PapayaMobie's Oscar Clark on building compulsion loops into game design
Whatever you think about social or freemium games, it's clear that they have had a profound effect on the way we will design games forever.
Their introduction has broadened the appeal of games and in particular they have revolutionised the way we all play games on our smartphones.
I'm especially interested in one element, the use of 'compulsion loops' to encourage players to come back after finishing a game session; to select the game icon again and begin playing again.
This, I believe, is a significantly underestimated quality and is something I think needs to be understood whatever game or app you are creating.
Nuts and bolts
To understand this let's look first at what is going on under the bonnet of any game.
We have repetitive patterns of behaviour; kill>loot>level or plant>harvest>XP. Even puzzle games move us from incomplete>complete>reward.
We repeat these patterns while seeing either their difficulty increase or the visual responses increase to demonstrate how we are progressing. Ideally we get into a state of flow where the actions of play automate just below the level of conscious thought.
The trouble is that pattern matching can become boring if we become over-familiar with the patterns, if it's too easy, too hard, or simply too obviously repetitive.
What's my motivation?
We need reasons to continue playing beyond the simple puzzle.
Sometimes a narrative will provide this drive, and sometimes it will be a visible progression system. Or perhaps a series of 'random' rewards which carry unique properties will keep us playing, or the simple thrill of unlocking new areas of play to explore.
To carry a player over not just several playing sessions but potentially over many months of play we need to ensure our games stimulate the core reward desires of each player. This could be in the form of competition, socialisation, exploration, collections, etc.
We need all these levers to trigger emotional responses and engagement that can only be got through playing.
Whatever that looks like for your game you need to understand why your players should continue to care and not move on to another game.
Well so far so what all this is pretty much standard design considerations. However, the magic trick is to create these emotional rewards even after your player has finished their playing session.
The lingering aftertaste
Why is this important? Firstly, simple mathematics.
On average we download 85 apps to our smartphones, but only use 5-10 apps per week; and on average something like 64 percent of apps only get used once.
We have to give players a reason to choose our app above all the others they have downloaded and to do that rather than going to the app store to download something new.
They have to remember our icon and have a good reason to press it several times a day.
Creating this kind of compulsion is usually explained by talking about the Skinner Box - an experiment on rats or pigeons where the animal must press a button to receive food.
When each button press releases food, there is no compulsion. But if the animal has to press increasingly often to release the food, or the reward is randomised, this creates addictive responses.
It's a really useful model to understand addiction and the underlying causes for superstition, and plenty of articles are written about the application of Skinner Box techniques in games.
However, I think it has been misused to try to convince us that freemium games are evil; which of course is nonsense. We don't use food or drugs as the stimulation to continue playing, we use entertainment which is something players can always choose to walk away from.
So instead let's look at some of the underlying motivations for play and how we can apply them.
We'll start with 'escapism'. The chance to set aside our external responsibilities for a brief time is a key motivator for choosing to play a game.
As developers, we need to create a happy temporary release for our players and build that into a repeatable compelling experience that delivers it own simple, intrinsic reward through play; the completion of a puzzle, the killing of a monster, the beating of a time-challenge, etc.
This basic level of entertainment is the foundation upon which we can build an audience.
Next, let's look at 'commitment' and how we can build up a series of actions that reward players for repeating their actions over time.
We need to create a series of action steps for a player to take with rewards and reasons to repeat those actions over time. This escalation of small steps will build their confidence in our game and each small step will lead to the next action down the line.
For example when we plant our seed we then have to wait for it to grow before we can harvest it and then use the gathered resource to supply our shop.
Each step sets up the need for a subsequent action (plant another, build a shop, build a community building) which perpetuates the activity of the player.
Most importantly these activities span beyond the individual playing session setting the expectation that world of the game will have changed by the time we return to it.
This isn't restricted to farming games; we need to apply the method to build anticipation beyond the playing session for every game type.
A social creature
Finally let's look at 'socialisation' and allowing the player to show off to others. To be clear, this need only be players they share an interest with (e.g. this game). It's not necessarily their real-world friends.
It's important to players that they can see that other people will appreciate their choice in selecting this game and, moreover, that there is an opportunity for them to show off their abilities.
However, this has to be carefully done, as we don't want to be humiliated. Instead, players benefit from being able to communicate and meaningfully interact with each other.
If I get points and experience for visiting your garage and fixing your tyres, or visiting your armoury and cleaning your favourite weapon, not only do I get to see what cool kit you have. I also get bonus points for interacting with you and you get a bonus next time you play.
This way we have both shared a packet of emotional data which reflects something about our real-world relationship and no-one has to feel humiliated.
Critically, it also reinforces the expectation that something might happen in the game while I am not playing, creating another (very personal) reason to return.
For more on PapayaMobile, you can visit the firm's website or follow Oscar on Twitter.