PARIS - Imagine if getting a bank loan was like playing a computer game: as you performed special moves, completed levels and racked up points, your credit profile improved and your cost of borrowing dropped.
The idea is slowly becoming reality as new financial-technology firms and a few banks employ the vernacular of video games, such as high scores and specific missions, to influence customer behaviour and ultimately the pricing of loans.
So-called "gamification" in banking is still very much an experiment. Only 9 percent of banks have tried it out, according to financial association Efma. Even then, many big-name adopters have stuck to simple mini-games designed to boost customer loyalty with prizes and rewards.
But start-ups including European small-business lender Amikod and U.S. payday lender LendUp are paving the way for more complex applications that may capture the attention of banks, especially as financial firms struggle with tougher post-crisis regulation and competition from new online rivals.
"I wanted to bring my concept to market to prove it is a much better concept than the banks' approach," said Andrej Brilly, the 35-year-old Slovenian founder of Amikod, which does away with traditional application forms in favour of repetitive tasks that reward corporate borrowers with better loan terms.
The tasks - creating work projects, inviting employees to collaborate and setting up appointments to work on a project - are designed to improve efficiency, which Brilly sees as key to a small business's survival. As the customer completes tasks, its score goes up and the loan's interest rate goes down.
One customer, Miodrag Golubovic, who owns travel agency i.Fly, told Reuters the benefits were twofold: the tasks made his company more organised and the funding rate was attractive.
"They have made financing a fun game to play ... It gives us more time to concentrate on the core business that we do," said Golubovic. "If you follow the rules and become more organised, your interest rate can even go below the banking rate."
Loans range from 100,000 to 500,000 euros on average, according to Brilly. The default rate on Amikod's 15 million-euro ($20.5 million) loan book is a low 3.6 percent, helped by the fact that borrowers also pledge invoices as collateral.
The company is now branching out from its home market of Slovenia - where bad loans have pushed top banks to seek billions in fresh capital - into Britain and other parts of Europe, where it is eyeing more of the small-business market.
Consumer lending is another area ripe for gamification. U.S. payday lender LendUp, which counts Google among its backers, runs a "LendUp Ladder" that rewards high-scorers with better loan terms.
As with Amikod, the aim is to educate rather than entertain. Under the slogan "Let's climb beyond payday loans", the ladder game gives points to borrowers who complete tasks like taking personal finance classes or repaying loans on time.
Ultimately, these points allow customers to borrow more for longer. LendUp even says borrowers can improve their public credit score once they get to a certain stage.
Unlike peer-to-peer lending, another tech-driven model that matches borrowers with lenders across the world via online marketplaces, Amikod and LendUp's approach is more intrusive and is closer to traditional bank-client relationships.
Banks are paying attention and are dabbling in such techniques, though sometimes with mixed results. Their efforts are focused for now on retail banking, as corporate and advisory banking are still seen as a human skill and technology already dominates trading platforms.
Turkish lender DenizBank will soon allow users of its Tweet Loan service, which processes loan demands through social-media website Twitter, the possibility of reducing interest rates by increasing Twitter activity.
"We will measure promotional tweets which will enable the customers or the followers to get lower rates," said Murat Celik, digital generation banking EVP at DenizBank.
Polish bank Alior tested but then scrapped a scheme to increase customers' deposit rates by one basis point every time they beat a level on a mobile-gaming app.
"Market conditions didn't offer sufficient flexibility to allow us to manoeuvre with deposit rates," Alior's head of new banking, Celina Waleszkiewicz, said.
Spain's BBVA runs a popular game offering points to customers who watch financial education videos and refer friends; however, these points are then exchanged for physical prizes and do not appear to have any influence on risk pricing.
BBVA's management is, however, keen to talk up the importance of technology as a path to future growth for banks.
"Banks in future are going to be software companies," BBVA Chairman Francisco Gonzalez said after announcing the bank's fourth-quarter results on Friday. "It will be vital for the survival of an entity like ours."
NEW HOPE OR NEW HYPE?
Those working and investing in financial technology argue that even though the industry has yet to see a "killer app" that will change banking, gamification has potential.
"I'm a very firm believer that gamification is not a fad," said Alex Bray, director of the retail banking channel at financial software firm Misys, who helped Bulgarian lender DSK Bank develop a game designed to encourage customers to save.
"But I'm a little bit sceptical as to whether it will become the mainstream of banking itself."
Some European bankers, however, say heavyweight lenders with balance sheets in the trillions of euros are unlikely to ever feel pressure from a player like Amikod.
"Managers of big banks view startups or small competitors as ants that can be squished very easily if need be," said one Paris-based investment banker. "If the technology is so successful, they will spend the money to develop it in-house."
In the end, the outcome may simply depend on whether the banking industry returns to its pre-crisis health; a market awash with loans might be difficult for start-ups to penetrate.
"If the banks were providing loans without any problem on the market, we would not be here," said Amikod's Brilly.