Interview with Dennis Crowley, founder, foursquare

foursquare is a mobile networking application that broadcasts when users check in to various locations around a city.  People can see which friends are nearby, and drop in to join them.  One of the things that makes foursquare really unique is its use of game mechanics.  It awards users badges for accomplishing goals like going out several nights in one week, or visiting a gym a certain number of times.  The people who check in a given location most frequently can be crowned its Mayor, inviting other players to seize the title.  The formula has generated a lot of interest, and in less than year since launch foursquare has grown to broadcast 1.5 million checkins a week.

I recently spoke with Dennis Crowley, foursquare’s founder, about the incorporation of game components into its design.

Q: How would you describe foursquare?
A: It’s something that makes cities easier to use and explore.  It’s a mashup of friend finders with city guides to locate interesting places, with a layer of game mechanics to incentivize you to explore the city in ways you otherwise wouldn’t.

Q: Why put a game into foursquare, rather than just presenting it as a straightforward UI?
A: A number of years ago I helped create Dodgeball, which was one of the earliest friend finders.  It worked via SMS, so you would just text where you were and Dodgeball would parse it, recognize location data in the message, and send it to your friends.  One of the things we discovered from that experience was that it was only interesting when you have a good number of friends who are also using Dodgeball.  But until that happens, how do you get people to use it?

In foursquare the game adds interest single-user experience, because when you check into places you can start earning badges and mayorships right away.  For first time-users, that’s very important.  It changed the reason to check in.  Then people ultimately discover the core application as they start to find their friends, restaurant reviews, and so forth.  By that point, the game mechanic is intended to be secondary to that experience.

Q: Do you think some people are turned off by the presence of game elements in an interface?

A: There are people who say they don’t take it seriously.  But people don’t really object to the game mechanics.  When someone does feel turned off, it’s more often about the competitive elements.  Incentives like leaderboards don’t appeal to everyone.

Q: How was foursquare received when it first went up?

A: We launched it at the SxSW conference in March of 2009 as something you could play while you were attending and use to socialize with other people.  It was a really big gamble because we knew it was either going to be really good, or people would be laughing at us.  That initial version was very game-heavy.  You would get badges for doing things like traveling 25 miles out of the city, or for attending the first panel in the morning.  As it turned out, it went over really big at the conference.  Then the attendees traveled back to their respective cities to find there were more badges waiting for them there, and they continued playing it.

Q: What influenced the design of foursquare?
A: Legend of Zelda was an inspiration.  You know how when you’re out on a mission and you find something like the boomerang, and you get totally psyched?  I loved that feeling when I was 8, and I loved it when I was 28.  So why not make a real-life challenge where an everyday serendipitous experience can feel like uncovering the boomerang in Zelda?

I don’t know if you’re a Harry Potter guy, but I also thought of foursquare as a cross between the marauder’s map and the Weasley clock.  That idea of always having a map in front of you showing where everyone is really appealed to me.

It was also hugely inspired by Nike+, which connects your iPod to your sneakers and tracks your workout.  It also connected to leaderboards where you could track yourself against your friends and set up challenges with them.  That becomes a motivator to get out of bed in the morning and go running in the rain.  That’s very powerful, and we thought well hey, what if you could get people to go to restaurants, or to movies, or to explore different neighborhoods?

I also just really love the whole idea of the quantified self, of tracking everything that you do every day and turning it into numbers.  You can make it so that everything you do in life creates points.

Q: Have you contemplated the applicability of game design to conventional user interfaces more broadly?
A: Designers are starting to realize that they can use game mechanics to get users to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.  You could make a game out of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated movies before the awards, or seeing all of the bands your friends have recommended to you.

Of course those things are kind of trivial, but there are other things you could get people to do that become borderline important.  You can use games to make people more rounded individuals, encourage them to volunteer more, get them going to the gym, or feel better about themselves.  This year you’ve read x amount more than you did last year.  Imagine if Nike+ placed powerups all over the city where you live, and you had to run over them to pick them up.

One thing I really liked about Jesse Schell’s presentation at the DICE Summit is that he’s nailed the idea of redemptions.  Your daughter got an A in her class?  Well that’s worth 1000 points for each of you, and you can turn that into Obama bucks for a tax credit.  Maybe something else you do could earn you a voucher that gets you into a club, or gets you a free movie ticket.  That’s a huge idea.

Thanks so much for your time, I wish you continued success with foursquare.


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