How To Think About Gamification For Your Product Or Community

How To Think About Gamification For Your Product or Community

Last Updated on February 1, 2021

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I’ve been building communities both online and offline for several years now. Some small communities that are tight knit with <10 people regularly meeting, others that have scaled to 500k+. It’s certainly been a journey.

In some of those communities we’ve introduced elements of gamification and we’ve done a lot of experimentation with various degrees of gamification.

By no means am I even close to the top expert in gamification, but I’ve tried a bunch of stuff and am excited to share the actionable stuff we learned!


When To Use Gamification

Gamification will not solve your product’s core issues. If there aren’t some people that are already using your product regularly over time (not just using it and leaving), gamification won’t keep them on. Sure, you might see small metric bumps, but it’s an illusion and people will eventually leave if the product itself isn’t interesting.

I’d never recommend anybody build game mechanics or game systems into something that isn’t sort of working. Solve your core issues, then look at gamification.

So when should you use gamification? If you have something that is working and you want to amplify the progression and actions of those behaviors, gamification may be for you. Gamification when done right can give you a nice retention bump, engagement bump, and encourage users to try things they might not otherwise. Gamification can even lead to monetization.

Good Examples Of Gamification

The best way to pick up gamification is to study the companies doing gamification really well. Signup for these sites, download their apps, go through onboarding flows, and study. See what they’re doing well. All of them have tons of data so you can be sure that their implementations are working for them and their audience.

  • Duolingo
  • Meditation Apps (like Calm, Headspace, etc.)
  • Snapchat
  • Twitch
  • Discord
  • Tinder

1. Design For Motivations And Goals

I always start with a list of motivations, goals, and actions I’d like people to take. For Duolingo, the action is to take another language lesson. The motivation is to learn the language. The goal is to writer/read/speak the language. For meditation apps, both the motivation and the action is to meditate. The goal might be mental stability and clarity.

In addition to the core action, there may be other actions you want. For example, perhaps completing 3 days of Duolingo in a row means that people retain at a much higher rate. If that’s the case, another action you as a product owner may want to encourage.

This is the critical first step. Come up with a list of motivations, goals, and actions before doing anything else.

If you just randomly add badges and points systems without understanding the motivations and actions, you’re flying blind.

It’s also very helpful to design the journey the user goes on to reach their goal. For Duolingo, you have a beginner who knows nothing about a language. They begin to improve and solve their first lesson and begin building confidence. Over time, they build consistency and begin developing skills. You can map this entire process all the way from beginner to fluency.

2. Come Up With A List Of Potential Mechanics And Systems

Now that you have a list of motivations, goals, and actions and progression path, you can start designing game mechanics and systems to help people with their motivations and help people do the actions you want them to do.

The goals and journey are the most important parts to look at when it comes to designing these mechanics and systems. Actions and motivations feed into the process, but the goals and journey are what really motivate people and need to be the driving force of anything you design.

A common belief around gamification mechanics is that it all comes down to “PBL” – points, badges, and leaderboards. While they certainly can be a part of it, there is so much more to a great gamification system. Even within points and badges, there is a lot of depth in the design.

Designing Points And Badges

Let’s take a look at Duolingo for example. Does Duolingo have a point and badging system? Yes. They align it closely with user motivations and goals, as well as to the actions Duolingo wants from users. For example, there are badges for various milestones of streaks, which means the user has been consistently using the app and learning their language.

They also have badges for learning new words. Size of vocabulary is heavily tied to the user motivation of learning a new language.

As is completing lessons.

Simple enough right? Sort of. There’s more. There’s also a leveling system for each achievement. You can “rank up” so to speak when you hit certain milestones within each category of achievements. You also earn points in the form of XP and Crowns. The ranks are tied to the natural progression of language improvement.

All of this is intertwined and we won’t get into all the nuances of how to earn the points and how they interact with everything in the site. It’s just important to know that it’s all interconnected, the badges, points, and all other systems on the app. Designing one means thinking about the entire system and how it interacts.

Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards

Again, there is so much more to gamification than points, badges, and leaderboards. Because there are so many possibilities, and the best mechanics are designed for specific communities and use cases, I’ll just share some examples and thoughts here to give you a sense, rather than listing out non-translatable ideas:

  • Discord has a number of interesting mechanics in their design. One is the “Boost” feature. By boosting a Discord server, you get additional functionality, more customizable emojis, and more. That isn’t what’s cool about it though, that’s just a basic paid feature. What makes this a killer gamification mechanic is that boosts stack up. The entire server can level up if multiple boosts are given to the same server, unlocking even bigger rewards. The “Booster” also gets a status bump in the Boosted server with a special badge. Everybody gets the benefit of the boost so the booster helped a lot of people in the community!
  • Tinder – while you could argue the swiping mechanism is a game mechanic in itself (and it’d be a very valid argument), let’s ignore that for this example. A lot of the monetization features they’ve designed are examples of gamification. You can give people a “Super Like” to stand out. Tinder also has a Boost feature that puts the user’s profile as the top profile for people nearby for 30 minutes.
  • YouNow has a virtual currency where you can earn the currency from doing certain actions that you can use to send gifts to streamers. They also have leveling systems and mechanisms to incentivize entire groups of people to do things to unlock random loot drops for the group.

I like to brainstorm a lot of options and then play with various combos and ideas and think about how they might interact. Remember, it’s all interconnected.

So many problems are solvable with an interesting mechanic if you’re creative enough. Sometimes it involves a reframe or a twist to make it all work. Take your time here. Even if your iteration of the idea doesn’t work, something you find while brainstorming here might eventually work so it’s good to spend the effort here.

Finding Inspiration

Coming up with really creative game mechanics is really hard, especially if you’re trying to solve a very specific that requires a novel, creative solution. To get ideas, I like to try out games! It’s helpful if it’s a game that might have a similar style of problem as you do. For example, if you’re trying to solve a community engagement problem, it’d be better to play a game that involves multiple people or teams rather than a single player tie-die game.

To find good games to try, go to the top charts on the Apple App Store games section. The games at the top are typically well designed and can serve as good food for thought.

Deep Dive Into Progression Curves And Badging Psychology

If you are planning on building a leveling system or adding badges to your product, it’s really important to understand the psychology behind things and the math behind progression curves. Here are a few really good articles about that: RPG Level Progression, When to use extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards

3. Making It Fun

Gamification is a lot of psychology, but we don’t play games simply because they’re psychologically hacking us to play them. We play them because they’re fun and genuinely rewarding to play.

So make it fun. Be creative with it.

Try the mechanics you design yourself before giving it to users. Is it fun? If not, how can you make it more fun?

Sometimes it can mean making the difficulty curve a little easier or harder. Sometimes a clever name system for the badges or some cool visuals.

More often though, creative and interesting mechanics are what really make things fun. For example, the swiping mechanism of Tinder made online dating way more fun.

Useful Reads

As I am no expert, there are some books written by actual experts that I’d highly recommend. I’ve learned something from reading each of these. Some present awesome mechanics and serve for great ideas. Others teach you how to better think.

Game Thinking by Amy Jo Kim

This is the best book on gamification in my opinion. Amy is a legend in game design who has worked on products like The Sims, Rock Band, Netflix, eBay, and many more. She has helped apply game thinking to more products than probably anybody. This book won’t show you where to put your badges. It’ll help you think through the backbone of your entire system and build the foundation of your game mechanics. If you’re going to read one book, this is the book that will teach you all the fundamental building blocks for what to do.

Who should read this: Probably if you’re reading this, you should read the book. It might feel basic if you’ve done this before, but it really is the best base building block in your game thinking repretoire.

Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis by Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova

Though this book focuses on Virtual Economies and virtual currencies, because virtual economies are often the backbone behind games, the book is filled with amazing ideas and sparks for inspiration. This is also a must read if you’re planning to design a virtual economy.

Who should read this: Somebody actively designing a virtual economy or complex gamification system and looking for more ideas and inspiration.

Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards by Yu-kai Chou

A great framework for thinking about gamification through the lens of psychology. Yu-kai invented a framework called Octalysis that is very useful for brainstorming and analysis of gamification systems.

Who Should Read This: Beginners to gamification and those interested in brainstorming more ideas or looking at gamification in a different way

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell

A great book on the fundamentals of game psychology and game design. This isn’t as much about gamification as it is about game design, but the core principles are very important and very applicable.

Who Should Read This: Beginners who want to have a deeper understanding of game design and use psychology better in their gamification.

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals By Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

Basic game design framework. This is more of a reference book/text book. It’s jam packed with good information and is great for a fundamental understanding about how to design fun and interesting game systems. This is also written for game designers, but very much applicable and important to gamification.

Who Should Read This: Beginners who want to have a deeper understanding of game design and use psychology better in their gamification.

Recommended Posts:

Book summaries, notes, interviews, and more!

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