Rookie or real player? The rise of Seth Priebatsch

June 22nd, 2011 by

Seth PriebatschHe’s 22, he wears a lot of orange and he wants to build a game layer on top of the world. I’m talking, of course, about Seth Priebatsch. Founder and “chief ninja” of location-based gaming service SCVNGR, Priebatsch is the media’s favorite gamification geek. Back in March he gave a popular SXSW keynote speech and since then the blogs, articles and TV spots just keep on coming.

Journalists are clearly hypnotized. But does this “proud Princeton dropout” really deserve quite so many column inches? Priebatsch often claims that game mechanics can make people do anything. If that’s true, skeptics might ask why SCVNGR is still only a moderately successful app. You do get the feeling that the pundits (and possibly Priebatsch himself) will only be satisfied with Mark Zuckerburg levels of success. So is it all just hype or do Priebatsch’s projects live up to his ambitions?

Big deals
Priebatsch’s first step towards building “the game layer” was SCVNGR. Tagline: “Go places, do challenges. Earn points.” Think Foursquare only super-gamified and with more free stuff. In return for completing challenges users (over 1 million of them so far) unlock “real world rewards” provided by local, participating businesses.

Most 22-year-olds would be happy with one multi-million dollar startup. But not Seth. Eighteen months after launching SCVNGR, the blue-eyed boy from Boston announced his second venture: LevelUp. LevelUp is part location-game, part daily deal site. The theory goes like this: sites like Groupon are great at attracting lots of customers; sites like Foursquare are great at keeping customers engaged and loyal. Combine the two and you should get millions of loyal, engaged (and profitable) users. Simple.

In practice, Levelup is a mobile app that offers users three different levels of localized deals: good, better and best. Each time you buy one deal, you unlock (or level-up to) the next. To me, LevelUp feels a bit like gaming-by-numbers, but according to Priebatsch the system is “carefully crafted to create loyalty”. The game is currently up and running in Boston and Philadelphia (next stop San Francisco). Good news for East Coast residents in need of discount sushi/ tooth whitener/ rock-climbing lessons.

Over hyped and over here?
Even by Priebatsch’s standards, trying to break into the daily deals sector is hugely ambitious. Established companies like Groupon and LivingSocial are already worth billions. Plus Groupon is rumored to be in talks about integrating with Foursquare. That could spell serious trouble for LevelUp. Say Priebatsch’s three deal system takes off in a big way. What’s to stop a newly merged Foursquare-Groupon hybrid going one better and offering a four deal version (like a tech version of those old razor-blade ads)?

Like many “gamifiers” Seth Priebatsch still seems to be figuring out exactly how to translate his grand vision into cold hard apps. Right now, this fast-talking, hard-working entrepreneur comes across as at little too focused on image as opposed to product. Compared to the inspiring speeches, Priebatsch’s games are surprisingly unsubtle (LevelUp is basically a game where you get to do one thing three times). But it’s easy to forget that this guy is only 22-years-old. Maybe, like the gamification sector as a whole, he just needs to spend a little more time in development.



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