Blog Understanding player motivation models t...

Understanding player motivation models to engage your audiences for the long term

Game designers—first video and now mobile—have traditionally drawn on psychology principles to pinpoint the mix of features and mechanics sure to make gameplay fun and addictive.

The outcome is a kind of blueprint games studios can follow to develop a title with crowd appeal and commercial potential. In this scenario, a firm grasp of psychology helps teams understand why a player might choose a game in the first place.

But more is needed to explain what keeps players coming back again and again—investing a mix of time, passion and money app marketers can monetize through in-app purchases or advertising-supported models.

We catch up with Paula Neves, CMO at Gazeus Games, the largest casual and social games developer in Brazil, to explore how she makes the connections in psychological models to explain the link between human behavior, user behavior and what motivates users to stay loyal to their games.

As an undergraduate in Psychology, a graduate in Marketing and a professional in the gaming industry responsible for growth and product efforts, it’s easy to understand your fascination with human motivation and what triggers game loyalty. But what are the factors pushing psychology and psychographics up the agenda for a broad range of gaming app marketers and UA managers?

You could say the whole gaming industry is talking more about psychology because it matters now more than ever. At first, it was all about what you needed to understand to develop a title with real blockbuster potential. But it’s no longer enough to grab your attention; companies need to keep it. Particularly in mobile and F2P games, you have to keep players engaged for a long time because achieving high retention is the key to sustainable success. This is where psychology and marketing go hand in hand and why understanding what motivates players to stay with your game can be game-changing for your business. But first you need a framework and I like to combine the psychology models that explain human needs, behavior and triggers to provide product and marketing teams a starting point.

You mash up some interesting models, models that were proposed long before the advance on mobile games and apply them to understand what drives and determines retention. Can you share a high-level view of the dynamics at work here?

The starting point for most models was game design. The industry needed a good game design model built on psychology and this is where Self Determination Theory comes in. It provides us a psychological theory of human motivation that explains our three basic needs. These are Competence, which is all about the need to experience mastery and to feel successful and sense you are learning; Autonomy, which is all about the need to feel you’re in control of your choices and in harmony with them; and Relatedness, which is all about caring and being cared for and a sense of belonging. This thinking explains the needs we have to satisfy, but we need more to understand what motivates people to play a game over time and even become one of the ‘tribe’. For that we draw from another model called The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction, or PENS.

Derived from the Self Determination Theory, and developed by Scott Rigby and the amazing people over at Immersyve, PENS provides a framework for improving motivation and engagement and gets us closer to understanding the building blocks of the games that will capture and retain certain audiences in the first place. So, for example, game mechanics that satisfy our need for competence are easy to learn but hard to master—such as First-Person Shooters and skill-based games like Super Meat Boy. They are challenging, but not too challenging, and provide feedback so the player knows they are on their way to mastering the game.

This helps explain why we stick with a game, but you also apply models to find out what triggers us to try a game in the first place…

Here we have to consider the work of Jason Vendenberghe, director of design at ArenaNET. After research and playtesting, he concludes that the motivations behind the act of first buying and playing a game are not the same as what will drive a player to be loyal to a game in the long run. Satisfaction is aligned with our needs, but taste, what makes us choose one game over another from the get-go, is another thing entirely. To understand taste, we have to grasp what’s called the Big Five personality traits. These dimensions describe the personalities of people. Jason uses this as a framework for Taste Maps, a tool game developers can use to score players across traits to determine their taste in games. In a way, the frameworks explain different phases of how we identify and interact with games. Combining them gives you some important answers as you seek to acquire users for your game and—more importantly—retain them.

You make a strong case for psychology in understanding and influencing player behavior, and you have written at length about this on Medium. What is the business benefit for you as the CMO of a games company?

These models and frameworks are work-in-progress in the industry as companies develop approaches and tools we can use in playtesting and interpretation. It’s important to apply these principles early in the development of your game, even at the prototype stage of your game. That way you can really make the match between what you offer, the needs you aim to satisfy and the behavior you hope to influence to drive loyalty and results. Speaking of results, at Gazeus we saw a 4X in our organic installs because we applied the Taste Maps tool to our game and acted on the results. We saw that our game was lacking a social feature—and that our audience was made up of players with the personality traits that would really appreciate this feature. We added a feature where they could invite a friend to play against them—as opposed to playing in a sort of anonymous multiplayer construct like a Clash Royale and this is what triggered a huge organic boost.

If you'd like to hear more from Paula, she's joining us on stage at Mobile Spree in San Francisco this October 11th. Click here to see what the conference is all about, what you could be missing, and also to pick up a ticket while there's still some left!

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