Game Thinking: Innovate smarter & drive deep engagement with design techniques from hit games

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.


  1. Game Thinking is a process of learning, guided by feedback, of hobby- and habit-building. A process of getting players to care. Why does a human like something? Why does a human return to something? We design to elicit that caring, that emotional attachment. That’s really what game thinking is about. It begins by pushing you to look at what your users actually care about. “Game thinking: an approach to designing engaging products that synthesizes game design, lean/agile methods, design thinking, and systems thinking into a design system.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Successful games all have something in common: the intrinsic joy of skill-building. The level of challenge increases to match your evolving skill, you’ve got a setup for flow—the ultimate goal of every game and product designer. Just as character transformation is the backbone of great drama, personal transformation is the backbone of great gameplay.
  2. Progress metrics like points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and reputation systems are icing on this learning/mastery cake. These markers help you gauge where you stand, and how far you’ve come—but they’re meaningless as a stand-alone system without something to master. If you want to build a compelling product experience, forget points—think character transformation. The lack of anything to master is often why simple gamification fails. Points, badges, and leaderboards aren’t compelling unless you’re improving along some personally meaningful dimension.
  3. Trying to drive long-term engagement with extrinsic rewards is a fool’s errand.
  4. Extrinsic rewards are effective at getting people to complete simple, short-term tasks, but decrease effectiveness for creative tasks that require out-of-the-box thinking.
  5. The best products don’t just fill a need. They help people get better at something they care about. Game thinking is a framework for building products that make your customers more powerful, knowledgeable, and connected. Like lean startup, game thinking is grounded in testing assumptions. And like design thinking, we start out in a problem space (an unmet need) and end in a solution space (how your product fills that need).
  6. Successful innovations may end up reaching a mainstream audience—but they never start off that way. That’s the paradox of innovation: the “typical” people in your market are not the same ones you need to delight when bringing your idea to life.
  7. What group of people will need and want our offering first? What characteristics and behaviors will they have in common? The best way to develop loyal customers is to fulfill their needs in a pleasurable way. Think about the customers you’re targeting and ask yourself: What relevant needs do they have right now that we could potentially address? How are they currently getting those needs met? Why is that unsatisfying?
  8. We are developing… …for… …so they can…
  9. Many entrepreneurs are eager to release a product quickly, so they can get feedback on their idea, but if you’re building something meaningful and substantial, a private alpha test with a handful of early hot-core customers can get you much further, much faster—and set you up for long-term success.
  10. Superfans have the problem you want to solve, know they have the problem, are trying to solve the problem by seeking out solutions, and are dissatisfied with the options and want something better. Once you delight your superfans, you’re onto something that can grow. But if you’re missing this early, energetic human feedback loop, it’s almost impossible to “cross the chasm” into mainstream use. Superfans are pre-chasm early adopters. They don’t need social proof before trying something new, because their need or desire is so great. This is who you’re looking for: people who actively feel the pain of not having what you offer. A good rule of thumb is to go where potential superfans hang out to recruit them. Here are some channels to consider, along with guidelines for when to use them. Try to pursue several channels in parallel, in case one doesn’t work out or moves slowly.
    1. Direct email.
    2. Friend-of-friend social media sharing.
    3. Recruiting ads on Craigslist, Facebook, or Google.
    4. Interest groups. Do you belong to interest groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other online communities? Those groups can be a great place to find superfans. Be
  11. Early adopters don’t need social proof or convincing to try something.
  12. Useful questions
    1. Walk us through your typical day. How does [relevant activity] fit into your day?
    2. What solutions have you tried to solve this problem? How’d that work for you? We know that actions speak louder than words, and this question will separate true early adopters from the pack.
    3. Are your solutions working? How would life be different if this worked better?
    4. How could [relevant activity] be better or easier? What’s missing?
    5. What transition, chore, event, or ritual could drive customers to return to your product?
    6. What can my customers get better at that they care about? What skills do they develop when they engage with my product over time? What metric are they improving, and what makes that metric meaningful to them? What new powers, access, and privileges will open up as they progress?
    7. How do you turn a newcomer into a regular? By building a compelling habit. This might involve reading updates, meeting new challenges, or deepening personal connections. Now it’s time to imagine what your core product habit could be.
    8. would motivate my best customers to stick around?
  13. To transform your customer data into actionable insights, start by scanning the data for patterns that are relevant to your product. In particular, look for:
    1. Existing habits
    2. Unmet needs
    3. Pain points
    4. Ideas or suggestions
  14. “When I want to <motivation>, I want to <action>, so I can <expected outcome>.” Don’t fall into the common trap of thinking that your innovative offering will create brand-new habits. If you want to drive adoption and retention, it’s easier to piggyback on an existing habit than get someone to build an entirely new one, just for your product. During your research, pay special attention when your subjects talk about existing habits that are relevant to your offering. Daily habits are important, but so are weekly, monthly, and even seasonal or yearly ones. All can be potential hooks for driving long-term engagement.
  15. Now think about situational triggers—the transitions, rituals, and events that structure your customer’s daily life and appear in your job stories. Note internal and situational triggers that are already in your early customers’ lives. What emotions or urges could drive customers to seek out your product?
  16. We know from self-determination theory that people are motivated by meaningful progress. As you play a game, you gain skills and knowledge that prepare you to take on greater challenges. In storytelling terms, this is a classic hero’s journey. In product design terms, you’re taking your customers on a learning journey that will transform them in some way. Your customer is the hero of their own story—the story unfolding inside their head about who they’ll become by using your product. What’s the story about? How does it unfold? That’s the question your mastery path answers.
  17. Mastery Is Better than Progress – Many non-game designers understand this and eagerly adopt points, badges, leaderboards, and ratings systems to track and reward progress. They soon learn what every game designer knows: Numbers alone don’t confer meaning. To create a compelling mastery system, your need context, challenge, and character transformation.
  18. Empower Experts to Have Real Impact – Not everyone needs to experience this path, but those who want to go deep can have more impact with the more they learn. To choose the right elder game role for your community, ask yourself: What skills, knowledge and relationships are experts accumulating? What kind of roles are experts asking for? What are they eager to do? What does the community staff currently do that could be handled by experts? The most compelling reward for your investment is impact—not trinkets.
    1. Write a mastery story about what the experts experience a few weeks in. What experience/powers/rewards/role can you offer them that leverages the skills, relationships, and knowledge they’ve built up using your system? When I [make the effort to master this system], I want [earned unlocks, powers, access, status, roles] so I can [stay engaged/have an impact/leverage my newfound skills, knowledge, and relationships].
  19. The most successful product creators I know always kickoff a new project by building, iterating and tuning the core activity chain, or what I call the core learning loop. Once that’s working well, they’ll start to add more features and polish. If you want to emulate successful innovators, this is how you build engagement from the ground up. While an operant conditioning loop is focused on shaping behavior, a learning loop is focused on empowerment, helping your customer get better at something they care about. A learning loop has: A repeatable, pleasurable activity with internal triggers. Feedback that drives learning and skill-building. Progression and investment with reengagement triggers. 
  20. As you’re building your MVP, make sure to include feedback that tells your customers they’re on the right track. Slack, for example, offers light, charming visuals that confirm you’ve read all your messages—the core activity in the system. Activities and feedback work together to engage your customers and let them know they’re on the right track. Investment is what happens when you collect, earn, customize, win, or build something you don’t want to lose. Triggers are reminders to return to the system you’re invested in. Together, all these techniques pull your customers back and complete your core learning loop. 
    1. Anytime you create an avatar, refine your profile, check your stats, earn points, integrate your address book, post an update, or curate your friend list, you’re deepening your investment in that system, and making it harder to leave.
    2. Stats worth checking: Self-improvement is a powerful force. It’s inherently motivating to see yourself getting better, stronger, faster, smarter, or more popular. That’s why so many systems tune their tracking algorithms to show visible progress, it gets people hooked and keeps them coming back. A simple example is Twitter’s follower count, which engages you in growing your audience, which makes it harder to walk away. Tell me a story:
    3. Stories can take many forms, such as updating Instagram, posting to a forum, or leaving a comment on a blog.
    4. Enhance my self-image: Anytime you customize your identity or environment, you’re investing a bit of yourself into the system.
    5. When your customer chooses colors, selects a background image, or creates an avatar, they are increasing their investment in your system through personal expression. Help me connect with people:
    6. Currency is for spending: Once customers are engaged with your system, giving them spendable currency is a powerful way to drive investment. This tactic is most effective if it’s layered onto other skill-building systems, instead of being used in isolation. Duolingo, for example, awards “lingots” for completing activities, which you can spend on customizing your profile.
    7. Customer-centric triggers already exist in your customer’s experience. You learn about them through discovery research. Internal triggers are emotions, urges, or cravings your customer has, such as hunger, loneliness, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, boredom, etc. Situational triggers are transitions, rituals, and events that occur regularly, such as waking up, commuting to work, or sitting down for family dinner.
    8. Product-centric triggers are designed into your product experience. The most effective ones tap into the customer’s existing emotions and habits. External triggers are environmental cues that remind you to do something, such as notifications, email, shoes by the door, or sticky notes on your laptop. Engaged triggers kick in once someone is engaged in your experience. If you have an internal urge supported with external feedback, that’s an engaged trigger. Checking your stats in a game or your unread messages in Slack are two good examples of triggers that kick in once you’re engaged in the system.
    9. To identify existing triggers for your product, ask yourself: In which situations is my customer most likely to seek out my product? What’s happening right before—and after—those moments? What’s the context? How does my customer feel right before—and after—using my product? What pain or itch does my product alleviate? Which emotions are driving use?
    10. As you’re bringing your product to life, ask yourself: What feedback would help my customers perform their core activity better? When we think of games, we often focus on visible progression systems like points, badges, levels and leaderboards. Yet feedback is more fundamental than progress. Feedback lets you know you’re on the right track and motivates you to stay engaged in what you’re doing.
      1. What’s missing is a mechanism that ties these stats into meaningful unlocks and progressive skill-building. How would you answer these questions? When a customer uses your product for months, what are they getting better at? How will you show personal or social progress in a compelling, meaningful way? How is your customer’s Day 30 experience different or better than Day 1, or Day 7? Once someone learns the basics, which features, content or access can they unlock?
  21. When you’re bringing your idea to life and building your MVP, you need to put aside your grand visions and focus in on just a few core activities.
  22. Inspired by Bartle, I took my experience with designing social games and identified four actions, or verbs, that emerge in online environments: compete, collaborate, explore, and express.
  23. Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it. Madeleine L’Engle, Author, A Wrinkle in Time
  24. Take your cues from the habits and desires of your experts—the people who master your systems and long to go deeper. Your goal is to create systems that tap into the deep needs and motivations of your most passionate players.

What I got out of it

  1. Some really detailed and helpful steps on how to bring game thinking to your product/service/design – character transformation, skill-building, help people get better at something they care about

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