Are Game Dynamics Jumping the Shark?

Giff Constable games, marketing, social games, virtual worlds

AdAge today asks “What’s saving the current crop of virtual games from becoming the next Second Life?”, with their answer being game dynamics. I am a huge believer in the power of creatively designed incentives and game-like compulsion loops, but I suspect enthusiasm for badges, levels and points have hit “fad” and “over-reliance” territory.  Foursquare, for example, used gaming very effectively to harness the enthusiasm of early adopters, but to grow to mainstream audiences they need to expand the value proposition beyond mayorships and badges.

I was particularly struck by a quote from Keith Lee of MyTown:

Keith Lee, CEO of Booyah and creator of MyTown, argues such services are not bound for the fate of Second Life because of their competitive aspect. “The difference is that there was no higher level engagement or depth,” said Keith Lee, Booyah CEO, of Second Life’s popularity decline. “It never gave long-term value to users. Our DNA has been long-term value. In this case, it’s real-life benefits and opportunities to do things with friends.”

First, Second Life has not actually seen a popularity decline. The marketing/advertising world holds that opinion because of the 2006 hype and corresponding 2007 backlash, but Second Life has actually grown in size and has incredible engagement from a very enthusiastic user base.  Second Life is only a “failure” when compared to over-inflated expectations (and I was one of the people with over-inflated hopes, that is for sure).

Second, I’m having trouble reconciling “long-term value” with MyTown.  It is relatively easy for games to become popular, but difficult for them to sustain engagement.  The greatest strength of Zynga and Playfish was their ability to cross-promote and constantly move their players from one game to another when interest started to flag. If I had to make a bet on the long term usage and value of MyTown versus FourSquare, I would choose the latter.

Over the last few years, application designers have expanded their horizons in very good ways by learning about game dynamics.  I think designers will struggle to mesh *entertainment* and *utility* as motivators, but I do believe that a positive synthesis can occur.  However, there is a fad underway and we have not yet hit the apex (there is an inevitable implementation lag). That in itself can hurt the efficacy of these approaches.

Game dynamics are not an end-all-be-all solution for everything but rather an interesting way to engage early adopters and increase conversation rates for your intended activity. Long term retention requires a more solid underlying value proposition, so don’t lose focus.