Bots, MODs & Multiplayer Co-op: why Slack is game-like — NOT gamified


Slack is hot — and everyone is trying to figure out why. Lots of companies make online collaboration tools — many with similar features. Why did Slack take off — and become the go-to collaboration tool, communication platform and startup darling?

There’s no simple answer — or silver bullet for reproducing Slack’s results. Many factors converged to support Slack’s success — including a visionary & experienced founder, years of game development and iteration, and a talented team who could pivot after failure and leverage partners to deliver a small, wonderful and extensible experience they could execute at scale.

Slack lacks the outer trappings of a game

Slack doesn’t have the outer trappings of a game — what many people call gamification. There are no points, badges, leaderboards, or energy bars in the interface. If there was — do you think Slack would be the runaway success it is today?

From creative MMO to innovative sharing tool

Slack arose from the ashes of Glitch — an massively multiplayer online game (MMO) based around player creativity. Glitch found a small, passionate audience — but didn’t monetize well enough to be financially sustainable.

This happened before — Stewart Butterfield’s innovative photo-sharing startup Flickr (sold to Y! in 2005) started life as Game Neverending, a ambitious & innovative MMO that never took off. As with Flickr, the core team stripped down what worked best internally, and turned that into a compelling collaboration tool — reborn as Slack.

… yet Slack came from a game

Slack doesn’t have the outer trappings of a game — and yet Slack CAME from a game. Clearly, the Slack developers could have included visible mechanics if they wanted to. But they didn’t.

A conversational environment, built around bots

Instead, the developers molded Slack into a conversational environment built around friendly, helpful BOTS. Your first bot encounter happens up-front, during onboarding — an approach born from onboarding in games.

An extensible environment, built to enable creativity

As you become familiar with Slack and build your skills, you can go deeper and start customizing your bot dialogs — and even build your own bots.

The Slack team also made the platform modifiable and extensible — they opened their APIs so other developers could extend or “MOD” their service. They also added hooks for everyday Slack users to customize their identity and emotions.

Along with the playful colors, casual tone, and other myriad design decisions, BOTs, MODs and customization options give Slack a game-like feel — and create an experience that people want to share, extend, and make their own.

Wanna dig deeper into Slack’s secret sauce for designing sustained engagement? Click the link below to signup for our free training Thu 1/26

Game Thinking Teardown: 3 killer design lessons from Slack

Design over Time: Onboarding, Habits & Mastery

What makes Slack game-like isn’t just each individual element — it’s the way they work together to deliver a coherent, evolving experience over time.

First you learn the ropes (onboarding), then you develop your new skills (habit-building) and unlock new powers & challenges (mastery).

It turns out that the essence of a game isn’t the outer trappings — it’s the journey towards mastery. Let’s take a look at how Slack does it.

Social Discovery via friends & colleagues

Before onboarding, there’s discovery — how you first hear about a new product. One of the key differentiators of Slack is that individuals and teams — not IT departments — adopt and spread the tool. Newbies get pulled in because their friends and teammates are using it. This type of social discovery is typical of games — but not so common in enterprise environments.

Onboarding with a friendly bot

When you first join Slack, you learn the ropes by having a call-and-response conversation with @Slackbot — a friendly, helpful bot with a breezy conversational style. @Slackbot helps you try out basic commands and practice your newfound skills in a private space where you can practice and make mistakes with a helpful bot before heading into public — a common approach in multiplayer games like WOW and UO.

Contrast this type of interactive, learn-as-you-go onboarding with the infamous LinkedIn progress bar. Both can be effective — but a dialogue is built to optimize learning, practice and skill-building, while a progress bar is built to optimize task completion.

Habit-Building: Multiplayer Co-op & UGC

In gaming, UGC is a handy shortcut for ‘user-generated content.’ While some games move you through an authored experience, a rising trend in multi-player games is to incorporate content created by the players themselves. This content might be created within the gameworld, as customized skins, emoticons or levels — or outside of the gameworld, via MODs that extend the activities in new ways.

Social media has changed the entertainment landscape. People enjoy being entertained by content created by friends and non-professionals. Look at these recent stats on the top-10 apps by all-time worldwide downloads. It’s dominated by social media apps delivering networked UGC.

At the leading edge of this trend in gaming is Minecraft — a worldwide hit that leverages player creativity. In Minecraft, you can build solo, or collaboratively with your friends — and share your creations to provide entertainment for others. Once you’ve learned the ropes, you can take it further by customizing your character, building MODs, or running a private server.

Customized group chat with avatars & bots

Slack has a similarly modern approach to UGC and collaboration. The “core loop” of Slack is internal back-and-forth communication: you and your teammates create & share content for each other — in groups and 1:1. You learn the basics from @Slackbot — and then you start to use and customize the service.

These customizations to your identity and expressiveness give Slack a game-like feel — and open up all kinds of playful activities. Not coincidentally, those playful activities can translate to better, more productive work rituals.

Mastery: Hosting, Customizing & MODs

Like Minecraft, Slack is fun in plain vanilla mode — but when you start digging into the customization and extensions, the fun really begins.

Experts can lead a team, customize their channel, write MODs, integrate tools, and create custom bot scripts. This “ramped learning” is common in games — but less so in enterprise tools.

Slack opted to enable openness through MODS (aka open APIs) & customization options that enable self-expression— a sensibility that evolved from Glitch.

Like Minecraft, this openness keeps Slack continually evolving and fresh. Just recently they enhanced their customized emoji offerings — and new services are integrating with Slack every day.

Slack is the product of game thinking

Slack is the product of game thinking — not gamification. Slack delivers the bot-based interactive rhythms, multiplayer co-op feel, and MOD-ready sensibility of a game — without any superficial visual clutter or manipulative, scarcity-based Skinner Box.

And that turns out to be far more powerful than scattering points, badges and levels into someone’s path.’

Wanna dig deeper into Slack’s secret sauce for designing sustained engagement? Click the link below to signup for our free training Thu 1/26

Game Thinking Teardown: 3 killer design lessons from Slack