Designing Continuous Engagement in Video Games
Retaining Players Over the Long Term
After the Player has made a ‘love connection’ with your game and they are ‘infatuated’ with it, how do you make sure that they keep calling you back? Are they spending their money on you, or someone else? Are they cheating on you with another game? Like a long term relationship with a person, how do you make sure they stick with you through disagreements, through frustrations, through thick and thin?
As some of us are attached to a single partner at a time in our romantic life, there are millions of gamers that are attached to a single partner at a time in their gaming life. It is a relationship that in some ways is more important than the one with their real life partner(s). This is because Relationships with games can satisfy urges that people cannot satisfy; they allow us to ‘self-actualize’ our ideal selves in an immersive way that cannot be achieved with another person.
How do you give yourself the best shot at being that partner for a time? What techniques can you employ to maximize your engagement over the long(er) term? Whether you are making a games-as-a-service title or not, there are ways of thinking about engagement that cross many genres and styles that can help improve your Player retention.
Attraction vs Retention
There are many reasons for a Player to be attracted to a game to begin with – almost as many reasons as there are Players. It is that unique combination of many small things that makes us ‘infatuated’ with a specific title, or not.
Regardless, the initial ‘infatuation’ naturally gives way to a deeper, perhaps less intense in some ways, but more cerebral, fulfilling relationship. That, or the union ends. The ‘honeymoon’ phase, even if long, cannot last forever.
After those initial ‘infatuations’ lose their appeal, how do you make sure Players ‘fall in love’?
While many cultural, societal and other unanticipated factors can influence your game’s continuing engagement, you can help your project to succeed by focusing on a 4-part approach to mechanic creation, and your attitude to how you want players to experience your game.
#1: Support Player Interests & ‘Experience Direction’
As you would choose to have a real life partner that would want to accompany you and partake in your interests, Players desire the same from their video games. They want a partner who shares their interests, but they also want someone who has varied interests – or at least varied enough that Players don’t seek out others (at least for a while).
How does your feature set speak to a Player’s desires of ‘Experience Direction’? Do you offer ways for Players to choose a ‘path’ that varies in experience from another path you may offer? How do all of your mechanics and features connect with meaningful decisions that the Player might be interested in making? While obviously depending on your particular game, generally the more meaningful ‘paths’ through your game’s content, and the more choice, the more Players you will retain over the longer term.
Having ‘selected’ interests implies that others aren’t selected, at least in the short term. It means that the Player can start their relationship with your game by picking and choose their ‘path’ from amongst many that they might choose. Regardless, the more varied, and the more potential experiences, the more Players will seek out the entirety of the experience over the long term.
The appeal of content or mechanics that aren’t obviously or immediately aligned with the Player’s innate interest in the game can provide a strong value after the ‘honeymoon’ phase is over. When the relationship hits a bump in the road for lack of interest, or frustration, these additional deeper mechanics or content can potentially reinforce feelings of connection in Players, and get them to open their mind to more interactions with your game.
Questions to ask:
- How many ‘paths’ are there through your content? How connected are the paths?
- How well does your game allow Players to shape their experience in some way? Is there a pathway that has short, medium, and long term goals along the way?
#2: Allow Meaningful Ways for Players to Build a Shared Experience
Friends are the primordial glue that keeps players playing. Obviously, co-op and competitive games have an edge because of the shared experience and immediacy of communication, but single player games can benefit from friend ‘word of mouth’. If you give Players a reason to talk about your game outside your game, you have a strong chance of retaining them over the longer term.
To get the most long term engagement out of friends, the focus should be maximizing communication and interaction between them.
This depends heavily on the particulars of your game, but thinking about how Players can build a ‘shared experience’, especially one that can change and improve over time provides strong reasons to stay in the relationship. This could be mechanics that encourage direct cooperation (building a base together, fighting a tough enemy together), exploration (a shared map, found resources that can be shared with others), and even communication (simple voice chat, notes for others explaining danger).
Questions to ask:
- How many ways can players express their thoughts or ideas?
- How can they express their personality?
- How fluid is the communication?
- Can they truly collaborate with other Players?
- What stories will Players be telling their friends about their experiences while outside the game?
#3: Design Valuable Expressions of Competence for the Player
If you want the relationship to Players to endure, you must provide strong ways for Players to express their ‘competence’ in the game. How do you make Players feel smart and skilful to their partner (i.e. the game)?
What ‘competence’ looks like in your title will vary, but it must include certain elements to work best.
To be ‘competent’ in the first place, there must be a sufficient complexity of mechanics and challenge for the Player to recognize that their competence can be expressed in your game. They do not need to be ‘big’ items: Bejewelled has enough mechanics and challenge inherent to it’s game rules to satisfy Player ‘competence’ (at least for the type of game that it is).
These mechanics and challenges can be gradually revealed to the Player, or they can be introduced all at once, but the Player must eventually understand the value of effort and investment being rewarded through the game.
The key for feelings of meaningful competence is the rewards that it affords the Player. Depending on your game this could be: winning a match against another team, higher team/individual scores, access to additional content/levels, or simply a smoother ride through your content. The more meaningful the rewards are, in the context of your game’s particulars, the stronger the value of competence will have for the Player.
Competitive games often rely heavily on the expression of competence as a main draw for their game. Other game types rely on it less, but the value of this expression should never be understated if you want your game relationship to be fruitful.
Questions to ask:
- Does your game support obvious ways to be ‘competent’? How are they communicated?
- How is the competency in your game connected with the overall game experience?
#4: Respect the Players Time with Content that Offers the Right Value in Returned
With access to nearly limitless entertainment, the modern Player does not lack methods with which to choose to spend their time. The power of mobile phones, the prevalence of streaming, and the explosion of digital communication has put pressure on everything to be ‘more compelling’, and video games are arguably at the tip of the spear in this regard.
“Since time can never be returned, and the fact that there are so many options to spend it, time is the most valuable resource for a Player. ‘I can always get more money, but my time is spent forever.’”
To make sure this is happening you have to closely match time spent with value returned to the Player.
Knowing your content inside and out, and understanding it’s ‘durability’ is key in this regard. Sometimes what seems like a lot of content to your team can feel like much less to Players if mishandled. The key is to ‘right-size’ your content and rewards with the game experience.
This can feel paradoxical. After all, aren’t we trying to create opportunities for Players to spend the most time in the game? The distinguishing key is providing Players ‘quality’ time. Time that feels valuable. ‘Dragging out content’ to add playtime is never a good idea. More than ever before, Players will sense your desperation to add ‘clock hours’ to your game.
Players who thoroughly enjoy and complete the content on offer have a greater chance of returning to your game after some content updates. If you try to deliver a rash of content that is not fully vetted, your total content offer might suffer from feelings of lower quality, even if it’s only a portion of the content that is suspect.
Question to ask:
- How does your game respect a Player’s time? How are rewards given in relationship to this?
While continued engagement with any game is a challenge, especially in a world of ‘everything is entertainment’, following these design principles will help to deliver an experience in their relationship that more Players will continue to gravitate towards. Focusing equally on all 4 aspects will deliver an improved result compared to investing into a single aspect, or only a few. This holistic approach to engagement should benefit your game the most.