By 2015, 40 percent of Global 1000 organisations will use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations, according to Gartner. But before then, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail – primarily due to poor design.

While these two predictions may seem contradictory, Gartner analyst Brian Burke insists that gamification has the power to revolutionise the way business is conducted.

This is because the same mechanisms that motivate people to play games like World of Warcraft and Championship Manager – such as challenges, rules, leaderboards, rewards and levels – can also drive changes in behaviour, development of skills, and innovation within an organisation.

However, a gamified application will only succeed if the business objectives are clearly defined at the start. Too often, organisations are so keen to jump on the bandwagon that they end up motivating the wrong group of people to behave in ways that do not meet the business objectives.

Winner takes all?

When most people imagine a game, they immediately think of something like Poker, which is a competitive game with extrinsic rewards, (in this case a pot of money). While this kind of game can be very motivating for people who are good at the game, it can alienate those who are less skilled.

One of the best known examples of a gamified application that follows this model is a sales department that offers a bonus to the employee that makes the most sales that quarter. The top salesmen in the company will compete for the prize, but those that are less confident will not even try to compete, because they know they will lose.

Burke argues that it would be better to create a gamified application that motivates the less competitive salesmen to achieve their full potential, rather than just focusing on motivating the top performers. This might be a more collaborative game with intrinsic rewards, such as peer recognition and self-esteem.

Collaborative games are often better suited to business environments, according to Burke, where the aim is to maximise the outcome rather than maximising individual performance.

Another common mistake is engaging the wrong audience, or only part of the target audience. For example, if the reward is a pair of football tickets, then only employees who are interested in football will participate.

Organisations therefore need to identify the kind of game, and the type of rewards that will entice their target audience to play, and work this into the application's design from the start.

“The game design parameters have to be where your business objectives and your player objectives overlap,” said Burke.

Everything to play for

While most gamified applications are scripted – in other words, the player knows what they are trying to achieve, and follows a path to achieve that goal and gain a reward – some gamified applications are 'emergent', meaning that the player does not know the outcome.

Emergent games are particularly useful when the business objective is innovation. For example, Quirky.com is an open innovation gamified application around product design. Players can submit their ideas for a product, vote up other players' ideas, and offer suggestions for how they can be improved.

Product ideas that reach the top of a leaderboard are then put into production, and everybody in the community that contributed to those ideas gets some share of the revenues when the product is finally launched and sold.

“In that kind of environment we don't really know the endpoint – we don't know what products are going to be developed. It's an open innovation platform. But there are rules and tools for playing it,” said Burke.

Gamified applications also tend to be more effective if they are opt-in rather than obligatory. Burke explains that if everyone in the company is forced to participate, and the game is not enabling players to achieve their goals, then they will become cynical and turn off.

In some cases this can be difficult to avoid. For example, if the aim of the game is to train a group of employees, then all of the employees in that group will have participate. The challenge in this case will be to engage as large a percentage of the target audience as possible and make the learning activity enjoyable.

Allowing employees to opt-in can be particularly successful if it gives them an opportunity for recognition. For example, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in the UK has a gamified application that allows employees to submit and develop ideas for innovations within the organisation.

Like Quirky.com, players can vote up different ideas, and those with the most votes appear on a leaderboard. There is also a collaborative environment where people can work together on ideas. The best ideas are passed on to a 'lean practitioner', who helps to develop them in a more structured way.

“What's even more rewarding than simplifying a work process is that people feel they have some control over their work environment,” said Burke.

“A lot of frustration on the part of employees is they feel they're just a cog in the wheel and they have no control. This helps people to feel they have some control over the work environment and can influence things for the better.”

Race to the finish

Companies looking to explore gamification can go down one of three routes. There are already a few vendors providing ready-made gamified applications that are specifically targeted towards a particular application – such as motivating people in call centre environments or providing training.

There is also a small number of vendors, such as Bunchball, Badgeville and BigDoor, that provide generalised Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) gamification platforms.

These companies provide APIs that organisations can use to create challenges that reward people with points, and enable them to exchange those points for real rewards. The entire application is managed within the vendor's environment.

“While their software is useful, they also have experience with developing gamified applications, which I think for a lot of organisations is more useful even than the software,” said Burke.

The third option is to develop the application in-house. Many of the Global 1000 companies have very competent IT departments, so developing the applications is not a problem. In these cases, the challenges are around game design.

Burke said that some of the big enterprise software vendors, such as Salesforce.com, have now developed a handful of gamified applications, but other legacy companies like Oracle and SAP are at risk of falling behind.

“I am convinced that Salesforce will continue, and SAP and Oracle and others in the enterprise software business will begin to incorporate this into their core applications, but right now I don't know of any specific applications that they have released,” he said.

If gamification is going to be as big as Gartner predicts, and become the primary mechanism to transform business operations by 2015, then organisations and vendors around the world need to start planning their strategies today.