• November 2, 2011
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Another Round of Gamification

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After a long delay, I’ve started to read Reality Is Broken, a brilliant and, dare I say, game-changing book. The author, Jane McGonigal, posits that gamification—adding elements of games to non-gaming activities to encourage participation—is a natural trend of software and experience design. If we have the tools and creativity to make the more boring facets of our existence more bearable, why stick with drudgery?

I am a person of business, a thinker, a procrastinator, and a colossal nerd. The idea of gamifying CRM appeals to me. Gamification can fundamentally alter business for customer and worker alike. So why am I only now reading arguably the most important book on the subject (until I write my own, that is)?

You may think I procrastinated, but you’d be wrong. I’ve been burned before on this topic. In an October 2007 column, I discussed gamer-influenced design in CRM as made popular by now-defunct vendor Entellium. I was a huge proponent of the company and its philosophy, so I was crushed—and furious—when the whole thing went down for wire fraud. There were good ideas there, and I hated that they would likely disappear because of their tainted association.

I should not have worried. McGonigal’s work, and that of others, shows there’s a lot we can mine from games. The idea isn’t new, either; an entire branch of mathematics has emerged since the 1950s devoted to game theory, the study of making optimal choices and predictions on the choices and predictions of other “players,” whether in a game or in hypothetical situations. Fascinating, but not my focus this month.

Videogames for home computers and consoles have become incredibly expensive to produce, and a studio can become the next hot property by turning out a hit—or it can wind up shuttered because of an underperforming release. Fans may be loyal to a developer and its products, but once those folks have walked away, they’re likely gone forever. Keeping players interested in an older title is a cost-effective tactic for developers who can pull it off, but generating new content carries costs of its own. It used to be much trickier, until developers learned to outsource the process—to players.

When we talk about brand co-creation, there is no finer example than what happens daily in the game industry. Game modification, or modding, is the proof. In the early days, modders were rare; most of their efforts were for a relatively small group of friends, and they had to hack the game to do it; studios didn’t like to share their tools, and modding a licensed property was sometimes considered a copyright violation.

Gross oversimplification: The industry changed in 2000, when Valve Software, publisher of the Half-Life series of games, teamed with a couple of fans who had created a multiplayer mod called Counter-Strike. Rather than ignore the incredibly popular third-party mod, Valve published the mod, with tools for fans to make their own. News spread, and people bought copies of Half-Life for access to the free mod. Counter-Strike eventually spun off into its own franchise, complete with professional gaming leagues. The game remains a top seller almost a dozen years later, and Valve is one of the most respected, and wealthiest, developers in the business. 

Many games ship with a modding tools suite, and companies’ official message boards have forums for modders and fans. Studios encourage fan creativity, hoping it will make their game the next Half-Life/Counter-Strike. There’s much cross-pollination between the mod community and the developers in new features and bug fixes, and sometimes it turns into an entirely new game. Crowd sourcing and user voting are common, and a sure way to land a game development job is to produce an awesome mod (or a tool for making one) for a popular game.

All it took was a company to start treating its customers as fans instead of wallets, listening to their desires and welcoming their input. Games are now an industry to rival Hollywood (though they still haven’t figured out how to make decent movies out of games, or games out of movies). Other businesses have been starting to take the hint. Can yours? 

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, a business he uses as cover to stay home and play modded games. Contact him at marshall@3rd-idea.com or on Twitter @Lager.


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