It’s natural for video game designers to think of their competition as other video games.  But video games, especially among people who are not aficionados, have to increasingly vie for attention against an ever-growing array of alternative, immediate, on-demand entertainment options.  Thanks to Hulu and others, television can be watched any time, not just when a program is scheduled, including at work, during a commute, waiting for an appointment and so on.  Netflix and others are making movies a source of instant gratification; no theatre necessary, no rental.  Music, music videos and on-line radio stations have proliferated. There are friends’ facebook posts to skim through, links to click (always another funny cat video to watch), blogs to follow, increasingly diverse and sophisticated media to keep up on, and new windows onto corners of the world once reserved for those stodgy, yellow monthly National Geographics.  And of course YouTube, a phenomenal time sink if ever there was one. We as a population are immersed and overloaded with choices for our free time.  Social networking sites, digital download and smart, affordable and fast mobile devices create a potentially vast market beyond the traditional console/PC gamer crowd, but how do you get people with little interest in games to play your game instead of watching cat videos, reading friends’ posts, scanning the New York Times or looking for a sexy date?  You reduce all barriers to sampling the game, maximize reinforcement and incentive and induce habitual play behavior, creating incremental investment.  This, I believe, is how Zynga achieved millions upon millions of monthly active users, many of whom fall well outside the traditional game market.  Below I narrate my experience during the first 15 minutes of playing CityVille.  In subsequent posts I will elaborate some principles of engagement this narrative illustrates.

When I first opened up the CityVille game, there is no demand placed on me whatsoever.  I do not have to read anything that explains the rules or the objectives, I do not have to understand anything that is on the screen and I don’t have to make any choices.  Zero demand.

In fact, they initially play the game for me. “Click here and build a house” which takes me to the buildings popup.  “Click here to select house.”  After that, “put house here.”  After I do this, the frame of the house appears with a message, click here to build.  I do this twice and whaddya know, there’s a house.  A bunch of xp and cash is awarded with a message ‘click here to collect.’

This strategy is brilliant. I don’t have to give a crap about the game at all.  I can be drinking coffee, listening to voicemail, chomping on a donut and with no mental effort just click here and there.  This demand-free process, however, manages to:

a) teach me the simple mechanics of the game

b) provide instant gratification in multiple forms:

i) I see the house my clicking brought into being

ii) I get xp and coin, instant reward, which cleverly I have to click to collect (ie., to make sure I process the reward without requiring that I pay attention to the meters, as I may not be sufficiently invested in the game to be bothered with that)

iii) by clicking/collecting coins/xp points, I am taught what the meters mean using positive reinforcement

iv) as I have clicked here and there, I notice other things I ignore but may go back and investigate (eg., I selected a country house but I noticed when I did so there were other choices, lots of them).  This action generates curiosity for me to go back and figure out what that menu is all about (as opposed to requiring me to figure out the menu before engaging the game).

v) within two minutes, I have achieved level 2 without any investment of effort, without any decisions.  Yay! Easy reward.

The net result is I have been positively reinforced, given rudimentary training on the game, have the beginnings of a city (an investment, trivial maybe, but just enough to keep me there another few minutes) and, most importantly, curiosity. This game is easy, painless and just might be fun.

So what do I do next?  With this easy reward and the beginning of a town, I look around before logging off.  Intrigued by what I can click, I explore the screen.  Again, it’s effortless. No demands, nothing I have to figure out; I’m just curious.  What do I find?

(1) there’s some crops. Click, another freebie (and click to collect more coins/xp). Crop choices pop up.  Again, that was easy and rewarded and I learned about the crop menu. Seems I have two choices. Maybe I’ll just pick strawberries. Why not? Plant.  Have to wait. Okay, I see.

(2) so I poke around more, avoiding the real work on my desk. Click on tree. “Chop down?” Hm. Don’t know about that.

(3) click on vacant lot (invite friend with a business). Hm. Not right now. But I’m now introduced to the social networking, something planted in my mind I might return to later.

(4) I have to get back to real work (ie., quit game and do my job), but before I go, is this it? I explore some of the menu options, hit build again. Oh, wait.  Houses are only 400 and I have 6000 coin.  I’m rich! Let’s build another. Or two.  What the hell, I don’t care about this game, I’ll just use all my coin to build a bunch of houses and call it a day. Why don’t I put up some of those 600 coin jobbers. All through this process, I am repeating the same basic movements, being reinforced. It almost seems as if for every coin I spend I get another back. Seems too good to be true. Easy game, free money.  Kinda like my job at the moment.

(5) Roadblock.  What do you mean I’ve reached my population limit and can’t grow without community buildings? Well, what the hell, I’ve got 5000 coin, I’ll just build me a community building.  Where are those things.  Probably in the buildings. Hm. Oh yeah, up on top, different choices. Let’s get a community building.  Maybe I’ll build a drug rehab or something. Hm. Not a choice. In fact, I can’t build any of these! I have to be at a higher level.  Level? Level. Hm, there it is. Well, I’m already at 2. If I get to level three apparently I can build this. How hard can that be? So far this game has been handed to me on a platter.

(6) Fine. If I can’t build more houses or community buildings, what else can I build before I quit and get back to work? Businesses. Ok. So I build a coffeeshop. That was easy. Hm. What else. Ok, a bakery.  Am I at level 3 yet? I’d kinda like to put in a postoffice and be done with this. (curiously, despite not really giving a crap about the game, I am now paying attention to the levels, they have become meaningful to me in the course of my ‘not caring.’).

(7) While I’m erecting my third business my mouse crosses the bakery, which says ‘need to deliver goods.’ Huh? What’s this? Naturally, having been well trained by now, I simply click.  Suddenly shit flies down from my ‘goods’ meter and goes into the bakery.  “Oh! That’s what that goods business is all about. And I see, I have to stock my stores. Okay, fine.” So I click on the others and see my goods meter go down, sufficiently caring enough to ask casually in the back of my mind “I wonder how I restock that meter?”

(8) I’m getting close to level three and that frickin’ post office. I discover through an accidental mouse pass by that I can collect rent. Well, that’s fun! So I collect the rent. What about the other houses. Message: rent due in [fill in the blank] time. Oh, I see, I have to wait. Check back at businesses. Oh, it tells me how many customers. Hm. Ok.

From here, whether I continue to play until I deplete my coin or just I log off and return to work, I look at the screen and see a picture of a nascent town.  Whether I had any initial interest in the game or not, I have now created this town and invested some energy into it.  But not because I started out willing to invest. . . I was tricked into investing one little bit at a time with a simple strategy of building player investment rather than demanding it up front.  I was tricked (damn!) into caring about the game one sneaky little incremental bit at a time, like this:

1. Make it easy, make no demands (don’t ask me to figure out the game or, well, give a crap)

2. Provide frequent and varied reward– not just coin and xp points, but more importantly the reward that arises from discovery, the reward of novelty, the unfamiliar and unexpected: seeing things form, learning (even despite not caring), discovering the game and building knowledge and, even if rudimentary, skills

3. Provoke curiosity

4. Let the game unfold through exploration, including the mechanics

In this way, CityVille can take someone with nearly no interest in the game and within 15 minutes cultivate a significantly increased probability they will log on again ‘just to see what happened.’  And at that time, they will again be easily reinforced, drawn more into the game, and so it goes . . . redeploying this strategy again and again, Zynga has achieved 217.5 million monthly active users (12/5/2011), three times its next closest competitor.

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