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SoulHow to keep the player playing

July 28, 2008

Skill Level: N/A

Hey guys. I wanted to report that we’re up over 4000 hits, and I thought it’d be as good a time as ever to write another special SoulHow game design theory article.  This one is about how to keep people playing your game.  Keep people playing? What’s the point of talking about that? After all, a lot of people can write a game with a task, a goal, and a challenge.  Should be enough right?  Wrong.  Well, sometimes.

It’s important to think about ways to keep your target audience interested in the game.  After all, that’s the ultimate task of the game designer; to keep people playing.  Even back in the days of the arcade games, with horrible 2d splotchy graphics, the goal of the designer was to write a game which will keep the player interested so that they played enough to get hooked–which translates to their inserting more quarters to play again and again.  The longer the player is compelled to continue, the more money the arcade makes.

This brings up an interesting point.  It’s obvious the game must be fun or the player will stop midway through, but keeping the player playing does not only mean during one go.  If the player fails miserably and dunks Megaman into the burning lava three times in a row, he still wants to keep going.  That’s what you want.  Even if the player continues to die over and over, he should still want to head back to that title screen and click “new game”.

The last part of your job as a game designer occurs when the player wins; when Megaman finally defeats Sigma, the player should reflect and say, “Hey, this game was so awesome, I’m going to start it again from the beginning.”  This isn’t always entirely possible, but you should definitely try.

Below I’m going to discuss a few ways to achieve success in each of the three times you must keep the player playing (in-game, post-failure, and post-success).

Keeping the player playing in-game

The first thing you need to look at is the difficulty curve. Not necessarily the difficulty itself, but the way the difficulty progresses. Like, first level easiest, last level hardest. Well, did you make sure your game works that way? Did you REALLY make sure? If you haven’t submitted your game to testers, you have not.

The reason for this, is that the only sure-fire way to understand the difficulty curve of your game is to let other people understand it for you, and report afterwards. You’re the designer; virtually NOTHING in the game should be hard for you. In fact, you may find yourself thinking, “No, this is too easy. Gotta make it harder.” But don’t.

If the game is too difficult (which you will know if your friends complain about how it took them thirty tries to complete level two… Then again, maybe they just suck. But you can’t be too careful, right?) the player will quit playing because too much repetition is boring and frustrating, especially when the game itself is good and they want to keep playing.  That’s the funny thing; if a game is just too doggone difficult, then the better the game’s quality, the more players will actually tend to hate it because they want to keep playing but can’t.

While having excessive difficulty is more destructive than not having enough difficulty, the latter can make a game boring as well. Though players don’t want to play the same level thirty times over before completing it, they also don’t want the game to be done in five minutes. Challenge is what gives the player the sense of accomplishment; the sense of accomplishment is what keeps the player playing. He wants more accomplishment. MORE MORE MORE. If he can hold the right arrow and win the level, it’s not a game, it’s a time-waster.

Finally, make sure there is enough to do in the game. You can have the difficulty curve set just perfectly, but if all the player does in each level is collect coins and jump on enemy’s heads, he might as well be playing the same level over and over again anyways.

Keeping the player playing post-failure

This is probably the hardest time to keep the player playing. He’s just lost; why should he try again? He will only try again if he has felt genuinely defeated, and that he can do better next time. The same reason why you keep going up to and asking out that one person who has flipped you off every single time prior; for some reason, you think you can do better that time than you did the last.

How do you do this though? Not through wizardry, surely! No, not this time. Instead, you’ve got to once again look at the game’s challenge, but this time, the difficulty itself. If the player walks into a room with twently lasers firing randomly all around, and dies, it doesn’t matter whether that was the first/easiest level and the next levels would get harder in order. He’s still going to be mad and come after you in real life. Fine, maybe not that first part.

Anyways, it wasn’t his fault he died. Only a superhuman man could beat that level, and he is but a mere human. So thinking only of his gross injustice, he presses that wretched escape button and exits the game. If he was enjoying the game up to that point, he will be even more upset because now he can’t keep playing.

If, however, there were only 5 lasers, and they fired in a pattern, the experience would be much different. The player may not notice the pattern immediately, but he’ll at least judge the room to be passable, and keep trying. He thinks that next time, he’ll do better. Eventually he recognizes that a pattern exists, masters it, and completes the level with a wonderful sense of having achieved something great.

There are those games out there which advertise “Hardest game ever”, etc., and they tend to do “well”, but only to the specific market. That market is the hardcore gamers, who are out playing games to prove that they are more skilled than the next guy. If you develop your game for this market, then fine, but know that you’re going to get a lot of angry “too f***ing hard!” messages from everyone else.

Keeping the player playing post-success

Though not the most difficult, this is probably the most confusing of the three times the player must be influenced to keep playing. This means that the player should want to play the game again after finally obliterating Sigma on his fifteenth try. He should want to play Sonic Adventure 2 from the beginning after killing the final hazard. But how? The player has already seen and experienced everything the game has to offer, after all.

Actually, not necessarily. By including (good!) unlockables and easter eggs in your game, the player can be prodded into clicking that new game button (or level-select button) for a second time. Make sure you post your unlockables and easter eggs ~somewhere~ for people to look up if they want to. Who cares if they don’t have to find it for themselves? It’ll get people to start up your game again. And the ones who are hardcore secret-finders will eventually discover the goodies and enjoy yet more of those all-important feelings of accomplishment.

The biggest way to entice users to search for secrets is to tell them they’re there, but don’t actually give them access. That way, they’ll know there’s something left to do, but they will also retain accomplishment when they finally figure it out.

Note also, cheat codes and glitches can add in this way as well. Cheat codes can be used to “see what it’s like” to play the game in god mode, for example, or to see how quickly they can destroy an otherwise excruciatingly difficult boss. As for glitches, people LOVE finding and posting glitches found in otherwise great games. While you shouldn’t leave glitches in on purpose, don’t freak out if someone finds some obscure 2 in the binary code. As long as it won’t screw up the normal player’s experience, it’s more or less fine.

Lastly, give the player statistics. For example, the fastest time for each boss, or how many powerups were collected on the racing level. The player could become encouraged to play the game again for competitive purposes.

And that’s it. I know it was a lot to read, but you made it. Good luck getting players to stop hitting the escape button.

Questions, complaints, blah, blah…just leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider checking out the rest of the blog.

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  1. Snail Productions
    August 5, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    This was a good article. I believe the hardest of all of them to do is create a balanced difficulty curve.

    Also, I believe that games that are easy to advance in (i.e. takes less time to beat levels) are more fun than challenging ones, as long as there are many levels. Monotony is a major negative in gameplay.

    On a side note:
    “If he can hold the right arrow and win the level, it’s not a game, it’s a time-waster.”
    *cough* Lab 14, Level One *cough*

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