yukai chou gamification

Gamification Design: 4 Phases of a Player’s Journey

Gamification Onboarding

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book. 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

Your experience towards a product or service starts when you first hear about it, hence the Discovery Phase.

The first phase of a player’s journey start when the player first discovers and learns about your product or service.

Much of this piece is within the field of Marketing Gamification, and addresses questions like, “How did users find your product? Did they hear about it from a friend? Through the news? Or a clever marketing campaign that you devised? And why do they even want to try out your product?”

Just because people see your website does not mean they are motivated to engage with it. Just because people are trying out your service doesn’t mean they are mentally prepared to start the journey. You need to think about and optimize the motivation people have when they discover your product or service.

As the first experience phase in Octalysis Gamification, Discovery differs from Kevin Werbach’s initial “Identity,” phase of a system, which is the initiation of an identity within a gamified system. This could involve the creation of an account, signing on for a service, and choosing your profile type – basically the “Who You Are.” Amy Jo Kim, another respected game designer and gamification professional, uses a three phase system and the player experience starts off with Onboarding.

However, in my viewpoint, a real experience towards a product or service starts well before you buy the product or sign up for the service or create your identity.

My view is that “Identity” would actually qualify as part of Onboarding, as when you “Onboard” someone, you have them figure out what the game is and where they stand in the game.

In the Discovery Phase, most people usually find out about your product through a weak form of Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity. They were simply curious about it, or they read about it through some media outlet. This is a fairly uncommitted push to start a player’s journey.

Nowadays many companies work hard to optimize for Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, trying to get people to pressure their friends to try out their products. Other B2B solutions use Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, as employers generally force their employees to use certain software and therefore users try out your service so they don’t lose their jobs (but end up being very resistant or lukewarm about it, a result of Black Hat Gamification).

There’s a lot of space to introduce innovation here. Some companies introduce Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling into the Discovery Phase by creating a charitable call linked to the company mission and people try out the products because it’s for something bigger than themselves.

Google HR gets talents to discover their hiring process by utilizing Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback with the way they post difficult programming problems for people to solve before they can even get their first interview.

Kiip, a startup company that raised over $15 Million, is founded entirely on the premise that people will value something more if they feel like they have “earned” it. It inserts within games at the moment of someone winning a battle or completing a level, the discovery of a new product or brand with the offer of a product sample or discount voucher. This heavily utilizes Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment in the Discovery Phase.

Gamifying the discovery phase is a great way to improve your brand name, sign-ups, and conversion rates.

This phase ends when your client starts to use your product. Once the user tries out your product or service, s/he has officially started Phase 2.

The Second Phase in the Player’s Journey is: Onboarding

During the onboarding phase, you train the users to become familiar with the rules of the game, the options, the mechanics, and the win-states.

This is what companies focus on the most because everyone thinks once customers use their product for a little bit, everyone would fall in love with it, if only users would give them the chance!

When users are learning about the steps in using your product, they do not want to read a big guide to begin – no one likes to read the manuals. Nor do they want to watch a 8-minute tutorial video. Users want to quickly start trying it, and they want to feel smart doing it. The Development & Accomplishment Core Drive (#2) is essential at this phase.

Besides not having long manuals to read, games usually don’t show a tutorial video at the beginning. If they do show a video or cut-scene, it’s again about “why” a user should play the game, such as explaining a looming danger in the world and the player needs to defeat that encroaching evil.

Generally at the beginning of the Onboarding process, you only want a quick graphical way to introduce the value proposition of your product, perhaps 3-4 images with 1-2 sentences each. At most you show a 1-minute video. Keep in mind these videos should not be on “how” to use the product, but “why” they should use the product.

Immediately after the onboarding slides or short video, you want the user to immerse into your product instead of doing a one-way preach.

This is best accomplished through means of an interactive but step-by-step tutorial where you get the user to commit to the Desired Actions you designed, and rewarding them with small High-Fives (Game Technique #17) once they accomplish it.

LinkedIn’s simple progress bar is a great example to help users get through the onboarding process. When users fill in some items in their profile, the progress bar will move up to 30%, 40%, 60%. This makes it very clear what the site wants users to do, how to do it, and emotionally rewards them for doing the Desired Actions.

Mastering the Onboarding Process can get your users to start participate in your game with more excitement and motivation.

The onboarding phase ends when your users are fully equipped and they are ready to take on the journey on their own.

The Third Phase in the Player’s Journey is: Scaffolding

The third phase of on-going and regular activity of the game is where players use all the rules and options they learned during onboarding to try to achieve as many Win-States as possible.


Because of my chess background, previously I referred to this stage as the “midgame,” but I switched it to align with Kevin Werbach’s term Scaffolding. I like his term, as it sounds more intellectual and intriguing. Amy Jo Kim refers to this phase as “habit-building,”, but I that just doesn’t sound quite as fun.

In the player’s journey, this phase is supposedly where the most “fun” should happen, and usually has equal standing within all 8 Core Drives, depending on what your product actually does and for whom it is designed for.

The Scaffolding phase is where users come back on a regular or daily basis to commit mostly repetitive Desired Actions. We talked about how almost all games are doing repetitive actions over and over again for hours. Candy Crush constantly matches 3 gems; Angry Birds constantly slings out birds; and RPGs constantly kill the same monsters on the same stage over and over again.

So what is the motivation for a user to come back and do the exact same things over and over again for hours everyday? That is the question the Scaffolding Phase seeks to answer.

Once you have a well designed win-state in scaffolding that appeals to the 8 Core Drives in Octalysis, you will start to see increased player engagement and motivation.

Generally you know you are successful at this phase if you have a high engagement and retention rate for your users.

In the gaming world, many people like to use the formula DAU/MAU (Daily Active Users over Monthly Active Users) to determine how sticky is a product and how often users are coming back. Of course, that’s not appropriate for every gamified campaign, but it shows the high level of standard games must endure to maintain their numbers.

The Scaffolding phase ends when your users believe they have tried everything that your product offers at least one time. They are now a veteran user ready for the end game.

The Fourth and Final Phase of a Player’s Journey is: The Endgame

The Endgame is when players believe have done everything there is to do at least once and are starting to feel like there are no longer unexplored Win-States.

Not spending enough time thinking about this last phase when designing products is I believe, a gigantic mistake. If game designers do not create a good endgame, people will get easily bored and quit the game, when in fact these veterans are generally the product’s biggest evangelists, best community managers, and best sources for monetization.

The hard part of this phase is to continuously give meaning, interest, and excitement to these veterans so it never becomes boring to them.

Often times this is more easily achieved by implementing techniques that appeal to White Hat and Intrinsic Core Drives. For instance, if the veterans have higher status among their peers of a closely knit group, they will have a sense of pride and stay in this game for longer, as opposed to become a newbie again in another product with no social influence (Core Drive 4: Social Influence & Relatedness).

Another example is through evergreen mechanics that is described previously within Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback, where users can take the core tools/building blocks in a game and come up with infinite creative strategies on their own, as well as having a system where the game producers can easily add new content into a system consistently. This is seen when people become “veterans” of Farmville and they start to use their farms to produce creative art, such as the Mona Lisa or heart pictures.

Oftentimes, one the most powerful Black Hat elements in the Endgame is what I call the “Sunk Cost Tragedy” (Game Technique #50) which appeals strongly to Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance.

This is when a user has spent so much time in a game, it becomes incredibly difficult to let go of all the levels, skills, assets, points, currency, and face the tough loss of having all those hours become nothing.

The Sunk Cost Tragedy is derived from a negative psychological spiral called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. I’ve had many friends who acknowledged to themselves that Farmville is truly a waste of time in their lives, and they really wanted to quit.

However, if they quit, then the hundreds of hours they spent on Farmville will TRULY be wasted. So players keep playing to “avoid feeling the pain of loss and the ugly sensation waste creates.” ( And as they spend more time protecting themselves from feeling the loss, they invest even more time into the game, creating a bigger loss.

Hmm, how depressing.

When I quit Diablo 2 right before I started my gamification career, I too felt the resistance to avoid the pain of loss. The way I could finally get out of that trap was to think BIG enough. I thought “Okay….20 years from now, I wouldn’t be playing Diablo 2 – if I did, I would be a sad, sad fool. So if I’m not going to be playing 20 years from now, why play 5 years from now? If not 5 years from now, why a year from now? Why today?”

Thinking about the future is the medicine to cure you from attachment to the past.

Facebook has a strong element of the Sunk Cost Tragedy incorporated in its Endgame – if I quit Facebook, not only will I lose touch with all my personal friends that I don’t have phone numbers and emails to, I will also lose all the points, badges, and currencies I spent so much time building in the Facebook Games!

This may be another reason why Facebook would like to own your Photos – quit Facebook, and you risk losing your photos that you didn’t backup on your own hard drive. Of course, this is Black Hat and uncomfortable, but very powerful.

If you mastered the endgame, you will create a lot of long-term contributors, evangelists, and long-term customers.

Applying the 4 Experience Phases into Level 2 Octalysis

Up to this point, I have mostly been sharing about Level 1 Octalysis, emphasizing on the 8 Core Drives. Once you also understand the 4 Experience Phases of a Player’s Journey, you can incorporate that into Level 2 Octalysis, where you can make sure that for each user, there is something that appeals to his/her core drives at each stage and make sure your users will stay to the very end and become your champions.

Level 2 Octalysis Gamification.017

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