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Game Mechanics for Marketers - Beyond the Badge

4962765151_0fd0ebbd2e_b Social/Mobile games are the new viralEverybody wants them.  However, without a basic understanding of the space, it will remain an illusive shiny object.

The typical pitch for a social/mobile game goes something like this:

If 70 million people are willing to maintain a virtual farm and shell out millions of dollars in real currency, or tell the entire world where they are every minute of the day, all in the pursuit of a meaningless status-badge, then they will surely love our new platform. Our solution not only gives them a status but rewards them with loyalty points and/or exclusive content!  

Also, it's Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and virally enabled... so you're starting total audience size is over 500,000,000 users!

Over the next year we will see dozens of such start-ups enter the marketplace.  Many already have.  A handful of brands are also going to release their own "games".  Just like a few brands tried to create The YouTube of Chewing Gum Enthusiasts a few years ago, many will soon launch their own Social/Mobile Game for The Gum Chewing Enthusiast Community.  After all, it's simple... you check into where you are, share your thoughts, pictures and videos, and we will give you badges.  Right?

What are Game Mechanics?

Game Mechanics are a series of strategies that (when properly deployed) foster continued engagement for advanced users while maintaining attractiveness and simplicity to new users. Game Mechanics are what keep people addicted to platforms.

The success of a platform will not be about utilizing these strategies correctly alone, but will also include (a) creativity, (b) the ability to garner attention and trial in a crowded marketplace with growing fatigue and (c) potentially utility.

Why do Game Mechanics matter to marketers?

Game mechanics promote repeated usage of a platform, ultimately establishing a sense of identity and pride for the participant.  While these dynamics have historically been limited to games, marketers that can best leverage these tactics will hold the keys to building truly addictive experiences.

And when these proven addictive tactics meet the relevance and excitement of social and mobile, untold worlds of creativity await.

Overview of Basic Game Mechanics

At it's core game mechanics are a field of experience design.  They often start by introducing a simple action that will be repeated multiple to both advance in the players in the game and generate either motor skills or learned habits.  Initial actions will be simple but offer generous reward to the new player.  Over time new actions and game play components will be introduced, creating a sense of discovery and ultimately accomplishment at the mastery of each component.  Rewards will often increase in scale, as will the number of actions needed to achieve meaningful progress, creating the illusion of momentum while slowing game advancement.  Ultimately, game play becomes as much about the game itself as it is a form of self expression and pride for the player who has invested time and effort building their in game status.

Sample Game Mechanics

Turns and Timing

Whether it's a board game or an online game, defining the action sequence sets user expectations and lends structure to the experience.  A turn game is where one player takes and action at a time, followed by a friend.  In games designed to be played in either solitary states (without friends) or in a group setting as part of a solitary action sequence (ex. building your farm is an individual action in a social/group game) these "turns" are facilitated via a strict timing mechanism.

Action Points

These points inform a user how much "action" they can take at each turn or over a given time period.  Over time, these point numbers will grow, allowing the user to take additional actions per turn.  However, as the point numbers granted to the player grown, the threshold in required actions to reach the next level will continue to grow further away relative to the number of points assigned.  In other words, players feel more powerful at each turn but require additional activity to reach the next level.

Social Bidding

Players are invited to invest in taking a special action.  This activity may be completed by a individual, but often includes group planning and bidding.  This fosters investment in the action and platform, a deeper emotional connection based on the individual investment, and grows group behavior.

 Cards and Randomizers

Cards introduce seemingly random mini-actions that bring added flavor and uncertainty to the game.  These may include the need for additional action in order to receive a bonus rewards.

Capture and Eliminate

Whether it's taking over the other player's status, points/tokens or properties, surrounding an opponents or straight out attacking them to death, this is often the actualization of direct competition in the game dynamic.  This may or may not result in the complete removal of the player or game pieces from the game.

Catch Up

These are a series of tactics that keep the game compelling for those outside of the leading position.  For, the further into the game players advance the slower or more difficult their progress.  This not only drives those already hooked into the platform and succeeding to invest more of their time and energy into the platform, but it keeps players within reach of one another.  Additionally, Catch Up can be player initiated using a Capture and Eliminate style attack.


Gambles, luck, the throw of the dice, the random card chosen, the random pitfall or opportunity... all of these make the game more interesting.  These can impact player movement, rewards, losses, progress or even direction. 


The ability to advance in the game, in status and relative to other players.  The clear display or movement and tracking towards the next step presents the player with a visual payoff of their efforts.

Resources Management

The ability purchase, invest or build given limited and slowly replenishing resources not only adds a layer of complexity, but makes players value their in-game resources and take pride in their purchases and investments.  These investments will initially generate playable or advancement oriented action but may become more self expression and pride oriented later in the game.

Game Modality

Some games are best played as individuals whereas others rely on teams or collaboration.  Some are more turn-based and some allow concurrent action.  Most of the new social games embrace a flexible game play environment wherein individuals can enjoy alone, but their gameplay experience will be enhanced with friends.


Victories can be both small (mini games) and large (final wins) and take a variety of forms.  From achieving a preset goal, to avoiding loss, removing or winning a desired gameplay piece, to races, puzzle resolution, structural building, territory control and points (and any combination thereof), victory provides a reachable if challenging preset goal for players to work towards.