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High numbers and numerous highs

How can video games motivate players to keep playing?

Most of us have memories of games which we just couldn't stop playing. A memorable example for me is the push to get to the end of Shenmue II at 1:30am the night before an A level English exam. It was clear the end of the game was approaching, and all the time and effort I had invested in Ryo's journey pushed me to see it through to the end, now, regardless of any real life responsibilities. The game had motivated me to keep going.

A common metric used by players to judge the value of a game, whether valid or not, is the amount of time spent playing. Taking this into account, many games of the past few years have made efforts to introduce ways to increase this. From collecting pointless shiny things to tacked on multiplayer, this allows players to spend more time playing the game even once the main narrative is finished. Developers want to motivate players to keep on playing.

So, what kind of motivation can a game developer inspire in players?

The lure of accumulation

Adventure capitalist screenshot
Martian capitalism has no need for your human numbers!

The impetus for this article is the mobile game 'AdVenture Capitalist', a brilliant satire of pointless mobile games and capitalism which is itself a pointless mobile game. The game casts you as a nameless capitalist, and to progress you must continually tap your collection of businesses to 'run' them and gain profits. Starting with a lemonade stand and working your way up to Oil companies, then opening businesses on the Moon and eventually Mars, your net worth slowly accumulates into figures I had to look up to understand.

The end goal of the game is to accumulate money, and in doing so illustrates perfectly the potentially hollow achievement of extrinsic motivation. My achievements in the game, through patience and reinvestment of my earnings, only brought about a desire to see my number of digital dollars rise higher. Eventually, somewhat prompted by my other half and disillusioned by a 'Valentines Special Event' which saw me continually tapping a button to nontuple my profits, I removed the game from my phone.

The buzz of mastery

The XBox 360 introduced a scheme called 'XBox Live Arcade', or XBLA for short. The aim of this was to introduce smaller budget and more varied games (commonly referred to today as 'indies') to the the system as cheaper downloadable titles. One of the standout successes of this initiative was 'Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved'. This game is a simple twin-stick shooter where waves of enemies appear and the player's ship must survive and destroy as many enemies as possible, for a high score.

I have chosen this game as a counter example largely because it is a game I really enjoy, but also because it illustrates intrinsic motivation. For me at least, my enjoyment of the game came from the slow incremental improvement in my own ability, understanding of the types of enemy ships and control of my own ship, rather than a specific in game reward. I still play Geometry Wars regularly and although the later games have modes with more variety, bosses and challenges, my favourite thing to do is go into the 'Retro' mode and replay the game with the same set of rules as back on the original XBLA version.

Geometry Wars screenshot
Geometry Wars gets a bit busy sometimes

Why am I playing this!?

So, to clarify, my definition of extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform a task in return for a specific reward, and intrinsic motivation to perform a task as its own reward. This is a huge oversimplification but for the purposes of this article I'm running with it. The rub comes when we start to dig deeper into the mechanics of games, including my two examples.

In AdVenture Capitalist, the aim of increasing a number is actually very similar to a mechanic in Geometry Wars; the scoreboard. Geometry Wars has online scoreboards allowing you to compare your performance to your friends. Could it be argued therefore, that the act of replaying the game to increase my score, to 'get a higher number', by repeatedly playing the game, 'grinding' as it were, could be related back to my ever increasing dollars?

And as in Geometry Wars, whose online scoreboard gives a player a reason to play the game outside of a specified 'in game' reward, AdVenture Capitalist repeatedly offers the player the chance to post their profits to Facebook, suggesting the social motivation of beating your friends and feeling rewarded outside of the immediate reward of increasing numbers.

Merging motivations

So what can we take away from this? Perhaps that motivation in games is a lot more nuanced than it would first appear, perhaps that a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is needed to both engage a player and keep them engaged?

Taking the humble RPG as a simple example, let's consider how grinding levels, something which on first glance is obviously a task with a specific reward, is actually used in most RPGs as a mechanism to drip feed content, including the ability to equip new gear and skills, and to get through a tough area and see more of the game. It could be argued that the intrinsic motivation of wanting to play though the game and unlock the content is powered by the extrinsic motivation of levelling up.

Stat screen screenshot
That's my boy, grow your little numbers for me

Feeding this back into our earlier definitions, taken in isolation, grinding levels in an RPG is something many people dislike, but leads to specific rewards in the game (so therefore an extrinsic motivation to play) but allowing the player access to all content from the off without any work or engagement (so therefore relying on intrinsic motivation) would in my opinion lead to a less fulfilling game experience. An obvious counterpoint- many largely skill based FPS games include RPG-like progression and unlocks, tying a player's skill and will to play the game to specific rewards in level ups and new options for their characters.

It's clear that the terms here are muddy at best, and to my mind experiences which include a mix of motivators seem to be the most appealing. A balance must be struck to build player investment and keep interest, rewarding the player but also allowing the player to find their own reasons to keep playing.

Leave us a comment and let us know what motivates you to keep playing, or tell us your stories about games you couldn't stop playing!

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