Easter Eggs versus Unlockable Items – which to choose?

Easter Eggs, hidden features within games, are a time honored tradition but they are nowhere near as effective a game mechanic as unlockable items for driving behavior. Here’s why…

First, what are they?

Those angry birds in spaceAn unlockable item, in this context, is an in-game benefit additional to what you get “out of the box” –  unusual ‘shepard’ armor in console game Reckoning or an extra level in Angry Birds Space. Traditionally you unlock the item by entering in a code gained from elsewhere, seeing it on a marketing campaign poster for example or playing a demo of a different game.

Unlockable items are a successful mechanic because they provide a direct (and trackable) link from the marketing campaign to the sales of the product itself. They are a real incentive for someone to act immediately based on a marketing message. By time bounding them (“only get this if you act before the end of the month”) they are additionally effective. Marketing departments can’t get enough of them.

Easter Eggs, on the other hand, are a hidden feature within the game itself. Typically added by bored programmers in the middle of the night without the explicit authorisation of the product manager. A classic Easter Egg is the 3D dungeon you can navigate by pressing the right combination of keystrokes within Microsoft Excel 1995. The 3D dungeon has no real use aside from showing off the names of the Excel programmers on one of the walls.

Easter Eggs are rarely “discovered” but usually the arcane code to reveal them, heres how to do it in Excel, is leaked from the original design team.

So, to summarise the differences:

Attribute Easter Egg Unlockable Item
Client Programming team Marketing Department
Traceable No Yes
Utility to the player No Yes
Distribution Word of mouth Marketing campaigns
Fun Always Often


Starbucks pick of the week card featuring adele

When it comes to Gamification then, its worth deciding which mechanic is likely to be most applicable to your own goals. If you’re looking for viral “underground” effects then an Easter Egg might be the way to go, but for large scale roll out in a controlled marketing campaign then an unlockable item is much more manageable.

For Starbucks the answer is clear, they use the unlockable items game mechanic in their “Pick of the Week” cards. Each week a new card with a “download code” is provided so customers returning each week to Starbucks get an additional benefit of a digital item. This might be an iphone app, a digital book or a music track.

Toby Beresford

Toby is founder and CEO of Rise the success tracking network to track, publish and share success. He was the 2013 chair of Gamfed.com - the International Gamification Confederation and organises the UK Gamifiers meetup. As a gamification leader, he speaks at conferences and hosts workshops. Follow him on twitter @tobyberesford and Subscribe to this blog at Gamification Of Work blog feed

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