By July 21, 2009Ideas

The principles of game design are really no different than the behaviors we foster in our day-to-day lives.
You may be familiar with a silly game adults play when little children ask for something without saying please: the adult pretends not to hear in the absence of the “magic word”. Well, one day my wife and I realized that we were wasting a valuable opportunity to teach our 3 year-old daughter. Instead, we changed the rules: whenever she forgot proper manners she would be asked to do some simple task like counting to 20, spelling her name, reciting her address, adding numbers etc.
Looking back, it’s amazing how much she learned from these “punishments”. But even more interesting is that she never saw them as unfair or onerous. Even at 3, she seemed to intuit that when she made a mistake there would be reasonable consequences. Giving her an easy way to atone reduced her feeling of guilt and frustration. Instead of being nagged, she was being taught (which she actually appreciated). Instead of feeling like a failure who can never remember her manners, she became a budding mathematician and speller. We knew that the technique had reached its goals when she started reminding us that she “owed” us a spelling: “Daddy: you can’t get the juice until I spell something!”
Similarly, in game design we can turn around the negative emotions associated with failure, and guide game players towards activities that are more profitable for them (or for game developers). Let’s take one of the oldest and most basic examples as our starting point. Imagine you are playing Space Invaders. One of those imaginative invaders bounces off a wall, returns in your direction and drops a little missile pixel on you. You’re thinking: “Damn! Why didn’t I see it coming? How did I let my attention wander? There goes my high score!”
Almost as if it was reading your mind, right after impact the game provides you the opportunity to continue for 25¢. What a deal! You don’t bemoan the greed of the game developers, instead you’re grateful for a second chance.  A more advanced game could even charge a bit extra for 30 seconds of missile defense or super-fast rocket-speed. Of course, in certain games, the sum is not so small. For example, if you get knocked out of a football “survivor pool” it can be very expensive to get back in!
Despite the direct monetization opportunities, there are more interesting ways to harness the impulse to atone. Consider the application that Ayogo did For MovieSet. MovieSet is a “buzz marketing” company that makes its living promoting movies before they are released in order to to build grass roots interest and soften the ground for the launch marketing. MovieSet wanted to accomplish a few things:

  • Attract movie fans on Facebook and MySpace, thereby providing them with easier access to their target audience
  • “Teach” movie fans about movies that have not yet been released
  • Learn about fans’ movie preferences

What Ayogo delivered for MovieSet was “Behind the Scenes”, a trivia game that asks players questions about movies that have not yet been released. When players answer a question correctly, MovieSet confirms the correct answer by delivering a video: behind the scenes footage, interviews with actors, directors and producers, or b-roll. Great stuff. When a movie fan gets a question wrong, though, the game offers them the opportunity to try again (after all, these videos are scarce and fans want to see them all). In order to get that opportunity, the movie fan needs to do something for MovieSet, like answering a question about their movie watching habits. Within the first 10 days or so, 30,000 movie fans had answered 150,000 questions about their movie watching habits. The ROI:

  • MovieSet got the addressable user base they wanted: ultimately, the game was installed over 250,000 times in the course of the first month; tens of thousands of fans submitted email addresses for follow-up; and MovieSet learned a great deal about what those movie fans like and don’t like
  • Movie producers received more than a million views of promotional videos for their movies without investing a single marketing dollar, and better still, those fans “passed” a “quiz” about their movie before it was even released!
  • Movie Fans had fun, saw loads of great, exclusive video content, and felt good about providing what would otherwise be considered very personal information

So next time you’re trying to motivate a specific behavior, remember that the best game design effectively mimics the principles of day-to-day life: mistakes have consequences, and atonement is a privilege that must be earned (or purchased!).