A lot is made about the importance and use of incentives, rewards, and achievements in the design of social games. As the argument goes, users are incented to play, and continue playing, social games in order to win points, rank on leaderboards, obtain badges and achievements, level, and so on. These small rewards are usually given to users in the form of symbolic tokens — non-exchangable items that stick to a user’s profile and represent his or her game success.
I don’t discount the motivation that obtaining these badges may incite in a user. But the notion that badges alone can galvanize and sustain player motivation is over-cooked. And it belies both a short-sighted view of social games as well as over-emphasizes game mechanics in the experience of social gaming.
I’ve learned recently through use of Empire Avenue that much richer aspects of social games can be unlocked and leveraged to produce genuine and deeper gaming involvement.
Badges and achievements on Empire Avenue, and there are many, are by and large irrelevant to game play. They function fine, as badges should, and are awarded incrementally as players hit game play milestones. But in terms of the game’s design, they are dwarfed by the buying and selling activity, personal gestures and reciprocity, that are Empire’s real social engine.
I think we vastly underestimate, or under-appreciate, the importance of habit in social game play. Habit, and habits formed, get under a player’s skin. They are the routine of game play, and form for different players around the experiences that a player enjoys. Since on Empire there are so many different ways of achieving success, and so many different ways of measuring success, habits can form around growing wealth, increasing share price, getting shareholders, raising dividends, meeting people in groups (including groups outside the game), shouting out, thanking, discovering new players, and more.
It’s worth considering the breadth with which a social game can become habitual. Much more important and valuable, I think, than pegging game play to achievements distributed by means of symbolic rewards. Habits place the meaning of game experience squarely within user experience. Badges have the value only of symbolic worth — “useless” insofar as they are just signs of activity. No, at the heart of activity are habits. And good social games, for better or worse, are habit forming.