One Idea to Save Illustrated Ebooks: Gamification

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Video games: Not just for kids anymore.

Video games: Not just for kids anymore.

Gamification is one of the hot new concepts in children’s enhanced ebooks. The general idea is simple: To get kids to eat their broccoli (i.e., read books), let’s put some cheese on it (make them fun — cheese on broccoli > broccoli alone).

I think that most readers would like a little cheese on their broccoli, so to speak, and that publishers of illustrated ebooks — like cookbooks and other how-to content — should consider applying gamification to their adult-oriented products.

(Disclaimer: A lot of this thinking comes out of a panel I moderated at Digital Book World called “Gamification of Children’s Books.” The panelists were Eric Huang, publishing director at Penguin UK, Lyle Underkoffler, vice president of digital media at Disney Publishing Worldwide, Brian Burke, president of Smashing Ideas Inc., a digital design and production shop owned by Random House, and Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow, a children’s app and ebook publisher.)



Defining Gamification 

Gamification generally comes in three forms:

1. Using the concept of game mechanics to pull the reader through the book: The reader gets badges and wins trophies for completing certain parts; they receive awards or build the capabilities of an avatar they control as the book progresses.

2. Embed small, casual games within a book: At points within a book, readers take a break to solve a mystery (usually in the form of a puzzle) or some other simple game.

3. Hybrid: Casual games are part of the game mechanics and need to be played to fully “complete” the book, in addition to the normal activity of reading and then showing comprehension of the book.

When applied to a children’s book, either of these three concepts can help increase a child’s engagement with an ebook and keep them coming back to read it again and again.


Does It Work? 

Of course, this concept works. One bit of proof: You know those “casual games” on the internet that you’ve heard so much about in business news over the past few years? Zynga (Farmville, etc.) and Rovio (Angry Birds) have built big businesses on these games. These games use the concepts of game mechanics to get people hooked. There are always more stars or points to earn. Of course, these games also have other attractive elements that require mechanical skill (in the case of Angry Birds) and social and strategic skills (in the case of Farmville).

However, there is a game that is so stripped of anything but game mechanics that it proves just how powerful they are at getting people to play. It’s called “Achievement Unlocked” and the entire point of the game is to achieve badges — the addictive drug that gets you to keep playing most games is the core of this game.

achievement unlocked

Achievement Unlocked! Players get badges for doing anything in the game, including doing nothing.

This game isn’t just some twisted experiment on the limits of the human psyche; it’s popular. To date, it’s been played 3.8 million times on the popular casual gaming site (play it here if you’re curious). In fact, the game is so popular that it has spawned “Achievement Unlocked 2,” an even more popular version that has been played 4.8 million times. And, you guessed it, there is now an “Achievement Unlocked 3,” which so far has 1.5 million plays. And that’s just on one site. On another popular casual gaming site, Kongregate, the first version of the game has been played 1.8 million times.


Fine, But Will It Work For Adults?

Can it be that only children respond to the concepts of gamification?

How many adults do you know who play Angry Birds or some other casual game? Further, how many do you know who monitor their progress when working out at the gym, while on a diet, building a garden, completing projects at work — these are all areas of our lives where we apply the concepts of gamification successfully, usually on our own and on a small and disorganized scale.

nike plusHowever, there are examples of this concept being applied by business for adults to great success. Nike+, for instance, is considered one of the smartest and most successful product lines and brand extensions of the past decade. The concept is simple: You buy a small piece of hardware from Nike that you wear or embed in your shoes and you connect it with a website that tracks the distances you’ve run, for how long, how fast, how much elevation and so on. It even tracks exact routes through GPS. Users can try to vary their jogging or try to improve their performance on a single route. They can race each other without running side-by-side and they can race themselves.

Since 2006, when the program was launched, the Nike+ community has gathered 11 million members and Nike has launched extensions to build it beyond running.


The Idea

Why can’t publishers of digital cookbooks, for instance, apply the concept of gamification to their products?

Imagine a digital cookbook called “One-Pot Spring Recipes” (I’m not a cookbook publisher, so please forgive the lack of creativity here). It’s a book filled with recipes for Spring that can be cooked all in one pot. Readers can:

— Read it
— Look at the pictures/video, listen to audio
— Complete the recipes

Why not create an interface in the product where readers can track their completion level of all these things? Every time you read a new recipe, this would be tracked by the book. When you completed one, there would be an interface where you could indicate that you have and where you could leave notes on how much you liked cooking it and how good it tasted.

The cookbook could easily be made social: The publisher could set up a website — or even a Facebook page — where readers would unlock achievements for posting images of their completed recipes. Perhaps they can earn free content or a discount on their next cookbook purchase by unlocking a certain amount of achievements.

When you think about “how-to” content in the context of a game — one played in gardens and kitchens and craft rooms — the possibilities are endless.

A gardening book that measures the variety, vitality and overall health of your garden through images and self-reporting (it wouldn’t hurt if it told you when to water it, too).

A knitting book or origami book that worked much like the cookbook described above.


Creating Community

One very positive side-effect of the Nike+ program that publishers could realize if they execute gamification well is to create a community. Imagine a series of knitting books called “Radical Stitching” (again, please forgive my creativity here). I can envision a community of “radical stitchers” who share their achievements in a centralized online site and begin to build a community with communication, interactivity and, perhaps most importantly, a direct relationship with the publisher. If “Radical Stitching” is a success, the “radical stitchers” will probably want to get “Radical Stitching 2: The Needles Strike Back” to continue to unlock achievements and badges.


The Problem

In the past month since Digital Book World, I’ve spoken with several illustrated publishers about their plans for growing the digital sides of their businesses and ideas like this are gaining traction. Whatever most illustrated book publishers have been doing up until now hasn’t been working well for the most part. Some of them will be focusing more effort on growing their print businesses in 2013, seeing more opportunity in specialty stores and in direct online sales. Others will be trying ideas like this and others to jump-start the illustrated ebook business.

And that’s the problem: opportunity.

Today, with so many digital technologies available, the opportunities for content creators are almost endless. Video, audio, interactivity, social integration, gamification and many things that I haven’t seen or haven’t been imagined yet. How do you choose?

Well, money chooses for you in many cases. You can’t afford to do everything, let alone everything you want to do, so what do you choose to do?

And once you’ve chosen, how do you know it will be worth whatever investments you need to make to execute it? In a market that hasn’t really gotten started, where what will succeed isn’t yet known, how can you rationalize spending $25,000 making videos for an ebook that will be priced at $14.99 and may never sell more than 1,000 or 500 copies? It’s a time of tough decisions for many publishers of illustrated ebooks.

Gamification of an ebook may cost less than producing an hour of high-quality video (or not), but it costs something. And if you spend money on that, what will you sacrifice that you no longer can afford?

That said, the concept just might work to make illustrated ebooks what they need to be to find a larger market. And, after all, it’s being tried in a legitimate, concerted way by the founders of BookLamp (and their army of Kickstarter backers).


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8 thoughts on “One Idea to Save Illustrated Ebooks: Gamification

  1. Laura Austin

    Hi Jeremy,

    Great post and something we are working on at the moment with a number of publishers. There has to be a reason why a reader will download an ebook over and above a movie/game – it is a lot more competitive for publishers to be on a device than in a bookstore.

    The only drawback here is that creating these game – like activities whilst being simultaneously available on a number of devices (increasing demand for this) isn’t always possible. So the question is, as a publisher do you go for all the bells and whistles on one device? Or stick to a standard ebook format across all platforms?

  2. Maureen

    Hi Jeremy,

    I love this forward thinking idea. I’m creating my first ecookbook. The biggest challenges for me are not content, but cost. I know I want more for my ecookbook than standard text conversion, but don’t want to spend the time and money on video, for instance. Not yet anyway. In part because it’s too soon to tell how far ecookbook formatting will go-but there certainly is a future for more bells and whistles, as Laura Austin mentioned above.

    Thanks for sharing this information. I’ll look forward to reading more on this subject.

  3. Linton Robinson

    This is just one more step along the road to multi-media/interactive e”books”. Publishers might want to think that over.
    The more people start thinking of books as fun games on little hand devices, the more publishers will end up competing for sales with game companies.
    And they will lose. Because game companies are WAY better at it. The more such a market trend opens up, the more we’ll see games edging out toward being “books”. Many games already have better writing and stories than many novels.
    And game developers aren’t hampered by all the dysfunctional “legacy” lunacy that drags old-school publishers down. They are new, young, lean, and much more at home with both the design and marketing of this sort of thing.

    From the writer’s standpoint, this is a disastrous approach. In the last decade we’ve finally seen writers being able to compete with big capital publishers on a more of less even field. An emphasis towards all this whizbang puts us right back where we were–unable to capitalize or technically realize “books”.

  4. Doymarn

    I fully endorse this aspect of adding interest to an interactive book. I decided over a year ago that I would author and develop an Interactive Adventure Game Book which integrated gaming challenges into the progression of the read of an Interactive book. It has been a challenge to balance the adventure game play without detracting from the story narrative or over powering one with the other. But it has been a rewarding challenge now that it is taking shape rather nicely. In order to not restrict the game play I decided it would need to be presented in the vehicle of an iPad book app and not an enhanced ebook… that was the right choice for my idea and allowed me the flexibility of doing what I wanted rather than compromise on what was available with the level of technology available in the enhanced ebook domain. It has allowed me to present a menu of puzzles which challenge the logic of the reader, real physics puzzles, their reflex actions, muscle co-ordination and to be able to present linear and non-linear story narrative pathways. It enables me to record and present achievement badges and reward successful challenges with further disclosure of the story. I have also incorporated what I call PlayTime where the reader can just jump out of the story to just play interactive scenes which are stand alone recreational activities which although compliment the content in the adventure book do not form part of the adventure progression. I think this will appeal to parents wanting to take a break from a shared experience with their younger family members whilst they do some needed chores but at the same time have their youngsters amuse themselves at the same time but not moving the story forward. Due to be published soon, I will soon enough find out whether this meets with a good market response or not… but you have to try something new to break new ground!

  5. Alex K

    I worry that the addition of games to books will defeat the purpose of reading entirely. Reading is meant to encourage children/adults to focus and learn about whatever the topic is. How can they have sustained critical thought when reading is broken up by periodic games? What happens when children grow up expecting games with their books and then that reward goes away? Games in books sets up unrealistic expectations.

    Children need to be shown the value of reading in and of itself. Not by watering down reading with games. The idea that EVERYTHING IS A GAME IS THE PROBLEM! Turn off or get rid of the TV.

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