Gamified Apps are not Games

Gamified Apps are not Games

I grew up in a little town in the western part of Kentucky, in a stereotypical farm economy just east of the breadbasket. My family was decidedly rural and we were farmers — soybeans, corn, tobacco, gardens, cows, horses, tractors, fences.

My dad wasn’t especially good at it — his reach often exceeded his grasp — but he managed to hold things together. Farming is as tough as you’d imagine (to quote a friend from high school who is still farming, “the American farmer is the biggest gambler on the planet”). I loved the pastures and creeks and woods, but I hated the all-consuming nature of farm work — it’s an endless amount of very hard manual labor, and I never warmed up to it.

Whether I liked it or not, I was stuck being a “farm kid”, but I had my coping strategies: reading, writing, music, games, electronics and eventually, programming. Books and stories were my first big bulwark against it all, and I was a manic reader of anything I could get my eyes on. In grade school I was a precocious, over-achieving book lover — bored to death and annoying to my teachers.

SRA was a weird bright spot. SRA cards were essentially the gamification of reading, the brainchild of Don Parker, who in the 50’s successfully pitched the system to Science Research Associates Inc., a small Chicago-based publishing company that developed vocational and aptitude tests. (The SRA Reading Laboratory Kit was first published in 1957 and eventually wound up at McGraw-Hill in 1989, where it still lives today, with over 100 million served).

SRA consisted of large boxes filled with color-coded cardboard sheets, each including a reading exercise. A student would work on a card independently of other students, then grade their own answers to multiple choice questions. Correct answers meant moving ahead until you leveled up to the next color.

The reading was short and dull, but it was a glorious grind through the colors as fast as possible. Its foundation was pure behaviorism — the pleasure of moving to a new color, or being sent to “the box” as a reward for some other good behavior.

This is a perfect example of a complicated, rather than complex, system, the epitome of gamification. The ostensible goal is to become better at reading comprehension, but the adaptive response that emerges is to become an “expert” at short-term, rote memorization. It has the effect of training the reader to navigate a complicated space in an ordered manner (“read, test, reward”) — an attention-limiting exercise that leaves little time to explore a richer, more complex space (for instance, “read, discuss, reply”).

For kids like me it was something new to combat boredom, but ultimately it did little to make me more capable as a young reader and thinker. It simply made me specialize, which is what all gamification systems do.

Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for games these days, especially on mobile, are much more like gamified apps. These games sacrifice complexity for task completion, choice for selection, and meaning for mastery. Skill is purely a function of correct responses rather the deeper learning that accompanies a well-designed risk/reward game mechanic. This is not unlike the problems inherent in Social Media, as discussed in this wonderful piece by Jordan Greenhall. Cherry-picking from the article:

In a truly complex environment, we are always empowered (and indeed often required) to generate novel (creative) actions in response to perceived circumstances. In other words, our field of choice is unbounded and, therefore, symmetric to the unbounded field potential of the complex system in which we are living. We are thus challenged to and trained to improve our responsive capacity to complex circumstances.


In a complicated environment, we are ultimately engaging in the very different mode of simply selecting the “right” or “best” action from a finite list. This is an optimization game, and while it can be extremely useful when competing in finite complicated environments (e.g., Chess) it is a capacity that is oblique to creative response. Therefore, again, the basic problem is that meaningful (and widespread) participation in this kind of platform is training our agency away from capacities that are truly adaptive and towards a narrow specialization for particular complicated games.

For the video game industry to mean something beyond profits, we’ve got to get better at generating complex gaming experiences. We must forego the desire to slam together twitchy mechanics in favor of more thoughtful design that brings back the magic of “play”, that improves our players’ “agentic capacity”, as Greenhall puts it:

In the case of complexity, the optimal choice goes in a very different direction: to become responsive. Because complex systems change, and by definition change unexpectedly, the only “best” approach is to seek to maximize your agentic capacity in general. In complication, one specializes. In complexity, one becomes more generally capable.

In order to do this at a meaningful scale, we must first be able to rely on funding sources to give us the time we need to design and implement better games. This means that publishers have to be willing to share more risk than what is typical in the industry right now. Second, we need producers and designers to be more thoughtful and eschew the gamified design tropes that have arisen over the last decade.

If you’re making games for living — whether you’re writing checks or cashing them — start challenging yourself to go back to the days of video game yore when our industry looked a little more lovingly at quality. Ask yourself if a complicated ecosystem, already saturated with hundreds of thousands of gamified apps, needs another one.

Rise of the IAP Boss

Rise of the IAP Boss

Newzoo has mobile gaming on track for an estimated $70 billion in global revenues this year — 51% of the total game market. As a mobile game developer since the early 00’s, I’m hardly surprised — but I am in awe. This is big market.

iOS and Android are stronger than ever as the Coke-and-Pepsi rival platforms, publishing and distribution have re-structured themselves, and thousands of new developers have come and gone since the launch of the iPhone. We’re deep in the throes of a world we tried to imagine almost two decades ago, a world of wireless distribution over large-scale networks comprising a big chunk of the overall game market.

What’s left of the old retail world of physical boxes on shelves — much like video and music — are remnants of a bygone era, nostalgic, archaic, boutique. Video games don’t quite live and die by the graphics sword as they once did, either, by high-polygon counts or texture memory, and the heady days of big-dollar budgets, huge teams and deep pockets to fund them are fewer and farther between. We continue to have higher-performing GPUs, smaller footprints and new display technology. We’ve got plenty of devices and form factors, and we’re doing more at the shader level. In particular, VR/AR/MR/XR are bringing, albeit more slowly than anyone wants to admit, new ways to experience games.

But the fundamentals — the look, feel, depth, mechanics, gameplay — are less a function of technology than they are slaves to the markets that have evolved from the platforms. Big productions and high quality don’t compete nearly as well in this world. Yes, we continue to see small numbers of deeply designed, cinematic-quality games — and lest we forget that Steam has kept PC gaming alive — but they’re not the main stream anymore.

And there’s the rub, because the biggest problem we face is now our biggest market segment — mobile games. I’ve said before that the thorn in mobile gaming’s side is discovery, which is almost exclusively a function of the platforms, which are in turn a function of two things: Free-to-play (F2P), which allows players to play without paying (or with the illusion of not paying) and pushes developers to spend a large part of their time micro-managing monetization, and what I call Free-to-create (F2C), which is the low barrier to entry to game development. By themselves, F2P and F2C are beneficial, desirable, worthwhile. Together, they may be destroying what it means to be a game developer.


Like its grandfather the game demo, F2P works by enabling players to optimize for avoiding a false positive: It costs players nothing to try before they buy. If they’re in love, they’ll invest time and money; if not, they don’t feel quite so duped or dumped or disappointed. F2P is more sophisticated than dear old grandpa though and relies on a careful in-game IAP (In-App Purchase) plan. Developers must take care to give players the right combination of free and paid experiences unique to the game. Risk/reward mechanics, quantity and timing can be very tricky to nail, and add significant costs to development.

Poorly implemented IAP misses crucial opportunities to make money or, on the flip side, players feel ripped off or manipulated. More than ever, developers must be at the right place and at the right time to become profitable, but for the user, it’s a seemingly endless source of low-risk gaming potential. 


F2C in the purest sense is a wonderful thing — anyone, with some effort, a little money and a reasonable amount of time can design, develop and deploy a game or app that functions like a game. The new developer gets to learn something exciting and rewarding (design and programming), gets the distinction of doing it, and dreams of having a hit.

The platform gets the benefit of massive amounts of content to sell, theoretically for every conceivable taste, desire or need that billions of potential players may have. This makes the platform more popular, draws new players, makes current players stickier and encourages developers to believe that they’re competing for consolidation. The opportunity cost is so low that, not only do novel games emerge from unlikely, would-be developers, the sheer size of the developer base greatly increases the chance of game content that more closely or clearly taps into current cultural trends and preferences. We’ve seen it many times already on both iOS and Android, despite the overwhelming number of games made with shallow or amateurish content.

Where’s the Value?

In the heyday of feature phone games (2001-07), mobile games were mostly P2P (Pay-to-play), developed by professional teams who sold them for a fixed cost — the retail model. This was also the case in the early days of smartphone games.

The charts were more volatile than they are today. There were far fewer games, and players voted with their money up-front. Developers were diligent, and an MVP was closer to a full-on release candidate than a beta release. They still had to do a solid job of writing advertising copy, producing image assets and providing support. They could also price their games higher and had a much better chance of being noticed on the deck. (Development was also more frustrating due to the number of different phones and operating systems and APIs — but that’s another, much longer, discussion).

Back then developers did their best to score coveted first-party deals with device manufacturers, but most either self-funded or had publishing partners who were ready and willing to fund them. The platforms were new and the distribution all-digital, but the traditional retail publisher-developer model worked much as it always had.

Things changed with the arrival of the iPhone. A handful of developers early on saw the potential for massive amounts of traffic via F2P, and their successes attracted more amateurs, which was only possible because of the low barrier to entry — F2C. The platforms flooded with new games, a large number of which were half-conceived or half-implemented, or both. This quickly had the effect of cramming the digital shelves so full that P2P (with some exceptions, like Angry Birds and Infinity Blade, for example) could not compete with F2P.

In fact there was a period — nearly all of 2010 — when an explosion of very good games that would have otherwise been P2P were free with very little IAP. This created a small group of lottery winners — developers who pulled massive traction, bolstered by the new mobile gaming press and incremental improvements to the platforms’ storefronts. These crucial early hits trained players to expect higher-value F2P, but when the smoke cleared developers still had to pay salaries — so they dove more deeply and cleverly into IAP.

Fast-forward to today, where we’re now at over a million active games across the iTunes App Store and Google Play, growing at a rate of hundreds of new game submissions per day, most of which are F2P or have a F2P option in addition to P2P. Practically speaking, it’s absurd. Imagine a million titles in a physical retail store — if you spent just one minute per title reading each description, you’d be trapped in the store for almost two years. (Further imagine that every game on the shelf is free — you can just take it home and try it.)

The result of all of this is that, unlike the old retail model in which developers tended to focus on quality, successful mobile developers had to become masters of low budgets, test markets and market triage, frequent updates, daily engagement with players and of course, IAP. Otherwise they were just playing hit-game roulette. The bottom line is that we now have a mobile genome full of junk DNA whose value, if any, is not well understood. Discovery is still fundamentally broken, and while we have the requisite gaming genres and digital endcaps with featured titles, they’re mostly games whose survival depends on clever monetization models, not quality.

So, where’s the value? For players, it’s whatever is on those few endcaps fronting an endless aisle of other games they will never see (though the aisle serves an important function by creating the illusion of platform power, credibility and trust). It’s a dollar here and a dollar there, and the latest loot crate on sale. It’s not always easy to tell how much fun players are having, but it’s clear they are still under the illusion that mobile games are practically “free”, though “whales” — that small percentage of players who will rack up hundreds, even thousands of dollars in IAP — are ever-present.

In terms of quality, it’s still a race to the bottom, though we are seeing some improvement as the most successful publishers become bored with their large catalogues and over-optimistic about their successes. But publishers still rarely fund anything that isn’t high-profile IP or derivative, and you can’t blame them — the discovery problem and the immense cost of marketing a title into a featured slot or Top 3 list would make anyone risk-averse. (This is not uncommon in traditional games, either, but’s it’s far more profound in mobile.) For self-funded new developers, most still wind up as “one and done” — they make a single game then close up shop when it’s immediately clear they will never recoup their costs.

For professional developers who have the stamina and resources to stay in the game, they’re largely reactive and resistant to re-investing profits into higher quality. They understand what they’re up against. To quote Trip Hawkins from a few years ago, “There really ought to be an institute for studying virtual economies…  It’s about thinking about your game like you’re the merchandising manager at Bloomingdale’s. Once you have made a game that has good lifetime value, then you can afford to buy marketing.”

Trip is dead-on, but that kind of reality-check messes with our basic worldview as game developers. We cling to the idea that what we’re doing is magical and novel and creative. Meaning, Mastery, Skill, Flow, Risk, Reward and Story are our prophets, and Fun is our God, but IAP is the Boss and without him, there is no game.

Quote Thyself

I was looking through some of my Disqus comments and was pleasantly surprised at some of my replies to various discussions. Like everyone else, blog commenting is a mostly in-the-moment affair for me, and while I guess that quoting myself is an arrogant sort of thing to do, I believe that these quotes will make you think a bit, especially if you’re in a startup and/or the video game industry. Some light editing for context.

Apple is Launching Search Engine to Destroy Google — and You’re Already Using It

Is Google evil? Hell yes – it’s corporately impossible for them not to be at their scale. Apple is also evil at scale. Spotlight as an app-mining mechanism ultimately results in plenty of ads from apps, in addition to 80+% chatter from zombie apps. If Apple does evolve Spotlight into a full-on Google competitor (oh the irony, considering Job’s quote), their ability to hold off on ad-spam results is only possible because their revenue model doesn’t need/want it – yet. Privilege remains committed to the fantasy that the natural result of scale is diversification into non-core competencies through market consolidation/acquisition and wildly expensive internal development. The root of the root problem is that no large tech companies – certainly not Google or Apple – believe that their Scrooge McDuck money bins can ever be big enough.

Silicon Valley – Religion, Operating System, or Something Else?

Having traveled to Silicon Valley several times per year for two decades, lived there for seven years (99-06), and seeing my son’s experiences for the last three years since he moved there fresh out of college, the fundamental SV milieu hasn’t changed much. I still grok it as a theme park. In fact using religion as a metaphor, SV as a religious theme park hits home. It’s presumptuous, exploitative, shiny, kitchy, dogmatic and arrogantly opportunistic. And if you grok the concept of creating truly meaningful software out of nothing but your own mind and mettle, SV is like one of those big crazy Texas churches, except you may be the god that changes the world. SV is where art fucks science, creates a singularity, then rebrands it as a virgin birth and the second coming for the next generation congregation. Or something like that.

Do the Work, Skip the Party

In my industry (video games), from my perspective as a developer, things are a bit different from the bubblicious milieu. It’s more like a dunken orgy inside a rocketship to the bottom, where 0.01% landowner-publishers are in slave-heaven with developer-unfriendly disty deals and mini fickle-finger-of-fate awards in lieu of cash. Apple and Google changed distribution forever. Absolutely no one has any real ideas about how to deal with the scale of the market and the ever non-presence of discovery. Customers have been taught to expect crap for free. The industry used to be cutthroat and hit-driven — the good old days! Now it’s just a big lottery.

How Does A Small Company Make A Big Company Successful?

In the gaming segment, big companies (publishers) and small companies (developers) have undergone a big relationship shift. Prior to the rise of mobile and social games and the F2P model, developers were valued as reliable sources of content that would have a direct impact on publisher success. Today the developer has much less real value to the publisher – discovery is so difficult that most publishers can only afford a very wide net to catch distribution deals. Since production costs have only risen, developers produce less compelling content. The race to the bottom is getting so big that the starting line is elbows-to-elbows with out-of-shape runners. Hence developers only help publishers be successful to the extent that they incrementally increase the probability of a hit game in which profits are shared equally.

The Interview, Censorship, Terrorism, Dr. Evil, and Lots of Other Stuff

Large-scale organizations (of all kinds) appear more and more like big collections of entropic vagaries whose operational tools are over-confidence, short-term accounting, obfuscation, denial, deflection, disinformation and so on. These are old tools that cannot hope to be of any real use up against cyber-attacks. Limiting organizational growth would by definition limit the impact of a single cyber-attack. Of course this is blasphemy to all modern economic systems. Sigh.

Mix Strong Opinions With Big Open Ears

Something I’ve learned and am still learning is that communication is almost always about feelings and the needs behind them. If I’m mindful of this and realize that I’m co-authoring the story of the conversation then I tend to listen much better and not lecture and analyze so much; if not I’m just data without a soul, steamrolling everyone’s needs including my own.

Have We Passed Peak Surveillance?

The collection and storage of data seems impossible to stop, given the ubiquitous commercial nature of the Internet. Rabbit’s been out of the hat since ’94 or so and it’s far easier to re-use that rabbit than to create another hat. The bigger issue may be Peak Abstraction. We’re all leaves in various trees with chains of nodes dumping us into super-groups, on up a given tree until we hit its root node. When nodes contain too many sub-nodes to evaluate logically/meaningfully and leaves are far removed from their nodes, yet power enforces any sort of algorithmically-motivated action toward the leaves, we hit some pretty scary peaks. If one of those trees is government, the air will be damned thin up there.

What Do You Do On The Weekends?

Most engineers, artists, designers I know have always had side projects — it’s the special stuff they “want” to do away from the normal stuff they “need” to do. Sometimes the special is an off-shoot from the normal, often not. If the special becomes normal then maybe it becomes a “thing” whose fundamental bits are mostly immutable. Maybe it’s a needy thing. It needs to impress, it needs validation, it needs to generate value, it needs to function beyond the sparky neocortextual passion that first formed it. Once normalized, the full expression of the original vector is lost, or hard to compute. So on to the next project.

The Ebb and Flow of Work and Life

Productivity purely as a function of time makes some sense where it’s clear that time is inherent to product[ivity], e.g. manufacturing when quantity is the primary objective, or old-school QA. But it starts to break down past the short-term. In software I see it generally as a violent process standing in for trust, a red flag with a herring logo on it, beating in the breeze over management’s head. If the objective is to serve your time then time is who you serve. You are timetive, not productive.

Simplicity, The Emerging UI, and Machine Learning

Android developers, in particular, try to remember that Google is run by the best and led by super-geniuses, unlike those wannabes at Apple. They know this is true because, well, everybody knows it now. And they remember it when they have to use lousy development tools and do battle with the Eclipse IDE and slow, buggy emulators. They remember it when they’re struggling with an over-engineered, clunky, dubious API, debugging in a black box or on any of the dozens of test devices they had to buy, and they realize Goggle has much more important things to do than write documentation. And they know that Google could spend more time with device manufacturers to decrease platform fragmentation, but they trust that there’s a strategy in place that must be beyond their understanding. In all seriousness, I totally agree that Google has an enormous amount of talent and they are on a steady march to innovative user experiences in several areas. Neural network-based voice recognition is exciting. But they have a ton of housekeeping to do, too.

MBA Mondays: Revenue Models – Gaming

Except for retail, these models are a predictable response to market scale, and the gaming industry is more creative and sophisticated in their use of them due to its history as a hit-driven business. But the fundamental problem is ever-present: Quality doesn’t scale. The non-traditional market is massive and getting massive-er by the day. The game shelf is a mile long with a handful of endcaps. Funding a high-quality game is very risky since it cannot be done on the cheap. So quality is the first thing to go out the door – it’s intuitive (and may be a fallacy) to diversify instead. Rather than betting your budget on one high-fidelity game, the platforms ask that you create many low-fi games with minimally viable mechanics and art then invest in creative monetization and cross-promotion to keep re-leveraging your players across the catalogue. And it makes some sense until you realize it’s not quite sustainable because customer expectations scale, too – especially new users you’ve transformed into gamers.

Are Entrepreneurs More Prone To Depression And Divorce?

I have mild OCD. I hate it when I’m meta-OCD and become OCD about my OCD as I seek to suppress rather than repress. Finding data specific to entrepreneurs as a class sounds tough. Looking at type a’s, highly creative types and super-driven product people and engineer types, maybe successful execs, makes some sense to me. Deconstruct the entrepreneur into component sub-classes, at least that’s a direction in which to head. Qualitatively, my own experiences with other entrepreneurs suggests that they — especially the product and engineer types — are prone to depression and OCD, manic behavior, excessive hubris and definitely divorce. They are also prone to remarkable displays of kindness, honesty, purpose, courage and genius, qualities I observe somewhat less frequently in others.

Be The First Mover

In my business (video games), looking for a segment where you can become the first mover is a little analogous to implementing a new or under-adopted game mechanic so well that you become the definition of the category. Others will follow your idea but wish they could follow your execution. Rovio, for example — they weren’t the first mobile 2D physics game, but their product execution was first-rate and their market execution was prescient (continual engagement with players through lots of content updates — few were doing this on mobile at the time — rather than feature updates and new skus). Now they’re scaling and evolving and so far doing a good-to-excellent job of that. IMO all software companies should study the video game industry in preparation for the massive markets that are coming our way over the next decade — at that scale practically everything will become hit-driven and a measurement window of six months may be generous.

Dear GP: Why Are You Blowing Me Off?

Somehow people convince themselves that there is never enough time but it’s really not that hard to be responsive. The good will generated alone is worth the effort, and often there’s a business payoff — sometimes way down the line but it happens to me not infrequently (give people time and they will surprise and delight). In my industry (gaming) we often work with external teams. I only get to meet these guys in person once a year at best (usually at an industry conference), otherwise the communication is project-focused email/phone/Skype. When someone reaches out to me for other types of help or connectivity, it’s an opportunity to put something good out into the universe. The way I look at it, we’re all on the same team. Practicing trust and reliability is good work. It’s a chance to show quality. It’s a happiness-inducer and life-extender.

Relatively Good News

How about some relatively good news? Maybe, sort of, for some. To the summary:

The truth is — and this is where you breathe that sigh of relief — is that consumer spending on games didn’t just evaporate. It just moved online, and retail spending is about to start growing again … finally. The industry got through the worst of it and — for now — most indicators are looking up.

The truth is that the industry continues to consolidate in ways that are increasingly bad for developers. Traditional retail is starting to grow because of next-gen consoles but in the absolute sense the new hardware is only damping the retail atrophy that arguably began with Zynga and Apple.

Everybody knows it and nobody likes to talk about it.

Game developers, except for the lottery winners and the ultra-pasteurized cream working on big IP, continue on the path to extinction. The primary choices for developers these days are 1) Shovel F2P metricware at minimum salaries for the new crop of large, multi-national publisher-distributor-promoters, or 2) Buy lottery tickets with their own hopelessly under-funded games.

In either case, games are so YouTube-ified now that as a profession game development hardly resembles itself. Relatively good news? Sure — the future’s so bright we gotta wear Oculus Rifts.

The New Lotteconomy

Fabulous write-up from Dean after he moderated a panel on mobile monetization at the GDC this year. The room was packed even though it was up against other, much sexier sessions.

As Dean correctly notes, that’s a solid indicator that the toughest problem in mobile gaming is discovery and monetizing F2P games. Here are a couple of money-quotes:

It’s all about sustaining an audience that has a natural tendency to peter out after a few weeks. One chief executive at our Mobile Summit joked that the best strategy a game company can pursue, if it has a hit game, is to shut down and not try to do another one. That’s because the hardest thing is to keep a string of hits going.

The good thing is that the winners in mobile monetization can produce billion-dollar games. The bad news is that it feels like a lottery. For the rest of the companies in mobile, there is hope if they can just hang in there.

We talk about this all the time — it’s a lottery. We used to call it “hit-driven” but that term seems archaic now. Welcome to the new Lotteconomy.

FPS Done Right?

This looks promising. Great devs behind it. And DeNA. And Unity. I hope this game gets serious traction along the road to higher mobile quality games. They’ve been touting their control scheme as a major feature and, although it’s not exactly brand new or 100% unique (we were experimenting with one-finger-rotate and touch-move FPS controls back in ’09 — players were not quite ready for it then), it’s the right approach at the right time with the right team.