Startup Gamification: What’s in an MVP?

Startup Gamification: What’s in an MVP?


When is the right time to include gamification?

The one question I get asked over and over again by startups is: at what point should I include gamification? My answer has evolved significantly over the past four years.

Every year, I teach hundreds of people how to use gamification to raise their customer and employee engagement through my live, hands-on workshop series. Hundreds more also earn their design certification through the Engagement Alliance’s online course program. In the years since I’ve been teaching gamified design, I’ve found that about 30% of my students are startup founders, product managers and UX designers trying to figure out how to apply powerful game mechanics to their breakthrough ideas. I also co-direct the Founder Institute startup accelerator in NYC where 80 aspiring entrepreneurs work with me on getting launched and gamifying each year.

What I’ve learned from all these interactions is that there isn’t a cookie cutter solution that would work for every new project. However, there is a pattern of best practice that has emerged that – when combined with a good gamification design education – can produce superior results. I’ve taken to calling it the 3Ps:

  • Progress

  • Points

  • Prompts

startup gamification MVP
Think about how this informs your user’s next steps (Image by Rob Enslin)

Progress is the core concept underlying good engagement. Put simply, it’s the idea that by using your app, product or service, your end user is moving forward in their own lives. Whatever drives them to your offering in the first place, your product must help them achieve this over time. The bigger the “problem” or behavior change (e.g. losing weight), the more challenging the progress design is for you, but also the greater loyalty (and business value) you will engender. You must think deeply about progress, and map out — in early days — what your user is after in their lives, how your product fits into that, and what some logical steps might be to get them there. Don’t assume your users know what they want clearly or how to get there – designing that system and getting them to stick to it is your responsibility. While this is obvious for health, education, business training types of gamification, it’s also equally true in marketing and promotional engagement design.

Design Challenge: for inspiration, look at Weight Watchers through a gamification lens. How do they build for progress? Now think about the boy/girl scouts. What does that system look like and how do they use progress systems – not just mechanics – to achieve their goals?


flyer miles
You can consider these as XP too (Image by Chris Guillebeau)

Points refer to many things in gamified design, but in this case I’m specifically thinking about XP – or experience points. These track a user’s achievement over time, and are designed to be awarded for every action, though not always linearly. XP is different from redeemable points — the “earn and burn” virtual currency that might form the core of your future economy — as XP cannot be spent on anything. You should string up an XP system in the earliest days of your product to track behavior, even if you don’t display that score to the end user right away. Knowing the score, and having time to work out how to track/reward appropriately will help you immensely as you tune your product for engagement. Because you must have XP to build any other gamified interactions (and it’s so meaningful in general), this foundational step should really be in your MVP. Designing it takes some time, but one hack from our workshops is to assign your lowest unit of user behavior (e.g. like, read, etc) 10 points and work from there, giving every user action a score.

Design Challenge: Compare the EQM (Elite Qualifying Miles) charts with the redeemable miles charts at United, Delta or American, where XP = EQM. What does the chart tell you about the behavior the airline is trying to drive? How is it structured?


startup gamification mvp
Diablo 3 Reminds Users that their Servers are Open

Prompts are anything that pushes the user to come back and re-engage with your app or service. One of the biggest mistakes startups make is to assume that users will remember to come back to their product after their initial download/registration. Just take a look at your smartphone app screen for a lesson in why that’s a bad idea — how many apps have you downloaded but never/rarely use? The goal of great gamification is to create deep, lasting engagement, but before you can run (to the bank), your users have to walk. Start by thinking about the “grind”, or a daily/weekly activity that you want users to perform as regularly as possible. This can be a check in, reading something, messaging a friend, whatever. Now, make sure that you setup a passive (automatic) and active reminder for users to re-engage. The simplest way to do this is with an email or push notification, but texts – even phone calls if done gently – can work. Just make sure to think about the viral loop with a clear eye: you want the re-engagement to be more than just a touch-base. Users have to get something from it, and then do something with that interaction to make it extra meaningful – think sharing, posting or paying it forward.

Design Challenge: look at the appointment dynamics of some apps like Fab or Gilt. They have events that happen daily at a known time, but also push users hard to come back. What times/days are best for reminders, and what form works? If you’re building a social or messaging app, what happens if there aren’t many messages moving around the system?

Each one of these 3 Ps merits an entire day’s worth of analysis, design and dissection on its own – and should be worth every startup’s very careful consideration. If you take this as a starting point, you can use your design thinking skills to come up with a solution that will really work for your project. You can also deepen those skills by joining one of the educational programs that are offered through the Engagement Alliance. Either way, Progress, Points and Prompts can help your startup begin the journey to engagement, cut through the noise of a loud and fragmented market, and build significant enterprise value.

Cover Image by artnoose



Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. I am learning about gamification to create a new project about learning foreign languages here in Brazil. I am very motivated to apply the game elements in educational contexts. Best regards.