Overturning the Monopoly board: Thoughts on gamification in Foursquare’s Swarm

Foursquare & Swarm

Since the release of Foursquare‘s new App Swarm last week, there has been a vocal minority of existing  users complaining about the removal of gamification from the service. There are numerous complaints on the Foursquare Facebook page, and a petition at Change.org has 350 signatures at last count. In short, many existing users are unhappy.

At first, I couldn’t understand why so many people were upset to lose badges, mayors and points. I’d felt they’d run their course. I wasn’t that concerned to lose them. However, having used Swarm for the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered that checking in is just not as fun as it was in Foursquare. Without badges, points and mayorships it feels a little, dare I say it, dull. If you don’t have many friends on it, Swarm feels like it’s missing something.

I’ve spent the last few days thinking a lot about gamification in Swarm and I’ve begun to realise that there might be a valid complaint, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

Why did Foursquare remove gamification from Swarm?

I have been curious as to why Foursquare have done this, especially when they must have realised that it would most likely anger many existing users. This is especially strange when it seemed that the whole point of splitting the app in two was to move all the social and fun ‘niche’ features to a separate app, so that Foursquare proper can focus on mainstream-friendly “local search”.  Why wouldn’t they include badges and the rest in that?

The answer is that they must have very good reasons for doing so, most likely supported by data they have collected about how people have been using the service.

My guess is that they discovered that users who enjoy Foursquare solely for the game elements (badges and mayorships) nearly always stop using it eventually. After a while, after a user has unlocked most of the badges, and earned lots of Mayorships, they no longer find it engaging, and stop checking in. 

Foursquare need checkins to power their service, so they need to ensure that users keep checking in. To combat the problem of user drop-off from gamification, they are taking the necessary step to try and change the reasons people choose to check in.

With Swarm, they hope to encourage check-ins by incentivising location sharing, rather than gamification. Foursquare are trying to make Swarm a utility, not a game, to ensure that people keep using it long-term. Dennis Crowley even reiterated this plan in a Tweet a few weeks ago:

Swarm’s check-in incentive, is now more or less solely about you wanting to share your location with friends. The problem with this is that the company have failed to consider all the other reasons why existing users around the world continue to check in. For many people, location sharing was never a primary reason for doing so.

Why do I check in on Foursquare?

If, like me, you are the kind of Foursquare user who has continued to check in everywhere you go, even after most of your friends have got bored of doing it, then you most likely have a good reason for continuing to do so. I have used Foursquare for the last four years. I continue to check in almost daily, but interestingly, I currently have only four close friends who are still actively checking in, and only two of them live in the same city as me. Most of my real life friends just didn’t get it, or got bored of doing it. Checking in isn’t for everyone. The remainder of my friends list on the service is made up of “faux-friends” i.e. people I have mostly never met in real life – they’re people I friended because the service was more interesting with a few more “friends” that i didn’t know well, than it was using it with the few genuine friends who did. 

Listed in order of importance, the main reasons I still check in are as follows:

  1. It keeps a record of my whereabouts. It’s something I can refer to if I have forgotten where I went or when I was there.
  2. Checking in lets me view Tips about what’s good at the venue.
  3. Checking in improves my recommendations and ‘Explore’ search results. It’s a means to an end – I recognise the value of the end (great recommendations), to justify the means (checking in everywhere).
  4. Geotagging photos from Instagram and sharing them. This has been a big reason but will now, of course, no longer work since Instagram jumped ship to the FB places database.
  5. Badges and mayorships. Badges were purely for my personal gratification. They were silly and kind of pointless but they amused me. Mayorships were also fun.
  6. Points and leaderboards
  7. “Look where I am!” bragging. Admit it. We are all guilty of this. There’s nothing better than checking in on the Great Wall of China, or the Louvre in Paris or Petra in Jordan just to give our friends back home something to be jealous about. ;)
  8. General Location Sharing with my “friends”

There are two things you can take away from this:

  • Firstly, what keeps me checking in everywhere I go, is not primarily about sharing my location with friends. This is not to say I don’t like location sharing, it’s just that, with most of my close friends not using Foursquare, it’s not one of my main reasons for doing do.
  • Secondly, the main reasons I have continued to check in on Foursquare, has had very little to do with how many of my friends use it. While I’ve always hoped to convince more friends to use Foursquare, it didn’t stop me if they didn’t use it. Recording my travels and viewing tips were for my own benefit. Mayorships were competed for with the wider Foursquare community, and rarely were they about beating out my friends. Equally, badges were earned for my own amusement, and had very little to do with friends.

A Bee with no Swarm

The problem with Swarm is that currently every single feature in it, is only really any good if you have several of your close friends on the service as well. It’s primary function is location sharing with friends, and if they are not on it, it’s not a great experience. Stickers, which are a great idea for sharing with friends, are pretty redundant without many friends to share them with. Equally, the new Mayorships system won’t work until you have a good number of friends on the service, and if those friends don’t live nearby, or check in to the places you visit, then there is no chance to compete with them. In short, there is currently nothing in Swarm to keep you amused at the beginning, when none of your friends are using it yet.

In the original Foursquare, not having many friends on the service didn’t really matter – badges and mayorships all worked well regardless. Swarm, on the other hand, doesn’t work without your friends. Furthermore, it really needs to be just your close friends now. With Neighbourhood Sharing, I feel the urge to unfriend all those “faux-friends”.

While this may not be a very apparent problem in NYC and SF where there are plenty of people using it, it is a huge problem in places where Foursquare hasn’t seen wide adoption yet. 

Currently the person who is most likely to enjoy using Swarm is a current Foursquare user who already had a large group of close friends on the service, and who lives in large city. Their experience is better than it was in Foursquare, because the location sharing works better, and they are able to take advantage of plans and serendipitous meetups because their friends are likely to be close by.

Existing or brand new users without many nearby friends on the service, aren’t going to find much to keep them engaged in Swarm. The reason that so many existing users are upset, is not really about the loss of badges in particular, it’s that their experience which was fun in Foursquare, is no longer fun in Swarm. Location sharing isn’t useful since they don’t have many nearby friends, and the game elements that worked regardless of friends are no longer available.

If an app’s sole purpose is location sharing and seeing where your friends are, and none of your friends use it, why would you keep it on your phone? People already have a perception (even if it’s not true) that it uses a lot of battery to run Swarm. Unless they can be persuaded of some benefit to having it installed, if they don’t have any friends on it yet, they are likely to delete it.

How to improve Swarm

Location sharing in Swarm is really well implemented and fun. I like the idea of using it with friends but currently not may of them are on it yet. It needs to be made more compelling for users without many friends on it yet, so that they will keep the app on their phones until there are. Swarm needs to be tweaked so that even with just one other friend using it, it’s still a fun experience, and one that gets increasingly better with more friends joining.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Introduce at least one game mechanic that doesn’t require our friends or other Foursquare users to enjoy. It should make checking in fun for the user regardless of other users. (i.e bring back badges as personal rewards. I understand that there is something planned for the reimagined Foursquare App, but I think that Swarm needs something itself.)
  • Introduce at least one game mechanic that works with the wider Foursquare community – not just your friends. If Mayorships or leadboards are are not an option then try something new. A way to make checking in fun when travelling, or otherwise in places where your friends are not around.
  • Introduce a built-in chat feature. As I mentioned in my review, Swarm needs its chat functionality built-in to create more user engagement in the app. Even with only one nearby friend on the service, if you could chat with them from within Swarm, the app would be more engaging, and its usefulness would be way apparent to the user. After all, what are we sharing our location for anyway, if not to chat and then meet up? Tapping on a nearby friend should let me immediately be able to chat with them, and the app should display an icon on a friend’s profile pic showing me if there are any unread messages from them.
  • Give unlocking Stickers more fanfare! Make it like unlocking badges was. Tell us what we did to unlock them. Tells us something cool about them.
  • Introduce a Stats page that gives us a view of the places we’ve been in the last month. Maybe include a list of our favourite restaurants we’ve been too in the last 6 months or other interesting data gleaned from our checkins and neighbourhood sharing. This shouldn’t be like the existing apps leaderboard stats, it should be more a visualisation of the kinds of places I’ve visited and the kinds of places I like.
  • Teach users about how Swarm learns where they go to give them better recommendations. Explain when they start using the app what the benefits of checking in are (in addition to location sharing) and why they should continue to do so. Give people another incentive to want to check in.

UPDATE (2014-05-30) I had a couple more  thoughts:

  • I accept that it is sensible to remove the elements of Foursquare that make it like a game that you are competing with friends, since users get bored of games eventually. Getting rid of points and leaderboards makes sense since for that reason. However, I think that badges (with a few changes) could remain. If badges were done as a secondary feature to the experience – a fun surprise that occasionally get unlocked after a check-in – then they would make things more fun again.
  • Badges should be a hidden feature that surprise the user when they unlock them. All one-off badges should be removed and only levelling up should remain, since they reward continued exploration rather than one-off achievements. The problem with one-off badges is that once you have unlocked them thy are essentially forgotten, and all the fun they created trying to earn them is gone.
  • City badges should be converted to levelling up badges so that you get rewarded for exploring a new city, but continue to get rewarded the more you explore. It’s really fun unlocking city badges when visiting a new city, but currently once they’ve been unlocked they lose their fun. If they levelled up you’d really get a sense of how well you know your city, and also other cities you visit. Plus, each time you return to a city there is a chance to explore and level up your badge even more.
  • Badges need to be personal rewards, not things you compete with your friends for – Swarm shouldn’t share with others when you unlock them (although perhaps optionally letting you tweet about them would be nice). This would bring back some of the fun, but downplay the competitive game element.
  • Currently Swarm is very good at incentivising us to checkin in our home town where all our friends are, or even in other cities where some of our friends might live. However, there is less incentive to check in when travelling abroad where none of our friends live. Personal rewards that encourage continued exploration would really help.

In Support of the Split

I explained in a previous post and again at the end of my review why I support the plan to split Foursquare into two apps. I do think that most of the people complaining about Swarm & Foursquare splitting have failed to understand the big picture of what the team are trying to build.

My only complaint is the poor experience in Swarm for new users, or users with not many close friends nearby, and the loss of all game mechanics that work without friends on the service. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t release both new Apps at once – I think it would have been smarter to have released Swarm as a “public preview” for early adopters, and continued to encourage users to stay on Foursquare till Swarm had matured and the Foursquare search-focused redesign was ready.

Splitting the apps is a seriously ballsy move and there are bound to be some teething problems. The best thing we can do is to keep being vocal about what we like, and what we don’t like. I’m confident Foursquare will move quickly – they have to or they risk alienating too many long term fans, but lets give them a chance to fine tune the experience over the coming weeks before writing them off. In the mean time, send them your feed back here.

What do you think of Swarm? How do you think it can be improved? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

  • B.J. Ellis

    Great article.

  • msilverman

    Very, very well-said.

    I think the developers of Foursquare had blinders on and only focused on that one use case – big city, lots of real-life friends – to the exclusion of all others

  • That is _the_ most excellent review about this topic I’ve read so far. I like how you try to stay as objective as possible while still bringing in your personal opinion and providing suggestions on how to improve the situation. Looking forward to more insights!

  • Max Schmitt

    (sorry for the long post)
    First, even 4sq keeps stubbornly denying it, which is pure PR-speak, Swarm is a terrible battery killer on an iPhone 4s, With swarm installed and everything in and for it enabled, my battery was at 20% from a full charge shortly affter lunch, when previously I never went below 35 or percent after a full day of use. And no, my usage pattern did not change one bit. Even with everything disabled in and for swarm I ended up at 20% sometiome during the afternon. After wiping swarm off my iPhone, everything was back to normal and my Iphone would last me through the day on a full charge.

    I think I do see the big picture and still think the split is a dumb, kilely fatal move. The biggies like FB and Dropbox maybe able to get away with their vertical app splits due to their sheer size (Although I had never before heard of Dropbox’s Carousel before someone mentioned in a discussion about swarm and neither had any of my friends who use Dropbox), 4sq is not a big enough player IMHO to get away with this, at least not outside NY, SF and maybe Turkey (which seems to be their biggest market outside the US).

    Turning the “old” 4sq app into a mediocre at best Yelp also-ran will backfire big time IMHO at least over here in Europe where that spot is occupied and Yelp is the go-to app for local searches and tips, simply because the large majority of tips here are “meh” at best.

    Then there comes the issue of venue maintenance, the issue of superusers. Apparently, quite a considerable chunk of the current superusers are not amused with swarm, to put it very mildly and are already moving with their feet or the little X on top of the app icons. I have seriious doubts that the target audience for the cutesy swarm that makes feel at least 20 years too old to use it is an audience that will invest itself into adding, editing and maitining venues and becoming superusers. Here, 4sq is clearly playing a high stakes game with one of their biggest assets, free databae maintenance by local volunteers. If that deteriorates to below a certain level, it may be very, very bad news for the company.

    I still stick with my opinion that 4sq was/is desperate, last ditch attempt to slow or reverse the erosion of its user base. I once had around 140 friends on 4sq of which today there are only about to dozen left and only handful are even on the same continent, let alone the same country or city. I remain convinced that 4sq’s move is a bad one.

    It’s not the first time I see enthusiastic blog posts like “we’re so excited about the amazing response so far…” in the face of a veritable shitstorm on ther FB page from a company in an irreversible downward spiral.

    “You guys are loving plans, neighborhood sharing, and history search.” Another one flying into the face of reality. Yeah people are loving the history that is back (it had existed in 4sq before, but was omitted for no apparent reasons), but by and large thy’re hating plans and the neighborhood ssharing because it”s plain useless for most of the current users and doesn’t seem to draw new ones.

    Such PR spins and the fact that critical input is completely ignored by 4sq on ever channel are usually the sign of utter desperation about an update or change gone bad, very bad.

  • fawlty

    “I still stick with my opinion that 4sq was/is desperate, last ditch attempt to slow or reverse the erosion of its user base. I once had around 140 friends on 4sq of which today there are only about to dozen left and only handful are even on the same continent, let alone the same country or city.”

    THIS. I think this has not been emphasized enough in most articles about Swarm and what Foursquare did this. The author of the article touches on it, how the game aspect didn’t keep users active and how it was a “ballsy” move. It’s a great article, and I agree with most of it. But I think Foursquare was in more trouble than the article implies.

    Companies don’t just do “ballsy” things like destroy their current business model because it has gone stale or stagnant. I think Foursquare had data that showed that their entire reason for being was crumbling fast and had they not done something they would be toast in a very, very short time. With the reaction to Swarm, I don’t think they have averted that threat. It will be very interesting to see if they manage to stick around.

    I’m in the same situation you and the author of the article are. The only active user left on 4sq of my local friends is – me. And if I used Swarm I would literally be the only one checking in to places where I am. The other users are in other states and countries. Swarm is useless to me. Then again, I am older and maybe not part of the demographic that generates revenue anyway, so might not be a big loss to 4sq

    Because clearly, those of us left were not revenue generators for 4sq, and the way we used it didn’t encourage us to necessarily get more users signed up, at least not locally. I can only assume that when it came down to it, our little check-in games cost 4sq more than they earned, and so we had to be dealt with somehow.

    Swarm on the other hand, depending on you having to recruit other local users for it to be of any use, is in theory a much better long-term system for revenue generation. But that’s in theory – if people start using it as a sort of “real life Facebook” where even casual acquaintances are made part of your real-life local social group. But, why shouldn’t I simply check in on Facebook or some other site instead, where more of my friends are, if there is no game aspect to it outside of the real life people I am with?

    Because unlike on TV, and maybe in college and in the offices of Internet startups, most people don’t have enormous social circles that they feel comfortable sharing locations and getting together with in real life all the time they go somewhere. Nevermind that this is hard to achieve even in large cities, in medium to small towns it’s even more difficult so Swarm is pretty much a non-starter there. However, there might not be much revenue to be found there anyway – could be that NY, SF, Chicago, Dallas etc (the top 20-30 or so cities plus college towns, basically) are the only ones that matter for Swarm to be successful anyway.

    Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. Like you, I think things are much worse than 4sq are letting on and this was a desperate move. Swarm is a really, really tough sell to the majority of 4sq users. Foursquare basically conceded that everyone but us hardcore users had given up on it as a “group checkin tool”, and we only checked in for the game – so they’ll almost have to start from scratch. Remember Gowalla? I think that might be where Foursquare is heading.

  • Jonathan Sala

    Great article. Foursquare as a company seems to forget that not everyone lives where they do, in big cities with heaps of Foursquare users. Those in smaller cities, other countries, or who don’t have that many friends using the service, are getting left behind. I think they’re going to lose a lot of their most dedicated/long-term users, because the main features keeping us around have vanished.

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