The Best Apps Today are
Games in Disguise
Games in Disguise
Gamification is dead—but not in the way you might expect.
You know gamification when you see it: the application of video game mechanics like points, badges, and leaderboards to non-gaming products. It’s the reason Tripadvisor awards points for writing reviews, why Starbucks has a loyalty app that bestows free coffee, and why Google News originally handed out badges for reading articles.
Yet over the past decade, the bloom has fallen off gamification. In its glory days, many early developers used gamification in ways that were not aligned with user interests. Writing reviews benefits Tripadvisor, not the user. Granting Google News access to web history may actually be harmful to users who value privacy. These gamified programs drove short-term boosts in engagement while largely failing to retain users over the long haul; many have been shut down to-date.
Such gamification programs failed because they lost sight of the original principles behind good game design. The foundation of great video games is retention—top franchises such as World of Warcraft and Candy Crush Saga have retained users for over 10 years. These games are successful because their mechanics align with intrinsic user motivations. By building feedback loops that teach and celebrate users, they provide a long-term path to mastery.
The best apps today embrace these game design principles in their core product design. These game-like experiences feel fun and build long-term habits. This category includes many of the most popular modern apps across productivity, social networks, finance, mental health, and education.
Motivation, Mastery, and Feedback
While there are many different frameworks for what constitutes a game, most agree on three core principles:
Motivation - why does a person want to play your game?
Mastery - what are the rules and systems of the game?
Feedback - how will the person learn these rules?
Let’s take a look at a few examples of these principles as applied in some of the most successful games of our time.
The majority of game designers today ascribe to self-determination theory, which posits that behavior can be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation comes from an outside source, such as a monetary reward or command from a parent / boss. Intrinsic motivation is derived from innate, psychological needs like autonomy (desire to be in charge of one’s life), competence (desire to control outcomes), and relatedness (will to connect with others).
Most games focus on intrinsic motivation as the most effective, long-term driver of behavior. Take for example, the introductory level for Mega Man X, a classic sci-fi action game. In the first 5 minutes of the game, users encounter and are defeated by Vile, a vastly more powerful enemy battle robot.
Yet instead of seeing “game over,” the user is saved last-minute by a red robot named Zero, who wears splashy armor resembling a Ferrari. As the user kneels mesmerized by Zero, he proclaims that you will grow stronger and one day “may even become as powerful as I am.”
This sequence is a powerful showcase in intrinsic motivation. The game encourages the user to set two goals: 1) become as powerful as Zero, and 2) beat Vile. These goals constitute the game’s “win condition,” and are motivating because they directly reinforce the user’s competence (become more powerful) and autonomy (determine for myself how to go about it).
More importantly, users are motivated to keep playing without the use of any gamification tropes - there are no badges or points. Users set out to achieve self-determined goals and the game provides them with the tools to do so. Aligning a product with intrinsic needs is a key principle that many gamified apps fail to grasp - instead they treat badges or points accumulation as a goal in itself. Without intrinsic needs behind them, these mechanics end up being superficial, extrinsic drivers that quickly burn out users.
Mastery is the second key principle of game design. A player motivated toward a win condition is ready to learn the rules of the game. In the case of Mega Man X, the rules include the control scheme (how to run and shoot) and enemy behavior. These rules show the player how to win - the path to mastery.
Mastery is an important part of every activity and is tied to the intrinsic need for competence - people want to improve in skill as they invest time in an activity, whether it’s learning a new sport or playing a game. They also expect mastery to be fair - progress should be based on skill and choice, not luck.
Game designers often obsess over finding the right balance of difficulty - not too hard or too easy. Well-tuned games create flow, a state of mind where users are intensely focused on the present and the hours just fly by. The same holds true for non-gaming products - painting a landscape or playing a challenging lick on the guitar often produces flow, for example.
Combining intrinsic motivation with a balanced path to mastery is critical for retention. As long as the rules are fair and the goals seem attainable, users who make it past a certain point in a game or activity generally stick around. Where gamified apps often go wrong is that they celebrate usage of the systems used to track mastery - levels, experience, badges - without any real challenge or path to mastery. There is no skill being mastered as you “level up” in Tripadvisor and nothing really worth celebrating when you get a Google News badge for reading an article on the site. To be effective, these systems need to measure real skill progression toward intrinsic goals that users care about.
Feedback is the third key design principle - how will users learn the rules of the game / product? The best games teach through iterative loops with clear cause and effect. Super Mario Bros, one of the defining games of the console generation, taught users through death as a feedback loop.
The game presents an enemy Goomba early in the first level. If the Goomba touches Mario, he dies and restarts at the beginning of the level - only 3 seconds back. This short, harmless loop encourages users to experiment until they figure out that they can jump over or on top of the Goomba.
Iterative loops also provide users positive feedback for taking the right actions. In the video below, Candy Crush Saga celebrates players for matching 3 candies of the same color with spectacular explosions. The game also embraces serendipity - a design element where users are surprised by unexpected outcomes. As a user chains matches together, candies cascade across the screen too quickly to track - creating moments of delight as fireworks, fish, and flashes of lightning unexpectedly emerge!
The best designers assume that users won’t read the instructions and design products in a way where users learn by doing, with iterative feedback loops along the way. These loops help guide users down the path to mastery and ultimately toward achieving their goals. Very few gamified apps have been able to build feedback loops as natural as the examples above.
Game-like, not Gamification
Over the years, the three core design principles of motivation, mastery, and feedback (MMF) have become relevant for far more than just games. In the 1990s, these principles were incorporated by the renowned design firm IDEO into human-centered design. Today, many of the most popular consumer and enterprise apps utilize MMF in their core design.
Games & Social
Many of our most popular social networks are game-like. Apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok tap directly into intrinsic user motivations - users express themselves as they create stories (autonomy) and connect with other humans as they do so (relatedness). There is even an optional path to mastery as users can strive to build followings, along with feedback loops in the form of likes and hearts.
Clubhouse is a relatively new entrant that further embraces serendipity in its core design. The app recreates the feeling of “bumping into” friends by enabling users to drop into live rooms, creating moments of delight. Top Clubhouse speakers can motivate other users to host shows or improve their public speaking - real skills and achievements. Note these social apps all eschew the use of points or badges, yet have strong long-term retention - a hallmark of game-like experiences.
Games & Work
Recently, a new generation of productivity software has arisen that is more game-like than tool. Repl.it, a browser-based IDE, and Figma, a collaborative design tool, have introduced multiplayer mode to coding and design, respectively. Developers can work, comment, and teach each other in real-time. More importantly, the human element makes previously single-player tasks feel more fun.
The email app Superhuman is also a great game-like showcase. Led by former game designer Rahul Vohra, Superhuman sets a goal for its users—Inbox Zero—and delivers fine-tuned controls and inbox rules that help users achieve flow. When a user reaches Inbox Zero, Superhuman celebrates by showing a beautiful, high-definition image of nature scenery that changes daily. At the bottom of the image, Superhuman tracks how many days the user has reached Inbox Zero - reinforcing the path to mastery.
Games & Mental Health
Forest, a game-like productivity and mental health app with over 6 million paying users, turns mental focus into a game. Users start a focus session by planting a tree. The tree grows while the user is working and withers if the user leaves the app before time is up. A withered tree is negative visual feedback that deters users from distractions such as social media or email. Successfully staying focused births a tree that the user can plant in their personal forest, with the lushness of the forest serving to showcase the user’s progress on the path to mastering mental focus. Over time, Forest hopes to build long-term habits around being present and mindful.
Games & Finance
Chime bank’s automatic savings account turns saving money into a game. Chime sets a clear goal for its users - save money - and has designed systems to help users achieve that goal. The Chime debit card rounds up transactions to the nearest dollar and automatically transfers the “Round Up” to its savings account. This savings amount is different with every transaction and is highlighted colorfully in the Chime app’s homepage feed, leading to moments of unexpected delight upon opening the app. By embracing serendipity in its design, Chime makes a tedious chore - reviewing bank statements - actually feel fun. This positive feedback loop reinforces the savings goal and helps train users in good habits on their path to savings mastery. Over time, users may even become motivated to save outside of Chime.
Games & Fitness
Zombies, Run! and Strava are game-like personal fitness apps that make running and biking more fun. Zombies is an audio app where users role-play a survivor in a zombie epidemic. Zombies motivates users to run by sending them on missions with goals such as finding supplies or escaping from zombies. Users win by running a certain speed or distance. The app tracks every run and emails daily progress reports celebrating mileage milestones and missions completed.
Strava takes the goal setting and feedback loops of Zombies and adds social relatedness as well. Strava maintains leaderboards of other users that have run or biked a trail, so users can see their progress relative to peers. As users run faster, they see themselves climb the leaderboard in real-time. Note that leaderboards are not intrinsically motivating on their own, but work well in Strava because racing is a naturally competitive activity where users want to measure themself against their peers.
Games & Education
Duolingo is a popular, game-like language learning app. The app sets a goal for users - learn a language - and recommends 15 minutes of lessons a day to reach language mastery. Lessons are broken into short, snackable levels similar in length to a mobile game session. The lessons themselves are well-balanced and focus on helping users reach a state of flow. Each lesson mixes new / old words and adapts to user performance, generating new words if the lesson appears to be too easy, or vice versa. Duolingo also keeps track of how many days in a row users have taken a lesson, and reminds them if a streak is about to break. This taps into competence (avoid being a bad student) while preserving user autonomy.
The Long View
The core principles behind good game design - motivation, mastery, and feedback - have been integrated into many of the most successful modern apps today. We may not call it gamification anymore, but the original principles that inspired the movement are more relevant today than ever in game-like apps.
While early gamified apps prioritized short-term engagement over long-term retention, game-like apps align themselves closely with user needs and retain them for the long-term. The core of the MMF framework has always been retention. When people have fun and feel they are achieving their goals, they build long-term habits. In this way, game-like apps have helped users progress toward important lifelong goals from saving money to exercising regularly to being more productive at work.