Grinding to a halt: are the tricks developers use to hold our attention losing their power?

Games like Clash of Clans could die out unless they offer more to engage players longterm.

Not too long ago, any fan of videogames could read a magazine and feel informed about nearly every quality game coming down the pipe. With the rapid expansion of the indie development scene and self-publishing opportunities such as smartphone app stores, however, that’s no longer the case. One obscure developer, Donut Games, has released 35 iPhone games since mid-2009 – and not crappy iPhone games, either. How are we to keep with up with an entire industry’s worth of such releases?

More games are being played than ever before, and with the rise of the free-to-play model, more of them need to keep players hooked: playing – and paying – for long stretches of time. As a result, the pressure on developers to deploy every trick in the book to keep users engaged has become a commercial imperative. In almost every game, developers attempt to entice players with leaderboards, level-up systems, and entire catalogues of collectible items, all in the name of creating incentives for them to keep playing.

The problem? After playing hundreds of games in our lifetime, our initials are etched somewhere near the bottom of countless leaderboards, our achievement tallies are higher than our annual salaries, and we’ve levelled up in one game or another thousands of cumulative times. We’ve all collected enough coins over the years to shame Scrooge McDuck.

Once upon a time, these were the bonus elements that kept us addicted to videogames, but we seldom question why or how they work. How far can games coast on these features alone, and if we play too may games that use them as gimmicks, will they cease to motivate us? Will we become the first generation of players to be immune to the once-irresistible allure of point systems and levelling up?

The Ville, one of many high profile Zynga game closures.

In its short history, Zynga has already shut down close to 30 of the games it has developed. Many of them are titles that few will remember (Ponzi Inc, Roller Coaster Kingdom, Street Racing) but there are some big names on the list as well – CityVille 2, The Ville, Mafia Wars 2. For Zynga, game closures are just a part of business. After closing down 13 games in one big batch near the end of 2012, CEO Mark Pincus wrote in a memo that both the shutdowns and the over 100 layoffs that followed were “the most painful part of an overall cost reduction plan”. Put plainly, the axed games were losing popularity and bringing in less money than before, and thus had to go.

It seems that no single one of Zynga’s social games is able to sustain itself for more than a couple of years. The exceptions to that rule, interestingly enough, are Zynga’s very first game, Zynga Poker, and a game Zynga acquired through purchasing an existing studio: Words With Friends. Poker and Words are among Zynga’s most popular titles, and they’re also among the oldest. Of course, both games are simply repackaged forms of much older, well-known games, but is that the reason they consistently outlive Zynga’s original titles?

These are games with deep, rich game design and much to teach players who stick with them. In the case of Zynga Poker, the company has slapped on external reward systems, but that isn’t what makes the game engaging. Poker is a complex game of mathematics and psychology, and it creates a powerful social structure where players matter to each other.

Daniel Cook, founder of Tripletown developer Spry Fox, says it’s no coincidence that Zynga’s two longest-lived games feature rich multiplayer experiences. “Players burn out on the vast majority of singleplayer games,” Cook says, “and most of Zynga’s games were singleplayer experiences; don’t let the incredibly light asynchronous social interaction fool you.”

Cook adds that when a multiplayer game is richly designed, players mentor one another and encourage each other to play more often. “We tend to focus on games as if they are isolated content,” he says, “but it is usually due to the bigger social system why we find games enjoyable long term.”

“Most of Zynga’s games were singleplayer; don’t let the social interaction fool you,” says Spry Fox founder Daniel Cook.

Of course, plenty of games without strong social elements can also be addictive. Some of these games latch onto players by exploiting – knowingly or unknowingly – certain human psychological biases.
For example: given the choice, most people have a deep aversion for incurring loss. In fact, the average person’s preference for avoiding loss is significantly greater than their impulse for chasing gain.

This concept is known within the field of behavioural economics as loss aversion, and it was first convincingly argued in a 1984 paper written by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman later won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his work in prospect theory, which includes loss aversion).

In his 2011 book entitled Thinking, Fast And Slow, Kahneman uses data collected on the betting habits
of subjects to prove loss aversion’s effect on the human brain, and it’s easy to extrapolate the findings to improve our understanding of why collect-a-thon games can be so addictive.

Think about the pages of apps on your phone. Many of us have installed Temple Run 2, for example, and although we don’t play it regularly any more, we find ourselves unable to delete it. We consider getting rid of it, then think about all the time we spent upgrading our character, collecting and spending thousands of coins. Deleting the app would mean losing all that work. We are, at heart, averse to the idea of losing what we perceive as earned value.

“You don’t want to leave these games,” says Cook. “It starts to feel like deleting [your] saved game or burning your Magic: The Gathering collection.”

‘Much of Clash Of Clans design relies on shallow and manipulative ancillary elements.’

Clash Of Clans is a combat strategy game that today seems nearly invincible. It has clung to its coveted spot among the top-grossing apps in the world on both Android and iPhone since its launch, and its creator, the Helsinki-based Supercell, sent investors scrambling when it revealed that the game brings in tens of millions of dollars every month.

The problem with Clash Of Clans, according to gamification proponents, is that much of its design relies on shallow and manipulative ancillary elements like leaderboards, collectibles, levelling, and gems –
all the staples of sugary, addictive social games. With all of those elements removed, it seems that there isn’t much left to Clash Of Clans aside from a barebones tower defence minigame.

Rajat Paharia, founder of gamification company Bunchball and author of Loyalty 3.0, is critical of
Clash Of Clans’ design approach. He says that although things like leaderboards and levelling systems can snag players for a time, if there isn’t something truly interesting at the core of a game, it will eventually die. “Whenever we engage with any kind of system, we ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ And there has to be a good answer to that question,” he tells us.

According to Paharia, the core of any entertainment service has to either offer great depth or constantly offer something new in order to keep people interested. “With [TV networks], there’s a new show every week,” he says. “With a community site, the community members are the creators of that content. If I have a news site that doesn’t have new articles every day, no amount of gamification will help.” So are games like Clash of Clans in danger of eventually dying out unless they offer more interesting content to engage players for the long-term? “I would not be surprised at all,” says Paharia.

Head of the gaming research company Immersyve Scott Rigby urges developers to design for longterm engagement.

Scott Rigby, head of the gaming research company Immersyve, agrees with Paharia’s assessment. “The people developing these games are going to see their primary revenue sources dry up unless they can ensure that they’re designing game mechanics with more depth,” he says.

Rigby adds that there are plenty of examples outside of games where this has already occurred. As an example, he recalls a healthy living programme that Foursquare initiated in the autumn of 2010. The company partnered with health monitoring companies like Health Month to award its users badges for accomplishing healthy goals, such as walking 20,000 steps in one day and travelling 1,000 miles in total.

The idea was simple: motivate people with a videogame-like system and they’ll adopt a healthier lifestyle. The programme was cancelled a little under two years later and, as one Foursquare-centric blog noted, “One big weakness of the badges… was that they didn’t do much to encourage users to keep finding ways to take those 20,000 steps or run another 5km, since you could only earn each badge once.”

The lesson to take from the failure of Foursquare’s healthy living programme is also a testament to one of the core issues facing gamification: “You make the point of what you’re doing getting the badge, rather than the activity itself,” Rigby says. “This is a concern, because you’re trying to promote health. You want to get people to internalise the value of those healthy behaviours, not externalise it through a badge.” After users acquired the Foursquare badge for walking 20,000 steps, Rigby argues, their motivation for pursuing subsequent badges (for 50,000 steps or a million) slowly disappeared. “At some point I’m going to [say], ‘This is much too thin for me to stay engaged,’” says Rigby.

Players know when they’re being intentionally motivated, but there is a fine line between motivation and manipulation, especially when a designer is trying to persuade a system’s users to do things that may not be good for them. One of gamification’s most prominent voices, Gabe Zichermann, baldly stated the power that games have to manipulate players in a 2010 Google Tech Talk entitled ‘Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification’.

Zichermann said: “Uniquely, games are able to get people to take actions that are not always in their best interest – without the use of force – in a predictable way.” In this scenario, he was talking about the power of in-game rewards to direct player actions in specific ways. Utilising such manipulative rewards can be seductive for developers, Rigby says, because they’ll drive behaviour in the direction the devs want in the short term. Eventually, though, he argues, the superficial layer created by rewards will collapse.

Space Invaders designer and inventor of the first leaderboard, Tomohiro Nishikado.

Since leaderboards first emerged, developers have used them as a tool to keep players playing. The very first game to use one was Space Invaders, released in 1978. The game’s designer, Tomohiro Nishikado, says that although he’s never really become addicted to a game, he understood the power that leaderboards could have on players. “I thought players would see each day’s high scores and be motivated to pay their coins and try to beat them,” Nishikado tells us. “But while rankings are effective early on, I think they become less important as time passes.”

So, nearly 35 years on, are we finally nearing a point where leaderboards don’t matter? Daniel Cook doesn’t think so, but offers specific qualifications: “If you don’t care about anyone on the leaderboard, the leaderboard loses its social power,” he says.

“It is less about the number of leaderboards and more about the quality of the player’s connection with the community that the leaderboard represents. Friend-based leaderboards that accurately represent skill or investment will likely always be meaningful. Strong signals of relative status within peer groups tend to entrance our little ape brains.”

Some game designers, however, don’t share Cook’s belief in the long-term viability of leaderboards. NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz calls leaderboards “a crude way to make a singleplayer game into a competitive [one]”, but says that game elements like level-up systems and collectible items can be valuable tools used to flesh out core gameplay.

Lantz is an outspoken fan of Riot Games’ phenomenally popular free-to-play game League Of Legends, and he considers it to be the perfect example of a game that uses sometimes-gimmicky features like collectible items, but also has enough valuable and deep gameplay to keep players’ attention for a long time.

League Of Legends’ success is because of its extraordinary depth, says NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz.

Lantz attributes League Of Legends’ immense success to its infamous levels of complexity, comparing it to football and poker, both of which evolved slowly over a number of years with many rule changes. He notes the origins of LOL’s mechanics – it evolved from the Warcraft III mod Defense Of The Ancients – as being particularly important. “There are [lots] of smart designers at Riot, and there’s a bunch of smart and original design thinking in League,” Lantz says, “but under the hood it is just a variant of DOTA, a game that has been evolving for ten years or more.”

Despite its cobbled-together beginnings, League Of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world. “A decade later, and millions of people are playing and watching what just might be the new basketball,” Lantz says. “Ironically, Blizzard is sitting on the sidelines watching as Riot and Valve fight over who gets to be the NBA.”

Lantz describes League Of Legends as a “wonderful object lesson in humility”, because it defies common wisdom about what makes good game design. “It’s overly complicated, hard to visually parse, thematically ridiculous, and almost impossible for new players to understand,” he says, “but the world doesn’t care about our rules of thumb. League flouts every weak-ass homily about ‘accessibility’ and ‘appeal’.”

In other words, League Of Legends has depth. It’s an incredibly rich system with a seemingly endless list of discoveries for players. Even players familiar with the mods that preceded it come into the game prepared to be surprised. Often, even after years of play, they are.

Millions are playing Candy Crush Saga right now – but will its hooks retain players longterm?

The people who play the next big freemium game will have played FarmVille 2 and Candy Crush Saga. They’ll have already collected a gold-plated windmill, built dozens of virtual villages and collected more candies than a kid on Halloween. They will want to be surprised – and levelling systems, leaderboards and coins alone won’t do the job, at least not in the long term.

“The vast majority of people aren’t seeing a reason that they should spend even a dollar on these games,” says Scott Rigby. “There’s so much churn, and we need to be more focused on that than on squeezing as much money as possible out of three per cent of players.”