Black Hat Gamification and the Fall of Plants vs. Zombies 2

Plants vs. Zombies 2 Logo

Why Plants vs. Zombies 2 Failed to Engage Gamers

Motivation Matters: An Insightful Lesson in Game Development from the Plants vs. Zombies Franchise

Author Bio

This interview was conducted by Clark Buckner from TechnologyAdvice.com (they provide coverage content on gamifying sales programs, customer loyalty solutions, employee engagement platforms and much more). Also, be sure to check out their Technology Conferences Calendar.

To check out the interview in full:

Yu-Kai Chou, a thought leader in gamification and publisher of the Octalysis gamification framework, gave insights into the different motivating drivers behind the wild success of mobile game Plants vs. Zombies, white hat and black hat gamification, and the essential elements for engaging users.

Yu-kai believes the reason Plants vs. Zombies 1 (PvZ1) was more successful than Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) is that, even though the game is essentially the same but with some new “stuff” to make the sequel more interesting, the core experience of PvZ2 is broken. (Note, the analysis here is mostly based on the PvZ2 in 2013. In 2014, there was a large overhaul that improved some of the issues, but still far from ideal).

For him, no game is guaranteed success if it misses the essence of the game (especially in the wake of a wildly successful game) and the motivation of its players to play the game. Game mechanics and other elements can be copied from a previously winning formula, but that doesn’t guarantee a hit.

To verify his opinions, Yu-kai researched why casual gamers tended to play PvZ1 more than they did PvZ2. He used his own Octalysis Gamification Framework to break motivation down into a few of the eight Core Drives. Essentially, he discovered that PvZ 2 shifted from using white hat core drives to black hat core drives. 

White Hat Core Drives in Plants vs Zombies 1 Lacking in Plants vs Zombies 2 

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling

In PvZ1, a gamer’s doing something meaningful by saving their home. This is something that even female demographics that don’t care about fighting games can resonate to. In PvZ2, the gamer’s going through pain and trouble just so Crazy Dave can re-eat a taco. When a player is in the midst of danger, sometimes it feels fairly pointless. 

Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment

PvZ1 is very careful with flow. After one or two minutes, a user may have three or four peashooters. They’re slowly but surely amassing a stockpile and building their economy. When a user gets to the end of the game, they have a full army. Ultimately, this gives gamers a feeling of harmony and accomplishment, matched with the magic of the beats in the music.

In PvZ2, the user quickly gains 10 or 12 plants, providing a quick boost of early success and productivity. However, when the user gets to the end of the game, the economy proportionally slows down but the user’s still trying to finish amassing their army of plants. As a result, this makes gamers feel like they’re struggling to survive. 

Here is an example of how the flow differs:

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

PvZ1 offers a creative process with numerous ways and combinations to seek victory in the game.

PvZ2 limits options. A gamer must use certain plants or else they’ll die. In the first world of mummies, if the user tries the pea shooter or even double pea shooter, chances are he will lose because of the tombs. The game has to be won by using cabbage throwers and boomerangs. Certainly, when a game forces a user to play in a certain way, the elements of play, strategy, and meaningful choices are lacking, consequently making the game boring.

Yu-kai further identified the notable differences in Milestone Unlocks:

When a PvZ 1 player unlocks a milestone achievement, they’re rewarded with the perfect plant that solves all past problems and makes them want to try more in the future.

In the older version of PvZ2, a player is forced to earn the achievement through unlocking a stage many times. It’s more about scarcity and dangling rewards. Plus, the user’s rewarded with a random plant that’s seldom what they need, adding to the slow grind of gameplay in PvZ2. In the later update, this has improved, but the plant unlockable schedule is still far from perfect for motivation.

The Black Hat Core Drives of Plants vs Zombies 2

Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience 

In the first version of PvZ2 player plays the same stage over and over again, earning keys for a far-off goal. It ultimately overwhelms a player’s patience. The second version of PvZ2 improved on that, especially with multi-world transferring, but the dangling technique is still apparent.

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity

PvZ2 is unpredictable in that it takes players into different zones, driving fascination with these “crazy” elements, and making Crazy Dave’s conversation a center piece of the game (whereas in PvZ1 Crazy Dave was not as important besides playing the role of a merchant).

Black Hat Gamification vs. White Hat Gamification

In generally, even though game firms like Zynga consider their development process as “data-driven design,” a lot of it is black hat gamification, or a focus on creating urgency, obsession, and addictiveness in users. Metrics for black hat gamification include monetization, addiction, retention rates, and sharing with friends. 

Black hat games ultimately leave players with a not-so-good experience. So, they end up playing just an hour or two, then leave the game and never come back.

Yu-kai contrasted that to white hat gamification, where developers use motivating factors in gaming to make people feel good without a sense of urgency.

Chou’s eight Core Drives help developers see games as more than just mechanics. Instead, game developers need to look at the users’ motivation to play their games:

  • Does the game make people feel accomplished?
  • Does the game let people make meaningful choices?
  • Is there epic meaning and calling?
  • Is there unpredictability in the experience?

How to Better Employ Engagement

Yu-kai outlined the different factors that are essential to employing engagement: 

  • Meaning: He explained that many campaigns are about scarcity and fixed-action rewards that drive motivated actions. However, this is not long-term motivation because people don’t feel good after playing such a game—as opposed to white hat gamification which stresses meaning.
  • Development and Accomplishment: Developers ought to very carefully control flow so that it begins slowly but increases in difficulty as a gamer’s experience increases. Gamers don’t want to feel insulted or frustrated by a hard game. 
  • Meaningful Choices: Give people meaningful choices where they can customize their play and environment to make the game more interesting and more fun. The multi-world hopping is a great improvement in this, which is what made the game Megaman so innovative in the early days.

Ultimately, meaning is very important as to why people engage with certain games. Unfortunately, there are many products and resources that describe what you need to do in game development and seldom explain the “why” behind it.

For more information on Chou’s Octalysis Gamification Framework and its 8 Core Drives, visit www.octalysis.com, or send Yu-Kai Chou an email to get certified. Connect with him on Twitter @yukaichou.

Gamification Design: 4 Phases of a Player’s Journey

Gamification Onboarding

(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time. For a video walk-through, check out: Episode 5, The 4 Experience Phases of a Game).

We have covered in much depth and details on how to apply Level 1 Octalysis and the 8 Core Drives to your projects. While I believe a great amount of projects can be massively improved just with a good understanding of Level 1 Octalysis, it does have its limitations.

This is where we introduce the deeper arts of Level 2 Octalysis, particularly how it relates to different phases of a player’s journey.

Treat your product as Four different products

Most people see a product or service as one summed up experience – the product is good, bad, interesting, easy to use, funny or boring. That seems to be intuitive – after all, it is one product.

However, when it comes to user engagement design, I believe that’s a big mistake.

From a motivation standpoint, a user’s interaction and journey with a product is continuously evolving. The reason why a person is using a product on day one is often very different from the reason why this person is using this same product on day one hundred – the goal she is trying to fulfill is different, and even the features she sees are different!

People become involved with a game or a product, not as a single encapsulated event, but through a series of stages where they grow to understand it better. The user experience will develop gradually as familiarity with features and structure is gained.

If a product attracts people at the beginning, but as time goes by becomes boring and uninspiring, that’s a failure in design.

Similarly, if a game offers an amazing experience only after 20 hours of play, but prior to hitting the 20-hour mark it’s boring and torturous, then it almost does not matter as no one will reach that level.

A better way of think about the product is to view it as a user’s journey through evolving phases of product perception or experience. With each phase the product appears to be different – in essence, a unique, different product.

Therefore, a good Octalysis Gamifier can break the process into four distinct products, which emphasizes on the 4 Experience Phases of a Game: Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding, and Endgame.

A Level 2 Octalysis Gamifier will then gamify each of those 4 phases in an innovative way that adapts the 8 Core Drives.

In this chapter, we will look at a brief summary of each Experience Phase.

Note that the 4 Phases in Octalysis has certain overlap with UPenn Professor Kevin Werbach’s theories of Identity, Onboarding, Scaffolding, and Mastery.

In fact, I modified my original phrasing to sound more like his because I prefer to have a more unified language with less confusion in the gamification world. My framework is slightly different due to my own experiences but I do want to give Kevin Werbach credit for doing great evangelical and educational work in the industry.

The First Phase in the Player Journey is: Discovery

Continue reading Gamification Design: 4 Phases of a Player’s Journey

The Gamification of Business Infographic

This Gamification of Business Infographic (courtesy of ClickSoftware) briefly captures the different gamification techniques and mechanics that have been applied over the past 4 decades. It also showcases how gamification is being utilized in some of the largest companies.

Can you identify which core drives were being successfully implemented in this timeline?

Infographic showing stats and key milestones of gamification design and implementation

5-Hour Workshop with eBay on eCommerce Gamification (Slides)

The King of eCommerce Gamification

When people ask me, “What’s a good eCommerce Gamification example?” They often get surprised when I tell them “eBay.” (Woot.com is another great example with a very high value for 2 of the 8 Core Drives in Octalysis – guess which ones?).

If you were to think of creating an eCommerce site, it’s not obvious that the website should have a fierce bidding system, an intricate feedback implementation, nor “yellow stars,” “purple stars,” and “power-rated sellers.” This is a well-designed, well-orchestrated example of Gamification. eBay remains one of the strongest tech companies out there, being a Fortune 250 (from a Fortune 300 last year), with PROFITs in the Billions.

They’ve helped millions of people become entreprenuers (including myself! My first ever business was an eBay business), as well as made the world a better place through reused resources and materials. More relevant in this context, they made buying and selling online a lot more fun.

Continue reading 5-Hour Workshop with eBay on eCommerce Gamification (Slides)

Ownership & Possession: How Stoned Can You Be? (Gamification Design)

Stoned Cat

(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).

The Mysterious Nature of Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession

A fascinating example on the feeling of Ownership is seen on Yap, an island in the Caroline Islands of the Western Pacific Ocean. Besides sounding cheerful and carefree, the “Yapese” are known for using a currency called Rai.

Rai function like most currencies, except they are large, circular stone disks carved out of limestone from aragonite and calcite crystals. The issue with Rai being very large is that often it is almost impossible to carry around, let along pass it on to others. In fact, some rai are so large that it is generally impractical to move home, and are sometimes left in the wild. As a result, when the Yapese buys something with rai, they simply leave an oral history that the ownership of the rai now is transferred to another person.

Gamification Stone

In the most extreme cause, there was a famous rai stone that fell off a ship during transportation and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Even though no one has seen it for many years, the Yapese still assume it is still there, so the rightful owner of the rai stone in the ocean could still exchange that ownership for other goods. That’s pretty wild, with some pun intended.

If I came to you and told you that a large piece of stone somewhere in the world is in my possession, and I will trade it to you if you give me a million dollars; however, you won’t be able to move it and will have to leave it there, just like the owner before me, what would you think about me?

You may think I’m stoned and activate your preferred method of interacting with crazy people (popular options include: laugh at me, yell at me, look at me strangely, pretend to take me seriously just to entertainment yourself, pretend to take me seriously just to be polite – all reactions I’ve gotten when I talked about gamification between 2003-2008).

Continue reading Ownership & Possession: How Stoned Can You Be? (Gamification Design)