Saturday, June 10, 2006

Community sites as games: The tip of the iceberg

I’ve been looking at three quite popular community-based websites recently and putting together a few thoughts on the game mechanics used to encourage user participation and grow the communities.

First, these services demonstrate some classic game design techniques. Second, it is exciting to see game design making its way into such non-traditional arenas.

Wearing game design colored glasses
In the model of game design I’ve been using, the user performs an action and gets either positive or negative feedback. Many single player titles automate this process and have the computer dole out rewards based off the machinations of an internal system of rules. Multiplayer or social games instead provide mechanisms for other players to provide feedback that reinforce a particular behavior.

Designing a successful mix of mechanical and social reward systems for multiplayer games is a rich topic. There are a laundry list of design concepts derived from historical MUDs, and modern MMORPGs that are reasonably well studied and often discussed by educated game designers. It is from this perspective that I looked at the features of the community sites.

Examples of game design at work
Here is a laundry list of game design techniques that are evident.

  • Basic action-reward feedback system
  • Leveling your character
  • Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
  • User created content
Basic action-reward feedback system
Never underestimate the power of comments and friend notifications. Community sites are a reward rich environment that rewards adding content to the site. In Judy’s Book, as soon as you add a review, there are four obvious levels of rewards that come into play, each operating on at a different scope.

  • Users can view the review. Just knowing that someone is looking at one you wrote can give a jolt of pleasure to many.
  • Users can agree or disagree with the review. This requires more investment on the part of the other user and has a correspondingly bigger impact on the writer. When someone disagrees, first time users can be sent into a period of self doubting. Often this challenge encourages them to ‘do better next time.’
  • Users can comment on the reviews. Again, this is a high investment reward. It tends to occur at a slower, less predictable pace than mere views and offers the intermittent reinforcement that most classic games thrive on.
  • Users can ask to become a friend. This is a permanent commitment that is suggestive of real social bonds. The first time someone asks to be your friend, it can be a huge positive rush.
Other community sites offer similar feedback mechanisms that encourage people to participate in the community. Both Deviant Art and Threadless have comments. Threadless also includes a powerful rating system.

Leveling your character
The concept of leveling your character as a demonstration of both status in the community and investment in your online personality also makes an appearance.
  • In Judy’s book, when you write a review, add a comment or answer someone’s question, you gain a small amount of experience. With enough experience point, your ‘Trust Score’ level increases. Raise it high enough and you could gain the special City Editor badge.
  • In Deviant Art, reputation is demonstrated through extensive stats: You can pretty much just glance at any Deviant’s home page to see how popular they are or how long they’ve been with the group. You don’t need explicit levels plaster above someone’s head to show status. We don’t have such a crutch in the real world and it is amazing how quickly the human eye adapts to judging someone based off a glancing at a slew of numerical stats.
Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
Though all three sites offer search functionality, the primary method of exploration is by traveling through social links.

  • In DeviantArt, the friends list creates a large network topography of friend links. There is inherent value in each link since it suggest that the people who liked one type of art would also like and prefer a similar type of art. I could spend hours browsing through my friend’s recommendations.
  • In Threadless, the use of blogs that link to T-shirts that the user likes acts as another form of friend’s list. By treating recommendations as a blog post, users can add context to their recommendations and allow for feedback.
In both cases, the user is encouraged to explore new content. The hook is that the content comes with an implicit or explicit recommendation that it will be pertinent to the user and not a waste of their time. This exploration of new content process is fundamental to the operation of the entire game. As they browse, users passively increase the views of content. They also tend to leave comments, friend requests and ratings, which in turn create new links of exploration for future users and encourage the increased production of new content.

I find this to be a fascinating contrast to your typical MMOG that insists on using a strong physical map to creating a large interlinked environmental space. Clicking on a door to enter a building or clicking on a link to a friend’s home page is the same underlying technology. However, the metaphor used to express the action is different and the resulting topography is different as well.

There are some big benefits to using a social topography. Content is often pertinent to the user. You don’t need some expensive and in-depth back story to explain why the player should visit the northwest corner of the map. Instead, it is enough that the next link contains Susan’s favorite artwork and she was kind enough earlier to tag you as a friend.

User created content
This one is a bit obvious, but all these sites thrive on user created content. They are arguably much more advanced in their systems for encouraging the creation of new content than any other game.

DeviantArt has millions of submissions. Judy’s Book and Threadless have thousands. They are so successful at encouraging user submissions that there is hardly any developer created content on the site. This would be the rough equivalent of releasing World of Warcraft with a login system and some tools for creating levels and saying ‘Go at it.’

It obviously works and has potent cost reduction benefits that might be worth applying to more mainstream games.

The Big Picture: Why these examples matter
Each of these commercial and dare I claim profitable sites uses game-like systems to encourage participation. The successful application of game design is fundamental to their success. Community sites are a wonderful example of how game design can benefit and inform the creation of innovative real world applications.

Game design is currently a rather narrowly applied field. You’ve got a few board games, a many thousands of computer and console games in a few narrow genres and the relatively recent addition of modern ‘Serious Games.” The Serious Games movement, while it has its heart in the right place also manages to underestimate the wide scale applicability of game design to the larger world. Their most publicized usage involves using glorified FPS titles to help our rampant military industrial complex kill people more efficiently. This isn’t really stepping outside of the box much. The result is that you primarily see Serious Games relegated to places like ITSEC alongside a crusty training tank that someone hauled onto the show floor.

Game design, however, is a big concept. The ability to create automated systems that dole out both mechanical rewards and enable the exchange of social rewards lets us build products that harness the fundamentals of human psychology in a far more direct fashion than has ever been possible in the past.

From this perspective, game design is a fundamental body of techniques that should be taught along side microeconomics and psychology at any forward thinking business or product design school. It is in essence, the practical application of psychology to intrigue, capture, train and motivate users of a complex system or service. When properly applied good game design techniques encourage repeat usage, reduce customer churn and generate positive communities that promote the product virally.

This is all good stuff. Game design has all the aspects of a new skill set that smart people in a competitive world crave in order to give their products a strong competitive advantage. Learn it, adapt it to your needs, or fall behind.

I brought up community sites as examples of games for two reasons. First, they are fascinating examples of highly successful game designs that focus on a mixture of social and mechanical rewards. Any game designer could learn a lot from studying their mechanics in detail. The low cost of user content generation alone is a lesson that could revolutionize the ROI expectations of a wide range of titles.

Second, community sites hint that what we see in the marketplace currently is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of game design. If you are creating a product that involves people interacting with one another, you need to understand the psychological feedback cycles that encourage people to participate and promote your product. Game design provides many of the tools and terminology necessary to understand and manipulate these critical systems.

Now, if you pardon me, I have an undeniable urge to check out my DeviantArt profile. Maybe, just maybe, someone added me to their friends list.

Take care


Games I’ve been playing recently
Some of these sites use more primitive aspect of game design but don’t know it. You can rightly argue whether these are full fledged games. I say just give them time and competitive pressures. If they follow the typical pattern of evolving genres, the reward system will become more intense and they'll add additional layers of mechanics to trap users for longer periods of time.
Danc’s DeviantArt page:

Kill Chain (The delightful variant of the popular business term ‘supply chain.’ It is all about efficiency, baby.)
“KILL CHAIN - (1) The USAF six-stage target cycle of Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA). NOTE: The time interval between each adjacent pair of stages in F2T2EA is referred to as a "seam." See also THREAT KILL CHAIN. (2) A U.S. Navy modeling and simulation system that utilized video game technology to examine new ship systems and military tactics. [10:3065] NOTE: KILL CHAIN was initially designed to illustrate the capabilities that the DD(X) will add to the battlespace for the U.S. Navy.”


  1. Have you read Derek Powazek's Design for Community (ISBN 0735710759)?

  2. For an online world that is 99% user created content, look at Second Life.

  3. Hello, I'm a french and i have been read your blog from some time now.
    Well i did read everything actually :p
    You are pretty in tune with my mind, it's really good to see that there is some people thinking the same way.

    However, i'm here to challenge one of your paraphrase >Games cannot live on art and design alone. There must also be code.<
    As a designer (product and game), can you come with some thought that would help you and your kind and fellow to overcome that trheat?

    For example, i know how to code, but i try to avoid it as much as i can to remain at the heart of the design. I see 'coding' (the typing) as a principal threat for non programmer as it require unecessery effort between design and implementation. Programming langage are a lot more rigid and restricted than usual langage, the coding could be easily automated in some sense. There is also a matter of presentation and interface, how much you can make someone programming without feeling it and still be reward by actually doing it?

    You may don't know enough about programmation, and you don't have to reinvent programmation, reinventing metaprogrammation would suffice. By resolving this issue you shoot two bird with one stone the same time: if you find a programmer, you make that meta tool and make your own product with after. And what about a P2P, wiki, whatever, community management, you actually dig into now, to create the impulse to maintain and evolve the meta programming product with reward feed back for doing this? ;)

    Well it's a lot of digression...
    But like a company said once: Challenge everything

    Take care,


  4. Danc,

    I'm sure this is nothing new to you, but I do find it interesting that you have to start with some content to draw in the first tier of users. You have to have a seed for all that social networking. Places DeviantArt, for instance, seems to have done this by providing a service that people want: a free place to host images.

    This would suggest that you're at least somewhat limited in the sorts of games of this type that you can create. Though I suppose you could also try seeding the community with content upfront (perhaps like the Wiki game you suggested a while back).

    I don't know where I'm going with this, I guess I'm looking for your thoughts on seeding for initial content.


  5. Thomas,

    You are spot on. You almost always need to seed any community. For example with Judy's Book, the founders are frequent posters and likely started the site off with initial content. The same goes with The Second Life folks started the game with a small bit of content that helped seed and set norms for the rest of the community. With community based games, it is often as much about 'demonstrating through actions' how to contribute to the content pool as it is about providing initial content for players. :-)

    As with most complex system, it is rarely a matter of doing 100% of one strategy and 0% of another. Currently, many online titles are heavily focused on providing new content instead of focusing on systems that encourage users to provide new content. It's a question of balance and the amount of profit margin you need to succeed.

    Goodness knows that there are many types of experiances that work great with author created content. For every, its is nice to have a But the's of the world represent an opportunity for game designers that is perhaps not being as deeply tapped as it might be.

    take care

    PS: NeoShaman: Creating games without programming is a dream. But creating logical systems will always be an act of programming, even if you call it by a different name. The need for logic, variables, methods and data structures doesn't go away. The best we can do is create domain specific programming tools that improve upon some common problems areas that plague the less anal retentive amoung us. Many current programming environments have the following issues:
    - Purely text-based interfaces
    - Steep learning curves
    - Requires debugging through failure.
    - Libraries and APIs exhibit poor discoverability.

    Of course, you could just hook up with a programmer and form a team. :-)

  6. "This would be the rough equivalent of releasing World of Warcraft with a login system and some tools for creating levels and saying ‘Go at it.’"

    I seriously don't understand why this hasn't happened. That's what made the MUD era so fantastic, and yet none of the MMORPGs (Second Life not withstanding) do anything like this. My suspicion - which I confess has been influenced in part by reading your blog - is that no-one has been able to make design tools simple and fun enough for the public at large to be able to use.

    "From this perspective, game design is... the practical application of psychology to intrigue, capture, train and motivate users of a complex system or service."

    Oh how I agree. Which is probably why I'm finding the very term 'game design' to be slightly limiting now. But then, 'game theory' has nothing to do with games, so why shouldn't 'game design' have everything to do with non-game systems! :)

    Best wishes, as ever,


  7. Chris, sure, A level design tool takes time to make available to the public, but I suspect the reason you don't see it is that there aren't that many out there right now and so why put out a tool that would dillute the market? You would lose your monopoly and how would you collect fees? Not to mention you have no control over the content's quality or level of appropriateness, opening the mother company up to unforeseen liabilities. All this makes big companies squeamish.

    Eventually such things will be feasible, but imo it's just too risky for a nicely polished game like WOW.


    PS> For publishers and authors, a similar idea like threadless would be (only they require authors who self publish to pay a huge downpayment... would be nice if they didn't do that.) which allows customers to buy books in "ebook" form or buy a hardcopy as the customer desires it. I don't know if they allow reviews yet, but xlibris has been around for a long while.

  8. Danc,

    Are you familiar with It's a very close fit to what you describe.

    Although the purpose of the site is rather obscure to newcomers (and disputed by many long-time users), everything2 is essentially a collaborative writing project. It uses a simple, very MUD-like experience system to reward dedicated users (in its earliest incarnation, this was based on the quantity of articles submitted to the site, but successive revisions of the rules have swung the balance firmly toward the appraisal of quality).

    It's also incredibly simple to create links from one piece of writing to others, which are enforced in classic neural net fashion when users follow them. It's subtly unlike wikipedia - there is no pretense of trying to create an encyclopedia (writing topics are far less rigidly proscribed, although there are standards), and users have ownership of their articles, generally relying on a private messaging system to make suggestions to other users rather than being able to edit them directly.

    Like deviantart, it's a place to dump knowledge (or creativity) and, through the community process, grind a real-world skill (in this case writing).

    For a starting point, the video games content on E2 is stranger and more varied that you might expect to find on wikipedia or mobygames. The fact that so many writers without a 'hardcore' or conventional interest in games throw in their thoughts is refreshing.


  9. Hey Danc,

    Check out...

    I've started uploading a few of my sketchies...

    So how do you set the "Featured Deviation"? I'd love to set the first guy I uploaded to be that particular print, but I don't know how to do it... Is there a trick to this interface I haven't found?

    Best regards,


  10. All hail E2 indeed. A very interesting project and a good alternate path for knowledge aquisition than Wikipedia (though the latter is where I spend more time).

    I like to think that eventually games development won't have to entail teaming up with a coder ... you can guess which side of the arts / algorithm divide I fall on! It just appears to me that logic routines (all the way up to vastly parallel and complex neural type structures such as the real world) and content could be composed in a primarily graphical way, once we've learned how to do it. Call me vague and mystical, as I surely am, but the notion that games a hundred years from now will still be crafted in text and cryptic debugging just seems ... depressing! I'm sure they won't be. Don't ask me the precise form, because I'll go all sci-fi, but it won't be peering at mono-spaced fonts. Hopefully not even 10, 20 years from now.

    Meta-programming in a visual way is where I think we're headed. With collaborative projects amd community economics at the heart of it.

    /dream mode

  11. You may be interested in a talk that Jason Scott did about wikipedia where he mentions how there are people who 'play wikipedia' and are working to bring it down just to see if they can.

    ( )