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ETech - Applying Game Design to Mobile Services

Notes from Putting the Fun in Functional: Applying Game Design to Mobile Services by Amy Jo Kim, from Shufflebrain. The session title is a bit of a misnomer; it's really about how to create an addictive sticky system using principles of game design; there's nothing mobile-specific about the presentation.

Five Game Mechanics


(Ed: I missed the beginning of this, unfortunately, but...) Completing a set is a very powerful motivational mechanism.

Earning Points

Earning points simple way to keep score (example: Ebay's feedback are social points.) But...what can you DO with your points?... and, what can they do for you?

Redeemable points: earn while you shop. "Females are much less likely to spend playing a game because they feel they should be doing something valuable," so redeemable points help females feel like they're not wasting time.

Redeemable points drive loyalty. They keep somebody playing one game vs. another.

Can earning points be a social experience? Absolutely. Social points awarded by other players. Acrophobia is a game that gives acronym, everybody in room types phrase to go with the acronym, and then vote on best acronym. YouTube ratings are social points.

Social points express what is valued in the game.

Myspace: photo rating. Hotties for mobile phones (it's cross between & myspace). It's moving away from the seriousness like towards a fun game experience.

Examples of how social points can be expressed in functional non-game systems.

  • Ebay: feedback are social points; game is to do better in the microworld
  • Amazon review ratings
  • Flickr's interestingness: aggregate interesting pics w/o asking users to change behavior

Once you have points, you can make leaderboards (for better or worse). Leaderboards express a game's values, i.e. Halo has individuals AND team leaderboards. Leaderboards drive player behavior.

Some systems once had leaderboards but took them away, but why? Because leaderboards encourage people to game the system.

Levels are shorthand for accumulated points. Ebay introduced different stars for levels of good feedback. People are motivated to level up. Levels punctuate the game experience: "you've reached something and there's still more to reach more".

Levels unlock new powers & access. Ebay Ppowersellers must maintain amount of sales per month to maintain their status.


Feedback draws attention through movement and change.

Bejeweled: tells you if you did something good, shows you exploding points on the screen.

Myspace gives you lots of social feedback. At the library after school, all terminals are packed with lines of ppl waiting for feedback thru myspace. Introduced mobile alerts --> smart; they're another form of social feedback.

Feedback accelerates mastery: you get better faster. Karaoke revolution: teaches you how to sing through feedback on pitch, etc. character starts to glow if doing well, gets booed off stage if not doing well. Brain training game, which is "big in japan". Each time you play, it tells you how old your brain is, as you play more and more, it shows you your brain getting younger, very compelling to play.

Mashups: why are they successful? They're more responsive, more fun, feel more fun to use. Whether it's more accurate or not DOESN'T MATTER.

Feedback makes mundane tasks more fun. "Cooking Mama" for Nintendo DS teaches you how to cook. Bones in motion provides feedback on your physical activity.


Exchanges are structured social interactions

Social exchanges can be v. explicit (chess)... or implicit (i.e. the ebay system has evolved to be a metagame).

Trading is example of explicit social exchange.

Gifting is an implicit social exchange. It's a powerful mechanism for driving behavior and back and forth. Gifting in: Netmarble, Habbo Hotel, Helios MVNO. Think about places where you can allow ppl to give each other gifts.

My Space has implicit and explicit social exchanges. Add friend is explicit. Comments are implicit.


Customization increases investment and creates barriers to exit.

Automatic customization is fun and engaging, i.e. Amazon and Flickr (something about fact that it knows who you are when you log in is nice).

Character customization is especially powerful. Can use in a lot of different places, not only in games. For the MySpace target audience, it doesn't matter that it's ugly; it speaks to desires of ppl who use myspace. Brain Train tracks progress over time, and remembers when you last logged in, which makes it feel more personal, makes it feel more fun.

Let's look at MySpace through lens of game mechanics:

How is myspace like a game? It has

  • collection of friends, comments, pictures
  • points: yup, photos
  • feedback: very rich
  • exchanges: implicit & explicit
  • customization: you bet
"Looking at MySpace profile reminds me of walking into a teenager's bedroom. There's loud music playing, stuff all over the place, and posters all over the walls."

Looking ahead, expect to see more serious applications that feel like games, and more games that teach real-world skills.


Livejournal: support is by volunteers, the longer a ticket is open, the more points it accrues, so the incentive becomes greater for a ticket to be handled.

On not gaming leaderboards: implement time caps, or reward people for not playing for a while.

Q: Is there a penalty to not exposing algorithm for developing leaderboards?
A: Depends what behavior you're trying to motivate. Hiding the algorith demotivates people from trying to game the system. The disadvantage of not exposing it is you can be accused of not being fair. People want to know the rules if they're playing the game. By not telling them the rules, people wonder if the playing field isn't level.

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Comments (Post | Latest)

1. Cate said on Mar 8 2006:

Fascinating. Thanks for the overview.


Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

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