Games Mechanics in Apps: An Interview with Courtney Christopher of Swarm

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with video games. They were my entree into the design world — I was enamored with the way they could immerse you in an experience, from the graphic- and sound design all the way to the aesthetics of the interface. I vividly remember sitting in front of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker with a notebook, writing detailed breakdowns of how different elements worked together to produce the game’s unique feeling.

As mobile devices have become a ubiquitous part of life, game mechanics have been subtly spreading into non-game apps. Services like Duolingo, Fitbit, and Runkeeper have introduced a competitive aspect into previously mundane activities. Few apps have embraced the influence of games so completely as Foursquare and, more recently, Swarm.

We caught up to Courtney Christopher, lead designer of Swarm, to talk about the influence of video games in apps:

What games had the biggest influence on Swarm? In what ways?

I’ve been playing video games all of my life. In fact, some of my earliest memories are playing Super Mario World on SNES with my dad. When I was given the opportunity to join Foursquare just over 4 years ago, I was super excited to get the opportunity to work on an app that incorporated game mechanics into a social utility. It wasn’t until recently — when Swarm became a stand-alone app, unencumbered by search and discovery use cases — that we’ve really been able to double down on those game elements.

The games that inspired me while designing for Swarm are Mario (of course), Zelda, slot machines, trading card games, and naturally, the original Foursquare game mechanics.

Mario games have influenced our coins and our leaderboard. Zelda often comes up when we talk about the experience of unlocking stickers and earning Mayorships — “Checking in should feel like the moment in Zelda when Link is opening the treasure chest.”

Swarm stickers are collectable, like a set of cards. Internally, we’ve used the analogy of collecting baseball cards, but I think of them more as Magic or Pokémon cards.

What gives a game “sticking power” — what keeps people coming back?

The sense that you’re working towards something, whether it’s leveling up, mastering abilities, earning rewards, or collecting items.

Stickers in Swarm

Stickers in Swarm

I think one of the strongest examples of a game I’ve always kept coming back to is World of Warcraft.

Even when you reach the level cap, you’re still motivated to play the game because you feel like you have progress to make collecting gear and powerups.

For Swarm, we want that to be the set of 100 collectible stickers and the leaderboard you play every week. There’s a lot of surprise and delight baked into the app: the insights we show, how many coins you’re going to earn on any given check-in, if you’ll unlock a sticker, etc. All of these build on and reinforce the basic check-in behavior in a way that keeps it fresh.

Tell us about the process of translating a game mechanic from a game into an app. Does that differ from the usual design process?

We’re a data-driven company. We look closely at metrics, run a lot of experiments, and typically make small changes and measure the impact before going all-in on large features. But this version of Swarm was unique: it was all about bringing the fun back to the app. We felt like we had lost a bit of the magic. We wanted to bring that back. To do that, we knew that we needed to take big, bold steps that might be hard to quantify.

One example was the experience around winning the leaderboard. We wanted an interactive way to celebrate when you won. We also wanted it to be fun, memorable, and honestly… a little weird. Someone on the team suggested tapping to smash open a piñata. Clearly, that’s not something to A/B test. I mocked up an illustration, worked with an engineer to build it, and we thought it was hysterical. Our PM suggested that maybe it takes a few swings to break it — and that each swing have a different expression. So we added that, finessed the animation, and couldn’t stop laughing.

Swarm Leaderboard

By and large, that’s how we’ve approached design. We thought anything that made us laugh would be successful, and that’s how we’ve been vetting most of the mechanics we’ve introduced.

What makes a game mechanic satisfying?

To me, it’s the feedback about the actions you’re taking: visual, audible, tactile.

Swarm Mayorship

I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon for Wii U lately, and it’s so gratifying! Aside from the social elements that come with Splatting with friends, Splatoon has so many satisfying interactions: the sound of your weapons splashing paint, the vibrant paint colors (They always pair nearly-complementary colors, which makes the paint colors look vibrant against each other.), and the rumbling in the controller… those elements all feel so satisfying.

For Swarm it’s breaking the piñata, seeing the visual feedback of all the coins shake out of the cards after you check in, the sounds of applause when you become the mayor, and the coins counting up that you collect.

How did you decide what game mechanics to integrate into Swarm?

We had a base to build upon using the mechanics that were in original Foursquare. Except Foursquare was never intended to be a game. The games in Foursquare were onboarding techniques to teach people what a check-in was. Over time, we thought the interest in the game aspects had faded. Eventually our check in product (Swarm) began to focus on the social utility aspects of checking in: keeping up and meeting up with friends. The first iterations of Swarm were technical and utilitarian triumphs, but lacked the playfulness that people loved about original Foursquare.

When we heard this feedback from our community, we sought out to take the three mechanics that people loved about old Foursquare – stickers (our single player game), coins (the game you play with friends), and mayorships (the game you play with the world) – and build upon them in a way that embraced them for what they really are: not onboarding techniques, but fun, playful, and social games.

What’s the most satisfying game interaction you’ve ever experienced? (For example: mine would be sword fighting in The Wind Waker. Something about the combination of the sound, camera movement, and controller shake when you hit an enemy was just perfect.)

I’m a competitive person, so the first thing that came to my mind is the feeling of beating someone in a game. Take knocking someone out in Super Smash Brothers. I love how the sound effects intensify as the damage meter goes up. Then when you knock somebody out, they fly across the screen and the crowd goes nuts. I also love the little details Nintendo added in the newer games; like sometimes the character you KO’d slams into the camera and shakes the controller. Feels good, man.

Super Smash Bros

“I love how the sound effects intensify as the damage meter goes up. Then when you knock somebody out, they fly across the screen and the crowd goes nuts.”

How would you define a “game?” What separates games from other apps? Is there a binary distinction between them, or do all apps have some game-like qualities?

You know, I think that Jane McGonigal said it best in Reality is Broken — “All games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.”

An interesting takeaway from that quote is that you don’t necessarily have to able to “win” something for it to be a game. If you define a game by those traits, any app can be both. By that definition, I think the biggest difference between game apps and other apps is the “voluntary participation” aspect. It’s not that people use social or utility apps unwillingly, but you enter into a game app with different expectations. When I open Two Dots I’m expecting something entirely different than when I open Twitter. Some apps, like Swarm, Duolingo, and Nike+ work to blur the lines between the two. You can choose to use it as a game, as a utility, or as both.

What’s your favorite video game? Can you see its influence in your work?

That’s hard to answer, as it has changed over time! Final Fantasy 7 and 8 come to mind, but I think I have to let sentiment inform this answer and say… the first game I can remember playing with my dad: Super Mario World for SNES. Sadly, I don’t know many women who can say they grew up enjoying video games, but they’ve been a hobby of mine from a very young age and have informed my design work and my career.

Thanks to Courtney Christopher for her insight into bringing game mechanics into apps, and the design process behind Swarm.

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