Having a game mechanic integrated into your product is effectively a launch requirement at this point. And it makes complete sense, too - build your product so that it harnesses people's natural competitive drive and their desire for praise and free stuff and they'll use your product more.

That said, developing a good game mechanic and weaving in all the rewards and badges and leader boards is a ton of work. The natural result is that we're seeing all sorts of pretty mediocre game mechanics starting to permeate our apps.

Guest author Ethan Stillman is working the startup hustle in New York City. He is currently developing projects around innovation and investment infrastructure as well as consulting other startups on operations and system architecture. Before working startups in New York City, Ethan worked them in Boston. Ethan's ultimate goals involve helping cyborgs and robots live happily in symbiotic balance. You can follow Ethan on Twitter or email him at ehs.stillman@gmail.com.

This is a bad thing. The unfortunate corollary to "all apps need a game mechanic" is that "a bad game mechanic is worse than no game mechanic at all."

Bad game mechanics are worse than no game mechanic because of that one jarring moment when your user realizes just how crappy the game mechanic is. And it's at that moment when you have absolutely no control over where their mind wanders off to. They are flying free and you're just a spec on the radar.

Thankfully it looks like some people are starting to realize the importance of cleaning up this emerging mess and are offering top-quality, accessible, SimpleGeo-style "game mechanic in a box" services.

The oddly named Big Door Media seems to be the first out of the gate. And Badgeville is taking on the badges-as-a-service component. There are a lot of moving pieces involved in the broader incentive system backend ecosystem. I fully expect this to be a massively contested and lucrative space.

I haven't really dug into Big Door yet, but I signed up for the beta and I'm really hoping it works something like this:

  • App developer tags point allocations for various activities in their app and then sets rules for winning various forms of competitions on the external game mechanic service.
  • Game mechanic service builds partnerships with product makers/advertisers to populate the system with prizes and rewards. The app developer can also contribute prizes and rewards, for instance using Facebook credits as part of acquisition and retention efforts.

To put it another way: You mark up your code a bit and set when points are given, how many are given and maybe tweak some parameters in the form of the competition, and then everything else gets handled by the Big Doors of the world (although, for instance, Badgeville may be your badge customization provider). The craziest part though is that they're going to be forced to start paying you to accept their services pretty soon, too.

Once your data is in the system, all the advertisers that Big Door et al. round up are going to have a field day pouring over it and offering your users whatever kind of crazy promotions they can think of - even across different apps:

"Win the Monkey Skateboard Half Pipe Battle this week against your top friends by snagging the most bananas in "Monkey Dash" and scoring the best single half pipe run in "Tony Hawk 7 Live" and get a killer new skate deck! Brought to you by the fine people at Element Skateboards and Pepsi Cola. Why? Because you're just that awesome."

("Also, our models indicate that you'll tell 6.413 friends outside of your immediate social network about Element and have a 3.972% enhancement of your perception of the Pepsi Cola brand for the next four months.")

This is going to get nutty, and awesome, very quickly.

But like all other Web-commerce innovations, there is little doubt that this one gets settled in the not-too-distant future by Facebook, Google, Apple, probably Microsoft, maybe even DST and anyone else who has any amount of real money, feasting on whoever survives the inevitable clone proliferation - and just as inevitable clone consolidation and aggregation. Hooray for innovative marketplaces.

Photo by farnea.