Autodesk: What Makes a Successful or a Failed Gamification Campaign?


Presentation on coverting free users to paid: Gamification and Autodesk.



Autodesk: An Introduction

For Autodesk, the software design and service giant, promoting trial period use of its key products and applications is an important strategy for engaging potential customers and stimulating purchase decisions. In particular, the company’s 30-day software trial period is considered to be critical in their marketing strategy and represents a major portion of the website traffic.

At the recent GSummit SF 2013 Conference, in the session “Converting Free Users to Paid: Gamification at Autodesk”, Autodesk Digital Marketing Director Dawn Wolfe and Resource Interactive Managing Director Steven Burke presented the results of two recent projects designed to increase the conversion rate for two Autodesk trial programs. Surprisingly, the first effort was wildly successful, but the second was a failure. We will investigate further and see why.

The Autodesk Product Line

In general, Autodesk products are very complex, very powerful, and very expensive. Because of the complexity and sophistication, the learning curves are often quite formidable. Most users take weeks, or even months before they actually gain any true competency. They also represent a major investment, with the cheapest Autodesk product costing $1,200, while its more popular products will run $5,000 per license seat.

For prospective customers this presents a new challenge – how do they determine whether a product so sophisticated is justifiable for their needs. These are definitely not products that one would purchase without having a solid understanding of how they can help ones business.

The Autodesk In-Trial Program

To help engage prospective users (potential buyers), Autodesk offers an In-Trial program. Users can download software design programs and application suites for a 30-day trial period. During this period users can access online tutorials, documentation, and example file sets, to assist them in learning about the software and help assess the their need.

Autodesk’s In-Trial program is essential in promoting their software products, while at the same time, critical to the conversion process. In fact, trial downloads are the number one reason that visitors globally use the Autodesk website. As a result, there is a direct link between customer engagement with a trial and their propensity to make a purchase.

As an example, metrics for Autodesk’s 3DS Max product trial program shows that for prospective users who employ a trial three or more times, there is a 2x increased likelihood that they will purchase the product. (However, 80% of the trial users only open the product once.) It is therefore very important that the initial engagement with the trial users is positive.

The Autodesk In-Trial marketing team explored a new objective – how to increase the conversion rate of new prospects (the trial users) to purchasers. Based on their In-Trial data they hypothesized that by increasing the engagement level of the trial users, the likelihood of them purchasing the product would increase. (In theory, this would expose them to the most compelling aspects of the software products, creating incentives for the trial users and prospects to take the next step and purchase the products.)



Initiative 1: Gamification for the 3DS Max Trial Program

When the 2013 version of the Autodesk 3DS Max software was released, the company employed the digital marketing agency Resource Interactive to create a new, innovative way to increase the trial conversion rate. Resource actually developed an online game called “Undiscovered Territory” that took customers on an entertaining and educational journey.

The game was advertised within the 3DS Max trial software, providing an entry point into the actual game. Resource developed an entertaining storyline, which incorporated a worldwide race, numerous missions, awards, and Badgeville platform components. At the same time, they evoked social influence mechanics by connecting users with their social marketing sites and community platforms – including YouTube and Facebook. Overall it was a very robust experience for the users.

For 3DS Max, the target audience consists of special effects artists, graphics designers, and game developers. This is a pretty safe target group since most are already likely to be utilizing 3DS Max or another Autodesk development product. As such, the target market was considered to be well defined and safe- a necessary condition for engaging users in their trial program’s gamification platform.

The results were impressive.

The key metrics were:

54% increase in trial usage
15% increase in buy clicks
29% increase in channel revenue per trial start

The 54% increase in trial usage is huge, while the 15% increase in buy clicks is impressive. Thousands were downloading this trial each week and in general, all metrics positively increased across the board.

As a consequence of these results and because this is a pure B2B play (or nearly so), there was a direct correlation to revenues, and this initiative received a lot of attention. Autodesk won awards from Gartner and from Forester, received substantial press coverage, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted a case study on their success.



Initiative 2:  Introduction of Gamification for the AutoCAD Design Suite Trial Program

With the success of gamifying the 3DS Max Trial Program, the In-Trial marketing team wanted to take that knowledge and go after the core target market, which for Autodesk, are the architect, engineering, and construction communities. When you think about it, there aren’t many buildings, roads, bridges, etc that did not have an Autodesk product involved with their design. The flagship product being the AutoCAD Design Suite is the “cash cow” for this market and the team wanted to see how gamification might work within this target audience.

There was a lot of confidence. The In-Trial team “knew the drill” and would again unite with Resource Interactive, incorporate Badgeville on the back end, add the bells and whistles, and build another game for this audience. It would be called “The Apocalypse Trigger” and be marketed through the trial program, just like 3DS Max was, and use the Autodesk social networks and communities site, just as “Undiscovered Territory” did… but with a bigger budget.

“The Apocalypse Trigger” had a number of learning missions where starter files were made available, and tutorials were provided for users as they move through the game. As usual, they would win points for completing different tasks and could earn special points as well if they shared their work on Facebook or if they tweeted about the product. And to take advantage of social influence, they implemented a leaderboard to track it all.

Overall, it was very similar to the “Undiscovered Territory” game. Structurally, the missions, the learning process, the tutorials, and everything else was the same.

The only notable difference was the target audience.

The results were disappointing. The strong increases that were present in the 3DS Max case were totally absent with the AutoCAD Design Suites attempt. In fact, there was actually a decrease in product usage. What happened?

Actually there is a small caveat: In addition to gamifying the trial experience, the core market audience was actually being exposed to a product that required substantially more involvement than the traditional products they were using. The target audience that wanted to experience (and was expecting) AutoCAD, were now being shown the AutoCAD Design Suites, a package of various products. The underlying goal was to try and get them to actually use a portfolio of products in tandem- something the target users were not accustomed to or expecting.

Lessons Learned from Gamification Initiative II

With the decrease in usage, the team had to figure out what they could learn from the experience. What were the results saying? Did this mean that the initial success with gamification was just beginners’ luck? Does this demonstrate that this type of gamified application only works when the target audience are gamers themselves?

Highly doubtful, the team concluded.

In the end, they decided to return to the fundamentals of gamification.

It’s not really about the game itself – it’s about the game psychology and how the game mechanics help drive behavior. Ironically, when the team showed their project to actual game developers, they were asked about what had led them to the final design. The team’s response was that they actually started out with the final game concept already in mind, in other words, the design was already established before the core drives of their audience were authentically and comprehensively understood.

Doing Gamification Right

So, the team changed their strategy – they started looking at how they could gain deeper understanding about their target market using smaller, simpler mechanics. Now, small pilot programs will be used to gather data and information, which will in turn, provide a fundamental understanding about the demographics and motivations of the market. Instead of simply applying game mechanics because they’re neat, the team recognizes that gamification principles can be applied to cultivate a dialogue between the company and its users – a feedback loop that’s giving them information on what the users are doing, what they want, and want they need.

Personal Thoughts from Yu-kai Chou

Beyond the very valid and great learnings of the Autodesk team, I think one of the key differences between the two gamification initiatives is the factor of Believability within Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling.

In the first initiative, users are put into a situation where they can relate to more, even thought about – traveling the world and solving problems. There is a sense of Relatedness (Core Drive #5) as well as a higher purpose that is believable.

However, in the second initiative, the user is put into a setting to solve mysterious Maya problems, which will lead to the prevention of the Apocalypse and eventually saving the world (which leads to amazing rewards such as a Lenovo computer). Because the “Epic Meaning” is so out there for a serious professional, they relate to it less, and therefore do not engage in it.

If you ensure a high Believability for your Epic Meaning & Calling, users will become strongly motivated. But if you have a low Believability in your attempts, then many users might even feel insulted and refuse to participate just based on principle. I have a feeling that this is also an issue that affected the performance of the second initiative which was much more refined.


Innovative gamification strategies may always seem to be an option for influencing human behavior, to encourage engagement and promote purchasing decisions. In the case of Autodesk’s product trial programs, they seemed to hit a home run with their first effort to improve trial conversion rates for the the target market of graphic designers and game developers. However, after using a very similar approach for the flagship CAD designer market, the same gamification initiative bombed.

In retrospect, the success of the first initiative seem to be largely due to an audience that was more receptive to a gaming environment. Given the nature of this market’s professional environment, a game design trial product would seem to be acceptable. However, the more stringent professional environment found in architecture and engineering firms, would probably make it difficult to accept a game design trial product.

In the end, gamifying a particular situation should not be blindly laid down with some generic game design over and over again. Instead, the designers should start with the fundamentals and properly define their target market, learning about the specific traits and characteristics which define it. Then they must determine what is their desired result and how to encourage it. This finally leads them to focusing on the behaviors and motivations that can be influenced by the balanced use of gamification techniques and mechanics.

(Thanks to Jerry Fuqua for tremendously helping me on this post!)

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