get addicted to, I want them to keep using it because it makes them better at *something*. Idealistic I know.

  2. I think sticky features can fit in nicely with Dave McClure’s AARRR metrics*, filtering through the levels of Acquisition and Activation, and resulting in user Retention. I’d think that identifying what behaviors you really want the user to be doing (probably the same behaviors you’re measuring and preferably ones which lead closer to product / market fit), and then adding some simple game mechanics to those could aid pushing the user through the AARRR funnel. That said, you get enough users ‘addicted’ to a feature, and maybe you’ve found an idea worth pivoting to? :)

    * = http://500hats.typepad.com/500blogs/2007/09/startup-metrics.html

  3. The “Serious Games Summit” http://www.gdconf.com/conference/sgs.html is worth checking out. I think it’s not just about building better user interfaces for single user software, it’s also about building social & collaboration software that enables teams to be more productive and engaged.

    Excellent link, thanks Sean. I agree completely – adding too much games mechanics and you may lose the focus of the application, I think it needs to benefit the flow of the problem you’re solving. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Hey Dave – the answer is Yes, absolutely. We don’t change when we go to work, we’re still motivated by the same desires for reward, status, achievement, competition and self-expression.

    My company has a software platform that provides game mechanics as a service, and our customers include consumer websites and companies using them on their corporate intranets.

    On a related note, have you seen Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero? http://www.officelabs.com/ribbonhero

  5. Wow. So relevant its scary. We’re doing this at Deckerton because the evolution of SAAS enterprise software has enabled us to incorporate game mechanics that evolved on the consumer web. This hybrid software has the ability to be virally distributed like a consumer site, but monetized like business software. At Deckerton, that’s our holy grail.

    @Deckerton

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