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

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.

 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.

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.

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…

Other games

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.
  • 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
  • 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’.

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,(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.

Posted in Uncategorized