In 1977 Mattel released the crude handheld Auto Racer. It was peerless due only to being the first mobile electronic game, allowing experiences the player normally found in the living room or the arcade wherever they were.
Over 30 years later mobile devices and their games are ubiquitous and delivering a console-like experience on them no longer exceptional. However a new design forefront has opened up which utilizes an often ignored advantage of mobile. Location awareness. Using it well can create an experience which is compelling, changing and personal, but how to do so is only just emerging.
Location-based services are rising in popularity, with an estimated 33.2 million Americans using them in 2010 alone, up from 12.3 million the previous year. Although most location usage is navigational, apps such as Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla use checkins, which register a user's presence at a location, to create new social services incentivized with trendy gamification mechanics.
Checkins have proven advantages and offer game makers great new potential which have being realized in tiles such as Booyah's My Town, Chillingo's Merchant Kingdom and Mobile Pie's very own My Star.
This article will describe player retention basics, from compulsion loops in Super Mario Bros. and FarmVille, to their importance in social gaming and how location can be applied as a new player return trigger. I will also explain my experience and the application of location to My Star, whilst looking at the additional, less obvious, benefits location brings.
Compulsion loops are nothing new and are recognized as the model for almost all continued human engagement with media. Understanding and applying them makes for great design and fun games.
A compulsion loop is a mechanic in which something provides someone with a reward for accomplishing a goal, then sets them a new goal, creating a loop of process and reward. This process keeps the audience or user engaged until such time that they feel the process of accomplishment outweighs the reward or the goals simply run out.
In linear narrative, such as books or TV, the compulsion to stay engaged is the revelation of plot; keep paying attention to a story and plot points will be resolved, offering a satisfying sense of closure. When an audience is disinterested in a narrative, it is often because the compulsion loop has failed; the urge to discover resolution is not strong enough in the audience's mind to outlay the mental energy of paying attention.
Compulsion loops are also found in all video games. In Super Mario Bros., for example, the reward is reaching the next level, and the method of reaching it is completing the current level. When a player's skill in the game is below the threshold required to complete the level, they become frustrated and feel the outlay to achieve the goal is too high, and are lost. Conversely when the outlay is very low the goal is devalued, which can also lead to disengagement.
What many successful social games do well is keep a player regularly engaged over long periods of time, months or years, by having short, regular play sessions spaced out by compulsion loops which use time as a return trigger. In FarmVille a player plants a crop, which will take two hours to grow. They know they can return between two hours and, say, a day, to collect their reward: currency which can be spent on other items or more crops.
Here the player is rewarded for their commitment with options for customization and embellishment; virtual currency that can be spent on clothing, furniture or ornaments. It is offering achievable, appealing rewards to casual gamers deterred by core titles which reward skill and dexterity with more challenge, creating a hugely mass-appeal proposition.
Having constant regular engagement is very important for a free-to-play title. Firstly a repeat user can be served lots of adverts or product placement, but secondly they are more likely to see worth in their activity, because of the time investment, and thus complete a microtransaction.
To this end time-triggered compulsion loops are very powerful and important. Yet they have a weakness in that they commonly augment a user's daily routine; that is to say that the player sets tasks that are available to collect when they are available to play, which can lead to stagnant play patterns and quick churn (time between first and last play).