Gamification case of study: how Google Maps increased downloads without marketing

Posted on Posted in Gamification


The April Fool’s Day is a golden opportunity for brands to get noticed. Google won the challenge thanks to gamification.

Every year many brands and companies are competing to see who will be able to win the title of best April Fool. This year, the one who manages to stand out from the crowd is definitely Google. If you have used Google Maps from March 31 and April 1, you also may have noticed the gamification technique applied by the Mountain View team. If you are among those who do not often get lost, this is what we are talking about:

Google Maps Pacman
Ms. Pacman on Google Maps… That’s simply awesome.

Google is not new to this type of gamification activity, they love put mini video games like Pacman on their applications and let the users have fun with them. The reasons why they devote so many energy into this kind of gamification techniques are multiples. First of all: brand awareness. Make people talk about your brand, in such a viral and positive way, it’s always great. While we are writing this article, thousand of newspapers, blogs, forums and of course people on social network are talking about Ms. Pacman on Google Maps.

Search results on pacman google maps
Just a few hours from the launch and internet is exploding.

This kind of hardcore gamification technique leads to other benefits… Brand awareness isn’t the only reason to put Ms. Pacman on Google Maps of course. Analyzing the data from App Annie, we can observe a boost in the Apple Store ranking from March 31 to April 2, with the maximum of the peak exactly on April 1.

Google Maps app rank history
This chart shows the position of Google Maps into the US Apple Store. The red circle highlights the benefits of Ms. Pacman.

The chart speaks for itself: gamification helped Google Maps to rise through the ranks, from ninth to third place of “overall category”, which is the hardest one because there are lots of huge apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Messenger that consistently occupy the top positions. For those who have no experience of app store optimization (ASO), this kind of boost on the Apple Store ranking is due to an increase in downloads, and being at the top of the overall category leads to more visibility and more downloads too (there may be other causes that lead to an increase of positions in the rankings, but will not be discussed in this article).

Why people get excited about an old game?

Pacman cabinet 1980

Pacman has been released for the first time in Japan, in 1980. How can a game so old cause results so extraordinary even today?

In the previous paragraph, we saw how gamification can improve brand awareness and downloads basically without marketing. We focused our discussion on the specific case of the Apple Store in the US region, but we assure you that the boost occurred in virtually all world’s regions and also in the Google Play Store. That means a ton of people downloaded Google Maps just to play a video game that was fun in the early 80’s. So, how is it possible that Ms. “not-so-cool-anymore” Pacman generated this madness? There are two answers: social influence and curiosity.


Google Pacman share with friends
At the end of the game, Google let you share the score with your friends.


Gamification has different core drives. A good gamification designer should consider all the core drives but, sometimes, you only need one or two of them to reach your purpose. So did the Google’s designers. The goal was to create something that would become viral for a couple of days and then disappear. Honestly speaking, the game experience itself of Ms. Pacman on Google Maps wasn’t good. After all, it did not need to be good. With the audacity that characterizes the brand Google, they put an old and classic video game into Google Maps. The fact that it was totally out of context, and the fact that everyone knows Pacman, stimulated the curiosity of people to the point of pushing them to download the app just to see the game. Moreover, with the simple option “share your score”, people were able to let know to their friends that something unusual was happening on Google Maps, bringing the results that we have already seen.

Anyway, without removing any merit to the developers and marketers that worked at the “Ms. Pacman Project”, Google has not done anything new in the gamification world. Similar operations can be found, for example, in many contemporary video games or movies, and are called “Easter Eggs”.  We’ll continue to post interesting cases of study to deepen the knowledge of these practices, in the meantime, if you are thinking of publishing a version of Pacman on your website or app to increase visits, we want to tell you that probably will not work. Send us an email, we’ll take care to grow your brand with the proper gamification techniques.