Share this content

What online games can teach retailers about customer engagement

14th May 2015
Share this content

Given that the term gamification, first coined by Nick Pelling in 2002, originated from online gaming, it is apt to consider what retailers can learn from Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMOGs).

At first blush, you might not see much in common between World of Warcraft and filling your supermarket trolley on the weekend, but retailers can learn from how MMOGs keep users engaged, build in ‘switching costs’ and cater for different psychological user profiles.

Firstly, given that MMOGs business models are either:

  • A low monthly fee topped up by in-game purchases; or
  • No fee but entirely financed by in-game purchases

The entire economic viability of MMOGs is based on engaging users to keep them coming back. Assuming that gamers do have jobs and actually sleep, despite their often blurry eyes, it’s a zero sum game as time spent on your MMOG is time not spent on a competitor’s and vice versa.

It’s also an industry with almost zero natural switching costs, where you can join another free game in minutes. All the switching costs are created from the gamer’s progress in the game itself, whether skill acquired, level and notoriety achieved, social connections made etc.

Retailers who complain about low switching costs should think of that!

‘Grinding’ or getting your customers to work to the next stage

The typical MMOG involves fighting monsters in an imaginary world where accumulated points or trophies allow entry to a more demanding level with more powerful monsters. Gamers call this ‘grinding’.

The underlying concept is simple: offer something to keep users engaged through the ‘grind’. People are accustomed to earning incentives in real life, like loyalty programme points, so MMOG’s provide virtual rewards or points, allowing the player to benchmark against others and even gain fame or notoriety as a result.

What retail marketers can learn is that continually offering new challenges that need to be earned as milestones towards a goal can increase long-term engagement.

How the psychological profile of gamers can be applied to retail shoppers

The ‘Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology’ identified four different gamer personalities: (i) Achievers (ii) Explorers (iii) Socialisers and (iv) Killers. MMOG designers carefully incorporate elements to cater for each of these personalities and retail marketers can similarly benefit from thinking about customer personalities.


Achievers like to see their names at the top of scoreboards and compare themselves against others. Importantly, an avatar and ‘user name’ as opposed to ‘real names’ is often enough for an Achiever.

By recognising that shopping is inherently social and more fun if done with friends, retailers can move away from selling to individuals and incorporate game elements to motivate ‘Achievers’ to strive to top a leader board by sharing and referring more buyers. Achievers can also be celebrated by inviting them to use their acquired ‘skills’ to help choose or ‘co-create’ your next offer, e.g. putting together the ‘must have’ wine collection.


Often known as 'Spades' for their tendency to dig around to discover new areas and create maps, these gamers like to look around at their own pace and dislike deadlines. Retailers can accommodate this personality by providing ‘hidden eggs’ that only the more dedicated players will find. Explorers are also more likely to help you choose or co-create a new offer as they will invest more time with you.


These gamers play more for social aspects than for the game itself, and get most enjoyment from interacting with others and sharing information nuggets. A retailer cannot stop Socialisers taking about its products, as if there is no official channel then they will just create an unofficial one.

So retailers should embrace the Socialisers and encourage them to interact with each other by providing prominent sharing buttons and communication opportunities. As Socializers love helping other players, the ability to share great deals with friends really appeals to this kind of persona. So make deals that are easy to share and which offer great benefits for both the sharer and recipient.


This competitive persona loves nothing more than pitting his or her skills against an actual player-controlled opponent, particularly the notoriety of being seen as someone to be 'Killed on Sight'. Retailers should realise that your Killers are your star referrers and you should pit them against each other to win rewards on the leader board.

Building the game around loyal users

One key lesson MMOG’s learned quickly, was that loyal users are much more valuable than game switchers. So most efforts are made at finding and converting potential enthusiasts and getting them to commit more time to the game. This means that points and rewards are awarded for more hours of play, or with experience points for exploration, for using craft skills to create new objects, or for helping others.

For retailers, the message is simple. Stop chasing switchers and start with your existing customers and offer exclusives and early access to deals in a privileged club. This means that when they invite their friends, they are inviting them to join this exclusive club.

Different strategies for price sensitive and insensitive customers

Price sensitivity is a key concept. Understanding that some users are ‘time poor but cash rich’ and others ‘cash poor but time rich’ means not offering the same path for everyone. Those without the patience to work their way slowly up the levels of a game can buy a pass or some extra weaponry. The retail equivalent of this is not scattering the same ‘dumb’ discounts at everyone. Not all your customers are price sensitive, but some are and they are prepared to put considerable effort into earning a discount. So develop a game strategy to get the discount hunters to work for you.

Keep it interesting

Poorly-designed MMOGs do not have different storylines or well-developed endgames and end up losing players once they work through the primary storyline. For retailers, the message here is to mix and match promotions. Add new ways to get a great deal, vary the prizes and creative ideas to draw in participants. Otherwise you risk ending up like the staid ‘me-too’ friend get friend schemes that quickly bore your customers.

So in summary

Even though the term ‘gamification’ seems like it’s been around for a while, clever adaptation of the strategies employed by MMOG’s can make a great impact on a retailer’s bottom line. 

Gideon Lask is CEO & founder of Buyapowa.


Related content

Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By ferdi
01st Feb 2017 15:32

Mobile Gaming is getting competitive day by day. Emulators like Delta ( are releasing into market so that everyone can play any paid game for free. You download delta emulator to play all kind of games for free right from your iOS or Android device.

Thanks (0)