Beyond Gamification: Why Game Design Is More Important Than Ever
Have you ever found yourself enjoying a seemingly arduous task like clearing out your email inbox, learning something new, investing in a public stock, or even riding a bike? Despite being in different industries, companies like SuperHuman, Kahoot, Robinhood and Zwift all have one thing in common; their products successfully use game design to create more attractive experiences that keep users engaged.
Now you might be thinking this sounds a lot like ‘“gamification”. While the buzzword had its heyday ten years ago, it has now evolved into something far more complex and nuanced. In its infancy, gamification referred to turning existing products into games. Today, applied game design is about using the most effective principles and gaming mechanics to build software products from inception.
This evolution matters because applied game design is a massive opportunity. Compared with just $7bn in 2019, the global market for applied game design is projected to grow x10 to $76bn in 2030. Given that 35% of the world already plays video games, non-gaming companies that successfully leverage these principles will be rewarded. The question for many startups is, how do you do this effectively?
The Downfall of “Gamification”
During its relatively short lifespan, the term gamification created a lot of noise. This first wave took off when mobile gaming was booming; Zynga IPO’d in 2011 and games like Farmville and later Candy Crush showed unprecedented retention rates with high user engagement. While developers were still testing how best to design games, non-gaming companies were already drawing inspiration. At the time, it was widely believed that gamification would result in similar levels of motivation seen in free-to-play games. But, by 2014–15 gamification was already being dismissed as a failure (examples below).
- Marriott Hotel Farmville Game for recruiting
- Google News Badges
So what went wrong? In large part, the rush to gamify experiences came too early; non-gaming companies replicated what they saw and not what they knew. More specifically, however, gamified products failed because they highlighted features that made user experiences inauthentic.
According to SuperHuman founder, Rahul Vohra, gamification in the 2010s fundamentally had a problem understanding human motivation and emotion. In his talk ‘How To Move Beyond Gamification’, he references failure stemming from the overjustification effect; where individuals lose intrinsic motivation to complete activity after a reward is given. Early adopters of gamification largely ignored human psychology and the principles of self-determination theory that now form the basis of game design.
Applying game design is not as simple as slapping on a few features and assuming it will lead to higher user retention. In fact, the most effective designers carefully analyse and design for nuanced emotions that they want their customers to experience along their user journey. SuperHuman, for example, uses game design to reinforce a positive feeling that stems from intrinsic motivations. When a user hits inbox zero (the goal of the product), they’re shown beautiful landscapes and imagery to invoke feelings of love and surprise.
But Why Is Game Design So Important Today?
Now more than ever we are living in a game-first world. For the past ten years, video has been the most dominant entertainment medium, with the rise of Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime competing for screen time and subscriber dollars. The next ten years, however, will be all about games; 87% of Gen z, 83% of millennials, 79% of Gen X are playing video games on smartphones, consoles, and computers at least weekly, if not daily. Even video-first players recognise the need to adapt, with Netflix recently launching its own gaming platform.
As always, consumer-focused products need to find ways to engage and retain users. But retention, the northstar metric, is only getting harder; with the average attention span of a millennial as short as twelve seconds, and that of a Gen Z a mere eight seconds in 2021. The good news is that today’s non-gaming founders have access to a wealth of game developer knowledge.
The best companies, however, are building their teams with gaming talent in mind. Despite being a fitness startup, Zwift has an entire team dedicated to ensuring game quality assurance. In fact, Lindsay Ruppert, who formerly worked on Call of Duty and now head of Game QA at Zwift, explains that she sees “Zwift as a gaming company that is focused on fitness. Zwift, [in her view], is a casual massive multiplayer online video game where the user is part of the control system.” Likewise, before he founded SuperHuman, Rahul Vohra worked as a game designer at Jagex. This is something that defines his product: “Superhuman is productivity software, but I’m really a gamer at heart.”
The Road Ahead…
While the future of applied game design is bright, a caveat to consider are the legal and ethical implications. Founders need to be aware that the discourse around gaming has often been associated with addiction and gambling. Last year Massachusetts regulators filed a complaint against Robinhood, citing the company’s “aggressive tactics to attract inexperienced investors, […] its use of gamification strategies to manipulate customers.” While Robinhood responded by removing a confetti feature from its app, the SEC have signalled this debate is only just getting started.
In my opinion, we’re entering an era where the world of gaming is merging with consumer software in a meaningful way. While this is not a new trend, I suspect that in the next 10 years it will be almost impossible not to design like a gamer. As attention spans grow shorter, the quality of user experiences will need to do more to generate emotional journeys that engage and delight. Over the past ten years the gaming industry has matured to $175bn, with over 2.7bn gamers globally. Not only has this resulted in a breadth of knowledge, but more importantly it has created pools of talented designers and developers. Companies like SuperHuman, Kahoot, Robinhood and Zwift have shown it’s possible to create incredibly sticky experiences successfully leveraging game design in a wide variety of non-gaming contexts.
I’m excited to see the next generation of founders designing non-gaming products in new ways. If you’re thinking about building something new, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org