Foursquare was never intended to be a game. The original game mechanics were meant to be a short-term and fun onboarding process to get people comfortable with checking in. As millions of people downloaded the app and started checking in, a weird thing happened. Even after months, they still loved the game. Like, really really reeaaally loved the game.
I've been working at Foursquare since 2010, in both Business Development and Product roles. I've checked in just about everywhere — logging over 4,700 check-ins! But even my interest started to fade when Swarm launched in May 2014. Checking in just wasn't as fun as it used to be.
But that was totally by design.
Swarm was spun out of Foursquare as a utility to help users keep up and meet up. It was a technical feat; passive location sharing with little battery drain, smart notifications when friends were nearby, and lightweight messaging tools. Swarm matured into a powerful social utility, while shedding its playfulness that made checking in fun and rewarding.
“Surprise and delight" is a term we use a lot around here. It's been our secret sauce since the beginning of Foursquare time. The best check-ins were those that gave you something completely unexpected. You dethroned your friend to become the Mayor of your favorite bar. You unlocked a badge for hitting your 25th different pizza place. The original Foursquare had a unique personality and voice. We took chances with things like the Crunked and Baggage Handler badges (looks like you've had your baggage handled!).
These were the moments that made people smile and slide their phone across the table to show friends. It kept them coming back.
“Bring back the fun" has been Swarm's mantra since I moved from the Foursquare team over to Swarm back in February. Our goal is to recapture this playfulness and make your day a little more fun. Whether you're checking in to a new coffee shop, the office for the gajillionth time, or grabbing dinner with friends, there should be this moment where you wonder “What am I going to get for this check-in?"
Checking in should feel like pulling a slot machine — but one that always pays out and makes you feel great.
Bringing back the fun wasn't something we could do overnight. We started by looking at Foursquare's early game mechanics — the ones that successfully motivated people to get off their couch and try new places. We didn't simply make a carbon copy of them. We scrutinized their flaws, then reimagined them in Swarm. Once we finalized our product vision, we had lengthy debates about how to roll this out. Should we stagger these into multiple releases or drop one huge update? In the end, we decided to bring back the fun in three big updates.
Phase 1: Stickers
Our first major update revamped the entire sticker game — our single player game. Stickers became the focus in Swarm. Think of them as Foursquare badges with superpowers. You unlock them by checking in to different places, at various times, with friends, etc. Where old badges just sat in a trophy case collecting dust, Swarm's stickers can be used on check-ins, in messages to friends, and to help you unlock other stickers.
We organized them into a set of 100 collectible stickers and the rules for unlocking them were changed from probabilistic to deterministic. This was an important change because it allowed us to orchestrate so many great surprise and delight moments. Shout “cancelled" or “delayed" at airports and you'll unlock this little gem.
And if stickers were to be the ultimate prize, unlocking them had to be an incredibly delightful experience. We spent an insane amount of time writing all the unlock copy — but it was totally worth it. These are the little details that give Swarm its own personality and voice. Today, people are adding stickers to their check-ins as a way of expressing what they're doing. We even see people asking their friends questions like, “How did you unlock Streaky?!"
Phase 2: Public Mayors
With the new sticker game live, we turned our focus to public mayorships — our global, multiplayer game. Foursquare's original Mayor game allowed you to compete against everyone on Foursquare. Each venue had only one public Mayor, and it was super competitive. But we often heard complaints that the game was too hard! In an effort to make mayorships more personal and achievable, Swarm's original Mayor game was only played against friends. As a result, the game became too easy, and earning the crown lacked a certain level of satisfaction and excitement.
In phase 2, we broadened the scope of the Mayor game so people could once again compete against everyone on Swarm, not just their friends. This created a lot more competition, and the app suddenly felt alive. For the first time you could see people other than your friends using Swarm! Dethroning them felt super rewarding. We reduced the 60-day window down to 30 days to maximize turnover and competition. This triggered more push notifications (“You've been dethroned as the East Village Tavern!") and encouraged people to reclaim their crown. Finally, we made the experience of becoming the mayor much more playful. A crown falls on your head, there's epic music, and a rain cloud cries on the poor soul you dethroned. We're working on new variations where a shark eats the former mayor, even one where a cute little bird drops a nasty bomb from above.
Phase 3: Leaderboard and Coins
Creating a competitive leaderboard was our most ambitious and challenging project. Again, we were inspired by some of the original game mechanics, but fine-tuned some of the rules. Instead of a rolling seven days where there were no winners or losers, we set a fixed schedule. Swarm's new leaderboard starts Monday at 12:01am and closes every Sunday at midnight. You compete with your friends to see who's having the best week. More interesting check-ins earn you more coins. Oh right, we decided to replace points with coins. Coins just felt much more fun to earn than points. You can see them, hear them, and fling them all over your screen. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to spend them one day (wink wink). And the best part… finish atop the leaderboard and you'll earn bonus coins!
Making sure the leaderboard was competitive and balanced created a handful of technical challenges; (1) scheduling a consistent start and end time while people have friends in different time zones, (2) determining the ideal number of people that should win bonus coins when they may have have anywhere from 1 to 1,000 friends, (3) awarding the right insights and appropriate number of coins for check-ins and winning the leaderboard. Detailing how we solved these problems is another post for another day. If there's enough interest, I'm happy to share the experience.
After months of developing, debating, and iterating, now comes the fun part. Watching people play with it. Over the past year, we've received so much feedback from our passionate and thoughtful community of users. And we want to say two things. Thank you and we heard you. Every support ticket, every app store review, every tweet — we read them all.
Swarm 3.0 is the most fun and rewarding check-in app this company has ever built… and we're just getting started. We're excited to release this final piece of the foundation so we can really start having fun with the app. We have a ton of new features we're already working on.
This release is a huge team effort by the super talented and dedicated Swarm team — Alia Ormut-Fleishman, Amy Wang, Benjamin Lanier, Bill Cauchois, Courtney Christopher, Esther Jung, Jeff Forbes, Jon Shea, Mitch Livingston, Nathan Yuen, Neil Sanchala, Nick Burton, Sean Salmon, Thomas Meng, Tracey Churray, and Zack Sheppard.
If you use Swarm, we're confident you'll dig these new features. If you were checking-in on Foursquare but didn't make the jump to Swarm, there's no better time than now. Everyone needs a little more fun in their lives, right?
Download the new Swarm — the fun little app that turns every day into a game.