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Gamifying the Games Industry

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Think of your favorite RPG or MMO. A quest giver tells you he wants you to deliver a package on the opposite side of the map. Doing so isn't nearly as much fun as killing 20 wild boars, but you'll do it anyway because the guy on the other side of the map is going to give you some experience points and a 4-strength, 4-stam leather belt.

In the game development system, making a beautiful asset or designing a brilliant puzzle is like killing 20 boars. Sure, you'll get rewarded for it in other ways (like a paycheck) but it's also just kind of fun. Meetings, however, are more like the delivery quests, except that instead of giving you a fancy new leather belt, the quest giver just checks your name off a list.

A sad truth in the games industry is that even as we developers strive to create fun, we often lose it for ourselves. No matter how passionate developers are for the game they are working on, few find passion in meetings, email, or production schedules. As a result, developers don't show up at meetings, take forever to respond to emails (if at all), and fail to look at the sprint sheets or read the design doc.

So what would happen if we brought gamification to the games industry?


Gamification is not a new concept. Just as Marry Poppins taught us: in every job that must be done, there's an element of fun. Children have been learning in the form of fun since singing their ABCs. I used to work at a daycare center and whenever I wanted my children to clean up the room, I had them play Red Light / Green Light. Whoever got the toys back in the bins first, without "running the red lights," would get to be the first one onto the playground after lunch. As a result of our game, my room was always the first one cleaned, and the cleanest.

Young children aren't the only ones who benefit from gamification. High school teachers holding review sessions often turn course content into games of "Jeopardy." The winning team of students is awarded a few points of extra credit on an upcoming test. Even better, the losing teams aren't punished--because, at the very least, they got a review.

Even beyond "edutainment," creative minds are at work to bring gamification to adults. Kevin Richardson, from Gamespin, created a lottery for speed cams, to encourage safe driving. Even as a computer automatically tickets motorists driving over the speed limit, it enters the names of those driving under the speed limit into a drawing. Winners of this drawing are awarded money form the pool being collected from speeders. Seth Priebatsch, of Level Up Social Games, has created an app called SCVNGR (pronounced scavenger) which rewards consumers for tasks in their everyday life (such as buying coffee) with points that add up to rewards (such as coupons to be redeemed at shops they frequent).

Bringing It Home

Though we in the games industry have worked hard pushing gamification out to other industries, we've often forgotten to look back home at our own studios. If it's possible to gamify traffic laws, it must also be possible to gamify the working environment.

At GDC 2012, Jason Scott, of Volition, gave a talk about studio design groups. In the course of his talk, he made brief mention of an achievement system for developers that had been devised for his studio. A prize, cut out of felt, with the title of the achievement on it, was given to any developer who met the criteria. Such prizes were something the rewarded developers could display proudly on their cubicles, something that turned the work into what we are all familiar with: a game. In another talk, Simon Cook, of Microsoft, made mention of a "morale budget," an amount of money allotted to producers to help them motivate and reward their developers.

A student animation from the University of Central Florida used a simpler rewards system. Each time the students attended a meeting, a gold star sticker was put next to their name on a chart that hung at the front of their workroom. Each time they missed a meeting, they instead got a black dot. Sticker rewards are often thought only effective for small children, but even college age students were troubled by black dots and proud of gold stars.

By combining these ideas, I built a new achievement system for a recent game project called Sira. Developers working on Sira earned achievements, each worth a certain number of points. They were given points for attending each meeting, arriving early, or even bringing along food to share. They also got points for responding to emails within a certain time frame and for completing their sprint tasks. The system had over 20 achievements each with a point reward and a silly name.

Points were totaled each week, and the developer with the highest number of points at the end of the week got special mention during weekly updates, like a leaderboard. When the team's total points added up to a given amount, we would have an ice cream party; then later, when even more points accumulated, a pool party. Most exciting of all, we set up an auction to take place at our last party when each developer could bid his or her points to win various prizes bought from Think Geek. These prizes varied from game-themed breath mints to a Darth Vader lightsaber umbrella. The developer with the highest number of points also won a mystery prize (which turned out to be a fairly inexpensive replica sword from Amazon).

Benefits of Gamification

Remarkable changes can occur after implementing game systems to enliven game studios. Teams show up to meetings. They arrive on time, or early. Developers actually check their email and - better yet - respond! They stay on top of communicating with their leads, and in general, they work beyond just doing their assignments and checking out.

Beyond improving work ethics, game systems such as points and achievements have a more subtle benefit. Here is one more thing to be excited about, despite the inevitable frustrations with varying aspects of the project's progress. Games foster light-hearted competition. And even more simply, they serve as an ongoing topic of conversation at meetings and parties, helping team members who haven't met while working in separate disciplines get to know each other and actually feel like a team.

The Final Verdict

In each of the previously mentioned cases, a common phenomenon occurred: the game system worked. The teams enjoyed it. It was fun.

Not only is gamification fun for the team, it is fun for team leads and others participating in the system. Gamification of the working environments of the games industry can be a simple yet lasting way to motivate a team and also to say: "Thanks for all your hard work, guys," while letting developers feel as though they've gotten due recognition for their given quest line.

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