What Else Motivates Players?
This is part two of an earlier post I made, where I continue to look in a very non-scientific way at what motivates players to play games, and at what I think designers and developers can do to support and enhance those motivations.
Without further ado, let’s dive in and explore some core player motivations related to sociality, cooperation, competition — and money!
Community, Friendship, and Sociality
Games have the power to foster social experiences, build communities, and nurture lasting friendships. These elements can transcend a gaming experience from “it’s just a game” to something more meaningful that gives the player a sense of identity and a place to belong — a home.
Effective communication tools are key to the formation and growth of meaningful social connections, friendships, and communities — whether within games or externally via platforms like Discord/Reddit. Without these, genuine social bonds struggle to take root.
Cultivating Social Bonds
Communities are made up of social groups that vary in size, trust, and stability.
Those groups range from a few close friends to groups of casual acquaintances, to small clubs/guilds, to expansive clans and guild networks, including mega-guilds with smaller offshoots. They can intertwine and overlap, and a player might belong to one or all of these, but regardless of size, they all contribute to shape a game’s community.
That community and its social groups grow stronger by enabling interactions and reciprocity loops between players. By levering the social norms and instincts associated with the “Reciprocity Effect”, a cycle of social obligation can be triggered, enhancing players’ intrinsic motivation to engage and interact repeatedly. Consequently, social bonds strengthen, and players are encouraged to return week after week, month after month.
Effective Social Features
Ironically, not all “social features” touted as essential for creating engaged communities and social experiences actually bring players closer together. Some are relics from the era of Facebook games, adopted even by today’s developers without critical thought to whether they still (or ever) actually work:
❌“Social media connections” may allow one to invite social media connections to join a game, but those invites are often ignored or go unseen.
❌“Sharing achievements with social connections” typically becomes background noise filtered out by both players and social media tools.
❌Random strangers added as friends based on server recommendations seldom lead to meaningful interactions and exist primarily to feed players more rewards through “ask for/send help” features that just become part of a player’s daily routine.
❌Leaderboards, while great for instilling competitiveness (another motivator), don’t inherently enhance individual player-to-player social experiences.
So what does enhance a game’s “sociality”? To name a few examples, without going into extreme detail: solid communication tools, player-created social groups, reciprocity loops, (true) gifting, shared spaces and social hubs, co-op activities with shared goals. mentoring, shared social group identities (skins, flags, tabards, uniforms), conflicts and competition between social groups, shared economic participation, political systems, reputation systems, and user-generated content.
- Allow players to join multiple social groups of varying sizes within your game to increase community interconnectivity and stability.
- Encourage repeat interactions and reciprocity loops to strengthen bonds between players.
- Consider asynchronous social experiences, which can increase the chance of player-to-player interactions, since they don’t need to be logged on at the same time.
- Simplify the process of inviting friends into the game, to capitalize on existing social bonds for more impactful shared experiences.
- Want to drive community growth and longevity? Give players communication tools. Give them shared social spaces. Go overboard with reciprocity loops. Empower players to create and share content within the game.
Key game design concepts to read up on:
- Dunbar’s layers/number
- Social groups
- Social psychology
- Reciprocity effect and loops
- Group stability
- Trust spectrum
- User-generated content
Consider games like Back 4 Blood or Warhammer: Vermintide, where players have to traverse perilous areas together while beset by relentless hordes of monsters at every step. Or survival games like Valheim or Conan Exiles, that enable friends to gather resources, build grand settlements, and explore wild lands together. Or Minecraft’s collaborative megastructures.
Take a look at It Takes Two, which requires two players, or the Trine series, which is arguably more fun to play with a friend (or two!).
These games have a shared focus on cooperative play, common goals, shared victories (and defeats), and fostering social bonds through collaborative experiences. Players rely on leadership skills, teamwork, communication, and cooperation. The focus shifts from individual performance to a collective effort to achieve shared goals.
Through shared tasks like group puzzles, boss fights, or encounters that are difficult to solo, players cultivate trust, empathy, and compassion, even if they were strangers at the start of a session. This provides opportunities for camaraderie, brotherhoods, and friendships to emerge and blossom.
However, beware of the pitfalls! If a game rewards individual performances but not cooperative play, players will forgo teamwork. If a game doesn’t provide players with effective communication tools, they can’t coordinate strategies or form any kind of social bond (even a game like Journey has ways for players to communicate, and even help one another). Without adequate ways to deal with griefers and disruptive players who might sabotage teamwork and create a negative environment, the cooperative experience will be harmed.
Also, note that for some players, the act of gaming with friends in itself is more important than the specific game being played!
- Promote cooperative play through challenges that require teamwork and group strategies.
- Use shared conflict as catalysts for player collaboration.
- Explore team or group-based rankings instead of individual-player rankings.
- Prioritize reward mechanisms that promote teamwork over “winner takes all” mechanics, even if some players benefit more from group efforts than others.
- Add features that allow players to celebrate each other’s achievements and shared victories.
- Reduce barriers of entry by making it easy for players to cooperate and contribute towards shared goals, regardless of experience levels.
Key concepts to read up on:
- Game theory
- Pro-social interactions
- Trust spectrum
- Group dynamics
Competing with other players can be a potent driver of player motivation, fuelling a desire to measure one’s skills against others, to ultimately emerge victorious.
Whether it’s to strive for victory in first-person shooters or to engage in intense battles in MOBAs or fighting games, competitive gaming transcends game boundaries and often extends far beyond into other arenas like Discord, Reddit, Twitch, etc. Even individuals who don’t actively play these games still engage with the players via live streams, video comments, etc.
This competitive spirit is not exclusive to video games; it thrives in trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, classic board games like chess and Go, individual sports like boxing or sprinting, and team sports like football or ice hockey.
The red thread through all these highly competitive games is that they’re founded on skill-based gameplay, where mastery matters more than luck. Another thing they share is matchmaking features that try to match up players of equal skill against one another. A football team in the EPL rarely squares off against teams from lower divisions, and in chess (and many video games), players are matched up based on ELO ratings that evolve per player over time as their skill grows (or fades).
Playing against real people matters
More importantly, they have players primarily face off against other real players, which raises the stakes… It’s more desirable — and feels better — to win against another player rather than against an AI opponent!
While not all players have a competitive streak, for those who do, the thrill of facing off against other skilled players is a compelling motivator — as long as they meet opponents that they stand a chance to compete with. If the difference in power level is high enough, it stops being a competition and starts entering “humiliation/hopelessness” territory instead, which could instead demotivate players and cause them to stop playing altogether!
- Increase player engagement (both in-game and out of game) by including competitive elements and features.
- Make it easy for players to stream their gameplay sessions.
- Include ways for players (and commentators?) to spectate other players/matches.
- Discourage toxicity in the game community; make it easy for players to report any negative behaviours and include support tools for moderators to effectively handle any cases that pop up.
- Before including communication tools like chat in the game, consider the target audience, and the potential for toxicity to emerge from those communication tools.
- Consider implementing matchmaking features that match up players based on skill-level/experience, etc. Avoid having beginner players encounter veteran players if they stand no chance of winning against them!
Key concepts to read up on:
- Player toxicity
- Communication tools
- Elo, a rating system for calculating relative skill levels of players, named after its creator, Arpad Elo
Last but not least, let’s talk about $$$! The allure of monetary gain in games that potentially let players take out more real-life money than they put in them can be a compelling and powerful motivator, though its extrinsic nature means its hold on players wanes as opportunities to earn diminish or fail to manifest as anticipated.
There are many examples of players carving out livelihoods through online gaming over the last two decades, with ventures that range from resource grinding and trading in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs), speculating on virtual “real-estate”, selling high-level game accounts, to taking part in and potentially winning esports tournaments with monetary rewards.
Beware the risks
The integration of tangible currency into the game loop can run the risk of derailing the gaming experience, however. For instance, the original auction house in Diablo 3 permitted players to earn real money for trading in-game items (of which Blizzard took a 15% cut), which was great for those few who dominated the market, but because the core game was heavily designed around this feature, it resulted in a negative experience for everyone else, since drop-rates for high-end item was kept low — to keep the price of items high!
It also undermined the loot-based gameplay experience that players expected; instead of consistently finding upgrades to items for their characters, players had to rely on grinding in-game gold and buying those upgrades directly from the auction house (AH) instead, either for said gold or for real-life money. The entire AH feature was later removed, and item drop rates increased to ultimately provide a better core gameplay experience.
Careful thought and planning ahead are needed when creating in-game economies with real-world money being involved!
Web3 gaming and NFTs
More recently, money as a motivator has made a comeback via Web3 games. There, players are able to mint, purchase, or trade in-game assets as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), potentially converting digital assets into tangible wealth. However, in the earliest days of Web3, the space was dominated by an influx of projects that prioritized evangelizing the backend technology of NFTs and cryptocurrencies over game design and gameplay, resulting in a sub-par player experience and subsequent backlash from the gaming community.
Since then, more serious actors (like Mighty Bear Games, with Mighty Action Heroes — check it out, it’s free to play!) have entered the space, ones with less of a “crypto tech/NFT trading first, gameplay as an idle afterthought” mentality, along with a shift towards a more “Web2.5”-style approach, which focuses on and incorporates more of the gameplay/meta features found in regular F2P (aka “Web2”) games. The overall quality of Web3 games thus keep rising, and might potentially soon rival those in the existing F2P segment.
- Allowing players to earn real money while playing your game can open up a whole new level of interest from people who normally wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to your game.
- Don’t neglect the game side of things in games that allow real-money trading! If the game itself is not fun or interesting, your game will eventually not have enough players to support the game’s economy.
- Ensure robust security and customer support measures to prevent and/or respond to scams, hacks, unauthorized transactions, issues players face, etc.
- Clearly communicate terms, conditions, and potential risks associated with real-money trading to players.
- Monitor the in-game economy carefully, and set up tools that allow developers to manage different aspects of said economy to prevent hyperinflation or devaluation, and ensure long-term sustainability.
- Be careful — and transparent — about “pay-to-win” mechanics, which can alienate some players.
- Understand the moral implications of targeting potentially vulnerable player demographics.
Key concepts to read up on:
- Real-money trading
- Gold farming/selling
The main takeaway from this exercise (and the previous one), is the following:
You can give your game a higher chance of success and increased longevity by supporting intrinsic (and to an extent — extrinsic) player motivations. Not only does it keep players coming back for more, but it can also lead to higher player engagement, better long-term retention, and even improved monetization.
What are your thoughts on what motivates players in games? Post a comment below and let me know!