getting you addicted: game mechanics

helpful reading: check out wikipedia's game mechanics article, as well as lost garden's "what are game mechanics?" with interesting references.

i saw a response recently from foursquare, where yelp was criticized for not being innovative.  i'm not defending either side on this, but i have to actually question just how innovative foursquare is.

what makes foursquare a fun application?

  • badges/points
  • check-ins
  • leader boards
  • mayorships
  • simplicity
  • nostalgia
these first 4 are what i consider the most addictive components of foursquare.  and as much as i like that application and respect the people who created it, i have to point out that none of these are truly innovative.  many of the same concepts are in other applications that i use, like thesixtyone (which may help explain why i talk about it more often than grooveshark, which has zero competitive gameplay to it).  the fun elements are all borrowed from simple game mechanics.

badges/points
 these have both been around since games have existed.  if you load up halo, call of duty, or battlefield, what do you get?  you get badges and achievements based on various metrics like time and kill counts.  badges were the first thing we added in graffitigeo.  they encourage users to get engaged with the application, and are based on the simple idea of reward and competition.  far from original, but when you add the various metrics of a location-based application, such as check-ins and location, it becomes a fun app.

check-ins
 what's the first thing you do when you get to an airport?  a hotel?  a check-in is an explicit gps location update, and i wouldn't really consider this a gaming mechanism.  it's mostly a functional component you would expect in any LBS app.  foursquare built all of their gaming around this single concept of check-ins (points, badges, and mayorhships all depend on checking in somewhere).  this is the central action of the entire application and what may cause the "reach for the phone" reflex every time you sit down at a new restaurant, bar, or cafe.

leader boards
battle.net ladders are a good example to use here.  they track player win-loss ratios, or more simply: points.  the key is that it's probably difficult to get away with cheating in a battle.net ladder.  but competition is a natural human trait, and while i think that foursquare's leader boards aren't one of the features i use often, they can give you a sense of how you're doing relative to everyone else.  i actually think the leader boards don't bring out that "competitive" spirit in users, but the next one does.

mayorships
this is foursquare's most novel feature because it encourages competition in users than anything else i've seen in most LBS apps.  and it keeps users checking in at the same places over and over, reducing the risk of burnout.  i never really understood why they called it a mayor though.  doesn't a mayor stand for political power over anything else?  if you wanted to identify the person who was somewhere the most, why not just call them the ceo?  we know the ceo is--or at least should be--at the business more than any other employee, executive, or customer.

regardless, mayorships are cool because they bring another element adopted from many games: capture the flag, or king of the hill, whichever you prefer.  the idea is the same though.  one person holds the flag at a time, or one team controls a territory at any given time.  it's competitive and makes for an easy conversational starter.  "yeah, i'm the mayor around here.  i'm pretty much a big deal.  what do you do?"  not sure if that'd work on girls at a bar or not, at least not outside of silicon valley.  innovative?  maybe a little bit by bringing it to an LBS app, but not a defensible competitive advantage.

simplicity
i don't think this deserves much elabor ation, b ecause it's just obvious and because it's difficult to explain how this is in any way original.

nostalgia
the name itself can't even be considered original since it was taken from a popular game.  but the name obviously gets the point across : the app is all about gaming.

conclusion
foursquare uses popular concepts taken from addictive games and rolls them into an LBS app.  the rewards are built around a single core function (check-ins), and the two major rewards are mayorships and badges.  all of the above make it a fun app to use, and it's one of the first to combine all of these concepts into a single app.  but i have yet to see anything "truly innovative."  if anything, foursquare should expect companies like yelp to use more gaming elements to increase engagement from their own user base.  so while it's a bit strange that foursquare would call yelp out for being shameless and non-innovative, you have to keep in mind that not everything foursquare does is 100% unique.

EDIT: shortly after writing this, foursquare's co-founder dennis crowley acknowledges that more apps will begin to use the check-in functionality which foursquare uses now:

For his part, Foursquare cofounder Dennis Crowley told us he fully expects Facebook and others to launch "check-in" functionality, making it "commodity by the end of the year."