Sisyphus, a king In Greek mythology, was punished for cheating death. In the underworld he had to roll a large boulder up a hill. Every time he almost reached the top the boulder would roll down again. Sisyphus was cursed to repeat the same task every day. That’s what it felt like when I spend a few days trying out the gamifications inside the popular Chinese e-commerce app Pinduoduo…
For two evenings I had been glued to my smartphone screen to explore and understand the machinations behind the gamification that gives e-commerce app Pinduoduo such a high retention rate. Questmobile figures from the first half of 2020 showed extremely high stickiness of the Pinduoduo app, as discussed in the first article in this series. Almost half of its monthly active users opened the app at least once a day.
As I had seen in the previous two evenings, the gamification in which users chase hong bao (red envelopes), micropayments, PDD coins, beans, cat food, fortunes, waterdrops, fertilizer and cow food keeps the more gullible Pinduoduo users coming back attempting and spending hours to earn hard to obtain prices while pulling in their friends and buying cheap stuff in the process. But it’s also quite addictive, which explains that I opened the app a third evening, despite the fact that it had giving me a splitting headache the previous two nights. Just one more game, one more…
The long and winding road of ‘Duo Duo Crush’
A game that seems to be a near copy of Candy Crush is Duo Duo Ai Xiao Chu (多多爱消除), literally translated ‘Duo Duo loves to eliminate’, but let’s call it Duo Duo Crush.
It started with a cartoon of an empty road, immediately followed by (of course) a wheel of fortune.
Like in the Duo Duo Earn a Fortune game I won several ‘free orders’. I got 20 minutes to order three times and was also told that I would get a ‘package of tools’ with my order. It wasn’t clear to me what these were since the game hadn’t even started yet. Later I would realize that these are gadgets you can use to get ahead in the game. It is a bit like video games with in-app purchases, like a sword that helps you kill monsters.
Playing the game will get you cash in your WeChat Pay, a mobile payment app, it said. Where have we heard that before? In the game you need to pull similar fruits and vegetables in a pattern to remove them.
Every time I finished a level two things happened. First, a lucky cat shows me how I added 1 RMB to my prize (I started with 12 RMB). Later this reward per round goes down to 0.05. Seemingly I need to reach 20 RMB to get the cash.
Second, a cartoon girl gives me a hong bao, a lucky red envelope, with a random amount of a few RMB that is added to a second separate prize. I needed to get that second prize up to 30 RMB within 29 days. When I would reach 30 RMB I could transfer it to WeChat Pay. Judging from the other games like Shake Money this will probably be progressively more difficult or even impossible without involving friends or making purchases.
After the first level, a pop-up with the lucky cat informed me, I’ve won 12 RMB but I need to finish another 9 levels to claim it. The previously empty road now shows all the next levels.
In the next level the aforementioned ‘tools’ were introduced, and it soon became clear that you really need them to progress in the game, which gets more difficult with every level. To get more of these tools you need to buy products. When buying products you get virtual diamonds, which can be used to buy tools in the game.
Where the other games have little or no sound, this game comes with music, sound effects and a cartoon girl encouraging you. After each next level I earned 1 RMB more.
Sometimes the game gave me a free tool, like a hammer, to help me in the game. It seemed it wanted to convince me of their usefulness and the need to buy products to get more of them.
More than 20 minutes into the game I was finally at 20 RMB. But the game didn’t hand it over so easily. It just took my 20 RMB as a starting point for a new game in which I needed to return every day for 15 days to punch in. It did promise to give me 3 RMB extra the next day though.
The game showed me that I could earn some ‘energy’ by looking at products. I was also told that I could get 30 minutes of ‘stamina’ when I placed an order. I’m not sure what these are for and although I could use some energy and stamina after spending all those hours on Pinduoduo I don’t think it would have been enough for me to continue.
When I was shown the road with the 10 levels I had finished and scrolled up only to find that the road was endless I got the dreaded feeling that like with all the other games, getting cash out of Duo Duo Crush is a Sisyphean task. I decided to call it a day.
Later I would check what three evenings of trying out different games in Pinduoduo have earned me. My WeChat Pay account showed five micropayments from Pinduoduo with a total of 0.07 RMB, or 0,9 eurocent…
With these three evenings of ‘fun’ and four articles I have only scratched the surface of the games that can be found in Pinduoduo. The app also includes a step counter. When reaching a certain daily number, you can earn payments to WeChat Pay (yeah, right…).
There’s also a space invaders-like game in which you need to invite your friends to help win a large prize.
Without a doubt there’s even more games to find in Pinduoduo for those who have the perseverance to explore further.
Pinduoduo’s gamification can be summarized as follows:
- In any game, new items constantly keep appearing on the screen, making you curious to try out these new functionalities and keeping you glued to the screen.
- Games start simple but keep adding more complexity after a while. For instance, to get more beans you need to feed a cat, which is essentially a game within a game. When you progress in growing a fruit tree you can start growing potatoes and raising cows.
- Many small rewards require users to check in and click on buttons in various games every day or even multiple times per day. This is how Pinduoduo gains their high daily active user number.
- Progressing quickly in any game requires either buying products or inviting your friends to install the app and participate. Hence rewards given are basically acquisition and retention marketing costs.
- In some cases, it is probably impossible to reach goals without buying products or inviting friends, for instance when trying to claim a 100 RMB Shake Money prize.
- Some small components required to play a game, like fertilizer or waterdrops, are giving for simply viewing products for 30 or 60 seconds, thereby confronting users with all the cheap deals in the app. This will often lead to conversion and purchases.
- The only easily claimable rewards are micropayments to WeChat Pay. Since this concern just one or two cent (in RMB) they are a tiny marketing investment for Pinduoduo to make users open the app frequently.
Pinduoduo positions all of this as fun. It has described their tactics of fun and discounts as ‘Disneyland meets Costco’. A commissioned report by China Channel described the ‘entertainment-driven user experience’ as a Digital Carnaval. But at the end of the day, it’s just a marketing tactic and one that borders on the devious at that.
Pinduoduo’s main target audience are the more price-sensitive consumers of lower tier cities and the rural areas of China. Middle class city dwellers are less interested in spending lots of time finding cheap deals for commodities and most of them certainly won’t have time to play the frustrating games in the app. To me it’s rather saddening to think of all those Chinese with less disposable income wasting time in the app.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the C2M approach (link in Dutch) behind Pinduoduo’s business model is a smart one and beneficial to manufacturers, farmers and consumers alike. As such the company should be applauded. But the tactics used to get people to frequently open the app and look at products, only to earn a few miserable RMB after hours of staring at a screen, borders on the unethical. I have no problem with people playing casual games, not even if they involve in-app purchases to get ahead. That’s simply the business model of a true gaming company: revenue in return for real entertainment. In the case of Pinduoduo I don’t consider the games to be true entertainment. They even cause more stress than helping you unwind. It’s just a marketing tactic to get you to buy more stuff you might not even need.
2021 has been a year of extensive regulation of the platform economy and online industry. Much of this has protection of the online consumer as an ultimate goal. We’ve seen restrictions on misleading adverts and pop-ups, draft regulations on the use of algorithmic recommendations and limitations of the number of hours minors can spend in online games, with Tencent even adjusting their policies for adults. I wouldn’t be surprised if consumer manipulation through gamification was next on the list of the regulators…
Read the other articles in this series on PDD.