"Real relationships... don't have anything to do with the kinds of things that we're spinning our wheels about right now as we look at [games] particularly in the social space."
So says Scott Rigby of Immersyve, a company that focuses on consumer behavior research to improve engagement and retention, at the final GDC Online lecture today.
The enormous schism people draw between sincere relationships and monetization isn't realistic, he says. "We've been making a false distinction that we have to choose," Rigby says.
The psychology of what keeps players engaged in games "is all related to having a deeper, more meaningful relationship, rather than one that's kind of happening because of all the trappings around it." So what really creates a deeper and more sustained engagement with games?
In terms of social networking behavior in general, "you don't have to try to trap [players]," he says. When a player is genuinely engaged, they will spontaneously tell their friends about it.
Rigby sees three core areas where developers can give players a genuine sense of meaning that naturally motivates them to play and to share their experience, without the need for mechanics that "trick" players into pushing a product on Facebook's viral channels or demand they spend money when they don't actually want to.
Leveling up is a key concept associated with mastery -- but "I question whether or not leveling up is really related to the satisfaction of mastery," says Rigby. So his team studied leveling up, and found that people's sense of confidence is related not just to growth, but to meaningful growth. So when tuning even something like leveling, adding something meaningful or satisfying to the player is necessary.
"A lot of the mechanics that you guys are aware of... what we're trying to do is be like a four-year-old who's always saying 'why,'" he says. What supports people's feeling of mastery is "sustained competence feedback," some kind of information they can use to apply to and understand their own progress. "You can tell people they suck... but as long as you're giving them that information in a way that helps them grow to the next level, they can have that satisfaction."
The player must also have a sense of personal agency to remain engaged, Rigby said. City-building games have the opportunity to provide players a great sense of autonomy, for example. Having lots of selectable opportunities in one's perceptual field immediately visible also provides players that sense. One's FrontierVille game screen, for example, can have several available tasks on the screen at once, and because the player can see them all, they feel powerful when they are at liberty to select them in an order they choose.
This makes a player feel like they matter, leading to an important facet in group play: when everyone has a role or a sense of where they belong in the group dynamic.
Rigby poses: "Are there mechanics that allow for... interdependence, so players can really feel like they matter in the context of play?" It's key for players to feel that they have a unique role to play in a group of other characters, whether or not those are represented by real friends. That principle drives people to tend each other's crops in social games or share gifts with one another, because they get a sense of contributing.
It also can keep players engaged and motivated when they feel the characters in a game world rely on them, or when party members in an RPG interrelate. The principle can also work by giving a player a companion character that relies on them, such as Fable II's dog. "These are related to people staying and sticking around in your game," suggests Rigby.
Relatively few games satisfy all three of these areas. In general, he says, group raids in MMOs are good at offering players a sense of mastery and belonging, but fail to give players a sense of autonomy satisfaction, as they're so tightly choreographed -- each person has a role, and limited movement outside of it.
But World of Warcraft's flying mounts are so popular because they hit all three areas: Players experience a sense of mastery, since it's a reward for a high level achievement; they get autonomy, because they are now more free to navigate the world in a new way, and they have a new perspective on where they stand in the world relative to other characters.
The Downside Of Rewards
Simply giving players something they want doesn't work in the long term, Rigby warns. "Rewards are becoming a huge mechanic in online games and social games," he says. "A lot of it is really bothering me, to be honest, because our data suggests we might be going in the wrong direction. We need to give people things to get them to keep playing?"
"You start to focus on what's that external thing they're going to get, rather than on the experience themselves." he says. Arbitrarily giving players things does not, in fact, increase engagement. Without meaning, rewards can actually diminish long-term satisfaction and engagement.
For example, you cheapen a relationship by throwing money and things at a significant other. "People start to feel controlled," he says, and when they feel that way, they leave. "We're always worried about how we throw more stuff on top, and in some ways we end up creating our own problem."
He points out that many people start new characters because they'd like to level up all over again -- players enjoy the meaning in the process, and rewards can be counterproductive without it. He says that extrinsic rewards do work, but only in the short term.
Extrinsic rewards are also less likely to inspire a person to share the experience with their friends or invite them to join, since a gain received without meaning isn't something anyone really wants to talk about after a while. Those relationships are most important -- the social pressure that many Facebook games demand can work against them.
Obligation to return a favor in a social game can at first drive engagement. But when players start to fear alienating their real friends because of their Facebook wall posts or because they reject a request for help on their virtual farm, they'll actually shy away from keeping up with the experience.
Intrinsic motivation is key, he concludes, and any efforts to circumvent that in favor of a focus on behavioral metrics will result in a product that fails.