Your brand is a game — make me want to play it

Let’s apply game design philosophy to understand what brands must do to engage and keep the audience coming back.

What keeps us coming back to games? Why do they engage us? I love playing games, but I love thinking about the design behind games even more. The philosophical questions above have always been super-relevant for game designers, but our changing world has brought game design principles and insights into other fields as well, such as service design.

I was reading a book on game design the other day, the thorough yet quite accessible Characteristics of Games (Elias, Garfield, Gutschera; 2012), when a couple of the terms they were throwing around — “engage the player”, “incite replayability” — ignited something.

Engagement? Well, that is the holy grail in marketing and branding these days. Replayability? That’s easy to equate to “retention”, another worn out word in the marketing department.

Might it be that the fields of branding and game design are quite similar in many respects? What happens if I start connecting game design not only to service design, but to brand design as well?

I started digging into this topic, and the more I dug the more convinced I became: there are definitely reasons for marketing departments and agencies to look even further into how games do what they do so well. I have gathered some of the questions posed in game design which I also think provide really interesting results if you apply them to branding. I guarantee that new perspectives will be unlocked if you bring these design challenges into your next branding session. I’ll cover using game design in order to make your brand:

  • easier to understand
  • more satisfying to stay in touch with
  • more inspiring to engage with
  • more rewarding to interact with

Why even use game design to analyse a brand?

I view a brand as a tool to build and uphold a relationship. A business needs a brand to communicate what it does, what its values are, what its personality is like. The brand makes the business (in reality its service or product) more relatable for human beings.

Turns out, relationships and games aspire to many common goals.

A game wants to engage you. A relationship should be engaging as well.

A game wants to reward you. A relationship should also be rewarding.

A game wants to be meaningful to you in some way. A relationship must also feel meaningful for us to uphold it.

But wait — a game ends, whereas a relationship preferably should be upheld for as longs as possible. How then can game design and branding be equated?

Well, first off, I’m merely drawing inspiration here; they are not to be thought of as exactly the same thing. Secondly, while a single game session does end, the game in its entirety wants to keep you coming back. You can never ‘solve’ chess, football, World of Warcraft, Risk or poker.

So yes, I really believe that in order to design a brand which builds a great relationship to an audience, game design is a great source of inspiration, and here’s what we can learn from it.

1. A game has beginner heuristics — does your brand?

A heuristic is a sort of rule of thumb of how to think about a certain phenomena. Us humans have heuristics to deal with all kinds of situations. Some we use consciously, some unconsciously.

Let’s say you’ve moved and you’re puzzled by the challenge of furnishing your new bedroom. To succeed, you’ll automatically apply a couple of heuristics related to furnishing, such as “we need to start by deciding where to put the biggest object, which is the bed” or “we can’t place anything within a metre from the wardrobe otherwise it’ll be inaccessible”. Those are rules of thumb, heuristics, that you apply. Without them, furnishing would be a nightmare.

For a game, heuristics are important, particularly beginner heuristics. If I sit down to play a new game, I need to know some basics of how to think about it. Let’s use one of my most-played board games as an example: Agricola, a game about building a productive farm. In Agricola, you can earn food, and without food, you basically can’t do anything else. “I’ll probably want a lot of food”, was my first thought when I had just learned the game. So the heuristic becomes “acquire food”. That’s a simple beginner heuristic which I can apply during my first turns.

An Agricola farm, a high-scoring one at that. Photo: Simon (Boardgamegeek).

If I’m completely new to your brand, how should I think about it? After seeing a logo, a landing page and reading two lines of copy, how can I categorize it and sort it in my head? What am I supposed to do with it? In short: What is your equivalent of the easily understandable “acquire food”?

Is it a service about increasing my productivity?
Is it a shoe for hiking?
Is it a magazine about equality at work?

A brand without a simple beginner heuristic risks coming off as complicated. If you want me to keep playing your brand, give me beginner heuristics. Dare to be basic. Because the other stuff, comes … well, after the first stuff!

2. A game has a heuristic tree — does your brand?

A great beginner heuristic — acquire food! — hooks me and gets me playing the first round, the first hour. After that, I need the feeling that there is a heuristic tree to climb.

This is fundamental to games and to keep players coming back. In Agricola, you play a couple of turns trying to get that precious food. But soon, as you get settled with the game, you’ll start discovering that you can think in completely different ways. What if you build the well, which gives you more food over time instead of a little food immediately? What else can you invest in that will give you food over time?

Keep me engaged by teaching me new stuff. Peel off your experience layer by layer and show new depths of your service or product.

Here the player is starting to apply next level heuristics. The ones that aren’t apparent at first glance. And, honestly, not the ones that a beginner should apply. It’s too complex; it’s better if beginners simply go for food.

A heuristic tree to climb — which makes for a game that you can keep working towards mastery of — is key to almost any game. If there are no heuristics beyond the beginner ones, it becomes boring.

I believe the same is true for brands. Keep me engaged by teaching me new stuff. Peel off your experience layer by layer and show new depths of your service or product.

Typical use–case for Imaginary Hiking Shoe Brand

Let’s use the hiking shoe example. Unless you just want me to buy the shoe and forget about you, you’ll need to keep me engaged, keep me discovering new stuff. Maybe you’ll teach me how to treat the shoe before each hiking season? Could you start teaching me about hiking routes in my area? Maybe you are actually working with travel agencies to sell trips to beautiful hiking destinations, and when vacation planning times come around you start sending me some sweet content and deals.

In game design, not only do you need beginner heuristics — you should probably actively hide more advanced and expert heuristics. If the game is a racing game, it’s unwise to give beginners more than one or two cars to choose from in the first race. You don’t make new players choose between 17 different cars — it’s just daunting. Again, the same goes for the shoe — don’t send me 17 hiking trip stories the day after purchase. Give me the welcome package, hide the other stuff and feed it to me over time. You risk giving me the feeling that your brand is complicated or at least craving attention. Both are very bad.

3. A game experience is made up of atoms — how about your brand?

In Characteristics of Games, the authors talk about the smallest building blocks of a game experience: an atom. They define it as ‘the smallest complete unit of play’. In the arcade game Donkey Kong, it’s to play a level. After that, you could put the game down and have experienced a complete unit of play. In poker, it’s playing a hand, and actually, that is all the game is — a series of hands, a series of atoms.

The authors pose — and I believe they are correct — that the smaller an atom is, the easier the game will probably be to grasp and to get into. Many board games for example have quite long turns as their atoms. There are a lot of elements to it, many choices to be made within a single atom. That makes the game tougher to grasp, harder to get into.

Applied to brands, this leads us to interesting places. What atoms constitute your brand experience? Can I easily interact with your brand for five minutes, put it down and be satisfied? Or am I required to put more time and effort into interacting with you?

Let’s say you run that magazine about equality at work. I’m a subscriber, so each issue is downloaded straight to my Ipad. Now your goal is to keep me engaged, to keep me coming back to your magazine and give me the feeling that it’s worth the money. You’ll want the smallest atom not to require to much effort. Maybe there’s a summary of each story that I can read, and then put the magazine away if it doesn’t speak to me. I’ve interacted, gotten some value. Or do you provide all stories in different formats — video, audio — in order to make it easier for me to choose to interact?

That’s a beautiful pile of magazines.

We think about our Medium publication this way. My story on conversational interfaces says it’s a 37 minute read (!). Luckily, that’s not the smallest atom. You can read one of our shorter ones and still be in touch with our brand.

What is the smallest complete interaction I can have with your brand? Can you make it smaller by adjusting or adding interactions?

4. A game poses meaningful choices — does your brand?

Sid Meier is the designer behind computer game classic Civilization. He once said he likes to view a game as a “series of interesting decisions”. That line (in many different versions) has made its way several times around the Internet; it seems to have caught on with game designers.

I would argue that brands today often provide choices, but not interesting ones.

That’s because choice is at the heart of games. Choice is what sets games apart from many other forms of culture. You make choices and affect the outcome. You have agency. If you don’t have agency in a game, it’s probably boring. (Or a movie in disguise.)

In this era of participation that the internet has facilitated, an era where we all have agency, most brands have to some degree woken up to the power of user participation. Of giving agency to consumers. Looking at game design simply underscores the need for it, and using Sid Meier’s quote I would like to add to this discussion.

Interesting decisions”, he said. I would argue that brands today often provide choices, but not interesting ones. Okay, so I can choose between blue or red background in your app — in what way is that an interesting decision?

Sometimes that’s because the service design approach is always to simplify and smoothen the user experience. Don’t make the user think, make it as streamlined as possible. That’s usually true for games as well; the object of the game and the interface should be intuitive, for example. But at the right places, games want to make the player think about a decision that is interesting.

Brands need to give more actual agency to the user. Dare to make the experience require a bit more from me and I’ll bet that it will make me more engaged in the end. If you donate 3 dollars towards preserving rainforests for each sale you make, could you maybe give that choice to me? Send me a text a week after purchase and make me choose which charity the money should go toward.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

If you have a cloud service with a GUI that you want to streamline, maybe keep a couple of extra options open so that I can choose my own layout? It may add to your design burden, but then I get to choose. I become involved in the product, I may start to think about the pros and cons of the different layouts which in turn gets me thinking about my way of working.

Simple “please send us feedback”-type stuff isn’t enough here. Having users send in questions via Facebook for your next Q & A, or letting them vote for your next juice flavour, is a cop out in my eyes. It’s interaction and it might be fun in a marketing campaign sort of way, but again — is it interesting, meaningful? Maybe next time for the Q & A-submissions, choose three of your followers who will actually directly decide a couple of questions each. Then their decisions become truly meaningful.

Maybe your product or service as it is today doesn’t offer a whole lot of room for choice, you have that one hiking shoe and that’s it. Well, then you can either add room for choice, or risk becoming an unengaging brand.

Or, you can compensate in the way boring games do: rewards.

5. A game rewards the player — does your brand?

The rewards. A huge part of the gaming experience. If a game is not in some way rewarding, you won’t play it.

Let’s split “reward” into two types:

Intrinsic reward: A non-physical reward which is experienced and felt rather than handed to you. A game is intrinsically rewarding if it is rewarding to interact with. When a friend compliments a game because “it feels so damn good to shoot those aliens!”, that’s an intrinsic reward at work.

External reward: All types of tangible rewards. A game might reward you with fake gold, with trophies for winning, or actual money (as in poker or slots).

The holy grail of any game is to be intrinsically rewarding. I don’t need to win, I don’t need to feel the pull of money or having a beer bought for me. Playing the game is the reward.

Every brand should strive for the same. Experiencing your brand (product or service or both) should be intrinsically rewarding. Think hard about how to achieve that before you start adding external rewards. Research even shows that external rewards start to kill off the intrinsically rewarding feeling (the overjustification effect). Even though I tend to lose 90 % of the Agricola games I participate in, I still love to play it. If we added money to the mix, I wouldn’t like it nearly as much. The money on the table would overshadow the core experience.

Can you make your customer feel like she has won, without adding an external reward?

Let’s use a grocery store as an example. Grocery chains often use discounts and loyalty bonuses as rewards. They draw you back to their stores with sweet talk of what an important VIP customer you are — and the sweet deals come with it. For grocery chains to compete with each other solely via such offerings is a dead end street and they know it. So they bet on experiences. If I simply prefer the experience of shopping at one place over the other, if I downright enjoy it, no competing grocery store will have a chance (unless they tempt me with discounts so sweet they risk getting into financial troubles).

Poker without money as stakes and rewards makes it almost unplayable.

Coming up with ways of giving external rewards (free products, money back etc) isn’t hard. But in what ways, then, could a brand experience be intrinsically rewarding in the way a game can?

Using the product/service itself. Well, yes, let’s mention the obvious: If it’s rewarding simply to walk in your shoe, rub myself in your soap, drink your juice, sit on your chair, then that’s really a positive. But also quite a no-brainer.

Aesthetics. This one is familiar. If your app, newsletter, storefront and what have you all are so pleasing to the eye that I simply can’t stop looking at them, then you’ve got something going for you. Many games have mediocre gameplay but are so pleasing to the eye that they feel rewarding anyway.

Winning. Even without any external reward, it is fun to win. If I win a game of Agricola I get nothing for it except the great feeling of winning. So here’s a challenge for brands: Can you make your customer feel like she has won, without adding an external reward? Help your customer set a goal, help him reach it, and congratulate him when he has “won”. “You shopped all vegetarian last week, that’s awesome!”

Climbing the heuristic tree. This is me learning Agricola. It is immensely satisfying to lose a match, go home, think it over, play again in a couple of weeks and perform better. I learned! I put in the mental effort and improved! We all know this feeling. As previously said, brands should offer a heuristic ladder, show me things I can explore, learn and get better at. Then you’ll pave the way for rewarding feelings among your audience.

Escapism. A game can be so enjoyable, engrossing and interesting that I forget the outside world and become engulfed in the experience. In this stressful day and age, that is truly something. To become engulfed in an experience like that is about focus, it’s about relaxing. Escapism gets a bad rap because of the “escaping” aspect; it tends to be connected to shying away from the duties of the “real world”. Ignore that and create a brand which aims at providing escapism — an experience which so engages the customer that she becomes completely engulfed by your brand, if just for a minute, an hour, a day.

Inside, from danish studio Playdead. It’s a brilliant game. I just wanted to say that.

Make me want to play

What keeps us coming back to games? Why do they engage us?

I posed those questions at the top of this story, and I have lightly touched upon some of the things games do to keep us playing them and how brands can take inspiration. More importantly I hope you feel as I do: marketers and brand designers have a lot to learn — much more than I have covered here — from looking at the game design field.

Please share your thoughts below, do you think the game–as–brand–perspective is useful? Have you thought along these lines earlier? And do think about the core question:

What keeps me coming back to your brand? Why should it engage me?