yukai chou gamification

4 Experience Phases in Gamification – Phase 2: The Onboarding Phase

4 Experiences Phases in Gamification # 2: The Onboarding Phase(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.

The User Experience of Learning the Basic Skills of the Game

Previously, I wrote about the Discovery Phase (Phase I) of the 4 Experience Phases of a Player’s Journey. In this article, we’ll look into Onboarding, which is the second phase of a player’s journey.

Onboarding is about teaching users the rules and tools to play the game. Onboarding starts as soon as the user signs up, and ends when the users have mastered the fundamental skills needed to play the game and achieve the early stage win-states.

In the Discovery phase, the goal is to create motivation towards trying out your product through clever marketing and messaging. Generally, there are combinations of Curiosity and Unpredictability (Core Drive #7), Epic Meaning & Calling (Core Drive #1), and perhaps Social Influence & Relatedness (Core Drive #5) if you want things to become more viral.

Onboarding, like the Discovery Phase, generally retains a weak form of Unpredictability & Curiosity (Core Drive #7), and it is the Gamification designer’s job to install other Core drives into the user experience.

Objective of the Onboarding Phase

When a user first joins, she generally just feels curious about the product. Depending on how well the Gamification designed the Discovery Phase, users could come because they just read about it somewhere (Core Drive 7), their friends told them to do so (Core Drive 5), it’s for a good cause (Core Drive 1), their boss made them use the product (Core Drive 8) or because of high exclusivity (Core Drive 6).

No matter why the user decided to join the service, the most important Core Drive in the Onboarding Phase is mainly making players feel a sense of Development & Accomplishment(Core Drive #2). You want to make users FEEL smart and competent with lots of instruction, interaction, Empowerment and feedback reinforcements (Core Drive #3).

Far too often, Onboarding experiences for products feel confusing, too hands off, or too complex. This results in the user feeling stupid.

If your user feels stupid during Onboarding, then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle along with the user (think Google+).

This is why games deploy techniques such as the interactive step-by-step tutorials, the “glowing choice,” and early-stage Win-States to reinforce Developement & Accomplishment in the Onboarding Phase.

Step by Step Tutorials (Game Technique #9)

Step-by-Step Tutorials are systems that automatically guide the user towards learning the ropes of the game.

We know that most people don’t like reading through a manual before trying out a product. Similarly, people also don’t like to watch a long video that explains everything at the very beginning.

That’s why games usually let users learn about the rules, mechanics, and the win-states one step at a time through a Step-By-Step Interactive Tutorial, while providing positive reinforcement on each step.

Because each step is guided, users identify the win-state immediately and accomplish it easily, followed by messages such as, “Great job! You nailed it!” As a result, users feel competent and happy.

Glowing Choice (Game Technique #28)

This is a game technique where hints are displayed to help the player understand what to do next.

In MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) such as World of Warcraft, the player is thrown into an unfamiliar virtual landscape where there are countless places to explore. It’s extremely easy to feel lost or confused in such a big open world like that.

However, the user rarely feels like he doesn’t know what to do at any given moment because there are often “glowing explanation marks” or arrows above an NPC’s (Non-Playable Character’s) head.

When you click on that character, he will start to give you a narrative such as, “This village used to be peaceful…but a month ago [very very weak and pathetic] beasts came and ravaged the village, bringing horror to everyone. Please Hero, can you help us with this problem?”

This provides information that the player needs and includes some Epic Meaning & Calling into the process.

And now, the user has her first quest and no longer feels lost.

Players can be forced to click a glowing choice by limiting their options. But it is often more empowering to let the user decide. They can continue exploring by purposely not clicking on the Glowing Choice but will know in their hearts that talking to the “glowing choice” is the way to make real progress.

In many mobile apps, you will see this practice becoming more and more common. At the beginning of the experience, other features would be grayed out, with a pointy arrow that tells the user the next essential function to learn about. This will happen until all features are selected.

Similar to what was explained above, sometimes it is even better to have the glowing choice there, but not FORCE the user to click on it, so the user is actually empowered with a choice. However, glowing choice will remain there until the user clicks on it, so eventually and inevitably they will, and are also seriously ready for the next step.

Introduce Early Win-States 

As I mentioned earlier, small achievements need to be rewarded frequently at the beginning. This builds the player’s confidence. At this point, each experience of success is called an early win-state.

It is important to introduce as many of these opportunities as possible. And they should be done within a reasonably close span of time to keep up the level of excitement.

Conquering minor challenges can be very satisfying at first. But eventually, this gets boring. Harder challenges need to be introduced gradually as the game progresses past the Onboarding phase.

Once the player has mastered the basics, the stakes are then raised by a moderate increment. The point is to make it within their reach to overcome this challenge. This allows them to feel an even greater sense of victory. This can be referred to as the first major win-state, also known as the first boss-fight (Game Technique #14).

Before the first Boss-Fight, everything the user does should be like honey and marshmallows, easy and sweet. But the first boss fight (and this could abstractly be a slightly higher challenge or problem to solve) needs to make them feel a little nervous because they don’t know if they can overcome it, which will sweeten the joy of victory.

A big mistake many apps make is to bombard their users with messages to invite their friends to join too. However, why would users want to invite their friends before they even know if they like the experience?

A more optimal strategy is to introduce friend invite requests (or other desired target behavior) right after the first Boss Fight.


The Onboarding phase should also be the time where Epic Meaning & Calling (Core Drive #1) is introduced into the process.

If you have done a good job designing the Discovery Phase, users already have some idea of the Epic Meaning & Calling of your experience, but this is the time to reaffirm the details.

This is when a Narrative process is extremely useful. Tell a story about the significance and meaning of the experience that the user is about to encounter. Make the user feel that she is uniquely chosen to do such a task, more so than the majority of the people out there.

In this process, the biggest mistakes companies make is to either have a huge chunk of text for the user to read through or an unnecessarily long video to introduce the theme.

What I’ve found most efficient, is a 1-minute animated video, or (often more preferred) a sliding storyboard that has 3-4 images along with 1-3 sentences each under them.

That way users can consume the information a piece at a time at their own speed.

Identity Creation

During the Onboarding process, this is also when a user creates her identity. You can often create more Ownership & Possession (Core Drive #4) if you allow the user to customize her profile or Avatar (Game Technique #13), or have them go through a Build-From-Scratch phase (Game Technique #43), just like how IKEA makes people more attached to their furniture by having customers build the furniture themselves.

One thing to caution is if the user is not sold on the experience yet, allowing custom avatars or Build-from-Scratch techniques will create more friction towards the first major win-state, and there might be dropouts during that system.

To counter that, oftentimes game designers allow users to choose between a selection of predefined avatars or built solutions, so they can move on quickly, and then allow users to customize the details later when they are more sold on the experience.

Generally speaking, you want to push users towards the first major win-state where they feel awesome as early as possible, and it’s important to remove as much friction in it as possible.


During the Onboarding process, it’s important to show the user if her other friends are using this service too in order to maximize Social Influence & Relatedness (Core Drive #5). That way the user will have stronger motivation and reaffirmation that this is a journey worth taking.

it’s also good practice to inform the experienced players that their friends have just joined the system so you could establish some type of relationship (and sometimes keep the soon-to-be-dropout user on for much longer)

What’s even more powerful beyond that is mentorship. If you could create a system that incentives veteran users (those in the EndGame) to provide mentorship to newbie users and help them level up faster, that would ensure the new user is learning the ropes, and also feels accountable to this mentor so as to not quit early.

This happened to me once. I was doing research on the game Parellel Kingdom, and I had just planned to try it out for 2-3 hours to understand the game mechanics.

But 20 minutes into the game (enough time for the programmer to realize I was a serious player), I was allocated a mentor who was a high level player, and he gave me so much high-level stuff and helped me through so many low level dungeons that I felt embarrassed to quit. As a result, instead of 2-3 hours, I played the game for 2-3 months. GG, Parallel Kingdom…GG.

Introduction of Scarcity

In Onboarding, the players should experience subtle elements of scarcity that are actually introduced during the Scaffolding Phase. This is basically the idea of dangling a prized reward that they can’t yet have until they’ve reached a certain level in the game – oftentimes the Scaffolding Phase.

The user always starts to recognize the economy of labor/work in, what’s the exchange between the system and other users, what are premium/scarce resources and how to obtain them, and what are the rewards that come out of the system.

You want to let users know what they don’t have YET as quickly as possible. That way there continues to be motivation towards making more progress in the journey.

Cultivating Mystery and Suspense

In many instances, it’s a good idea to introduce some mystery and suspense to lure users more into the experience because they want to find out what is the secret behind what they are currently seeing. Who, exactly, is the Coon? And why does he try to attack Mysterion?

These are questions you want users to ask during the Onboarding phase.

Building suspense is not always easy, as the first step is to create a context in which the users actually start to care about the answer to the unasked question. You even want users to start guessing about the secret behind it all.

In the popular TV Series Lost, every episode continues to build on a feeling of suspense, which leads you to constantly think about what will come out in the next week, even though more often than not you realize in the next episode that it was actually somewhat anti-climatical. There was no evil conspiracy – Charlie just wanted to do drugs. Perfectly civilized people on science missions are pretending to be hillbillies for no particular reason. The scary “Others” who are beating people with sticks are just nice folks from the other half of the plane. Oops, that might have been a spoiler.

Or perhaps, I made you more curious about watching Lost? What if I was paid to write this post? What if I was contracted by the producers of Lost to write this entire blog post just so that I can plug them in right here? What if Lost was just a facade to brainwash the masses into believing gamification done right is the most important issue in the world to pay attention to?

If you want to know the truth, read my next blog post and you might find the answers that you have always been looking for since you were a child.

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