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The ten rules of gamification

By on March 10, 2011
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Gamification may have been the buzzword of 2010, but its influence shows no sign of abating in 2011. It is a term derided by game designers, misunderstood by brands and unknown to consumers.

So as you set out to “gamify” your business, what are the cardinal rules of gamification?

1. You’re not making a game


Gamification is not the same as game-making.

Gamification is about using game-like mechanics to improve a business process, or customer experience, or profits.

Game-making is about fun and wonder and challenge and art. (The definition of what is a game is way beyond the scope of this post. Check out The Theory of Fun by Raph Koster or The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell if you’re interested.)

“Want more hovertanks? Just buy five extra tins of baked beans with your weekly shop”

So stop thinking about how you can build a real-time strategy game with resources allocated according to your customers’ weekly shopping bill – “Want more hovertanks? Better buy five extra tins of baked beans this week” and start focusing on tweaks and behavioural changes that improve your users’ experience and your bottom line.

2. Know what you are trying to achieve

See #1 above. You’re not trying to make a game. If you are, you are either a big games company like Electronic Arts or you are making a big mistake.

What is the point of your game? To increase consumer engagement? How will you measure it? How will you know if you have succeeded? More importantly, how will your boss know that it succeeded.

Go away. Write down three things that you want “gamification” to achieve. Make them measurable. Now hand it to whoever is gamifying your service and say “This is what I want to achieve. Please help me do it.”

3. Be prepared not to gamify

Gamification can be very powerful. Or it can just be a buzzword. Once you’ve followed #2 above, and identified what you are trying to achieve, stop.

Can you achieve it without gamifiying? If you want to increase return visits, can you improve your service? If you want people to sign up for your website, can you improve your landing page or sign up form?

In short, realise that gamification is no quick fix or panacea. It’s a means to an end, like every other marketing technique. Before you spend lots of money on a gamification project, make sure you have done the basic user interface/user interface/funnel optimisation work.

4. Games are rubbish at customer acquisition

Seriously. If you view gamification as a way of acquiring an audience, stop right now. It won’t work, and will be a total waste of money.

Big games companies like Activision have massive marketing budgets for their games. Modern Warfare 2 may have cost $50 million to develop, but its launch budget was over $200 million. Somewhere between $50 and $100 million was spent on marketing.

“Oh, but that’s different, they sell big games in boxes.”

OK then, how about Zynga? The most successful social games company in the world, Zynga was spending an estimated $5-$8 million per month in advertising on Facebook in March 2010. By now, that figure will have grown substantially. For companies across the social and mobile games industry, CPA is their biggest headache.

Gamify to encourage behaviours amongst your users, to keep them engaged with your brand or to spread a message. Don’t do it to get customers in the first place.

5. Retention is crucial, yet criminally overlooked

Whatever your objective from gamifying, I will promise you that you will achieve it better if you keep customers coming back regularly.

  • If you want to make money from selling stuff, it’s easier if your customers value what you do – and show that by coming back regularly rather than just once.
  • If you want to spread your brand message, they’re more likely to remember it if they come back every day for seven days.
  • If you want them to share with their friends, they need to spend some time to feel that is useful, fun or rewarding.

Sure, it’s possible to covert prospects to customers with a brilliant experience when they first visit.

But if you focus on retention (and here are some retention tips), you stand a much better chance of success than relying on endlessly acquiring new customers.

6. Monetisation may sound great, but focus on your core business

If you look at Zynga’s virtual goods business and think “I’d like a piece of that $7 billon valuation”, I think you’re making a mistake.


If you are looking at Zynga’s Cityville and thinking “I can see the clever psychological tricks the game-makers at Zynga are using to drive users to come back regularly, to spend money and to tell their friends about the game – perhaps I could use those self-same tricks to improve my own bottom line”, then you’re onto something.

And if you’re interested in that, go and buy Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion from Robert Cialdini. You’ll thank me for it. (,

7. No, games are not just about competition

The first thing I hear when talking to people about “gamification” is “We’ll just add some points, and a leaderboard, and the natural desire for people to be at the top of the leaderboard will do the rest.”

No, it won’t.

Humans are complex beasts. Professor Richard Bartle has classified humans as gamers into four types. Everyone is a combination of all these types, and the explanations below are mine. (Check out Wikipedia on the Bartle Test if you want to find out more)

  • Killers want to beat other people
  • Achievers want to beat themselves
  • Explorers want to go places and find out stuff
  • Socialisers don’t care what they do as long as they are doing it with their friends.

Bartle estimates that only 25% of online gamers have Killer as their dominant trait. If you gamify for Killers, you are only appealing to 25% of your customers.

More damagingly, you may be creating a worse experience for 75% of your customers.

8. Beware unintended consequences

You know what happens when you set a target? People aim for it. You may have lofty aims for improving GP waiting times to less than 48 hours for all patients. What do GP surgeries do? Make it impossible to book an appointment for more than 48 hours in the future. Hey presto, 100% of surgeries meet the 48 hour target, millions of patients can’t get appointments at a time to suit them except by pretending that it is an emergency. (You can see a Daily Mail story on waiting times if you wish. And yes, this anecdote is driven by bad personal experience too.)

In gamification, this can be much worse. Want to get more people to write reviews? Give them a point and show their score on a leaderboard.

Oh, now you have thousands of one word reviews. “Great!”. “This product sucks”. “+1”.

So you now you need to build a rating system for the reviews. Give people points for rating reviews and for having reviews that are highly rated.

Now everyone rates the reviews to get points, not to acknowledge how useful it was. And players start gaming the system by giving each other positive ratings.

Before long, you are scrapping your ill-conceived gamification project because it is causing more problems that it solves.

9. Make it personal

The most powerful rewards are intrinsic, not extrinsic. That which motivates us is personal, not predictable.

Broadly (and these are generalisations, not hard-and-fast rules):

  • Avoid cash rewards
  • Allow people to show status (through achievements, aesthetics, personalisation, even leaderboards)
  • Gamify in a persistent world, expect users to progress over time
  • Have some profile or personal page, however minimal, to share with the wider world.

10. Gamification is a process, not a project

Marketing departments often struggle with this. Once you start gamification, you don’t stop. Successful social games spent less than 10% of their development budget before the game launched. At a minimum, you should expect to spend 50% of the development budget after launch. More likely, you should have a maintenance budget committed permanently to your gamification strategy, like you do for your website, your SEO, your marketing or your PR.

Don’t be afraid: gamify

Unlike many who work in the games industry, I am fully supportive of gamification. I just don’t think it is about making a game.

It can be about more than pointsification, but even if it isn’t, that’s OK. For most companies, pointsifying their product or service is more than enough.

Want to know more?

  • I’m running masterclass on How to make money from social games on 31st March in London. Visit to find out more.
  • Subscribe to GAMESbrief to get the latest thoughts on the future of gaming.
  • Hire me! I help companies make money from games. I can help you identify what you are trying to achieve with your gamification and tweak your existing strategies to improve results. I charge £1,500 per day and few companies need me for more than a day or two a month. Get in touch and let’s start talking.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
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  • Mike Beaty

    Gamification holds a lot of promise for internal operations as well. It is a great way for companies to engage their employees. Here is a business gamification solution we offer, RedCritter Tracker. The video shows how badges, points, leaderboards and ribbons can be incorporated into project management.

  • Kathysierra

    Much as I fight against all-things-gamification, I probably agree with at least 75% of what you say here. Unfortunately, the growing “gamification industry” disagrees with you on some key areas, most specifically, your #9:
    “The most powerful rewards are intrinsic, not extrinsic.”

    I finally got around to watching the Saatchi&Saatchi gamification video where The Expert on gamification states the breathtakingly hilarious:
    “Where intrinsic motivation has gotten us is the world today, burning fossil fuels, unable to stop fishing the ocean to extinction, people being overweight…”

    And then his recent post where he finally, in comments, states that intrinsic and extrinsic rewards produce behaviors that are nearly “indistinguishable”. He does cite a small group of researchers who make this claim, despite a much stronger scientific view that that intrinsic reward is, as you said, more powerful (and at the least, quite different from operant conditioning).

    Given the virtually all professional game designers as well as scholars in the domain agree with you on this, and that the key elements of Actual Games are entirely driven by intrinsic reward (see Sebastian’s comments about why people play actual games, etc.) rather than the support structure of extrinsic rewards, this helps explain, I believe, why so many in the game world take such a strong stance against gamification. They aren’t for the most part taking issue with the higher-level notion of “applying aspects of game design to non-games…”, they/we are rebelling against the misleading association of Games with Extrinsic Reward Structures.

    And no matter how many times you and others claim that gamification can and should be “so much more than that”, right now, it isn’t. And the leading experts have set the definition nearly in stone. Or at least on wikipedia. And as you already know, Gabe Zichermann’s oft-quoted statement about the “key game mechanics” lists only those associated with extrinsic reward structures. At least now, I finally understand that this was not an error on his part, but what he truly believes.

    I am interested in knowing exactly where the rest of the gamification world falls on this notion. I have already heard from a few gamification companies that they are disturbed by the (current) strong link between gamification and extrinsic rewards, and they are trying to figure out how to begin distancing themselves. I do not know for certain if the word is redeemable, but right now, I think not and tend to agree with Ian that, thanks to the marketers, “the word has been burned.” Amy Jo is doing her part for rehabbing it by prepending “smart”, but I am also taken with Sebastian’s point that it makes no sense to call it bad vs. good gamification when gamification itself has virtually no key concepts in common with games.

    That some (including you) believe the word can represent so much more might be way too late. That word has already attainted full buzzword status inextricably linked to badges and points and extrinsic reward. I just watched an amazing and wonderful TedX video under the heading of Gamification applied to Education, and found not one shred of gamification (good or bad) in the video. It was simply really awesome and compelling learning experiences. (100% intrinsic).

    Anyway, I am not an expert on these topics… just a very concerned educator and (former) game designer. But again, I think the majority of what you say here is quite good and appropriate. The problem is the gamification experts that do not agree with you, or those that claim to but are promoting the near opposite while paying lip service to your points.

  • Another element of gamification which I believe will have great impact is the opportunity to use a game world to help visualize data that might be otherwise cumbersome or intellectually baffling.

    1. A health game that tunes your character powers based on your daily exercise regime.
    2. A holiday shopping adventure that bases player opportunity on real world user ratings and purchase reports on holiday gifts.
    3. A game that modifies environment based on real-world pollution data and toxicity levels.

    Currently I am working on a social project on Facebook (called Global Innovation Game) that supports open innovation in a real-time stock market for ideas. Soon it will provide triggers for real-world action for good.

    Please check it out as we are in early beta and believe in the power of collaborative feedback.

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  • very good explain ..thanks man.. I liked

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  • Anonymous

    Nick: *grins* Our original model (DGD1) has just four archetypes, the latest one (BrainHex) has seven. But of course, I was joshing about Richard’s model – it’s widely used, and gets the point of player diversity across perfectly well. 🙂

    As for open availability, we’ve offered free non-exclusive licenses for BrainHex to various orgs, so if anyone you know wants to use the model they’d be more than welcome. It’s more robust than Bartle Types, but still not quite up to the standard of commercial psychometry.

    The statistical analysis for BrainHex is going on this year in Canada and I hope to have some interesting data to present on this later this year.

    All the best!

  • I do talk about yours. In fact, someone asked me if there was another “Bartle” out there, I said “International Hobo have another framework, but I’m not sure if it is as openly available as Bartle’s”

    Plus, more importantly, Bartle has four archetypes and you, as I remember, have seven or eight. I am a bear of very little brain, and four is enough for me 🙂

    I’ll check out the book.

    And thanks for posting.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Nick, you should really be citing me and not Richard Bartle when it comes to arguing against “competition is everything”. :p This has been my argument ever since “21st Century Game Design”. In fact, you could get a copy of my book “Beyond Game Design” and get both Bartle and me all in one place. 🙂 If I have any copies left by the time you next pass through the North West I’ll bring you one, but I’m running out of freebies…

    Anyway, nice summary of the issues here – I especially appreciate your point that anyone thinking gamification will *bring in* an audience is severely confused!


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  • Absolutely.

    To expand on my point – the issue as I see it is that marketers and many social game developers are using a very limited palette of tools from the arsenal that the traditional games industry have been using for years. In many cases, these methods can be repurposed to suit their needs. The solutions so far seem to be based on a surface reading of game design ‘points and competition’. The game design theory books you point out should be required reading to anyone who steps into this sphere, especially theory of fun 😀

    At it’s core, great design is a solution to a problem. For our part, game designers need to listen to the marketers to find their desired outcomes (many of which you point out). More than that, we’d be fools to not invest time researching the massive accumulated experience and methodology which is part of their trade’s history.

    Ebony and IIiivvvooorrrryyyy etc.

  • Good stuff Mike.

    For me, there remains a fundamental challenge here. Game designers want to make great games; gamifiers want to encourage certain behaviours that improve a company’s bottom line. These objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are very different.

    So I think game designers need to learn as much from the marketing/commercial departments of their clients as the clients need to learn from them.

  • Long time reader, first time poster.

    DISCLAIMER – I am a professional game designer. I’m intrigued by gamification as a topic, but largely disappointed with what I’ve seen. I’ve had the same knee-jerk reaction as a lot of my peers: “it’s just a rebranded loyalty scheme, right?”

    And then I got to the following part of your article…

    “The first thing I hear when talking to people about “gamification” is “We’ll just add some points, and a leaderboard, and the natural desire for people to be at the top of the leaderboard will do the rest.”

    No, it won’t.”

    Scoring metrics are a part of games, but they are a tiny, tiny part. As you say, designing a game to sell a product results in a rubbish game or an obscured product – but there are plenty of lessons the business world can learn from game designers beyond the skinner box.

    Bringing meaningful and engaging play to the social games and gamification spaces is going to change everything. Current solutions are undeniably working – but are doing so with game design theory from the space invaders era.

    There’s a lot of fascinating work to be done in this area. I’m planning on being one of the people to do it 😀