Not a single conversation on gamification goes by without a mention of a Zynga blockbuster. Entrepreneurs all over the world are salivating at the thought of their product, service, or site getting the time, money, and word of mouth that Mafia Wars and Farmville get. And the success of these games is becoming a gold standard for how to "gamify"- appointment-based dynamics, the "wither" effect, probabilistic rewards, social-network based gaming, badges, statuses- and most importantly, the recipe that uses those ingredients to make a viral and addictive product.
Of course, knowing what elements work isn’t as important as knowing WHY they work. And the best way to understand how game elements interlock to create engagement and addiction is to play (see this Extra Credits on how to play a game like a game designer)
After a few weeks of playing Zynga games, I found that overwhelmingly, the factor that kept me coming back was the scheduling, coupled with the well-recognized intoxication of leveling up (and oh, the cool new powers that leveling up unlocks!). The "wither effect" was a small factor- especially in Mafia Wars where it has little presence. But that wasn't where the powerful addiction came from. In fact, it came from something that was brought up in a habit design meetup in SF outside the context of gamification. It was enforced RESTRAINT.
When you finish a "round" of actions in a Zynga game, you exhaust your resources- energy, stamina, field space- you're out, and all you can do is wait patiently for the chance to play again several hours later. At the time, you don't WANT to wait- you want to get to that next status NOW- the status bar is so close to being at the end!!! AARGH! The magic is that they force you to stop gameplay before you want to. As a result, you don't binge and burn out. Instead, you constantly have the mindset of "I can't wait for the privilege of playing again". Having restricted resources is not a new feature in games, but Zynga is a rare specimen in that once your resources are gone, rather than diverting you to a new task or quest within the game, your gameplay is over.
This is exactly what is considered in habit design- if you are trying to form a new habit and "binge" on it (crash diet, or try to start stretching an hour a day right away), when the initial wave of resolve washes over in a week or so, you're burned out on your goal. One way to train yourself better is to start in small doses- never get to the point of satiation with your habit; take baby steps and keep yourself craving more.
One more clever Zynga twist: if you simply CAN'T wait patiently, counting down the hours until your next engagement with bated breath, there's 2 ways to keep playing!
1. Extreme social interaction- loop more and more people in on the game, and get gifts and unlock bonuses to extend your continuous game play. You get immersion, Zynga gets customers
2. Real world money!!!
So before you start adding scheduling and withering to all of your widgets, consider all the aspects of why this works for Zynga- it’s not just the "hey, come back in 12 hours- but less than 14 hours!". A big motivator is the fact that you're booted off against your will, planting the thought in the back of your head, "I can't WAIT to play again!" in a sustainable, lucrative manner.
Well done, Zynga! The rest of us- let's put it in our "Save the World" toolbox.