At the bottom of the pile in the Engagement Hierarchy is the distraction. Distractions are amusing 1-minute long forgettable game activities that players can engage in, and which are enticing only in a general fashion. A distraction might fly around Twitter as a quick laugh, or be shared on Facebook. It might even have a social dimension equivalent to a shared gag. They are fun, but inherently limited life-span activities, and designing great distractions is a very particular skill.
Distractions have several unique qualities:
Distractions do not build any sort of relationship with an average player. They have very little lifetime value, and users frequently don't remember their distractions' names. Distractions are of value to the player only in the moment. Once they have played it once or twice, they are gone, either to another distraction on the same site, or away in general.
The key to designing a great distraction is therefore immediacy. This means instant-access, instantly recognisable and rapidly fun. It means avoiding opacity, complexity, obscurity or delays. The distraction designer needs to think what a player would expect to happen, what a game concept would immediately mean to them, and then design for that. Designing great distractions is actually pretty hard to do because it requires the designer to think like a hyper-active child: If the distraction is not getting to the point (a point that the player can understand) right away, then the player will just be distracted by something else.
It is very difficult, and likely contradictory, to move a distraction-led business into something more substantial. While you may want to build that relationship with your users, they often have no reason to build it with you.
Virality and Sociality
Great distractions have equally great potential for virality and sociality. A distraction shared is like a joke passed around in school or a rumour among friends. Youtube clips, funny retweets and so on are the kind of thing that a great distraction should be modelled on.
Many great distractions are also socially relevant. A Facebook quiz that asks users to identify their top 10 movies and then compares their ratings with those of their friends is a socially relevant distraction, because in real life people like to have that conversation about their favourite movies. Similarly, a shared prize or opportunity (such as a Groupon deal) has social relevance.
However repeated exposure to the same distraction very rapidly becomes annoying. Distractions expire, and very quickly so. In the early days of Facebook, the wave of 'chump' games (where players were encouraged to 'bite' each other by inviting their friends to play) got old fast, and Facebook took steps to ban the sort of interaction on which they relied to spread.
Users get really ticked off seeing the same thing appear in their inboxes with no variation. If, on the other hand, a distraction can vary things up, refashion itself or be released under a variety of guises then the users are often much less prone to annoyance. ICanHasCheezburger is a site that spreads images of hilarious cats all around the web, each one a distraction, but which users don't mind because each one is different and thus funny all over again.
On the other hand, if they keep seeing the same picture of the same cat, or the same coupon, or the same high score from the same cheap game, they eventually start to get annoyed and walk away.
With the current hot-ticket topic in the games industry being gamification (adding game-like mechanics to sites and software to bring users back), it seems pertinent to mention where this sits with the Engagement Hierarchy. The short answer is that gamification has all the hallmarks of providing distraction-level entertainment and nothing more.
A number of sites and software already include such mechanisms. How many followers do you have on Twitter? How complete is your profile on Linkedin? How many free virtual credits did you earn from a site you can't remember to spend on things you don't need? What's your score in Ribbon Hero? This is all the sort of thing that comprises distraction.
Much of the web is built on distraction. The assumption (fairly well grounded) on the part of web designers and developers is that users do not hang around on most sites that they use, so the sites are built to grab immediate attention but often not to hold on to it. The hope of such sites is that users will return to this distraction a number of times, and eventually find it useful.
Gamification is really about trying to raise the bar on sites from distractions to amusements, but of what I've seen of it so far, this is unlikely to really happen. I'll talk more about amusements later, but the basic issue is that amusements (and more significant levels of engagement) have a habit of becoming destinations that serve only their own purposes, and which thus grow at odds from the purpose of gamification (which is more site use, not necessarily more game use).
Distractions do not have high revenue potential, not even the great ones. They tend, instead, to function best as marketing gimmicks or flash-in-the-pan promotions that everyone will soon forget. A distraction is not something through which you can sell virtual goods, nor charge in any way, because placing an interruption to ask for money defeats the point of it. Nobody will pay for your cheap quiz.
It is quite difficult to build a company whose business model is the creation of single distractions one after another. You can very quickly get stuck in a rut, racing to the bottom to create apps faster than all your competitors who have the same idea, and eventually all of you lose.
On the other hand, there are two business models that thrive as distraction-makers. The first is the agency model. Agencies are usually working for a paying client looking to spread a marketing message around the web. Agencies have been in the business of making advergames and microsites that do this exact thing for a long time, and they have moved into social networks to do the same thing with varying success.
The other kind of distraction business model that works is that of the distraction aggregator. This business provides a site or a tool that permits the continuous generation of content from users or some other cheap source as a means to constantly perpetuate distraction back and forth. An example of this is Takeoff Monkey's Phrases application on Facebook, which has 48 million monthly active users. Another example is the joke site TextsFromLastNight, which invites users to share and rate each others' embarrassing texts of woe and hangovers.
What distraction aggregators are doing is relying on the much smaller number of users of their application who find it to be amusement-, or even connection-. level engagement, to create the distractions for everyone else. You could easily make the argument that Twitter, Youtube and many other social sites are the same. The objective of all these businesses is to spread tonnes of quick, cheap, content and reap the rewards.
Speaking of which, pretty much the only reward model that works for the distraction aggregation business is advertising. Different kinds of advertising work better or worse in different venues, from simple Adsense banners and towers, to in-skin adverts that wrap a game with promotion for a movie or product. As with most things to do with the web, interruption (pop-ups etc) might work in the short term but they put users off in the long term. However alongside advertising (like in-skins) doesn't normally generate as many impressions, but makes the relationship with the player (such as it is) less hostile. So they are more likely to want to return.
It can be a very interesting segment of the business to be in, and a hard creative challenge, to work with distractions, but you need to understand what kind of business it really is. Forget depth and subtlety for starters, they have no place here.
Here are some examples of games-based distractions:
- Facebook quizzes, such as What Superhero Are You?
- Extremely light casual games, such as Chain RXN
- Fart apps
- Flash gaming portals, especially those that specialise in minute-long games
(with thanks to Instagram for the photo filter)