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The Next Generation of Game Mechanics

I've already had a few things to say on the coming explosion of game mechanisms in non-game apps, but listening to Gabe Zichermann talk at last week's New York Gaming Meetup raised some new questions. I agree with Gabe on a lot of things. We're absolutely seeing a proliferation of game mechanics throughout the internet, and the resulting points or badges are totally divorced from real-world value. But everything I've heard on this topic has presumed that most of the innovation in game mechanics has already happened; that the real advances will be in applying points, leaderboards and badges to anything and everything on the internet. In other words, we'll see a world of thousands of companies replicating a limited pool of "proven" game mechanics to guide user behavior. There have even been entire companies formed to help companies stick points and leaderboards on their apps.

It's a crock of shit, really. There is a whole world of compelling game mechanics out there, only a small part of which is the Activity > Points > Badges flow that Foursquare nailed. Game mechanics are going to expand throughout the web, but they're going to diversify and incorporate a wealth of varied engagement strategies as they do. Different tactics work for different people and different sites, and consumers will demand diversity and deeper engagement as they become more hardened to "vanilla" game mechanics.

So what are these next-gen game mechanics, you ask? Here are a few I think we'll see much more often:

Building and Growing: Most people like to build and grow things. You can chalk the psychology up to our agrarian past, but Ford knew this when they put a virtual tree into the Fusion. Leaderboards feel like a zero-sum game, and many people will respond better to a mechanism that feels more collaborative. Like growing a tree, for instance.

There's a corollary mechanism to this -- building or growing something that can help you play the game better in the future -- that could be particularly powerful. This mechanism is analogous to building a strong base in a RTS game. People are doubly motivated to do it since it puts their involvement in the game on an exponential growth trajectory.

PvP Competition: This is a no-brainer. People can be motivated by leaderboards and badges, but it's nothing compared to the passion you see in player versus player competition. That said, this is somewhat psychographically specific -- lots of people have no interest in direct competition with other players, and I imagine that designers will initially approach PvP competition in non-game apps with a lot of caution. But I can't see it staying on the sidelines forever given its power.

Real World Rivalries: I experimented with this in GoCrossCampus a few years back, and I still think there's really something here. As I mentioned above, many people love to play games against other live players (whether asynchronously or in real-time), and real-world rivalries only accentuate the power of this mechanic. Your leaderboard isn't doing enough to engage users? Let players represent major sports teams or their colleges and see which team/college is the best! Use real-world rivalries and your app can piggyback off your users' natural loyalties and affinities.

Leveling: I've seen some non-game apps using this already -- such as online forums that reward activity by "leveling up" members based on post count -- but it's still woefully underused. Levels give people goals, the lack of which can be the death of a traditional points-based reward system. If members don't think they're working towards anything other than more points or a slightly better place on the leaderboard, they probably won't hang around too long. Social game developers know this well; it's worthwhile to study the leveling system that Farmville uses to keep players from leaving in the early stages of gameplay.

Chance: When "gameifying" apps hits the mainstream, incorporating elements of chance into these game structures will be a big deal. People in the tech and media world like the meritocratic, deterministic nature of Foursquare, where points can only be earned, not "won". But normal folks like to win and will often value a chance to win something valuable over something small and guaranteed. Game designers aren't blind to this, and the game-based apps of the future will absolutely allow users to wager their virtual currency and tokens.

There are more, but this is enough to argue my point. It's hard to imagine any of these tools not being used on a large scale over the next five years. Marketers and developers must stop mimicking points and badges and start thinking about how game mechanics integrate with their apps on a fundamental level.