How can we motivate our players so that they can keep engaging in the game? Chelsea Howe of Owlchemy Labs finds the answer in human psychology of attention and engagement. She insisted in her session today that we should deviate from simple short-term motivations and move towards a mix of different factors that can appeal better to human mind, thus making your game more sustainable in the long run. “The Design of Time: Understanding Human Attention and Economies of Engagement” investigates how the human mind decides to engage or step out of a game, and what we should do to keep our players constantly engaged in our games.
We are designed to be bored
Let us assume that you sold your cheap van and bought a brand-new sports car. The car will feel so much more agile and fast during the first couple of days, but you will soon feel comfortable driving it as time passes by and the car would not feel so remarkably fast as it did when you first drove it. This is because we, due to our natural psychological process as human beings, adapt to changes and build tolerance over time. The same also applies to gamers. No matter how graphically stunning or fun the game is, it will lose its playerbase over time if it does not pull its players away from the natural downcurve of attention.
The game industry have already been aware of this issue, and some dealt with it by imposing measures such as releasing new playable contents, raising level cap, and giving daily rewards that stack up to bigger rewards if players make continuous showups and stack up their attendance points.
Howe disagreed with such practice. She thought such nearsighted strategy would not do much other than slowing down the steady decline in retention rate. For example, if a game releases more playable contents and raises the level cap in hopes of encouraging players to keep playing and level up, it would broaden the gap in between new players and experienced players creating two problematic groups to deal with. Furthermore, she insisted that such animalistic means of stimulating its players will ultimately result in people losing their human values and behaving more like machines that react to stimulus but do not necessarily think about what all this leads to. She wanted to take a new approach, a more sustainable and multifaceted way to encourage players.
Understanding different ways to encourage players
There are basically three ways to reward the players for playing your game. Direct timer rewards the players right away once they achieve their goal, and makes it clear what needs to be done to get a specific reward. Indirect timer allows players to either take the offer the game suggests or take an alternative path, inducing them to make choices and establish strategy. The last is implicit timer, which continuously gives players engagement options that allow them to explore the game by themselves and see what they can do.
Howe suggests that you mix the differently timed rewards so that you can create a cycle in which players feel difference in how the game progresses and rewards its players. This can prevent their playing experience from wearing out so quickly, because now they are not doing similar things over and over. We can approach sustainability by simply refraining from excessively frequent use of one stimulus, and instead mixing them up to make human mind not get bored so easily.
Variability creates anticipation, which in turn induces engagement
Rewards are not the only ways to make your players more engaged in your game. Decay is another factor that steps in once the player is dedicated to an extent that he actually cares about the negative things that happen in the game. Howe called this “decay” in which certain changes occur that require the player to step in to fix the issue. Item durability can be one example, which requires players to repair the item once in a while if they wish to keep using the same item. Threshold is another form of decay, which often appear in games as save points and checkpoints. This means you are at a risk of losing your progress until you reach certain points of the game, creating a sense of insecurity that deepens your player's’ level of engagement in the game.
Designing long-term strategy to sustain your game
Maintaining retention rate and making your players more dedicated to your game is like establishing a relationship. Once you commit yourself to a certain relationship, the person you care about and also the relationship itself start to have meaning in your life. Meaning is what makes your players pay more attention to how your game is doing, and what makes them keep playing your game instead of moving on to other ones. Instead of feeding your players with overuse of limited offers and special bonuses, make your game matter to them and establish multiple ways with which your players can get what they want. Humans were not born to spend their time doing the same things over and over. Create cycles of stimuli and mix them up so that they would not get bored so easily. Such depth of engagement makes a great asset in running your game.