Gameplay 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?
Given the 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?
One 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
It 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.
It brings together rather than expands on player experience theory and playtesting methodology (i.e. it moves us towards a “grand unified theory”)
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.
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.