Jon Weigand joined me in writing this post.

Our lives are full of quests. Remember that birthday card, send that email, or drag ourselves to the gym on a regular basis.

Epic Win is a to-do list with a lovely premise. You know all that boring stuff you have to do during the day? Why not be rewarded for it through the same kind of addictive gameplay systems at the heart of games like Diablo and World of Warcraft? From the game’s website, some marketing spiel on this point:

Rather than just mentally ticking off your chores, completing each one improves and develops your character in an on-going quest to level-up, gain riches, and develop skills.

By getting points for your chores it’s easier to actually get things done. We all have good intentions but we need a bit of encouragement here and there. Doing the laundry is an epic feat of stamina so why not get stamina points for it?!

Watch as your avatars stats develop in ways to represent your own life. Will you be a Maiden of Juggled Priorities, or a King of Win? The lifestyle you lead will decide.

An app with the slogan “Level-up your life” is in my wheelhouse. That’s why I’m let down by the actual product behind the pitch. Let’s break down the promise and possibility, the decisions and disillusionment, the ideas and implementation…

Epic Win is a terrible RPG

If you’re going to implement RPG elements in order to increase user engagement, it’s wise to first consider why people get so into these mechanics in the first place. You know how you can’t stop clicking on dudes in Torchlight? One of the main reasons for that addictive behavior is something called the “variable ratio reinforcement schedule.” This behavioral science basically states that people (or animals) will continue to perform specific actions for a very long time if you reward them on a regular but unpredictable basis for those actions.

Most loot-based RPGs build on this foundation by offering several types of rewards, each of which further engages the player by presenting interesting choices and enhancing the effectiveness of the player’s verb set. For example, many western RPGs reward desirable behavior with points to spend on specific skills in a skill tree. Skill trees present choices—do I want to be able to sneak up on people, or throw lightning bolts?—and also enhance player effectiveness—wow, lightning bolts are powerful! Over time, skill trees also encourage experimentation—sweet, now I can throw sneak lightning bolts!

Finally, in a well-designed game of this type, progression down a skill tree will itself open up new opportunities to make choices, both because a more powerful player can take on new and challenging obstacles and because special skills can be applied in specific situations (such as speech checks in games like Fallout). Aside from skill trees, rewards in RPGs can include equipment, stat boosts, level raises, access to new areas and quest chains, etc.

Epic Win throws these mechanics out the window. Instead of sporadically earning rewards that improve your ability to progress through the game or require thoughtful decisions, Epic Win instead rewards you with useless items. These items come with mildly amusing flavor text, if you like that sort of thing, but they really do nothing. Want to equip that helmet you earned? Well, too bad. There’s no such thing as “armor” or “weapons” in Epic Win—only loot. You can go to your loot sack and look at it. Have fun.

OK, you might say. The reward items aren’t very exciting, but so what? There’s all sorts of other stuff, like gold, and leveling up and character stats! Tell me about that stuff! Well, all right, but you’re going to be disappointed, you poor bastard.

Let’s start with gold. It exists in Epic Win. That’s about all that can be said for it. The same screen that shows your earned loot displays a tally of your miles travelled and the gold you have earned. Neither number applies to anything elsewhere in the game. You cannot use the gold to purchase things that might benefit your avatar, any more than you can use the miles to burn calories in real life. They are pointless decoration, borne of the conviction that, since players like watching numbers go up, more numbers must be good.

Similarly, statistics in Epic Win are cogs unconnected to a larger machine. You can designate tasks as feats of strength, stamina, intellect, social or spirit. (It drives me crazy that “social” is an adjective among nouns on that list, but I bet no one else cares, so let’s move on.) After completing enough tasks associated with a given statistic, that statistic goes up on your character screen.

Level progression is handled slightly more elegantly. Each time you gain a level, your avatar gets a nifty new piece of cosmetic equipment. Unfortunately, gaining levels is a plodding affair. Even if you assign each task the maximum possible XP value, it takes quite a while to reach level 2. There’s a reason why most games stack the deck in favor of hooking players on their progression system by doling out relatively high amounts of XP in the early going: it makes it clear what you’re working for. Given that leveling up is the only system that has any impact on the player’s experience whatsoever, that might have been a good idea here too.

The ultimate problem with the design of Epic Win as a game is that it isn’t one. It looks like a game, it barks like a game, it pees on the fire hydrant like a game, but in fact there is only one thing in the program that can loosely be described as a “game mechanic,” and that is holding your finger on a task in order to complete it. You place your finger on the task, and a green bar appears. Your avatar enters stage left, and punches the green bar until it disappears. This takes a few seconds—longer for more valuable tasks—and is less than thrilling.

One might argue that to-do lists are inherently about intrinsic motivation, rather than ornate reward systems. On the other hand, Epic Win is entirely predicated on the appeal of such systems.

Epic Win is a mediocre to-do list

Even if you do judge it solely as a task manager, Epic Win is underwhelming. There is no way to enter tasks through a web-based interface, so not only can you not easily add tasks when you’re using another computing platform, but you’re stuck with the iPhone keyboard. Even if the creators of Epic Win didn’t want to create an elaborate database-driven/cloud-based task manager, they could have piggybacked on an existing product like Google CalendarGmail, Remember the Milk or Evernote (see also Egretlist). Apparently this feature is planned in the future, and hopefully that update comes through some day.

There’s not even a way for Epic Win to notify you of overdue tasks. The app does offer push notifications, but only before the due date. Other communication channels, such as email, are not supported. If you’re excited enough about earning XP that you’ve chosen a to-do list which operates on an RPG model, wouldn’t the threat of devaluing a task if it went past due be at least marginally effective? Conversely, I’d like to be able to define bonuses for completing meta-tasks. For example, you might have a daily task to “go running” as a feat of strength. I should be able to designate “go running five times in a week” as a meta-task, a feat of stamina worth extra XP and skill points.

Epic Win also has no ability to learn, and no contextual or user-generated information on which to draw to improve itself. An app like this could include a searchable database of common tasks, each with a suggested skill and XP value. At the very least, Epic Win should remember tasks that you have personally entered in the past.

Always look on the bright side

Epic Win does have some positive qualities. The art design is gorgeous, with a stylized hair-metal-meets-Dungeons-and-Dragons thing going on. If I lived in New Jersey in the early ’80s, I would have wanted these characters painted on the side of my van.

The app runs well and is stable, even on my aging iPhone 3G. It also continues to be supported, with updates so far offering better task repeating options, push notifications, and a completed task archive.