Immersyve set out several years ago to bring a true applied theory of motivation to the gaming industry that would meaningfully contribute to developers’ understanding of what fundamentally motivates players beyond carrots on sticks. Methodologically, we also wanted to provide a practical playtesting model that respected the increasing pressures put on developers – one that demonstrated predictive value while minimally intruding on the production schedule.
The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction model (PENS) outlines three basic psychological needs, those of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, that we have demonstrated lie at the heart of the player’s fun, enjoyment, and valuing of games. By collecting players’ reports of how these needs are being satisfied, the PENS model can strongly and significantly predict positive experiential and commercial outcomes, in many cases much more strongly than more traditional measures of fun and enjoyment. And despite the simplicity of the model conceptually, it shows promise as a “unified theory” of the player experience by demonstrating predictive value regardless of genre, platform, or even the individual preferences of players.
In addition to its practical value as a playtesting tool, we also believe PENS brings conceptual value to the games industry in three specific ways:
PENS is a useful heuristic model of player psychology that developers can easily understand and tuck in their pocket. Creating a great game will always be an art and not a science – but having a compact understanding of a player’s motivational needs can catalyze innovation and help to vet specific design choices.
The PENS model and methodology can embrace innovation well into the future without falling prey to “feature creep.” One of the challenges of playtesting methodologies that focus primarily on mapping player behavior is that games and technology are constantly expanding behavioral outcomes (case in point: The Wii). This creates a moving target that behavioral measurement approaches must continually chase. By contrast, the motivational lightbox of the PENS model is a constant – it is measuring the fundamental energy of the player experience, regardless of its outward expression.
Describing the player experience in terms of genuine need satisfaction, rather than simply as “fun,” gives the industry the deeper language it deserves for communicating what makes games so powerfully unique. It allows us to speak meaningfully about the value games have beyond leisure and diversion, diffuses the political bias against games as empty experiences, and provides an important new lexicon in the Serious Games arena where, as the name implies, fun is not always the primary goal. When we speak of games in terms of their satisfaction of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, we respect that this is both what makes them fun and also what can make them so much more.
We look forward in the near future to reporting further on the development of the PENS model, and hope that these ideas continue to prove their value to developers and playtesting.
Ryan, R., Rigby S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). “The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach”. Motivation and Emotion, Springer Science and Business Media (reprints available)
Rigby, S. (2004). Player Motivational Analysis: A model for applied research into the motivational dynamics of virtual worlds (.pdf available)