Ten Player Motives #4

4a - LuckEverybody likes to win, but not everyone is willing to suffer to get there. Fortunately, there's a way of making games anyone can win - pure, blind luck. The reason that kids love games with a low degree of skill and a high degree of luck (Snakes and Ladders or Candyland for instance) is that anyone can win - they have just as much chance of beating their parents at these games as vice versa, and that makes games of pure chance very appealing to younger players, who are certainly not going to beat Dad at Chess or Splendor - at least until they get a little older!

The same lowering of the level of challenge was key to the success of Popcap, whose game Bejeweled (modelled on the brilliant Panel de Pon), which was the origin of the term 'casual game'. Bejeweled was built on the breakthrough realisation that having a timer in puzzle games was inherently stressful, and not everyone enjoyed this stress. The addition of an untimed mode was key to the success of this pivotal casual game, which in untimed basically became an opportunity to switch things around at random until the player eventually won. (As a postscript, I note that when EA bought Popcap, they immediately destroyed this clever design by making Bejeweled Blitz...) Along with kids boardgames, this demonstrates how the luck motive can substitute for the victory motive. However, most examples in commercial videogames will substitute luck for the acquisition motive - or combine the two.

By far the most commercially successful example is not even a videogame, however: it's Magic: The Gathering, which took the design principles of trading cards and built a howling goldmine with it. The luck motive is put into play in two ways in the design of this game, one of which has millennia of precedence, the other being less than a century old. Firstly, by shuffling a deck of cards as a source of randomness, games of Magic: The Gathering and any of its descendants such as Hearthstone or Marvel Snap, play differently every time. It's something that adds enormous values to boardgames and all videogames that have boardgame-like system. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the incredible power of the booster pack.

In a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering, booster pack contain random cards of varying rarity. In the original release, a pack would contain one rare, three uncommons, and eleven commons. Over the years, Wizards of the Coast (and later Hasbro, who bought them) varied these designs and came up with different configurations but the core concept was the same. Every booster would have one card you definitely wanted, either for your own set or for its trade value - the rare. It would have three cards that would be of high utility in deck building - the uncommons. And it would have a bunch of commons that were exciting when you first opened booster packs, but would just become chaff after a while.

Magic: The Gathering's booster pack design was incredibly powerful. For acquisition motive players such as myself, it means spending a huge amount of money on boosters to collect (and trade for) a complete set. But even for players who weren't interesting in 100% collections, the luck motive made each booster an adventure in itself. This in turn led to videogames inventing loot boxes, which were digital versions of the booster pack, with the same monetisation policy.

Loot boxes divide players. Many consider loot boxes manipulative... and they certainly can be, even when what is contained is purely cosmetic. You only have to look at the Steam marketplace for gun skins on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to see how players can be motivated to look for ultra-rare, ultra-valuable skins like the karambit knife skin. But the possibility for exploitation isn't a certainty. The design and monetisation of Supercell's Clash Royale has many defenders, for instance.

But you don't have to monetise random chance to make the luck motive work for your design. There is a long and honourable history of games using the luck motive without monetising it. Most of these designs descend from TSR's (and later Hasbro, who bought them) venerable Dungeons & Dragons design, which used random tables to determine treasure drops. Nearly every computer role-playing game that followed over the decades made use of random chance drops to add variety of experience - and, when done well, to capture some of that excitement from 'opening the booster pack'.

Next week: Thrill-seeking


Ten Player Motives #3

3a - AcquisitionIf the victory motive asks us to endure frustration to get to the win, and the problem-solving motive asks us to endure confusion to solve the puzzle, is there something else we can endure for our future pleasure? There is: boredom. You may have noticed that a lot of videogame players complain about grinding, and yet games still contain an enormous amount of grinding. Why is that? If grinding is inherently negative (and it is, that's why we call it 'the grind') why would we want it...? The answer is that the boredom associated with grinding is also something you can endure to reach a sense of enormous satisfaction. It's the pleasure that comes with hitting 100% completion, with doing everything, with collecting everything. It's the quiet joy of acquisition.

Believe it or not, just like everybody likes to win, everybody likes to get stuff - at least at first. I mean, not everybody is a hoarder or likes to keep things, but who doesn't like to win a prize, to receive a gift, or even to get paid? 'Getting' is fundamental to the experience of being a living being. Even amoebas like eating food. The same neurobiology that underpins the enjoyment of foraging is tied up with the acquisition-motive - the reason why getting stuff is enjoyable. And yes, searching a field for all the nuts and berries can be tedious... but the question is, are you the kind of mammal that enjoys the satisfaction from knowing you've searched the whole field, or aren't you...?

Paradoxically, videogames have become more dependent upon acquisition than upon winning. In the arcade, where a coin-drop was only supposed to sustain between two and thirty minutes of play (and the quicker the better up to a certain point), there wasn't much motive to acquire. Sure, you collected points, but you collected them in order to set a high score - the motive was victory. But at home, from the tabletop role-playing games instituted by Dungeons & Dragons to their immediate digital descendants, there was a simple and compelling pleasure to acquiring that was to infuse a huge variety of game styles.

Whether it's gold, experience points, or interesting treasures actually doesn't matter that much as long as it keeps your interest. And for the most acquisition-focussed players, they're going to do everything the game says can be checked off the list. Achievements were only a logical extension of this compulsion, moving the stamp collections and to-do lists of the acquisition-focussed games into the meta-level of the platform itself, and with the same goal: the quiet addiction of pointless busy work that comes with a gold star at the end. Well done, you did it!

The sheer beauty of the acquisition motive is that you don't even have to be good or clever to get at it. If you're striving for victory you had better 'git gud', as the illiterate expression goes. If you want to overcome the problem, you need to have the intellectual chops to solve puzzles. But if you want to acquire, well, now all you need is patience. And that's much less demanding than the alternatives. Ever wondered why the so-called 'social' games were so heavy on the grinding? Because they let their designs by dictated by the metrics of retention, and nothing is better at retention that giving people stuff and telling them to get more stuff. Frankly, the moment you were born into a world with money, you were primed to play in this way.

This motive rounds out the three 'hot' motives - victory, problem-solving, acquisition - all of which require players to suffer through something in order to get to a hit of dopamine. Through frustration to reach the big hit of victory, through confusion to the quietly satisfying hit of solutions, and through boredom to the calm satisfaction of 100%. But there are seven other commercially important motives that don't require anything like this kind of endurance. Understanding these other ways to play provides game designers crucial ways to make these core player goals even more compelling, and to reach players who otherwise might never even consider playing in the first place.

Next week: Luck


Ten Player Motives #2

2a - Problem-solvingIf the victory motive is about enduring frustration in order to persevere and triumph, its worth understanding than this isn't the only thing players will put up with if it gets them to the win. Victory is the motive of what we used to call 'jocks', the sporting types. But problem-solving is the motive of excellence for what we used to call 'nerds' - and I am frankly disappointed that these days this term is taken solely as an insult, because if 80s movies taught us anything it's that nerds beat jocks and they do it with their mental faculties. Nerds are the smart kids. And they have their own unique motive for playing games.

The problem-solving motive is after the same thing as the victory-motive: but it goes about it in a completely different way. Suppose you have a fighting game. The challenge-focussed player who gets beaten is going to keep trying to win through their own skills and prowess. The problem-focussed player who gets beaten is going to look at it as a puzzle to solve. Did I lose because of differences in reaction times or something else I can't change...? Not interested. But if I lost because of a tactical or strategic error, now that's intriguing, because it means I could play differently, modify my approach, and perhaps get to victory through brains instead of brawn...

The ubiquity of puzzle-solving play in videogames isn't an accident. Programmers and game designers are brilliant nerds, and as such they are drawn to problem-solving. So they make games with conundrums to be worked out, riddles to be decoded, and mysteries to invite that lightbulb moment. In some respects, the pursuit of problem-solving isn't even about the winning - although as I said before, everybody likes to win. It's about that moment of insight, the 'a-ha' moment, when you see the problem from a different angle.

Like the victory motive, this one piggy-backs on the limbic system, but it's a much younger piece of our brains that's involved. There's a direct link up between a region that makes calculative decisions (the orbito-frontal cortex) and the parts of the limbic system that make winning feel so good. This is what makes mathematics so enjoyable - if you're good at it: solving an equation is satisfying. Sure, it doesn't feel as hot and majestic as winning the World Cup, but unlike the world cup everyone with the requisite capacities can solve every equation. This is a huge factor in the appeal of the problem-solving motive: if you're good at solving problems, every problem can be solved. That's just not true of winning in competitive play.

Yet what epitomises the problem-solving motive most of all isn't working out the solutions to puzzles, enjoyable though that may be, but challenging your intellect against systems where ambiguities mean that the solutions aren't as certain as mathematics. This is the immense draw of strategy games for the problem-focussed player: these are designed systems that create an infinite diversity of problems to solve - tactical problems, strategic problems, logistical problems. Their inherent incompleteness means that, unlike a strict puzzle or an equation that typically has a single correct solution, there are innumerable possible solutions, and so mastery entails skills and practice. It's the same reward - the solution to the problem - but once it becomes this intricate and involved, it becomes a source of pride, a seductive process that continually rewards.

But just as not everyone is going to put up with being frustrated in order to attain victory, not everyone is going to persevere with solving puzzles, let alone learn mastering complex systems. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the confusion inherent to incomplete information... and it's the same kind of person that can learn to be skilled at scientific investigation. I still like to call us nerds, but even if you don't, you know what I'm talking about. How can you not! If you read this far, you know precisely why the problem-solving motive is so alluring to those of us with the mental faculty to discover solutions.

Next week: Acquisition


Ten Player Motives #1

1 - VictoryEverybody likes to win, but not everybody is willing to suffer to get there. This simple truth is perhaps the most ignored tenet of enjoyable play in the entirety of videogames. When International Hobo Ltd was founded in 1999, we found an enormous number of publishers and developers who were absolutely adamant that all that mattered was winning. 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing', as they say. Except when it comes to games, it's just not true: not every game is about winning.

But if that's so, if 'winning isn't everything' in games, why does it get so much attention? The answer turned out to be much more complex than we first thought. On the one hand, it's an absolutely vital part of the story of games that the experience of victory is tremendously enjoyable. As I say, 'everybody likes to win'. But more than this, when a sport or a game makes you strive to win, victory is more enjoyable. 'It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.' It turns out it doesn't even matter if those that lose are imaginary!

Victory is one of several motivations that make use of a particularly ancient part of our biology - the limbic system. The 'fight' in 'fight or flight' is tied to this, and when we strive for victory at play, we are activating the same neurobiology that we would while struggling for survival - just in a make-believe way. Only the victory isn't entirely make-believe, because losing feels bad, and winning feels good, so even though it might not be life-and-death as it would have been for our tiny mammal ancestors, we're still wired up to want to win. However, this 'fight' response is based on anger, frustration - so pursuing victory in the style of a fight is inevitably aggravating. All that frustrating struggle builds up the emotional prize for eventual victory - but it also turns off a significant number of players who just aren't looking to feel like that for just a game.

Nonetheless, difficult videogames are especially good at tweaking us for the victory motive. The trick, however, isn't just to be really difficult. Players who pick up a game that seems impossible to beat will mostly refuse to try, and complain about how unfair it is (even if what's really going on is that they haven't managed to learn how to play yet). This is yet another reason why successful marketing is far more important to success than just encouraging unit sales: knowing that other players have been fighting for victory in a challenge-oriented game gives players confidence that they ought to be doing the same. It dares them into chasing victory, whereas without that marketing story they might never begin to do so.

Victory is an absolutely key experience for a great many players, especially masculine players, which is not necessarily male players - butch lesbians are just as competitive as straight men, for instance! The most successful designs at leveraging the victory motive are those where the player will be defeated but believe they know what they did wrong. Being challenging isn't enough, and being 'too easy' is fatal if you're looking to take advantage of this motive. You need players to fail, but believe that they could do much better if only they could try it again... This 'near miss effect' is central to the compulsiveness of slot machines and other forms of gambling, but it is even more important to challenge-focussed videogames that thrive on 'just one more try'.

Triumph over adversity is a powerful, full-bodied emotion. It makes you feel good, just as losing makes you feel bad. But it's all or nothing. And even though 'everybody likes to win', not everyone is willing to suffer to get to the big payoff. That means videogames can't just rely on victory - in fact, it's commercially dangerous to do so. You need to find other ways to satisfy your players beyond victory... and it turns out, there are indeed a great many other ways to give players what they want.

Next week: Problem-solving

The Ten Player Motives

0 - Ten Player Motives
The ten player motives (10PM) is a player satisfaction model developed by International Hobo Ltd, one that we use as a key tool when helping clients with the challenging process of crafting enjoyable, engaging, and memorable games. Over the next few months, I'm going to write a little about each of these motives and how to apply knowledge of these motivations to your game design process - but first, it's probably worth explaining how this model came about.

The ten player motives grew out of early attempts at modelling player motivations, like the DGD1 - the basis of our now out-of-print book 21st Century Game Design, and BrainHex that followed it. These were primarily survey based instruments, but as a result of taking interest in this field, I had the fortune to meet up with emotions researcher Nicole Lazzaro. Her 'four fun keys' was proving to be influential around the time we were promoting DGD1, and Nicole's method was completely different to ours: she focussed on observing players, we had focussed on surveying and interviewing them. Nicole was kind enough to submit an essay on her approach to my collection Beyond Game Design (our publisher at the time was a sucker for strident titles!), and not long afterwards I was invited to help set up the IEEE's Player Satisfaction Task Force, which was the first academic recognition that what Nicole and I had been doing had merit.

However, engaging with Nicole's methods directly, I hit a turning point. I began to grow sceptical of the merit of models of player behaviour that were based on statistical patterns derived from surveys. "The map is not the territory" as Alfred Korzybski warned, and survey data from players wasn't so much a map as it was a set of boxes built to fit your own prejudices, which then inevitably can only hold what you've decided they can hold. There was clearly a limit to how far this method could go... I wanted to find another path towards understanding our play experiences. I went on to publish a number of crucial academic papers in places that I didn't realise at the time would be hard for people to outside of universities to access. These laid out the foundations for what would become the ten player motives.

By 2017, I had put together what promised to be the closest to a map of the territory of human play as could be put together with the current state of psychology, neurobiology, and aesthetics. It built on our work, on Nicole Lazzaro's, and on Richard Bartle's (who was also kind enough to contribute to Beyond Game Design). But it also built upon research on dopamine, on testosterone, on Paul Ekman's pioneering work on emotions, and on much more beside. The ten player motives isn't the only map you could build, but it's still more than enough to navigate the question of how and why we play games.

Join me over the coming weeks as we look at all ten of these player motives - and what they mean when making games.

Next week: Victory