Sponsored By

Gamification is a design experience to happiness, fun and motivation. Designing a system is the hardest, funniest and most important part of the process, but... how do we start? This is a new design framework based on stories, mechanics and aesthetics.

Victor Manrique, Blogger

June 18, 2013

14 Min Read

Gamification Design Framework: The SMA Model


Gamification: A design experience to fun, happiness and motivation

Gamification is a design experience to happiness and motivation. We should never forget that Design is Gamification´s biggest challenge and where all its power lies, like a double-edged sword.

So design matters, and it is the difference between another PBL system and a great gamified experience. There are many books, articles and case studies about why design is one of the most important things to take into account and for sure we could be hours talking about it.

But getting back to Gamification, how do we start?

First of all, we should start thinking as a game designer and as a game designer; our main goal is to deliver an awesome experience. OK, I know I know, Gamification is not a game, but since we are going to use stuff like mechanics, aesthetics or storytelling, let’s all pretend we are Blizzard’s number one designer for now!

Gamification design framework

But what do you mean with delivering an experience? How can I do it?
Well, that is a kind of long and complex question to answer because it involves so many things, (and there are whole books about it!) but to keep it simple, let’s start from the beginning. And our starting point is the Gamification basics so…

Whether you just arrived to gamification, or you already are an expert, it’s always good to refresh some Gamification basics. Why not having a look at some key points?

Why use Gamification 

When not to use Gamification  

Why people play Games 

- Gamification Player Types

 Now we are ready to go! Let’s get into the thrilling world of Gamification design!


Gamification design framework by Prof. Werbach: An introduction

Even before starting with a new (actually, extended is more accurate) Gamification design framework, we should have a look at what I consider one of the best and most complete tools for designing, Professor Werbach´s Gamification design framework, also called “The 6 Ds”.

For those who still don’t know Kevin (@kwerb), this is a hangout we did some days ago, with great content and a superb explanation of his 6 Ds model.  

- Hangout with Prof. Werbach 

Basically, and as you may know, his model is based on 6 steps that are:

Define business objectives

- Delineate target behaviours

- Describe your players

- Devise activity loops

- Don’t forget the fun

- Deploy the appropriate tools

If you want to know more about this extremely useful framework, I recommend reading his book “For the Win”. You can find his book and many others here.


Gamification design steps by @victormanriquey: The 4 Qs

So you made it down here! Great! I hope I could convince you to do two things: consider yourself the number one game designer of the whole industry (OK, just Blizzard or Rovio are great too) and start considering design as the most important part of Gamification! Now we are ready to get into the 4 main design questions!

So what is that 4 Qs or SMA model?

The 4 Qs - SMA model is an iterative process to design great gamified experiences to fun, happiness and motivation and it can be used for both internal and external Gamification, with an individual or community focus, and in overall, within any Gamification context.

 So this is how it looks like:

Gamification design steps 

Basically, and to put it simple (we’ll explain it later in two upcoming posts) a gamified experience relies on 4 variables, four questions with a clear answer:

-          WHY? Goal

-          WHAT? Actions

-          WHO? Players

-          HOW? System


STEP 1 - Understand WHY

Imagine for a second that you are the CEO of one of the leading companies in gamification. One day, you receive and email from the CMO of a huge enterprise telling you that they might be interested in gamification, but since it's all kind of new, they want you to meet them at their HQ in order to explain it in further detail.

After some minutes jumping around and opening Champagne bottles "Formula One" Style to celebrate it, you might want to think for a second where is your pitch going to start. And you may want to begin causing a big WOW explaining the WHY of gamification, or in business executive words, what i get from it in numbers. 

So, why do we apply gamification? Because we want to achieve a goal through happiness and people's motivation. In overall, Gamification can be used to achieve any of the following goals:

- Getting better results

- Going viral

- Increasing time spent & engagement

Better results: Ever wondered why Nike became all of a sudden one of the top brands for runners? It wasn't like that some years ago, when Asics, K-swiss or Reebok were more popular among the running crowd. However, since Nike+ and related strategies were launched, the company has become one of the standards worldwide, increasing its market share. Talking about results, what about the gamified learning experiences? In a world where kids are surrounded by interactivity and rich virtual environments that provide great amounts of stimuli, what is more likely to be successful? Duolingo or a boring english academy? And what would happen when those children begin to work?


Going viral: Gamification is not only a way to improve your results, but also a path to viral experiences and growth hacking. One of the best examples of growth hacking, was Dropbox, that offered small rewards and achievements in order to get more users. It was a very basic approach but it worked quite well. 

The next level of going viral is Foursquare and its finer gamification experience that has turn the platform into the leading startup for social geolocation. Other platforms that have implemented a gamified growth hacking experience have been Fitocracy, Karmacracy or the new Read Social App supported by Gabe Zichermann. 

So what it's clear, is that gamification is a very powerful tool for attracting more players to your system.



Increasing Time spent & Engagement: How many hours did you spend playing Final Fantasy, Wow, Angry Birds, Pacman, Monkey Island, Super Mario or any other great games? I guess a lot, as i also did, just because "you couldn't stop playing". 

That's why, it is of no surprise that one of the most powerful effects of gamification is the engagement that it produces. We've all seen kids playing countless hours on their video consoles, or adults playing on their smartphones non-stop. 

What is it about video games that are so engaging? Well, we could be hours discussing that but mostly it is due to the fun they create. There are games for every type of person and many different types of fun. I have my own category of fun types but there are many others done by Leblanc, Lazzaro, Radoff, etc. Anyway, the most important thing here is that gamified experiences really engage people to spend more time on your system if well designed, and they do so, because they are a source of happiness, fun and motivation. 

Last but not least, always remember that gamification is not the panacea!! If the Value Proposition is terrible there's not that much it can do!! To gain some knowledge in modeling value propositions read the books of Alexander Osterwalder!! 

STEP 2 - Establish WHAT

We have gone through the main benefits of using gamification and it's time to move on! Now we know our goal, let's say we are gamifying to increase our user engagement. So how are we going to achieve this? 

Well, even before knowing the type of players that we are going to have or foster in our system (conducting research on that can be done since the very beginning and actually, it's advisable to do so) we need to know what actions they are going to take in order to achieve our goal. But why setting the actions before knowing our players? Just for a reason: we are setting desired behaviours, actions that we think will help to achieve our goal, and once we've done it, it's time to model them, see which mechanics, aesthetics and stories they are going to be filled with. 

STEP 3 - Know your players and foster ALL

Our last step in this post is knowing your players! As we all imagine, it's necessary to know what kind of people are going to use our system in order to make them happy and motivated. Quite obvious right? But... How do we actually know them? And here is where the tricky part of describing the players (as Prof. Kevin Werbach states) comes, how do we get all the data? 

So, two ways of getting data about our players:

- Internal: all the data that we already have about our users. There are many ways to interpretate this, but i usually like to do it following systems like VALS, or similar. 

- External: the difficult part, we need to contact with some representative sample of players and conduct some research. Although it can be done in other ways, i recommend this as game designers do with their play testers. Ask them what motivates them, do some psychological tests or whatever you feel like will be good, and always offer them something in return! Their time is valuable and their info too! 

STEP 4 - Design it! The SMA Model

Mechanics, Aesthetics, Storytelling... We've heard so much about them but, do we actually understand how to use them? Which one should go first and whyWhat are the design steps that we should follow to create a great gamified system? 

So now we have some knowledge about Professor Werbach's model and we know that designing a gamified system involves 4 critical questions that are: WHY, WHAT, WHO and HOW and we are going to focus on the most important of them, the HOW, the real steps to follow when starting to design.

So, some small tips to remember before starting the design process:

Designing is an iterative process, we are going to build a prototype, test it, tune it and keep on going, and that is going to happen quite a lot

Our main tools are going to be mechanics, aesthetics and storytelling

Also, if might be of use to have a look at the player types

- And last but not least, design is the funniest part! It's where all the magic takes place so let's have some good fun! However, and as Scott Rogers says, "Designing game systems is haaaaard" so be ready for it! 

Designing a gamified system? Challenge accepted! Here we go!



So here we are, some big company just told us they want to apply gamification and we are already thinking of cool mechanics, fancy aesthetics, maybe some epic story... but hey! this is not the beginning! Designing a system is like building a house, it's the base we should start with, not the furniture! 

Always keep in mind one thing: a game is a game because of the experience it delivers to the player. Without the experience, feelings and emotions, it's just an empty system! And it happens the same with gamification. 

Our very first step is the experience. We should ask ourselves this question: What feelings and emotions do we want our players to experience? Or in other words, how do i want the players to feel when playing my gamified system? 

Think of it for a moment, what do you feel when you are playing Guild Wars? Final Fantasy or Team Fortress? And what about The Sims or Angry Birds? 



It is very likely that you are thinking of words such as freedom, power, joy, wonder, courage, mistery, risk, anger, etc. Because if something is clear, is that games deliver experiences through feelings and emotions, and we should really take this into account. 

So, first of all, what is going to be gamified? Is it a product, a learning process, a working environment etc. And then, which kind of experiences may fit better? What is it that we want to provoke in our players?

 In example, if we were to gamify a candy shop, it could be great if we design a magical, delicious and tasty system that encourages freedom, awe, fantasy, etc. We already have some ideas about our players, so it's just a matter of matching the players and the best feelings.



How are experiences delivered? How can we make our players feel really deep and rich emotions?

Well, that´s a big thing, and there are so many elements involved, but one of them and our next step, is what Jesse Schell calls “The theme”. So, what is it? And to answer that question let´s formulate another one: why are theme parks called like that? Joining dots? Sure you are! 

The theme is the representation of the experience, what the game is all about, a general framework, the type of magic circle where it all makes sense. If we think of Disneyland, the main theme is the magical world of Disney, a fantastic environment where dreams come true and the impossible is not. Anyway, the list of themes is at some point endless, going from medieval to super heroes, and we can always mix themes to create a new unique one! 




So now we've got everything, let design!

SMAs Design Procces

 Define the objectives and goals: WHY 

 Describe the desired general actions: WHAT 

 Know your main types of players, but foster all: WHO 

 Determine the experience, theme and a simple prototype of the player’s journey

 Combine the stages, with the types of fun and player types using lean processes within design phases. Advance through them like this:


- Prototype of the onboarding storyline

- Mechanics and aesthetics that will fit better with the enjoyers (quick fun)


- Prototype of the midgame storyline 

- Mechanics and aesthetics that go better with the extrinsic players (extrinsic fun)


- Prototype of the endgame storyline

- Mechanics and aesthetics that go better with the intrinsic players (intrinsic fun)


= Phase 1 completed -> Design process completed 20-25%






= Phase X completed -> Design process completed 100% 

So this is my complete design process but it is a very personal approach, there are many others and all of them are valid! What I really want to highlight are the words “learn/test” and “pivot/go on” as the main keys of the process. 

So...gamify a system? Challenge accepted!! 

Victor Manrique 


Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like