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The ten rules of gamification

By on March 10, 2011

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: