The best arcade games needed to engage players in less than two minutes. If not, players would find a new game that did. For today’s mobile games, early engagement is equally important. The distractions and alternatives might be different, but they all compete for the attention of players.
Mobile game designers can learn valuable lessons by studying classic arcade games from the Golden Age of Video Games. The best games succeeded at engaging players quickly. Inserting another quarter was symbolic of engagement and a precursor to retention.
In Apple’s App Store alone there are over 200,000 games available and 89 new games are submitted each day. The vast majority of these games are free to play, and monetize themselves by way of ads and in-app purchases. The best games successfully retain a level of players without having to chase their tail through paid user acquisition.
How arcade games monetized was simple and pure. Players put money into the games they enjoyed playing. There were no “user acquisition” campaigns or elaborate schemes through in-app purchases. Simple yet engaging designs were so pure that many remain popular to this day.
Think about your favorite game. There was a process to you liking it so much. Very likely it comprised a game mechanic requiring lots of practice. And ironically, your reward was a faithful dedication to that game. You were “hooked.”
Principles of Video Game Engagement
Games fulfill basic human needs. Masaya Nakamura, the founder of Namco says “to play is human.” I believe all good games achieve five fundamental goals. They are essential to engagement and retention. I suggest you weave these into your own designs to make more engaging games.
The first two minutes give players a taste of the core game loop. Learning this loop is essential as it’s repeated over and over again. Arcade games often used lives or health as a means to control playing time. With that in mind, just staying alive was an achievement. The feedback of “dying” was punishing and expensive, but equally instructive.
The mantra of early game design was “easy to play, hard to master.” The best games were skill-oriented, used learning curves and required repeat play to learn. Learning and mastering the core loop was an essential part of learning.
Learning from one’s mistakes was great sense of accomplishment. It led to wonderful “aha” moments. Before the Internet, you could know something that few others knew. This was hugely “empowering”…
Why do we play games? Surely there’s more to it than “just for fun.” One reason, humans seek to have more control over our daily lives. True for everyone and most evident in young children. They thrive on praise and achievement. Adults say they play games to “blow off steam” after a long day. Most everyone has to answer to someone, hence even adults feel powerless at times. They escape the real world for the simple rush of empowerment through simple challenges, achievement and reward.
The best games motivate players to persevere through numerous challenges. But not all players respond to motivation in the same way.
“Intrinsically” motivated players play not for rewards, but for the joy of doing and achieving competence. If playing their favorite game was their job they might think (dare they say), “I’d do this for free”. This means the person achieves great internal satisfaction, without needing extrinsic rewards (paycheck).
“Extrinsically” motivated players are more easily manipulated and respond to tools like points/coins, leaderboards, praise and levels. They respond to tangible signs of status, praise and acknowledgment to keep them engaged and motivated. This is external satisfaction.
Game companies have been known to devise reward structures with the intent to make players hooked to a system of rewards, points, badges,etc. Avoid transparent means that stand the risk of insulting the intelligence of your players.
As humans, we instinctively need to be challenged. Today’s “games as a service” (GaaS) require a “Live Ops” team to continually release game updates. Constant balancing, new content and challenge provides players with ongoing engagement and retention. Without it players become bored and will likely move on to another game.
Skillfully designed game progression carefully balances challenge and achievement, keeping the dangling carrot just out of reach. But be aware that where a game becomes too difficult (choke point), players may become overly frustrated and quit.
Rewards in games are primarily extrinsic forms of motivation. And generally speaking, even intrinsically motivated players succumb to extrinsic rewards. However for them, those rewards aren’t the main reason why they play.
In arcade games a system and hierarchy of awards existed. In Pac-Man, each dot eaten rewarded the player with points. Eating a power pill elicited a rush of god-like empowerment. While empowered, each incremental ghost eaten earned twice as many points. Scoring more than 10,000 pts. in a game earned a free “bonus life”. In a game designed to “kill” you, a bonus life was like a life raft. From this example, a system of rewards were key to Pac-Man’s design and success.
Make Better Games
Consider applying these lessons learned from classic coin-operated arcade games. These games are the foundation of this industry and understanding them will make you a better designer. With great advances in technology, humans still respond to stimuli in much the same way. Mistakingly game designers feel they can swap out basic human needs with transparent and manipulative tactics.
The indie game scene allows anyone to design and develop games. But it takes careful and thoughtful design to create games players want to play for extended periods. Like a checklist, see that your game executes on all five principles. Give your game the feel that keeps players engaged. And when possible, “innovate, don’t regurgitate.”
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