What Motivates Players?
In this two-part article I will try to identify some player motivations in games, and how catering to those can lead to increased player engagement and enjoyment. I’ll have some examples of this being done in existing games, and provide my thoughts on how you can incorporate support for such motivations in your own.
I won’t be going too much into some of the “usual suspects”, like Bartle’s taxonomy of player types, self determination theory, etc. Rather, this is my own subjective understanding of what motivates players.
If you agree or disagree with any of the observations and suggestions I provide here, or if you have other examples of player motivations that go beyond what is listed, let me know in the comments below. With that said, let’s dive straight in and have a look at the first four player motivations on my list (in no particular order) — narrative, mastery, self-expression and ownership, collection and completion!
Core Player Motivations
Some games grab the player’s attention through narrative, which become the primary drive for the player to progress in the game. Old-school adventure games by LucasArts (Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango) or Telltale’s episodic series (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us) are prime examples of this. They use puzzle-solving to drive the story forward, but the actual puzzles are less important to players than the resulting story that unfolds.
The use of narrative as the primary driver for player progression can also be found in many “modern-day” mobile games. Take games in the merge/match-genres, like Merge Mansion, Love & Pies and Homescapes. These games rely on story for the initial hook to catch the player’s interest, and to give players mid-to-long-term motivation beyond the core gameplay, the mechanics of which tend to get repetitive once the player has fully grasped them.
The addition of a narrative layer can give players more context for what they’re doing, breaks up repetitive actions to make them less tedious and provides extra motivation for the player to continue playing, beyond “reaching the next level” or “finishing the next merge-chain”. Yet, the effect of the initial narrative hook will eventually fade away in such games, and requires that the narrative re-engages the player on a regular basis, or is supplemented by other elements like live events.
Not all games need a narrative hook — Tetris does fine without one! — but especially in combination with simple, repetitive mechanics that don’t give the player a clear sense of mastery, a strong narrative hook can have a positive impact on player retention.
- A layer of narrative on top of otherwise repetitive game mechanics can act as a retention hook, and provides players with additional motivation to keep playing and coming back for more.
- If including a narrative, introduce it early, to give context for the game mechanics and to showcase mid-to long-term goals.
- Narrative hooks can be framed as calls to action: “Rebuild the Mansion! Uncover the sinister plot! Solve the mystery! Save the cheerleader, save the world!” (Maybe ignore that last one, I’ve been rewatching the first season of Heroes recently… so good!)
- The effect of the narrative hook diminishes over time, and the narrative must re-engage the player on a regular basis to be effective.
Key concepts to read up on:
- narrative, retention hooks, calls to action, hero’s journey, player agency
Mid-to-long term motivation
When a game allows a player to learn, adapt and optimise their strategies while playing, or when it lets them improve the skill and/or muscle-memory required to overcome challenges, the player can develop a sense of mastery of the game.
This can provide strong intrinsic motivation for continued play, as players generally enjoy learning and improving! Yet, this is only true if the challenges presented to the player can keep up with the pace of the player’s own mastery improvements.
This balancing act between challenge and mastery level is a concept known as “flow” or “flow state”. The basic gist is that when a player’s mind is at the ideal point between “aroused” and “in control” based on their level of mastery versus the difficulty of the challenge presented, they’ll be in a state of “flow” where they are immersed in what they’re doing.
This provides an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the player is engaged with the game not because of extrinsic rewards, but because they are fully immersed and engaged with the game for its own sake.
However, as soon as the player has achieved full and complete mastery of the game mechanics, and no more challenges can be found, that intrinsic motivation fades away. Instead, boredom and relaxation take over. The game might offer other compelling reasons to stay (social bonds, ownership, collection, etc.), but the player’s mastery of the game will no longer be the driving factor.
Making use of the theory behind the Virtuous Circle Effect can also help players stay in this zone of mastery. If the player succeeds at something, make it easier for them to succeed again in the next few successive attempts. Then bring it up a notch by suddenly providing them with a bigger challenge to keep things interesting. Such a “string of successes” combined with bumps in difficulty level can help enforce the player’s feeling of mastering the game.
- For a player to get a sense of mastery of the mechanics in your game, they need to be able to make meaningful decisions along the way, and really feel like those decisions matter.
- The choices they make could be twitch-based (mastery of dexterity, reaction time, quick thinking) or be based on player knowledge (mastery of learning the game mechanics, applying the lessons learned, adapting to variants of known mechanics)
- Aim to keep the player in a balanced state of “flow”, as opposed to bored with lack of challenge or anxious about too difficult challenges.
- Don’t aim for a linearly-increasing difficulty throughout your game. Give the player some more difficult challenges every now and then, while also remembering to let them breathe after those challenges!
Key concepts to read up on:
- mastery, flow, being in the zone, difficulty levels, virtuous circle effect
Self-Expression and Ownership
Self-expression and ownership are two sides of the same coin. One leads to the other, and are among the strongest binding agents that keep players coming back to games.
Being able to express oneself or explore one’s identity in a game can be a strong motivator to keep coming back. Some examples:
- Customising the appearance of an avatar (any MMO ever)
- Designing and building a unique-looking base (Clash of Clans)
- Decorating a personal space (virtual homes)
- Leaving messages that other players can read (Splatoon, Dark Souls).
When such self-expressions persist beyond a player’s current session, and allows the player to leave a mark on the game for other players to see (customised house, area conquered and controlled by player’s guild), this also provides the player with a strong sense of ownership. It’s as if they own a small part of the game world!
Neither is exclusive to online games, though. Self-expression and ownership can also be found in single-player RPGs that allow the player to customise the look and functionality of their avatar(s), in “renovate and improve”-style merge games that let players choose which decorations to place out, or in action RPGs that encourage players to come up with their own novel and fun builds and playstyles.
- Both self-expression and ownership can lead to long-lasting player retention
- Fostering self-expression, in whatever form that fits your particular style of game, can also increase a player’s sense of ownership
- If you let the player leave a persistent mark on your game world (if it has a world), they will keep returning to your game, sometimes just to check if the mark they left is still there!
Key concepts to read up on:
- self-expression, ownership, persistence, long-term retention
Collection and Completion
Mid-to long-term motivation
This type of motivation can keep players playing a particular game far beyond the point where one would expect them to drop off. The more the player collects, the harder they’ll find it to leave the game. There’s always another collection to complete, another achievement to chase, and another mystery lootbox to open. This also feeds into the “ownership” type of motivation.
Games of all types and genres rely on this type of motivation to keep players engaged. From single-player games like Assassin’s Creed to social simulations like Animal Crossing to MMOs like World of Warcraft. From “gotta catch ’em all” games like Pokemon to “waifu/husbando” collection games like Genshin Impact or Epic Seven. They all tie in to the same primal drive in human/gamer nature — the desire to collect — or catch — them all, and then show them off to other players!
While these collection mechanics are super strong retention tools, they also raise ethical (and legal) questions. 🔗Governments and regulatory bodies around the world increasingly scrutinising games over concerns about things like lootboxes, gaming addiction and gambling.
Depending on the game and the specific mechanics involved (gacha mechanics being a notorious example), some players motivated by collection/completion might even veer off into addiction-territory. They might feel compelled to keep playing (and paying) even after they no longer find the game itself fun, often because they feel they’ve invested too much time, effort and money into the game to stop playing (see Sunk Cost Fallacy).
- Collection mechanics and systems can keep players engaged for a really long time if done right
- Achievement systems tend to be most effective when they don’t force the players to drastically change their playstyle to unlock achievements, nor require them to “grind out” the achievements through hundreds (or thousands) of iterations of un-fun activities.
- Think about ways for players to show off their collections to other players, and how your game can support this
- Stay up to date on how lawmakers and regulatory bodies around the world react to the inclusion of systems and mechanics that could be tied to gaming addiction and/or gambling, and where the lines in the sand are drawn (if anywhere)
Key concepts to read up on:
- collecting games, achievement systems, gacha mechanics, lootboxes, sunk cost fallacy
Conclusion — Part 1
Whelp, that’s all for now. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and be on the lookout for the second part of this article, which will tackle player motivations around community and sociality, cooperation, competition and money!