PlayScreen’s William D. Volk approves of gamification but thinks we can do better

William Volk, CCO
Post Featured on PocketGamer
I recently gave a talk at DevCon5 on Gamification – how non-gaming apps are using gaming aspects to motivate users. 

And in the course of researching material for this talk, I took some time to play the latest social games on Facebook and iOS.

Grind to the nosestone

These are the grind games; games where the play is actually about tasks and not the traditional gameplay elements we’ve previously known. There’s no win/lose, it’s all about tasks and achievements.

Yet these freemium or free-to-play games (however you want to call them), rule the charts. They’re hugely popular with ten of millions of players, and payers.

For example, six of the current top ten top grossing iPhone games are of this type, while on Facebook, by definition, the entire business of companies such as Zynga and Playfish has been built on such games.

Back to nature

Much as in life, tasks are neverending. You plant crops, harvest food, buy more things, make the farm larger, plant more crops, harvest more food etc…

These tasks results in achievements shared with friends who are also playing the game, with the glue across friends being the items you can gift between yourselves.

Motivation includes pride of ownership in building a personalised world as well as effective rewards with the slot-machine-style awards of coins and the like. It’s very clever and much has been written about the system and how it’s tweaked to keep players playing.

The evil empire

Despite what the critics say, there is progress. Admittedly I checked out Zynga’s new Empires & Allies expecting to see a vast multiplayer strategy war game (hey, I got my start at Avalon Hill).

But it’s just another a task game, where you’re rebuilding your island that’s been attacked. As in FarmVille, you construct buildings and even can plant crops, while the addition is that some of the buildings create troops – something I fondly remember from games such as Total Annihilation, Starcraft andWarcraft.

Building these units enables you to eventually fight the mythic enemy who destroyed your army in the first place. Combat is simple, which is appropriate for casual Facebook gamers, but the clever thing is Zynga has extended theFarmVille grind into a broader gameplay with the simple combat sequences.

Work, rest and work

Personally, I believe much of the appeal of the grind or task game is you can drop in when you like and just play it.

This harkens back to digital plaything games such as Little Computer Peopleand SimCity. The difference now is the social networking element that motivates folks to create something worth bragging about. Productivity, even in a virtual sense, feels good.

Another driving force is the opportunity to build something with pride. For many folks, work is unfufilling paper shuffling. They don’t have much of a creative win in their normal jobs.

Producing what?

In a very real way, task games are all about being productive.

After all, these are virtual economies, and when you think about it, much of real economies are virtual (just ask anyone who worked in the dot com era). Currency only has value because people believe it has value. The only items with intrinsic value are commodities, tools and land … even real gold’s current high value is a product of belief.

So the way to make something useful out of these sort of games is to apply the principles to the real world tasks we all have to do to survive and prosper, such as weight loss programs, fitness and other grind activities.

Still, the thing I really like about this is we’re encouraging the sort of audience that’s never played games in the past. Our next step should be to combine this mechanic with traditional game elements of strategy, action and adventure and make the best of both worlds.

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