Gamification and Why Your Mobile App Needs It

By John Houghton on November 20, 2013

Man playing a game on mobile device.

You don’t have to look far to see how gamification has accelerated online websites and apps.  Take the Facebook “Like” for example.  This game mechanic has driven the success of the Facebook platform.  If you already have or are thinking about building an iPhone or Android app, you should give some thought to what’s going to keep your users coming back.  Applying principles of gamification can be just the thing to make your app successful. Watch the video now:

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In this first episode of Mobile App Development TV, we talk to Danny Maco, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who frequently serves as an advisor to startup companies here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has worked recently as the General Manager of the digital division of University Games.  Even if you don’t have a game app, you can still apply the principles he outlines to nearly any type of app.

Gamification is all around us.  I remember in kindergarten, we would get a series of stars for completing various tasks in the classroom.  Those stars really drove our behavior in class.  I’m amazed at how people respond to airline mileage programs.  I know some people who take unnecessary flights at the end of the year, just to maintain their mileage status.  Mileage programs not only generate loyalty, but they help airlines maintain a minimum spending level for their customers.

In this video, Danny explains that there are four variables that drive a successful app:

1. Discoverability
2. Large audiences
3. Retain users
4. Generate revenue

These four variables are driven by gamification.  Danny also provides examples of gamification, citing LinkedIn and how they display a progress bar as you complete your profile.  LinkedIn also provides the ability to see who has looked at your profile, which keeps people coming back.  Another great example is endorsements.  When people receive things, they feel like they should give back, and this provides stickiness and a sense of community.  All of these game mechanics work to continually bring users back to the app to generate revenue.

MobileCast Media offers app gamification services.  Contact us for a quote.

Mobile App Development TV Transcript

This program is of interest to companies developing iPhone, Android, iPad and tablet apps.  To control cost, it’s always good to develop subject matter expertise and that’s what you can gain from this program.  We are based in the San Francisco Bay Area and cover mobile app development news and best practices.


Danny Opener: From an online product perspective one of the more powerful examples of gamification, from an element perspective is the Facebook like. Think about how powerful that is. You know, when somebody likes something that you’ve posted, there’s a super strong social element to that.

Voice Over: From MobileCast Media’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, this is Mobile App Development TV with John Houghton.

John: Welcome to Mobile App Development TV, I’m your host John Houghton, and we’re talking today about gamification, now gamification is very important if you want to bring people to your app and get them to stay and have them come back. It needs to have a gamification element. It’s important not just for games but for any type of app.  So we’re talking today with Danny Maco, he is a subject matter expert in this area and he worked recently as the General Manager of the digital division of University Games where his job was to take physical board games and to turn them into mobile games. How are you doing today Danny?

Danny: Good John, thank you for inviting me.

John: A lot of people don’t know what gamification is, what is gamification in your words and why does it matter?

Danny: So there’s often a lot of confusion around what gamification is, and maybe it’s better or easier to describe what it’s not. Often people think gamification is taking a non-game product and turning into a game. While there may be some use cases where that’s helpful, generally that’s not what’s meant by gamification. They’re four primary variables that drive a successful game. They have to be discovered, there’s millions and millions- hundreds of thousands of apps available on these various app stores. They have to have audiences that are large audiences to be able to make their monetization model work. They need to retain their users in order to maximize the lifetime value of their players and generate enough revenue to make their business model work and they need to monetize those players.

Because mobile applications just as an example or mobile games is such a competitive environment and you’re competing against other developers that are building free games so you’re competing against free, the successful game developers have become masters at maximizing and optimizing these four things.

So now when you take a step back and you look at any business, whether it’s an online business or a traditional product and you think about it, they have those exact same needs and issues they need to have their product discovered, whether traditionally it’s through various marketing channels etcetera but people need to find their product. They have to have enough consumers to buy it to make it a good business model, so audience is important for them too, usually just uses different terms referred to customers as opposed to audience.

You want to retain those users and that’s why loyalty programs have been so helpful and utilized to keep people around engage with your brand so that there’s more and more opportunity over time to provide value in exchange for revenue and then monetizing. So, because the problems when the variables related to success on both types of businesses are the same, gamification is really about using those proven methods of maximizing revenue, engagement, etcetera success in general in the gaming world and applying them to non-traditional or non-game types of products and businesses.

John: And monetization is the end goal. Are there some examples of how gamification can be incorporated into a product?

Danny: Well in reality gamification is all around us, keeping in mind that often you’re interacting with products without even realizing that there have been gamification considerations in the design and development of that product. Loyalty programs are a great example which you can see everywhere, whether it’s at Safeway or flying on an airline, those all have game mechanics in them. Some other subtle examples of things that many of you use on a regular basis, LinkedIn as an example has a lot of game mechanics associated with it that you may not be thinking about. The progression bar as an example, there’s a mechanic associated with achievement and people want to feel progression. So by putting a progression bar there, people are able to get that feedback of – hey I just accomplished something and I can see real stimulus coming back to me that its being accomplished. There’s a certain sense of reward to see that you’re progressing.

There are other examples of vanity mechanic when LinkedIn added the ‘who’s looking at your profile’, well when people go in there and look at who’s looked at their profile there’s little bit of appreciation, reward from a vanity perspective, ‘Hey people think I’m important, I’m getting some validation of who I am and what I’m doing’.  Appointment mechanics so when you look at the stats associated with people that have viewed your profile you notice that you can only look at the updates of that on the graph once a week. So for some types of people that are using the application, they’ll come back knowing that ‘well its Thursday now I can see my stats for last week, have I gone up? Have I gone down?’

Another great example of a game mechanic in LinkedIn is endorsements, which really utilizes what’s called a gifting mechanic. So when people come in and they endorse you, to some extent they’re gifting you. They’re giving recognition that you’ve done certain things which is of value to you. Now the gifting mechanic is really interesting and important because when people receive a gift, they feel obligated to some extent to give a gift back. So you’ll find that when people endorse people, those people that are endorsed will often go back and endorse the people that endorsed them. Now of course this is great for LinkedIn as a product because it brings people back to the environment, back to their product and facilitates retention of their users.

Probably the most, from an online product perspective one of the more powerful examples of gamification, from an element perspective is the Facebook like. Think about how powerful that is. You know, when somebody likes something that you’ve posted, there’s a super strong social element to that you’re interacting with other there’s a vanity element. Look somebody liked what I said or what I liked or what I posted, there’s a reward, if I put up content I’ll get that feedback from people. Hopefully not negative feedback and actually you notice they’ve done a good job of making it very difficult to get negative feedback or positive, you know. They like what I’m doing, and so really not only a powerful game mechanic but an example of an element that a company’s hinged and revolved their entire business around.

John: Well game mechanics can certainly help make an app more successful. Well that all we have time for. Thanks Danny and thank you for joining us. I’m John Houghton for Mobile App Development TV here in Silicon Valley. Mobile App Development TV is part of the MobileCast Media blog. For more information please visit Thank you.

Extended Transcript Follows

John: What are some of the challenges of taking let’s say a real world board game and converting that into a mobile game. 

Danny: I think there are some prerequisites initially.  One is any game whether it’s a physical game or mobile game is got to be fun. If you don’t have a fun game you’re not going to have success. Between the two, the physical and the mobile, ideally you want both of them to be able to stand alone as a wonderful experience, so that you can engage with a player on the board game side even if they’ve never heard of the mobile application. You can have a great experience on the mobile application but if they are able to play both of them it’s an additive experience.

John: Give me an example of the process of developing a simple mobile game.

Danny: So there are a lot of things to consider in building a successful game. I think to start with you need to think about what your objectives are. Are you going to build something that is primarily intended to release to the world and provide maximum joy to your players without having to worry about things like monetization or revenue?  Is this going to be a revenue generating mobile game?  Is it perhaps something that’s going to be integrated into an already existing product?  In which case it’s not a primary revenue source but you’re really driving awareness and promotion of some other product that you’re going to hope that your customers purchase.

You also have to think a little bit about whether it’s going to be a single player application or a multiplayer application. That’s important both from a design perspective, but also your development costs are going to be different. With multiplayer mode you’re going to have to be probably more dependent on backend servers and persistence associated with things like virtual goods, virtual currencies etcetera.

You have to think about your players, what are the demographics that you’re going after or what are the archetypes of those players. Certainly there’s a significant delta between if you’re going after players that are children and players that are above 13 or above 18. There are considerations both form legal issues, liability, what you can or can’t do on a marketing perspective and associated with the numbers of players that you are going to be attracting to your application depending on those things. You have to think a little bit about how your application’s going to get discovered. You have to think about the platforms, is it going to be iOS or android, or both.

If you chose one or the other, are you going to launch initially on one or try to go across the boards, you have to think about that. You have to think a lot about creating a great game, it’s the most important element to this whole process, is coming out with a product that people enjoy playing. Once you’ve done those types of things you put it together in a design document and then you start developing. You produce what’s called a MVP, a Minimum Viable Product, think simplicity. Get something out there make sure that you have analytics incorporated into the application so that you are able to deduce actionable items that allow you to iterate and enhance and improve the application over time and then you deploy it.

John: It’s really common to come across people that think that developing a mobile app is a one-time thing and they’re done. Can you tell me about that?

Danny: Well I think that it ties back to what are your established goals. I can see some examples where that type of approach would be reasonable.  Let’s say you’ve got a very narrowly defined objective, a campaign you want to achieve 1000 downloads, very limited budget and that’s a stepping stone for some other objective. But in general, particularly in the gaming industry those companies that are successful would say that not only is it important that you are continually evaluating and assessing through analytics what your players are doing, what’s working, to make engineering changes to release often to continually improve the user experience, it’s not only a good idea but its critically important for their success. In the non-game world I think that that’s true as well, increasingly. We’re more and more in a world where it’s about building momentum around your customer base where your consumers could be your evangelists and where you want to retain those users, have them loyal over the course of time. To do that and to really understand their needs and desires it’s almost impossible to get that right the first time. So you need to do iterations, you need to test one thing and if they respond well great, improve it. If they don’t respond well then you make changes. Now let’s assume that you got it right the first time, well even in that scenario things change so quickly in our world- in our business these days that you always have to keep on top of what’s happening what’s changed if you really want to maximize your business. And I think what’s important to keep in the back of your mind, even if you don’t believe that it’s important for you to do it, you’re surrounded by competitors who do and that’s what you’re going up against.

John: Even experienced game designers will iterate multiple times?

Danny: Yes, particularly with experienced game designers. You’ll find that there will probably be more of a biased of let’s do it once and let it go from game designers that don’t have much experience. Those that have a lot of experience have learned the through lessons that no matter how much experience they’ve gained there’s some probability that they aren’t going to get it right and they need to iteratively learn. There’s kind of a mantra of “I am not my player” so no matter how well I think I know my player or my consumer, you have a hypostasis of what you believe what’s going to resonate with them but often you’re proven wrong in those cases it’s actually an opportunity to better your business and provide better value to your customer.

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