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Ten Player Motives

0a - Ten Player MotivesTen Player Motives was a twelve part serial examining the ten most commercially important reasons people enjoy playing games, and one non-commercial reason as well The serial ran from 22nd February 2023 to 19th July 2023 (with a short break in the middle). Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The twelve parts are as follows:

  1. The Ten Player Motives
  2. Victory
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Acquisition
  5. Luck
  6. Thrill-seeking
  7. Horror
  8. Social
  9. Curiosity
  10. Narrative
  11. Agency
  12. Aesthetic

Thanks for everyone who supported this serial - and if you enjoyed it, please leave a comment!


Ten Player Motives #11

11 - Aesthetic-revisedWait, eleven? You said there were ten player motives! Actually, although there are ten player motives that are commercially important, there are many other motives to play games - they're just not as important to the industry making and selling play. This 'eleventh motive', which I call 'the aesthetic motive' does not drive sales quite like the others, but it encapsulates everything that makes games such an intriguing, creative medium. As such, even if this isn't your best bet for making money at making games, you really have no excuse not to support those auteurs who are finding ways to satisfy our aesthetic desires for creative originality and unexpected experiences.

2005 was a banner year for the aesthetic motive in games, as it was the year that various voices began to consider what it might mean for videogames to be artworks. It was the year of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's stage-play inspired Façade, and it was also the year of Tale of Tales astonishing debut The Endless Forest. Dubbed a 'massively multiplayer screensaver' by the impish genius of its creators, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the game would go on to influence the hugely popular Journey by thatgamecompany, with its incredible conceit of encounter, a theme that recurs in Tale of Tales brilliant but under-appreciated Bientôt L’été (Almost Summer).

There followed a glorious explosion of aesthetic exploration of what games could be. Jason Roher's Passage in 2007, Dear Esther's deconstruction of gameplay to the thinnest play imaginable in 2012, and 2013's Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga, which I consider the most beautiful videogame ever made. However, another strong contender for this title is Tale of Tales final game, Sunset in 2015, an utterly astonishing game that, while flailing slightly in its narrative, manages to play with light, shade, and colour in a way that transcends almost anything I can think of in any medium.

Yet this way of telling the tale of the aesthetic motive is misleading, as it makes it seem as if it all happened in 2005. But this was really the rediscovery of something that game developers had in some sense always known: that videogames were a creative, artistic medium, capable of being much more than entertainment. Mel Croucher's Deus Ex Machina in 1984 served as a mind-bending refusal to accept the player practices of the arcade, showing for perhaps the first time the tremendous possibilities inherent in a medium that was capable of creating unique artworks but had largely settled with satisfied itself through 'mere' awesome entertainments.

I have mentioned before the utter lack of investment in indie games that blights the games industry. Small scale publishers do not feel they need to put money into making smaller games, as a lively wellspring of 'bedroom coders and artists' are making games in their own time and then selling them to the publishers. But the aesthetic motive is a reminder that however commercially logical this strategy might be, it sells the medium of videogames quite short of what it is capable of achieving. The Endless Forest would never have come about without investment from the Belgian arts council, and nothing that thatgamescompany made between Flow and Journey could have happened without EA first funding Jenova Chen's student project Cloud, and Sony deciding to invest in aesthetically interesting games.

Movie studios understand that as well as making big-budget movies that garner equally gigantic returns on investment, they have a creative obligation to invest in smaller, more creative films - so-called 'art house cinema' - that nourishes both the sources of creativity, and the creative people at work in their industry. Videogames continues to deny this necessity. When your corporation is earning billions of dollars from its games, what possible excuse could there be for refusing to invest a few hundred thousand in creative experiments on the side...? The games industry wants all the glory of being declared an artistic medium without being willing to put its money where its mouthpiece is. Until the industry as a whole invests in artistic games at all scales of development, there is a certain hypocrisy to the cries of our artistry.

Throughout these short reflections on our motivations for playing games, I have focussed on the ten most commercially significant motives players have for engaging with the games they love. Yet while videogames may be a mature industry in terms of revenue, we are still all but destitute when it comes to the aesthetic potential of our medium. There might be no better way we can shed our terrible yet deserved reputation of being little more than monetised violence and compulsion porn than finally resolving that yes, games are artworks, and any culture that praises art must have patrons that invest in bringing it about. Until we do, we will never come close to fulfilling the incredible aesthetic potential of games.


Ten Player Motives #10

9 - NarrativeDiscussing the narrative motive, we came up against an essential problem of using games as a storytelling medium: the player expects to have influence within the game world. This is the domain of the last of the ten key commercial player motives: agency. But in order to understand how the agency motive works, we have to appreciate that there is an essential tension. Not between stories and games, as the line is typically drawn, but between agency and narrative.

There is perhaps no better way of illustrating the distinction between the narrative and the agency motives than comparing the long and distinguished lineages of Japanese computer RPGs and their 'Western' variants. Although these lines are increasingly blurred today (as AAA cRPGs will tend to draw heavily from both traditions), there is a clear historical period after the Ultima-Wizardry split that dominates more than two decades of cRPG design. In many respects, Final Fantasy VII and Bioshock that were mentioned in the context of the narrative motive highlight this very split: the Japanese took Wizardry and choose a form that prioritised the narrative motive for its storytelling (hence the 'animated movie cut with a game' that followed in the 1990s). Conversely, Ultima placed the agency motive above the narrative motive - the play itself creates stories from the toy box the game provides.

Nowhere is this foregrounding of agency above narrative more evident than in the open world games - whether we're looking at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, these games give the player the illusion that you can 'go anywhere and do anything'. This is the agency motive in a nutshell: our psychological need for autonomy manifests in games as it does in life. But in games, we come across a specific barrier that causes problems, and it is one we met before with the problem-solving motive: confusion.

Agency arguably hit its peak in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrorwind - a game with unparalleled player freedom! There was only one problem: the majority of players had literally no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Players for whom the problem-solving motive was a key part of their play had a blast with this game - enduring confusion being the 'mutant power' of such players. Most players of the game were just hopelessly lost. They needed much more help than it provided. Grand Theft Auto III provided the solution: use a film-like narrative to block out a prescribed route to follow, so that the player alternates between intervals of 'infinite agency' and following-the-path. It is the model that all contemporary open world games follow.

Yet the agency motive has more to offer. We have lost sight of the possibility of playing with the implicit narrative of The Sims or Ultima. The original inspiration for Grand Theft Auto were a series of British videogames that were the first to offer 'playground worlds'. All of these games were published between 1984 and 1985, and while Elite is the most famous, Paradroid, Mercenary, and The Lords of Midnight all show this same capacity - overcoming the limited technical capabilities of 8-bit hardware by providing a framework with which the player has maximal agency.

For a brief time there, it felt as if we might rediscover the power of the agency motive that these pioneering proto open world games unleashed. With the meteoric rise of Minecraft in the mid-2000s, we once again experienced worlds that overcame technical capabilities to offer unparalleled agency. In this case, the trick was the simple expedient of simplifying the world into cubic blocks. In a brutal yet hilarious irony for me personally, I had done exactly this several years earlier with Play with Fire, a project that eventually flailed and fell into obscurity because of the utter lack of investment in indie game projects (a problem, I might add, has never gone away).

What happened with Minecraft, however, was that it succeeded as much because it was virtual Lego as because it successfully channelled the agency motive. It enjoyed great and deserved success, but the key to its prosperity was its support of diverse regimes for play - enormous risk-reward in Hardcore, exciting exploration in Survival, and boundless imaginativeness in Creative. Yet successors copied only the substructure of Minecraft, and fell back on the familiar tricks and techniques of the game designer's playbook. If we want to truly push the agency motive forward, we need to understand why Minecraft's freedom to choose exactly how you want to play opened a door the games industry has remained reluctant to walk through.

Next week, the final part: Aesthetic


Ten Player Motives #9

9 - NarrativeWhen I talk about our motives for playing games, I am usually able to identify a clear set of emotions that show the psychological underpinnings of why we are drawn to play that way. This becomes impossible when we talk about the narrative motive, because any and all emotions can be evoked by a narrative! But it would be wrong to suggest that there is not still a clear, if you will, 'psychic shape' to our engagement with narrative. So what is it? Why do we love stories so much?

A short and lazy way of answering this question is to state that stories are the basis of the entire human operating system. We live on a daily basis within our stories - the whole idea of a 'you' as opposed to a 'me' is a framework set up by our need to tell tales about everything. We are the most imaginative beings that we know of, and our inner life consists primarily of telling stories about who we are, as individuals, as cultures, and as a species. This same impulse can be found in our relationship with games because, well, there's no escaping it! Even scientific research is absolutely built upon metaphors. (I mentioned above 'human operating system' - a loaded metaphor if ever there was one!)

But precisely because we live in a world of 'stories everywhere', we need to be careful to understand how games engage with narrative. There is a long standing belief among game developers that stories are something other than games, and that something like Final Fantasy VII is basically an animated movie cut with a combat game and an inventory management game. This interpretation is basically spot on, but it applies just as much to a game like Bioshock, which attempts to place the player right in the heart of a story that could not be adequately be told in another medium.

The danger in coming at this problem this way is that it leads to us thinking that narrative and games are different kinds of things. But if we look at games like The Sims or Nintendogs or the hugely successful Animal Crossing series, we can see that the kinds of explicit narratives that we find in games as well as movies and books aren't the only way stories make their way into our games. There is also the implicit narrative that comes from playing with a virtual doll set - and what is The Sims if not precisely this? Sure, the climax of Animal Crossing - let's say, paying off your final mortgage - is not so much a surprise as a distant goal, but we are still engaging with a fictional world with characters and events that build to a satisfying conclusion. And that's narrative. It was never just about conflict, as Hollywood screenwriters are wont to claim - it was always about uncertainty, and 'when' is just as uncertain as 'what'.

What's fascinating about how the narrative motive expresses itself through games is that we can eliminate all of the overtly 'game-like' aspects of the experience and still end up with a narrative that is not at all like a movie or a book. Dear Esther opened a brand new path here, where other games like What Remains of Edith Finch have followed. The genius of The Chinese Room's ground-breaking ghost story was to see that a game world is a canvas upon which stories are painted just as much in a walking simulator as in a so-called open world game.

Yet there is a problem that the narrative motive faces when we play games that we do not face with other narrative media like film and written stories. Games love to fool the player into believing that they have control and influence in the game world (which they do - but only of a much narrower kind that we tend to recognise). This means that, for instance, killing a character for dramatic effect, as in Final Fantasy VII, works only so much as the player is primarily letting the narrative motive draw them forward. If the player is otherwise motivated, this attempt fails because it does not feel like the player's action, it is something forced upon them.

This is the brilliance of the twist in Bioshock: it takes this essential weakness of game stories and inverts it, turns it into a knowing twist without ever breaking the fourth wall. It reminds us that it is not quite true that stories and games are two different things - it is rather that when we engage with games as stories, we have to understand and accept the strengths and limitations of this specific narrative form. And this is something that every story faces in its own way, regardless of which medium it flows through.

Next week: Agency


Ten Player Motives #8

8a - CuriosityIf you asked me which of the ten player motives was the most underrated, I would without hesitation reply: the curiosity motive. Not only do most game designers not appreciate the tremendous power of this aspect of human experience, but there is very little recognition of the intensity of the emotions that can be brought into play through curiosity. Yes, the emotional experience of triumph is intense and powerful, but it is also so commonplace as to be cheap and forgettable. But players never forget a moment that brings them wonder.

Exploration is the standard way that videogames evoke curiosity, but it is not enough to just throw out a world and drop the player into it. Morrowind did this, and unfortunately a great many players were turned off by the vertiginous freedom of the game. Later Elder Scrolls games cleaved to the now over-familiar formula of the Grand Theft Auto open world, shaping the world through chains of waypoints. This formula works, and is very successful, but it's insufficient to get the best value from the curiosity motive. Nobody's enjoyment of Vice City or San Andreas was primarily centred upon exploration.

Curiosity is an experience that runs on unanswered questions. For the open world game to truly satisfy the curiosity motive, the landscape has to be crafted in order to raise questions. Zelda has the best ever example in the cracked wall: the moment players see a cracked wall, they know there's a way through, and it just becomes a question of what will open it (a bomb, a hammer, a minotaur...). Indeed, if you want to learn how to put together an open world to evoke curiosity, Nintendo's Breath of the Wild is a masterclass. Each corner of the world is designed with tall features clearly visible ahead, and from up on high you can spy many intriguing spaces to fly down to. The player is constantly drawn to explore, and there is always something new to discover.

The Zelda franchise has also done well evoking the secret weapon of the curiosity motive: wonder. This is a full-bodied emotion that leaves a serious mark on those who experience it, and in both its landscapes and its bosses, Zelda has delivered. The boss experience at its best is a blend of fear and wonder - awe. Shadow of the Colossus managed to one-up Zelda in this regard, but it was working from the same playbook, and these days there are a great many games that do a great job getting awe out of bosses.

Yet wonder is not just to be found in the awe of titanic enemies to beat. There is wonder to be found for every new player of Minecraft, who experiences it the first time their mining down breaks out into an underground chamber of great breadth. This joy of encounter quickly fades - but it is telling that even a procedural landscape can produce wonder. There are also ways of designing for the experience of wonder that do not require combat - Endless Ocean gave me a more memorable experience of wonder in the encounter with a wild whale than any videogame boss I can think of.

Curiosity is not just a matter of exploration and encounter, though. Hidden object games like Mystery Case Files or Gardens of Time evoke curiosity despite being set on a single 2D visual field. What's more, this is a genre to have enjoyed enormous success among female players - which in part explains why the gaming media has been so disrespectful of it. Like it or not, there is still a strongly sexist bent among the people who write about games, and even female game journalists often earn their success by toeing the party line.

Finally, there is another way to get at curiosity and wonder - letting people create. This in fact was more crucial to Minecraft's success than anyone wants to admit: creative is the most popular mode in this game, and the fact that it is possible to sell calendars showing off what people managed to build with virtual LEGO ought to be telling. Roblox too thrives on the sense of the weird and the wonderful waiting to be discovered - and Google's grand media colonic, YouTube, is just as dependent upon the curiosity motive.

However, to make the curiosity motive work in games requires tremendous co-operation between departments. If you want to evoke wonder, you will need artists with immense skill and passion for their work, or programmers willing to prototype systems that can be made to behave in unexpected ways. More than any other motive, the curiosity motive is a team effort. There is tremendous enjoyment and pleasure to be had down this path - but the whole development team will have to work together to make the jaws of players drop.

Next week: Narrative


Ten Player Motives #7

7a - SocialWhy is playing with other players fun...? The simple truth of the matter is that no matter how introverted or antisocial you might be, humans are social animals as a matter of biological inheritance. Those with social anxiety or similar issues that make socialising difficult still love spending time with their friends, it is simply that habitual fears make social life troubling for certain people (and many more people than we tend to admit). Indeed, although it is not often discussed, multiplayer games can be a godsend to people with social anxiety because they provide a structured activity that reduces some of the sense of pressure entailed in interacting with other people face-to-face.

When designing videogames for the social motive, it may seem odd to start by examining interpersonal fears - surely players who are into the social motive are extroverts? Well, no. Natural extroverts are far more likely to go out somewhere to socialise with people than to stay at home and play games. Designing for the social motive, therefore, requires an awareness of the different attitudes people have to social interaction. Although there is only one social motive, which draws against the action of the hypothalamus and the neurochemical oxytocin, there are many different ways of satisfying it.

For many of its early years, International Hobo tried to explain to publishers that co-operative play had an important role in videogames, but this largely fell on deaf ears. This problem is the one that I mentioned right at the start - the mistaken belief that the victory motive is all that games are about. In social play, this illusion can become heighted because one way of tapping into the social motive is by giving players real human opponents to beat. The social motive enhances the sense of victory - ask anyone who plays Fortnite or Call of Duty!

Yet if winning in competition was all it was about, Mario Kart would have flopped. After all, this is game in which the players doing the worst are given the best power-ups, and a skilled player can still be taken down by the dreaded Blue Shell. Where's the appeal in that...? It's not in the feeling of triumph that Mario Kart's genius lies but in the emotion of schadenfreude, the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others. There is something immensely satisfying in watching the mighty being brought down, and laughter, not victory, lies at the heart of the greatest joys the social motive has to offer.

However, do not make the mistake of assuming that friendly competition is the only aspect of the social motive. Players of Words with Friends do want to win, but this game (which is really just Scrabble reinvented for online play) is as much about the 'conversation' that comes out of building the board as anything else. This is even more evident in certain co-operative habits that occur around games such as Minecraft, where people are working together to shape a world into a collective image.

More than any other game, however, the power of the social motive was demonstrated during the height of the popularity of Pokémon GO, Niantic's powerhouse mobile game. Suddenly, unexpectedly, introverts of every age, gender, shape, and size were gathering in public places together with a common purpose - to collect pokémon, and to beat raid battles together. The design may have been simple, and it obviously relied heavily on the popularity of the Pokémon RPGs, but Niantic more than perhaps anyone else in the history of games knew the power of videogames to draw people together - even people who otherwise would never choose to be in the same place at the same time. The social motive is more than a means of enhancing victory - it can bring some of the greatest emotional rewards in the whole of gaming.

Next week: Curiosity


Ten Player Motives #6

6a - HorrorWhy do we love horror? It's a question that has provoked a great deal of debate, but the two most important things to understand about the horror motive are that it is about indulging in unpleasant feelings, and that precisely because it's about nasty things, it's not for everyone. Indeed, the absolutely vital point about the horror motive is that if you choose to include it, you're excluding some proportion of your possible audience. Super Mario Chainsaw is not a sensible videogame project to pursue.

The key emotions are fear and disgust, and of the two it is fear that is most important. For the thrill-seeking motive, games trick an ancient part of our brains into responding to the illusion of danger and risk. Fear comes from the same neurobiological roots - the only difference is that we feel the thrill of excitement when we think we are in control while we experience fear when we feel out of control. This is why a great deal of the bag of tricks used by the horror genre involve ambiguity, uncertainty, and surprise (which also play into another motive, curiosity, we'll get to later).

Disgust is an intriguing emotion, because by definition it is unpleasant. However, there is a pleasure to be taken from the end of this experience, and this makes it cathartic. Perhaps more importantly for videogames, disgust is the ketchup to the horror burger: it enhances fear. The boss - by far the most conspicuous attempt to evoke fear in players - becomes even more fearful when it is married with disgust, something that From Software have made excellent use of in the design of their bosses for titles like Dark Souls and Elden Ring.

The vast majority of the play book for the horror motive is taken from film. Although horror stories are as old as humanity, the classic tale of horror plays on a reveal that combines fear and disgust as a payoff. That doesn't work in videogames, which are longer and more repetitive experiences. Film, on the other hand, already developed a set of tools for reliably evoking fear - most notably in the use of the soundtrack. Plucked strings evoke tension, the soundtrack goes silent before a jump scare - there's a wealth that game developers can learn from the movie play book that will work just as well in games.

At the heart of what makes a Silent Hill or Last of Us game work is the application of tricks from Hollywood horror to the videogame format, and audio is a huge part of it. The radio static that tells you monsters are near, or the sirens when worlds collide in Silent Hill - or the ominous insectoid clatter of the Clickers in The Last of Us allow sound design to do most of the heavy lifting. What's more, because audio is cheap, games playing on the horror motive are perfectly suited to low budget development, as Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy's demonstrate. Also, since darkness is ideal for evoking fear, games riffing on the horror motive can get by with less graphical detail - Amnesia made excellent use of darkness, and even made it into a gameplay feature.

Despite the dependence upon film techniques, game designers do have one brilliant trick that they can use to enhance horror: limited supply. This is the true secret to the Resident Evil franchise's genius, and why it was able to found the genre name 'survival horror' (the tagline for the first game was 'Enter the Survival Horror'), despite there being many earlier horror games all the way back to the old 8-bit computers. If the player feels powerful, they will not feel fear. By restricting access to ammunition and healing items - and even more so, their saves - Resident Evil created a design pattern that was unique to games, making limited supply into the raw material of players' darkest nightmares.

Next week: Social


Ten Player Motives #5

5a - Thrill-seekingWhen we first started conducting surveys into how and why people play games, we discovered that one aspect of the play experience was almost universally loved by our respondents: excitement. The example of Bejeweled shows that this was somewhat misleading, however: yes, everyone enjoys feeling excited, but one person's rollercoaster is another person's vomit-inducing nightmare. Time-constraints do make games more exciting, but they also exclude certain players who do not want to feel that stressed when they are playing games. For the most part, however, the thrill-seeking motive is something that everyone enjoys, provided the game doesn't take it too far.

The self-adjusting speed of early puzzle games like mega-hit Tetris worked extremely well to ensure wide appeal. A game like Super-Hexagon divides players and turns off a great many who can't get to grips with the level of challenge, but Tetris adapts beautifully to the skills of the player. Lower difficulties give even unskilled players time to work out how to put the tetrominoes together, whereas a skilled player can jump ahead down the speed curve to find the place that's exciting for them. A huge range of brilliant puzzle game designs in the 90s and 2000s delivered thrill-seeking play that was fundamentally not about winning. The player of an endless mode never wins: defeat is inevitable. Yet players still have fun doing it.

There are other ways of tapping into the thrill-seeking motive that aren't just time constraints and gently-ramping pressure. Among the most iconic are the high speed racers that were extremely popular in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s. The Need for Speed franchise is the commercial the poster child, although Criterion's Burnout series is arguably an even better example. These games were so perfect at pushing player's high speed buttons, that EA bought Criterion and gave them the Need for Speed franchise to develop.

In the 2010s, another way of leveraging the thrill-seeking motive was added to the game design lexicon: the battle royale. Pioneered by PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds but then cloned and tweaked by Epic's Fortnite as a supplement (or replacement) for its underwhelming Save the World mode, the battle royale throws a hundred competitors into a simultaneous knock out tournament. These games are fundamentally about the victory motive - everybody likes to win, after all - but the excitement of being fielded against ninety nine other players in a sudden death, winner-takes-all format was palpable. So much so that even if the victory motive is why people say they play, the excitement is the reason that they stay. After all, only one player wins in each round... if victory were all it was about, these games would not have the thriving player communities that they do.

In a marvellous act of circularity, the success of the battle royale format led to game developers adding this to other existing game mechanics, leading to the return of the puzzle game in a surprising new format. Tetris, for so long the epitome of thrill-seeking purity, has come back as Tetris 99, combining the excitement of the original with the seat-of-the-pants glory seeking of the battle royale format. It is a striking reminder that while ideas come and go in videogames, there is always room to combine something old with something new to take players somewhere very familiar in a new and interesting way.

Next: Horror

Ten Player Motives will return this Summer on


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