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[The goal of the Learning from Games series of posts is to look at examples in game design from recent videogames that shed light on gamification principles in action.]

In this age of microtransactions and subscriptions it’s clear that many of us are willing to pay for digital products that comprise nothing more tangible than invisible bytes in a data stream. In the case of video subscriptions and downloads – the Netflix and Amazons of the world – we receive a digital product that we can enjoy for a period of time. Likewise for games, but some people are surprised by just how much people are willing to pay for ingame items and why they are drawn to do so.

Among the reasons for this is the desire for significance, or, in Maslow’s hierarchy, esteem.

“Status, achievements, ranks and reputation are some of the most commonly used game mechanics, but they are really nothing more than “esteem in disguise”.”
Science of Social blog

Today I’d like to take a look at a game that is incomplete but has so far raised over 83 million dollars in funding from people buying virtual products they can’t even use yet.

Star Citizen is a game under development by veteran game designer Chris Roberts.

Chris is most famous for the Wing Commander series of games in the 90s (the third chapter of which famously starred Mark Hamill as Colonel Blair) as well as the movie that was developed from the property. Star Citizen is his newest passion project and is right in his comfort zone – like Wing Commander its primary focus so far is on space flight in the future.

As an early backer, customers can purchase a starter package which will give them various items and most importantly a spaceship of their choosing. They can also purchase a spaceship on its own. From day one, people purchased starter packs and went on to purchase standalone ships to build up their collection. Prices for packs and ships range from $30 USD to $15,000 USD (not a typo…).

The kicker here is that they can’t even fly these ships yet. There is no game to experience yet; no universe to fly around in.

What they CAN do is walk around in the hangar where their ships are housed and… look at them.

Actually, they can do a little bit more now than they could at launch – there’s a module to fly around in; a “practice space” of sorts, to allow them to get used to the flight mechanics of the game as it develops. But from day one, the hangar was all they had. And still people purchased the ships in droves.

Here’s a video showing a typical user reaction. He explains the appeal to users from his own perspective before taking you into the hangar proper to have a look at his proud purchases.

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What can we learn from this?

The simple lesson is that people can and do attach significance and importance to things that don’t exist in the real world. Our desire for esteem can be satisfied to some degree by the ownership of virtual items that we can proudly display to others.

What this means for gamification is that you can create virtual objects to interact with your digital engine that have their own inherent value of worth to the player. They don’t necessarily have to be expensive assets like the spacecraft in Star Citizen – they might even be something as simple as a digital representation of a collectible playing card. We’re experimenting with that very thing in our flagship product here at PlusPlay. We are creating a digital card system of sorts that will have value to the user as a representation of their real world experiences.

In developing a gamification solution I would suggest that it might be of great benefit to consider whether the interactive virtual “things” in your system might be adapted in some way – whether aesthetically, technically or game-mechanics-wise – to increase their perceived value to the users.

If users see value in the virtual assets of a system, that value translates to engagement and returned value to you. Your system may not raise 83 million dollars for you but the engagement will go a long way to achieving your ultimate goals!


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