3 Words I Hate

Last year I wrote about one of the most insidious phrases in business (which, ironically, became a talking point in US politics last month), and there are three other words that exasperate me when used by gaming companies. These words — gamification, whales and directional — often drive the wrong actions, ideas or initiatives.

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Gamification

Trying to gamify a game is the height of absurdity, or at a minimum shows you have not done your job well. A game, by definition, is a game, so why would you want to add gamification. If done properly, the product already will entertain customers. A successful product will have a strong core game loop, that will drive your players enjoyment, and thus retention and engagement. The core loop is a chain of actions that the player does over and over again.

Gamification becomes a problem as it is often used as a solution for a poorly designed game. Rather than creating a strong core loop that retains players, companies try to use tricks (gamification) to overcome the shortcomings of the product. Gamification is often a euphemism for adding features that bandage over underlying problems with the product.

This problem also holds for casino and social casino games. Slots, poker, bingo, etc., represent great core game loops that have been entertaining people for hundreds of years. You do not gamify a slot machine, its core game loop is already compelling. Poker is a fantastic game that people will spend a lifetime playing. These are already great games and cannot be gamified.

If you are trying to make necessary actions outside your core game loop (registration, purchases, CS, etc.) better for the customer, you are not actually making them into a game (gamifying) but looking at principles of consumer behavior and behavioral economics to make users more likely to complete the tasks. You are not going to create a registration process that is more fun than Clash of Clans or more entertaining than the most recent Disney movie, and that should not be your target. Instead, focus on making the task effortless, so the player returns to your (entertaining) game.

The argument against gamification is not a criticism of building strong meta-features that enhance the core game loop. Adding a progression system or social features build on the core game loop but you are not gamifying your game, you are putting it in a superior package.

Whales

While gamification is misleading and often used as an excuse, the word whales is insulting and creates the wrong approach to your best players. Many companies, particularly in the iGaming and social casino world, use the phrase whales to describe their most valuable players. If you just look at my last sentence, you should see what is wrong with that approach. These companies are using a derogatory and insulting phrase to talk about the customers who in many (if not most) social games drive the majority or revenue. Rather than a condescending phrase, we should treat these players with the respect they have earned. For those who would argue whales is not derogatory, describe your partner that way to them and see how well it goes.

The damage in using the phrase whales is more than semantics, as it creates the wrong approach to your best customers. When you look at a group of customers as big, fat animals (no offense to actual whales, who are beautiful creatures), you are likely to treat them in a condescending or exploitative manner. Having started and built two successful VIP programs, I have seen that on a tactical level, this is a bad strategy because your highly valued customers are then are put into conflict with the company. The VIPs are trying to optimize their experience; you are trying to get as much wallet share as possible. Long term, the VIPs are more likely to go to another game where they feel respected (just as you would leave McDonalds if you get a condescending sales person and go to Panera). If you want VIPs to stay, call them VIPs and treat them that way.

Directional

While not as insidious as whales, another dangerous word is directional. This phrase is often used during or after an AB test, when the results are not statistically significant. Even without significance, you accept the winning variant as a preferred solution.

The problem with looking at directional results is that there is a lot of noise, and you are likely basing your decision on luck, not on numbers. Statistical noise is the random irregularity we find in any real life data. They have no pattern. One minute your readings might be too small. The next they might be too large. These errors are usually unavoidable and unpredictable.

Using directional results is no better than making decisions without numbers, and can lead to the same consequences. If the consequences are minor, or you know you will pursue a certain strategy regardless, then the AB test is a waste of resources and you should not have deployed it (which is fine, not everything needs to be tested).

Using directional data, additionally, creates the illusion of a data-driven decision and is subject to confirmation bias, as people use directional data to support decisions they have already made. I have never heard the phrase directional used when the result is not what the product manager or GM was hoping for. In those cases, the results would be considered inconclusive. People use directional to justify a course of action where there is no real data.

Key takeaways

  • Game companies should avoid the phrase gamification, as their product is already a game and should be entertaining.
  • Whales is an insidious phrase as it describes your best customers in a derogatory way, potentially leading to treating them in a way that destroys long-term value.
  • It is misleading to use data that is directional, without statistical significance as relying on this data is like not using data at all.