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“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else”. – Albert Einstein

Over the past couple of years, I spent a lot of time playing games at work. I reached level 888 in Mafia Wars. I built a sprawling metropolis in CityVille. I played countless rounds of Words with Friends.

As a general manager at Zynga, I also watched, in exquisite detail, as hundreds of millions of other players did much the same. Zynga’s games generated over 16TB of player data a day – data that was mined to understand exactly what was, and wasn’t, working to keep players engaged. I came away in awe of the power that best-of-breed game mechanics could have, especially when coupled with the social web.

Can the same game mechanics that propelled Zynga’s rocket-like growth also help non-gaming companies scale at warp speed? Yes! In fact, the companies that have built social and viral game mechanics into their products or services are already enjoying an outsized advantage over their rivals.

“A good game makes us long to play it again”. – Wolfgang Kramer, German Board Game Designer

Even if you aren’t a gamer, it’s worth thinking about how to flesh out the “inner game” of your products to make them more fun, engaging, and – dare I say it – addictive. Game mechanics, employed correctly, are massive turbo-boosters for growth.

When determining what game mechanics might work best for your product, consider how your users engage with it. Think about… What makes using your product fun? What gives people a reason to keep using it? What does progress and achievement look like over a day, a week, a month, a year? What are the rules of this game? What are the payouts? What are the moments of delight? How do you challenge your users? What obstacles do they need to overcome? Where can your product provide suspense or surprise? What makes your consumers’ adrenaline start flowing? What does an “epic win” look like? The moment a user puts your product down, what’s going to drive them crazy to pick it back up again? What’s going to make a consumer want to get all her friends using your product, too?

In other words, harnessing the power of games is not about checklists of “game-like” things to add. It’s about asking questions that force you to figure out the gaming elements that are truly authentic to your product.

Winning Game Mechanics

Here are just a few of the many game mechanics that successful companies employ:

  1. Locks and Gated Content

    Games thrive on locking content from users until they complete actions or attain goals. This runs counter-intuitive to what we’ve been taught about e-commerce: make it easy for them to buy! Yet when Groupon first launched, its locked deals were a key to its early traction – consumers were presented with a Groupon offer but each offer needed a minimum number of buyers to “unlock”. This encouraged consumers to tell their friends about deals and started a positive viral cycle. Similarly, Gilt recently featured a promotion where an item was offered for 70% off, but the offer was locked until the item was repinned 50 times on Pinterest.

  2. Surprise and Chance

    Many enduring games contain an element of chance – a roll of the die, a draw of a card, a spin of the wheel. This adds excitement and suspense and elicits stronger emotion than a purely predictable game. Google scored a big win in its early days with its “I m Feeling Lucky” button. Consumers were able to take a chance, be surprised, and ultimately (because Google was so good at what it did) experience a winning feeling when they landed on exactly the right page for them. While used by a minority of visitors, “I m Feeling Lucky” reinforced Google’s brand brilliantly: you could bet on Google and come out a winner.

  3. Level Ups

    Success lets players “level up” and experience more power, prestige, status, and access to even better content and gameplay. When eBay was looking to create a reputation system, it hired game expert Amy Jo Kim to help design its feedback and PowerSeller system. Far from being a tacked-on leaderboard, the feedback system enabled sellers to level up to different PowerSeller status. A seller’s success on eBay was significantly linked to their PowerSeller level as top PowerSellers received preferential placement, better support, and a host of other benefits that helped them stay at the top of the pack. As a result, sellers focused hard on attaining and keeping the best status, resulting in strong lock-in and retention. (Frequent Flyer programs have a similar dynamic: top tier members rarely switch airlines due to the strong benefits of their elite status.)

  4. King of the Hill

    Multi-player games often pit users against each other to control certain parts of the game board. FourSquare created a similar dynamic with its Mayor position – many players worked hard to be Mayor at a certain location, and kept investing in the app to keep on top.

  5. Competitive Status

    Online games have long allowed players to compare statistics with other players; this player-vs-player competition can be a strong force driving Type A personalities to keep playing. On Twitter, for example, gaining followers is both intrinsically satisfying and can become a competitive game – comparing which celebrity or industry pundit has more followers is a popular pastime. (Speaking of which, please pardon this shameless plug: follow me @Tilenius to get my latest news and updates first.)

  6. Decoration and Personalization

    Lest you think of games as purely competitive, some very popular games (including CastleVille, CityVille, and FarmVille) make decoration a key part of the game – players are encouraged to build game boards that reflect their personalities, passions, and interest. This is most fun in a social context when your friends and others can see what you’ve created. Instagram did a great job with this, enabling people to both be creative with a few clicks as well as helping them share their creativity with a broad network: decoration is most powerful as a game mechanic when it’s easy to share with others about whose opinion you care

Envisioning products through the lens of gaming is truly an area where business leaders should “learn the rules of the game” then “play better than anyone else.” The prize for the winners is enormous.

To that end, I am excited to have joined the Scale VP team as an Executive-in-Residence. I look forward to helping both portfolio and prospective companies in mobile and consumer Internet, harness the power of effective game mechanics to accelerate virality, engagement, retention, and monetization… and ultimately create an epic win.

Guest post written by Eric Tilenius.

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