Ten Player Motives #1
Everybody 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