in Projects, Programming, Technology

An app that makes life a game

From August 2010 until February 2011, I worked with some smart people on gamifying self-improvement. The idea was to create a mobile and social experience with game mechanics around life goals. I find self-help interesting and I think it’s a great business opportunity. Based on my experience with viral app design, I also thought the content would make a great social application.

In retrospect, our scope was way to broad. We opened more than one can of worms. We tried to stay close to our market (and build an app we could use ourselves) – but the problem space is very rich and broad.  Below are some reasons why the generic gamification of life is difficult.

We found many good solutions to these problems, and created two prototypes which were very interesting. For the purposes of this blog post, I just want to highlight what I learned about the problem. I think the solution will require focusing on a specific genre of life goal (weight loss, running, etc.) or methodology.

Content Problem

There are many different types of personal goals. Some are more suited to a mobile game than others.

  • Habits (eat better)
  • Goals (run a 5k)
  • Bucket list goals (visit the Grand Canyon)
  • Experiences (get a drink at ZigZag)
  • Learning (would be fun to gamify flash cards)
  • Happy moments (watching the sunrise)

Fractal Problem

There are many levels of detail to focus on. For example “Go to college.” Is that a single step we can give you credit for after the fact, or a goal that has thousands of sub-steps? What about the order of steps, they aren’t always important, but sometimes they are critical. What steps are the best for me?  See also the related semantic problem below.

  • Player’s level. How to accurately represent someones skills when they start the game?
  • Points. How much should the completion of an action be worth?
  • Desire for small steps. They’re great for getting things done, but require a lot of data entry!
  • Double accounting. Unless there is a sensor to collect data, entering it manually on a phone is difficult.
  • Turning an infinite game (life) into a finite (daily, monthly, weekly) game. Not a big deal, but requires defining the rules.

UGC vs Structured Game

  • Normal games have their own worlds. Content within that world is consistent and finite. If you are creating a game for life, it is impossible to represent the variation of activities found on planet earth.
  • If you limit the scope to “personal” goals, and fix the level of detail at what can be completed in a month, localized to the United States, and women 24-50 with smart phones (or those that read Oprah magazine) we found we can capture 80% of what women want to do in about 200 goals.
  • Chicken vs. egg: do I pick my first goal or type it in?
  • Metaphor: What is an analogy that will explain the game of achieving goals or establishing habits  that won’t alienate users? Mafia goals, Epic Win dungeon RPG, Oprah’s Best Life, HealthMonth. Is it fun? Is it better to create branded mini games or one over-arching game for life?

Game Mechanics

When implementing the game, there are an endless number of mechanics to choose from. Which will change behavior effectively (provide extrinsic reward)?

  • levels
  • collecting
  • appointment
  • streak
  • modifiers
  • gifts

Psychological Frameworks

Self-help is one of the largest sections at the book store. Which methodology offers an “app-able” workflow? Which is the most gamifiable? Which fits the genre of content best?

Social Dynamics

Should players have friends or followers? Or should they make new friends based on the goal?

  • Anonymous Seekers (43things)
  • Friends (Facebook, LinkedIn)
  • Teammates (Meetup, Twibes)
  • Followers (Twitter)

Semantic Problem

Computers don’t speak English yet.

  • “Run 2 miles” does not equal “Go for a jog”
  • Which sub-goals are the same across super-goals? Does “stand up” mean the same thing in the context of running a 5K as it does in the context of “writing a song?”

Implementation Details

  • Performant mobile prototyping (promising, but still emerging technology)
  • Support for multiple platforms vs. native device capabilities.
  • Should we support photos? GPS? What device capabilities are necessary?
  • Which social network should players sign in with?
  • How will we implement in app purchases?
  • Sending notifications

Launch Tactics

Many ideas and options…

  • Use a velvet rope to restrict access and increase demand.
  • Focus on the cool kids
  • Viral on-boarding process or mini-games.

Customer Development

  • Helps if you’re the target market
  • People will probably pay, but may need freemium version to make adoption easier
  • What brings ‘em back on day 2?

I’m a big proponent of “minimum viable products” – as you can see from this list, it was really difficult to narrow in on the right product. Clearly though, there are many in this space. We’re in for some interesting life-hacking in the next few years.

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