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Staying Power: Rethinking Feedback to Keep Players in the Game
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Staying Power: Rethinking Feedback to Keep Players in the Game

October 27, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth article, originally printed in Game Developer magazine earlier this year, Microsoft Game Studios user research expert Phillips looks at a simple but vital problem - why people stop playing games, and what feedback we can give them to encourage them to continue.]

Most games are challenging by design. Winning every time isn't fun, but neither is always losing. The typical user experience is somewhere between these two, with most players experiencing some degree of failure. Players will lose races, blow up, fall to their deaths, get lost, or fail in thousands of different ways. Some will persevere and continue to play, while others will get discouraged and give up.

As we game developers seek to expand our audiences, some traditional methods of keeping players engaged are becoming less effective (according to Microsoft's databanks, which I use as the main source throughout this article). Fortunately, we can do some relatively simple things to motivate players.

Keeping players motivated is difficult. The most popular solution is to manipulate the game's difficulty using tutorials, dynamic difficulty adjustment, player-selected difficulty settings, feedback systems, userfriendly controls, and in-game hints. The goal is to strike the right balance between difficulty and player ability, thereby always keeping the player within arm's reach of a new achievement.

Despite these attempts to balance difficulty for a wide range of people, the players will still experience failure. More importantly, many of these folks will stop playing because of these failures. It's rare for people to leave a restaurant because they don't like the food, and it's not too common for people to walk out of a movie because it's bad -- but game players do put down the controller and leave the game all the time. What's worse, when game players have a negative experience, they are likely to tell their friends, family, and community.

When someone quits a game prematurely, we haven't just lost a player; we've created a detractor.

Quitter Talk

How serious an issue is quitting? It's worse than you might have guessed.

Table 1. The percent completion is found by dividing each player's Gamerscore by the total possible Gamerscore for the title; those numbers are then averaged.

Table 1 shows the average Gamerscore completion for each of the top 13 Xbox Live games for 2008. The data was drawn from about 14,000 players. As you can see, even the games with the highest achievement completion rates (Fable II and Call of Duty 4) had players who, on average, attained less than half the possible Gamerscore.

This particular sample tends to be more hardcore than the average player, and I would expect the actual completion rates for the entire population to be lower than the numbers recorded here.

Of course, the Gamerscore tells only part of the story. Players could finish a game and do little else, resulting in a low Gamerscore but high completion rates. However, most games award achievement points for completing the single-player campaign.

Table 2. The bar graphs show how many players earned a campaign completion achievement -- in other words, finished the game -- for the titles listed.

Table 2 shows how many players finished a sample of the games listed in Table 1 as determined by whether they earned a campaign completion achievement (on any difficulty). For even the most popular games on Xbox Live last year, about 30 percent of players didn't play to the end.

Players don't finish games for many reasons, but no matter what explanations arise, it's also likely that a significant number of players stopped out of frustration and that is what we will discuss here.

What leads some people to persevere after experiencing failure and others to give up? Why do some people anticipate eventual success where others only see continued failure?

There are probably many answers to that question, some of which are out of the game designer's control. However, there are at least two things we can and should do. The first has to do with how we word feedback to players, and the second is related to the goals we provide.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Sam Anderson
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Dweck's book Mindset is one of the only self-help books I've been able to stomach.

Damien King
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Great article. I think this covers some very important points. Focusing design around player motivation and encouragement is still in it's infancy I think - its easy to overlook player feedback when you're busy tweaking Awesome Boss Monster #4.

Console based games seem to be growing into the habits of showing real time advice, likely due to it's (generally) more casual audiences. For example, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 will remind the player about blocking (and which button to use for it) if they're taking a lot of hits and not blocking them. Little things like this make a big difference, in my opinion.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Excellent article! I do have one request, can you give a more concrete example of how a learning goal would be implemented in a game?

Jesse Crimson
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Nice article.

Small point of contention: while your ideas and suggestions are sound, your interpretation of the achievement data isn't. In your second table on the first page (campaign completion percentage), you assume this is a sign of how many people "quit" playing the game. That's an unsupported jump in logic. All it says is that people quit playing the campaign. Seven of the nine games listed have very heavy multiplayer components, and the other two (Fable II and GTAIV) are open-world titles. This data might be more useful on a per-genre basis rather than a top-nine or top-13 basis. You suggest that there might be other explanations, but I'm not sure that it's reasonable to assume that "frustration" is the most significant one (at least in the case of the games listed in those tables).

Jonathon Walsh
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Also doesn't the data miss how many people STARTED the campaign. All of those games except Fable II feature prominent multiplayer components that are a draw. For example. I brought CoD4 for PC and never even tried to complete the campaign. I think I maybe played 5 missions of it while I was without internet connection once. I think the data would stand on its own better if it had a metric for starting the campaign.

Also some achievements are multiplayer based vs single player so that will also throw the gamerscore completion % off won't it?

Dan Wilson
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Two popular games without any multiplayer component that I never finished are Bioshock and Dead Rising. There was too much hype, so I lost the feeling of personal investment in the game -- millions of other people were doing the same thing and probably enjoying it much more than I was. Then I had friends constantly updating me on their progress (achievements don't help, either).

These two games felt more like an obligation and catch-up than fun and compelling. It was a chore to play them because I felt like I was not playing on my own terms.

John Petersen
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I think they just get bored silly. I know I do. I can only do the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, for so long.

I don't have to tell you that there is alot more reasons they are putting down the controller. You know already that.

But until you start giving gamers what they really desire, the number of "Ditractors" is going to continually rise until they just say "F" it, and take up knitting or something.

Moeez Siddiqui
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"Prototype" and "Left 4 Dead" are examples of games giving tutorials throughout the entire game, telling the player hints and learning goals. A few more is the excellent positive reinforcement game from 2008, "Prince of Persia" where you never get a game over, get tutorials throughout in the same vein of "Left 4 Dead", and get visually pleasing performance goal completion in the form of healed regions of the world.

Dave Blanpied
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Great article. Thanks. Something to think about indeed.

Ashwin Ram
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Interesting article. There is some recent work on "drama managers" which orchestrate the game to improve the player experience. For example, the game could provide hints by inferring the player's ability, or vary the storyline based on player satisfaction models. See for example:

Much of this work is still in research phase but I hope industry-academia collaborations will begin to transition these techniques into production in the near future.

Bart Stewart
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As a bit of additional feedback, I've urged others to come to Gamasutra to read this article.

Along with many approving comments, the criticisms I've heard elsewhere and in the comments here appear to center on two things:

1. The data showing how many people don't finish games do not show *why* people aren't finishing games. This fails to provide adequate support for the author's later analysis and recommendations, which rest on an assumption that at least some players quit a game because they're failing at performance-based goals and not getting any help or encouragement for improvement.

2. The *how* matters, too. Like most people, critics tend to be practical -- they want to see how something will really work before they will accept that it can work at all. The author indicated that describing ways to implement effective feedback would be a complete article in itself -- so perhaps this criticism may actually be taken as encouragement for writing just such an article.

I'd very much enjoy reading that article.

Mark Kelly
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Further to previous comments, as well as 'why', I'd like to also see 'how long'- to use one of the games mentioned in the article as an example, I only acquired a copy of Fable 2 in the last week or so, so while I'm very much part of the 40-odd percent that haven't completed the campaign, the sole reason I haven't completed it is because I haven't completed it /yet/.

This also gives rise to another question- what else is the player also playing at the time? This is perhaps less easily measured- while it would be very easy to see that my progress through Fable 2 has been hampered by my also playing Saint's Row 2 (or that somebody who came late to the GHIII party has moved onto World Tour, Aerosmith, Van Halen, GH5 etc), it is perhaps less clear that I have also been making bits of progress through Little King's Story on Wii, which is something I've been playing in short bursts- which, if it was a 360 game, would also fall foul of my first point.

This is, of course, stat-pedantry, and not directly related to the issue of frustration, which I accept the statistics are simply a framing device. However, without taking these into account, we risk making some very wrong conclusions.

One question I do feel the need to ask, though: GTA IV has a lot of gamerscore dedicated to two large, expensive packages of downloadable content, one of which is not yet available to the general public. How have these been handled in working out the stats for the title in the first graph?

tuan kuranes
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Totally agree, consistent with latest findings too in neuroscience too:

Hint: "praise the effort, not the abilities."

Still, statistics here needs to be more precise indeed, with more structure :

- hardcore gamers stats and numbers, casual gamers stats and numbers, etc...) using consecutives hours played. we need percentile categories, here because of the highly separate by nature of profiles (hardcode gamers "always" finish games... even multiple times). So average here might not be as interesting.

Luis Guimaraes
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I think the main reason I don't finish games is because they are too long and become boring, or there's a lot of hassle within it, like I must pay 30 minutes of puzzle-solving for each 5 minutes of worth gameplay, and so on... It's a change in the whole game what's needed.

I never had patience to finish the UT3 campaing, but I may had around 100 or 200 hours of gameplay with it... I don't care about achievements and completing or goals, and in FEAR2 it was common to kill myself just to play a nice grunt fight again, since the game have a checkpoint system...

Jimmy Sieben
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Nice article. You should really give credit for the game screenshots.