strategies for motivating players largely focus on reward paradigms
(“carrots on sticks”) that dangle the sweet enticements of hidden
levels, provocative content, and variations on the Sword of A Thousand
Truths. But like all of us, don’t games want to be loved for who they
are deep down, and not what they have?
deep emotional engagement today’s games can elicit, it seems clear
there are more meaningful motivational dynamics that lie at the heart
of a player’s enjoyment. But what are they and how can we practically
understand and measure them so we can build better experiences?
of the biggest challenges to achieving such a model is that papers and
mini-theories about the “player experience” of gameplay are multiplying
like tribbles at a Barry White concert. This makes it very difficult
for developers, who are dealing with greater pressures on their time
and resources, to discern which approach (if any) will be of practical
value. What makes this even harder is that there is often no
statistically significant data to prove the real value of even good
ideas about playtesting and measuring relevant aspects of the
psychological world of players.
Here’s what we believe constitutes the four pillars of an applied player experience model:
It is practical to apply during development, providing meaningful and rapid feedback
demonstrates an ability to accurately measure player experience
variables that are statistically proven to relate directly to those
things that matter to developers, such as player enjoyment, perceived
value, likelihood to recommend, and sustained engagement
It empowers and facilitates creativity in development, rather than burdening it with a long checklist of requirements.
brings together rather than expands on player experience theory and
playtesting methodology (i.e. it moves us towards a “grand unified
Immersyve has been focused for the last several years on building
and testing just such a model. The academic battalion of our founding
group has clocked more than twenty years of empirical research into
human motivation and has detailed specific motivational needs that we
have been testing in the context of games, while our business
contingent has pruned back any ideas (even good ones) that couldn’t be
tied directly to tangible and practical value.
Here we will outline the elements of our model, citing examples from
a variety of games, and review some hard data that indicates how it can
help extend developers’ understanding of player motivation past
“carrots on sticks” and increase their ability to measure motivation
throughout development and even post-launch.
Sharpening Our Focus: Looking Deeper into the Measurement of the Player Experience
There’s no argument that the goal of games is to have fun, so it’s
not surprising that many write about the topic. But fun and emotions
are outcomes of psychological processes, and not the
processes themselves. If we want to build better and better games, we
need to look deeper and understand the dynamics that actually determine the emotional outcomes.
As an example, imagine you encounter your first rear-projection
television and want to understand what’s creating the images on the
screen. You can watch it from the front and very thoughtfully catalog
the images being output, such as the thousands of colors on the screen
or the pacing of images in different genres of shows. You might even
scientifically measure how dramas have darker pixels and comedies
brighter. From all this you may form some interesting theories about
what is going on and how the television works. But if instead you had
the blueprint of its inner electronics, you’d discover there was a very
elegant system consisting of just three colored lights that explained
all the myriad outcomes on the screen. You would have a concise and
practical understanding of the fundamentals that would help you enhance
the output and quickly troubleshoot problems.
In a similar way, our model diagrams the motivational lightbox that
lies behind enjoyable and meaningful player experiences. This approach
looks beyond emotional expressions and focuses on the basic psychological needs
that games can satisfy. Just like the television’s lightbox energizes
the myriad images that dance on the screen, our model is at the heart
of the player experience regardless of genre, platform, or even
individual differences in what players find fun. More importantly, the
extent to which players are experiencing satisfaction of these needs
can be quickly and objectively measured and show statistically
significant relationships with enjoyment and immersion, as well as
commercial outcomes such as ongoing subscriptions (decreased churn),
perceived value, and a player’s intent to recommend/purchase sequels.
In essence, we believe this approach represents a promising step
towards a “unified theory” of the player experience that is both
conceptually and methodologically useful.
Another way in which our approach differs from many others is that
we are not merely collecting a lot of data about player behavior and
then trying to read the tea leaves and take educated guesses at what
they mean. We are starting with a detailed and well-validated model
right out of the gate, then collecting data to test our hypotheses
about how those motivational lights combine to create the engaging and
fun experience all games strive to attain.
So let’s get into the details of this approach along with some real-world examples.