This post is a high-level introduction to Octalysis, the Gamification Framework I created after more than 17 years of Gamification research and and Behavioral Design study. Within a year of publication, Octalysis was organically translated into 16 languages and became required literature in Gamification instruction worldwide.
What is Gamification?
Gamification is design that places the most emphasis on human motivation in the process. In essence, it is Human-Focused Design (as opposed to “function-focused design”).
Gamification is the craft of deriving all the fun and engaging elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities. This process is what I call “Human-Focused Design,” as opposed to “Function-Focused Design.” It’s a design process that optimizes for human motivation in a system, as opposed to pure efficiency.
As you most likely have noticed, there is a huge NFT craze going on right now.
Some of them seem exuberant with six, seven or even eight digit sales. Some are based on some fad where people know will eventually blow up, but are living with the “next fool” principle of joining the party while it lasts, while others are there for long term bragging rights and self expression.
Everyone wants rewards, right? But so often, companies failed to use rewards to incentivize their users or customers to take a specific action. Here I’ll cover six different types of rewards that companies are using to build their customer base and develop engaged users and customers, and we’ll look at how you can implement the same rewards in your own business.
The goal of this post is to make applying gamification and Octalysis easier. Perhaps some of you might still feel the 8 Core Drives are still too abstract, and want to jump straight into “how do I reward my users” (which is not great thinking as you would know from my work).
Keep in mind, the reward context types below are not mutually exclusive, as you can have one reward include multiple contextual types, but they are useful in being archetypes when you think about reward structures.
The first type of reward within gamification is the Fixed Action Reward, or Earned Lunch (Game Technique #7). This is pretty straight forward – the user knows exactly what she must do to get the reward.
Examples include anything that involves collecting points, frequent flyer miles, or punches on your card — in other words, loyalty programs of all flavors. With these rewards, the company lays out exactly what the customer has to do to earn something, and then gives the customer a way to track how far they’ve come along in their goal.
Fixed Action Rewards engage customers by building their loyalty and rewarding frequent action. For example, if a customer works near a deli shop, and that deli shop offers a free sandwich when he gets 12 punches on his loyalty card, that customer will be more motivated to grab lunch at the deli shop every day. In fact, as the customer gets closer to completing his 12 punches, he become even more frequent at the deli because he wants to finish up his card and collect his reward.
This utilizes the three Left Brain Core Drives – Development & Accomplishment (Core Drive #2), Ownership & Possession (Core Drive #4), and Scarcity & Impatience (Core Drive #6).
Gamification Reward #2: Random Rewards (Mystery Box)
The second type of reward in gamification is the Random Reward (Game Technique #72).
While fixed action rewards are great for helping companies build loyalty, they are heavily implemented and lacks some right brain core drives that gets customers really engaged. There are a few ways to spice things up, and Random Rewards is one of them.
In games, there is the concept of “loot” or “drops” which are random rewards that appear once the player achieves a win-state or defeats an enemy. Often times, this unpredictable process is what drives players in the Endgame (Experience Phase #4).
With random rewards, the participant gets a reward based on completing a required action, but they don’t necessarily know what the reward is. This actually doesn’t matter and can even enhance their engagement; the process of getting the reward is exciting because the participant knows that they will be surprised at the end by whatever they end up with.
Using random rewards makes participants feel like they did on Christmas morning as a kid. They saw the rewards under the tree, and they knew they would find out what they were getting eventually. But the anticipation of getting the reward, even though they have no idea what’s in the boxes, is part of what makes things so exciting.
Quarterly is a subscription company that offers mystery boxes to its customers every three months. They source their themes from influencers like Timothy Ferriss, bestselling author of The 4-Hour Chef/Body/Work Week.
These influencers hand select items to go in their mystery box and participants are allowed to subscribe to the box without knowing what there can end up getting.
Why would anyone spend $100 or more on objects that they don’t even know about beforehand? Because the element of surprise is a reward within itself.
On top of the core drives mentioned in Fixed Action Rewards, Random Rewards add the core drive Unpredictability & Curiosity (Core Drive #7), which is an excellent way to surprise and delight your customers and engage them to become deeper fans of your offering.
Squid Game – the gamified death experience that is impossible to ignore
I’m a busy professional. I’m running multiple companies, handling multiple client projects, creating video content, working on an NFT/Metaverse concept, all while helping to raise my twin daughters, Symphony and Harmony Chou.
Because of that, I often try to stay away from addictive media that is designed to suck away all my hours and make me less productive – especially when I’m an expert on how media does that to our brain to begin with.
However, as is probably the case for your experience too, I suddenly got approached by a variety of people asking me if I have seen this Netflix show called Squid Game, and how would I use Octalysis Gamification Theory to dissect it.
This happened so frequently within a few days, that I finally took the Red Pill and decided to watch Squid Game. And expectedly, I finished the entire Season 1 within 24 hours. Wait, did I mention I was a busy professional?
Lucky for me, my profession is learning from addictive entertainment and applying them to productive processes such as improving healthcare, education, finance, etc. by making boring but important activities more fun and engaging.
So the joke’s on Squid Game – I didn’t entirely waste my time and it helped me level up.
Here I share my analysis of this gamified death experience and why it rose above the crowd and totally killing it.
Spoilers Alert: not only will parts of the show be spoiled, you will understand the inner workings of how something like Squid Game is designed, ruining your entire experience if watching for the first time.
But what makes it a GAME?
It’s called the Squid Game, but is it really a game? Most of the time we think of games as fun activities that drive good memories. Squid Game seems to just be this perverted meat trap where people are dying for the entertainment of sick rich people.
You see similar scenarios in horror Escape Room movies where many people die if they don’t solve puzzles to escape the room quickly. But they don’t call it a game – just another tortune zone.
However, if you look at similar films here, you will see that something like the Hunger Games also call themselves a game, except the goal is to just kill off one another. In Roman gladiator arenas, there is also the common saying, “Let the games begin!”
So what makes people slaughtering each other a form of game?
Technically, games exist for us to rehearse and train for real life situations that are important. That’s why boys love playing fighting games – in primitive times you don’t want your first ever fight to be of life-or-death. Their brain creates pleasure when tackling these situations so they would have enough practice to survive in the future world.
That’s also why there are also many popular games that are related to socializing, solving puzzles/problems, and building industrial empires – all extremely useful skills to gain for thriving in our harsh world.
So when people are put in an artificially created environment where they need to outcompete each other and even potentially cause each other to be eliminated, they call this a Game. The fact that many sports are just a game that professionals play to entertain a paying audience also fits very well in the setup of Squid Game.
But of course, it goes beyond that. Squid Game actually offers little games that Koreans play as kids when they were growing up, further pushing for that aspect of “I want desperate people to survive and murder each other, but through a gamified environment.”
So what makes the gamified Squid Game so compelling?
There are 2 aspects to consider here: the Squid Game itself for the contestants, and the Squid Game show for the audience.
For both of them, we could use the Octalysis Strategy Dashboard to evaluate the different sets of Business Metrics, Player Types, Desired Actions, Feedback Mechanics, and Rewards/Incentives. For practicality sake, we use a super shrunk down version of this process.
If we look at the Squid Game for the Contestants:
Business Metrics: how thrilling and entertaining the VIPs will feel while watching people struggling and getting eliminated Player: financially and socially desperate people who have dropped to the bottom of society that have very little to live for or too much to lose if they didn’t have money. Desired Actions: go through a list of 6 games, surviving each of them, while making sure other contestants are being eliminated Feedback Mechanics: floating ball with a ton of cash, number of current players, gameful environment with death triggers, soldiers with guns etc. Rewards/Incentives: a huge deal of money that could likely solve all the problems they are facing in their normal reality.
Now if we look at Squid Game for the Netflix Viewers:
Business Metrics: keep people watching content for a long extended period of time so every month they feel like the fee was worth it – also increase word of mouth. Player: media-oriented people who prefer watching shows as their main form of entertainment. Also people who like thrillers and aren’t afraid of blood, like the Game of Thrones audience. Desired Actions: binge watch Squid Game for long periods of time. If they stop watching it, think about it all night long and talk to others about it. Feedback Mechanics: TV screen – which characters are still alive, what is the new challenge, attachment to characters, drama/tension built between characters, curiosity of the entire organization. Rewards/Incentives: satisfying ones’ curiosity, feedback of one’s creative guessing, social relatedness towards characters in the show and how they develop
For this article, we will focus on the Game Contestants (and potentially explore Netflix Viewer in another article)
Squid Game Contestant Game Analysis
So if we apply the 8 Core Drives of the Octalysis Framework, we could make these analysis to the game from the position of the contestants. Let’s first get the obvious ones out of the way:
Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession in Squid Game
Of course, the biggest appeal for people to play the Squid Game is the money prize if they are the final winners. There is nothing special about this, but companies who want to motivate people need to think very heavily about incentive designs and how that incentive is presented.
Keep in mind that Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession is on the left side of the octagon so it is a “Left Brain Core Drive,” which means it is purely an extrinsic motivation design. This means that the players are doing the activities because of a goal, milestone, or reward, but they don’t necessarily enjoy the activity itself. So once they obtain the reward, hit their goals, or the reward becomes stale and uninteresting, people will stop doing the behavior.
For Squid Game, it is not hard to imagine that if the reward suddenly disappears or is not as attractive as they thought, no one would want to continue.
Occasionally I share some videos I make on Octalysis Prime just so folks can see what kind of content we cover there. Here’s one on the Battleplan Spreadsheet (Step 4 out of 5 in the 5-Step Octalysis Design process)
(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.
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
I was very lucky that the Founder/CEO of HTC Cher Wang has read my book on gamification before, and wanted to explore a variety of ways I could help the Taiwanese-based company. In 2020-2021, I took up roles such as Head of Digital Commerce, Head of Creative Labs, and also managed the North America marketing teams, pushing out some of the highest tier VR Headsets in the industry.
VR Social Ambassador Work for VIVE and our designed ARG
More recently, I shifted my focus on being a Social Ambassador, working with social media and social infuencers/innovators.
We recently launched a gamified ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that involves solving a lot of online puzzles and riddles (such as converting music notes into map coordinates, or deciphering a poem about celestial stars arguing about who is the brightest). All of this leads to an amazing giveaway prize where a few lucky/creative winners will travel to a 5-Star Hotel and experience the highest-end VR HTC VIVE has to offer.
At the same time, I was interviewed by an influencer in the VR world – Eric for President. I talk about HTC’s attitude towards the community and my view points of the VR world.