Player Motivation (Part One)

In Design and Impostor Syndrome, I said:

“It’s one of those so-obvious-in-hindsight concepts, where you hear it and think ‘well, of course’: players don’t have to play your game.”

Convincing players to play your game is, I’d argue, the primary task of the game designer. Whatever experience you want them to have, you can only offer that experience to people who actually play. When we talk about ‘player motivation’, what we’re talking about at the macro-level is understanding what will cause a player to choose your game, and what will cause a player to abandon your game.

I’m not going to try to come up with good answers for ‘what is fun?’ — it’s a non-trivial question, and involves digging into philosophy and will take us pretty far afield from practical game design advice. If you’re interested in the question, though, I recommend Koster’s A Theory of Fun, which is an excellent book by a brilliant game designer who largely shaped the course of multiplayer game design since his game Ultima Online was released.

Instead I’d like to focus on specific motivators and how you can control them (or control for them). ‘Fun’ is a broad term that encompasses all sorts of motivations and the mechanics and game elements that generate them, so let’s pull it apart and take a look at some of the particular instances.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

When we describe a motivation as ‘intrinsic’, we’re talking about something you do because you are rewarded by the activity itself. For example, if you work out because you enjoy the sensation of working out — working out itself is a reward for you — you are intrinsically motivated to work out. There may be other motivations that support your desire to work out, but at least one of them is intrinsic.

An ‘extrinsic’ motivation is something you do because you’re seeking a reward outside of the activity itself. For example, if you hate working out but you really want to lower your blood pressure and your doctor has told you that working out will help you accomplish that, you’re extrinsically motivated to work out. There is something you want, and the activity will help you to get that thing you want.

Generally speaking, intrinsic motivations are more powerful than extrinsic ones, but this is absolutely a generalization, not a psychological law. There’s a large body of research on which type of motivation is ‘better’, and I encourage you to dive into that research if you’re interested in specifics. There are a pile of caveats for that generalization, and it would take an entire essay to explore them all.


I recently had an argument with a friend over whether or not games should be ‘fun’ (for an undefined value of ‘fun’; it wasn’t that deep of a conversation). She said “I don’t know, should water be wet?” Which was funny but I kept thinking of HBomb’s recent video on the game Pathologic, in which his central thesis is that the game is not fun and that’s an intentional choice by the developers, but that the experience is nevertheless rewarding. He repeatedly reminds us that we should not play the game because it is miserable and painful and bleak.

I was reminded, watching it, of my thoughts on The Long Dark, a survival game with no win condition and no stable stalemate condition. I’m not going to repeat my arguments from that essay here; you can go read it for yourself if you want more details. In short: it’s a game where you can’t win, and you can’t even survive, and you will inevitably die. I love it fiercely but, like HBomberguy, I can’t recommend it to other people lightly. It’s not fun, in the commonly understood usage of the term. You will not pump your fist in victory when you kill the wolf attacking you; you’ll be looking at your health and your supplies and thinking about how many days you just lost off your lifespan.

By and large, though, games are meant to be sources of enjoyment. You’re meant to value the time you spend playing, and enjoyment is probably the simplest motivator we have in our toolkit. There’s a common phrase used in game studios: ‘finding the fun’. It’s where you prototype a game and play it and realize it’s shit, and then you tweak it and play it again, and you keep doing this until you have fun.

In Battletech, we turned a corner on finding the fun relatively early in the development process, and I think it’s a key component of the game’s success. We played through the battle portion of the game over and over again, and eventually we started shit-talking each other and bragging about our victories and telling stories about our experiences. We’d ‘found the fun’: we’d reached a point where the core game experience was enjoyable enough that we wanted to repeat it even without the external motivation of it being, y’know, our jobs.

There are games that are entirely driven by instant enjoyment, of the intrinsic value of the game experience. While there’s some vague nods to progression and achievement, the real reason to play, for instance, Peggle, is the ecstatic moment of everything on screen exploding. Match 3 games are generally the same — luck as much as skill determines the outcome, but the spew of particle effects and sounds and the whole spectacle of the game drags you onwards. It’s perhaps why they’re so popular.

In design meetings, I’ve described this particular motivation as bubble wrap gameplay: the satisfying experience of popping one bubble after another. Which sounds dismissive, but I don’t mean it in that way; if you can find a way to reasonably include bubble-wrap gameplay in your game, you absolutely should, because it’s compelling and extensible.

More sophisticated models of gameplay that could be described as ‘intrinsically enjoyable’ exist; they’re most of the action game genre, for instance. The satisfaction of a finishing move in Doom (2016), the particular sound that leads into the canned animation of a parry in Dark Souls, the stuttering impacts of an unbroken combo in almost any fighting game; these things are all tapping into the same inherent satisfaction as the bubble wrap.

Beyond the visceral experiences, there’s also more abstract pleasures that are nevertheless entirely driven by intrinsic enjoyment: when you step back from a Minecraft build and see what you’ve made; when you watch your goldbergian nonsense churn into action in Factorio, when you finish a tough fight in Bloodborne and realize you took no damage at all.

What are the elements that generate these moments of intrinsic enjoyment?

We’ve talked about this already; it’s when that sound effect plays, or that particle effect, or the controller rumbles, or the sprite on-screen vanishes, or whatever. It’s a direct line to your reptile brain, an immediate moment of bliss, gone as soon as it happens. Visceral motivators should exist on every level of your game, diegetic and extra-diegetic alike. What do the button clicks in your UI sound like? What do they look like? Could they be more satisfying to use?

When you’re playing a rhythm game, there’s sometimes this moment where you slip into ‘the zone’, a kind of hypnagogic state of complete connection between the game’s outputs, your brain, and the game’s inputs. It feels like you’re suddenly on a whole new level of communication, like you’ve switched from dial-up to fiber.

I think the appeal of Sonic over Mario was the ability to get into that ‘zone’ while playing. You start going fast, and then suddenly there’s a sense of flow, of every tiny action and reaction combining together into a continuous stream of performance and skill. If you could reach that place, that perfect connection between you and the game, Mario felt clunky and awkward afterwards. If you were like me and only ever reached it by accident, Mario was a comforting place to which you could retreat, where you wouldn’t be judged for failing to Go Fast.

A large part of the appeal of the FromSoft games is the element of mastery. Have you ever seen someone beat Ornstein and Smough with fists only? It’s astonishing, both because of the sheer absurdity of it, but also because of how perfectly the player has to know every one of the pair’s tells, every wind-up, every movement and what it means for their next actions. And because of how long it takes to kill them with fists only at soul level 1, the player then has to respond perfectly and precisely to every single one of those tells and wind-ups and movements, and has to do so over and over again, making no mistakes, for five continuous minutes.

I can’t beat the dynamic duo with fists at SL1. But I can beat them reliably the first time I reach them, and generally with whatever weapon I’ve been using up to that point. It feels great to beat them, because it’s never easy, it’s never a foregone conclusion, it’s always a test of mastery. Passing that test of mastery is deeply satisfying. The ability to fast travel that’s unlocked afterwards — the extrinsic reward of the O&S fight — is a minor addendum to the whole experience.

One of Koster’s arguments is that ‘fun’ is the acquisition and expression of mastery, and our industry reflects the primacy of this motivator from top to bottom. Almost all games are presented as a series of challenges to be mastered, and we intuitively expect each new challenge to be harder than the one before. The cleanest and most elegant example of this is Valve’s Portal, where the gameplay and the tutorial are simultaneous, and the mastery of skills you wouldn’t have imagined possible just becomes matter-of-fact. The first time you create a portal while falling towards another portal so your momentum will fire you outwards or upwards, it’s like you’ve discovered real, actual magic.

You know that moment where Hermione punches Draco right in his shitty smug face? Or the moment where Rhett tells Scarlett he doesn’t give a damn? Or when Michael Corleone says to Moe Green, in that flat voice, “You straightened my brother out?”

In real life, the narratives we tell about the things happening to us rarely satisfy us. We think of the perfect comeback a day later. We wonder why good people don’t win, or why bad people aren’t punished for being bad. We see which way a story should go, and then it doesn’t go that way and we’re surprised and unhappy.

Humans are wired to look for patterns. It’s the only way we can cope with the massive intake of sensory data we receive every moment of every day. We categorize and sort the incoming information, we match it to patterns, we use those patterns to make decisions rather than the raw data. We recognize faces in burned toast and wood grain and spilled water, or in a circle and two dots, or the back of a chair. Familiar patterns drive the entire meme ‘industry’, from Rick Astley all the way through the strange synthesis of Real Housewives women shouting at smug looking cats.

Narrative is a kind of pattern, possibly the second most fundamental pattern in our brains after facial recognition. We see a sequence and we try to apply cause and effect to the sequence, and given enough elements of a sequence we’ll try to draw a smooth curve that connects all the elements. We reject the notion that events do not actually sort themselves into smooth curves, that cause and effect are nearly impossible to know in a system as complex and chaotic as ‘all of human history’, and that there’s usually no resolution. We seek resolutions.

I’ve got a degree in history, and my focus was on historiography, or the study of how we know the things we know about history. The keystone of historiography is that narratives are lies. We use them to provide context, to try to derive lessons and meaning and understanding, to make the vast seething chaos of human history make some kind of sense, to be comprehensible, but we also acknowledge that there’s no such thing as an accurate narrative. The further we get from the events of a narrative, the less we can say what ‘really happened’, in the sense of what people did, what events took place, what words were said and how. We’ve mostly all seen the bits of Downfall where Hitler rants at his staff in the bunker. The truth is, we have no real idea what actually happened in the bunker. We all ‘know’ Caesar was stabbed, and probably even where (there’s a cat sanctuary there now, with cats lounging on cracked columns and stone blocks two thousand years old; it’s pretty amazing), but we don’t know anything else, not really. We speculate on who did the stabbing, how long he took to die, what he said and what was said to him, but we don’t know.

Narratives are how we fill the gaps in what we know and don’t know. And we want our narratives to follow the arcs we’ve drawn for them, where the pieces of data we have are all fitted to the arc, where the arc ends in the ‘right’ place. Imagine a story like Casablanca. Now imagine that, as the plane taxis away with Ilsa aboard, a bomb goes off and the plane is destroyed and Ilsa dies. Just like that, just randomly, just ‘this is a thing that happened’. We’d reject that conclusion because we can see the shape of the arc the narrative makes, and that conclusion doesn’t fit. It doesn’t follow from previous events. It’s ‘realistic’ in the sense that it could have happened like that, but our awareness of the narrative’s arc doesn’t permit that sudden swerve.

An aside: I have a deep loathing for the movie adaptation of King’s The Mist for this very reason. It’s absurd, it’s horrible, it’s a moment of shock horror intended to make the audience unhappy and unsatisfied. It’s a cheap and crass way to disrupt the story’s narrative arc. In a movie that’s not actually about hopelessness (I’m looking at you, Melancholia) it’s a hopeless conclusion that serves no purpose but to make the previous two hours meaningless and a waste of the viewer’s time.

When we talk about narrative satisfaction, we’re talking about that arc that connects all the data points of events in the story. If the arc is simple, we’ll describe that narrative as ‘obvious’ or maybe ‘trite’ or ‘predictable’. We can enjoy simple arcs like that; some of them form the basis for beloved stories, Cinderella and The Count of Monte Cristo and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and honestly every ‘just-so’ fairy tale ever written. We like stories we know well that follow an arc and deliver that arc with polish and enthusiasm.

When we start to see the shape of an arc, we imagine the next event of the narrative, and the next. We theorize about what the shape implies for forthcoming events, and mull over how the arc’s shape will change if our theories turn out to be true. Every discussion forum for every ongoing television show is filled with people trying to plot out the future shape of the arc (and, fundamentally, this is where the show Lost failed — there was no arc, and the shape veered too wildly from one episode to the next, until the viewers were exhausted trying to keep a mental model of the overall shape of the narrative in their heads).

We find a narrative satisfying if we’ve correctly predicted the overall arc when it reaches its end, or if we failed to predict the arc but when we see all of it we understand its shape and appreciate that shape. There’s a John Doe quote from Se7en that I often think of when I think about unexpectedly meaningful narrative arcs: “You can’t see the whole complete act yet. Not yet. But when this is done, when it’s finished, it’s going to be… People will barely be able to comprehend it. But they won’t be able to deny.” (Se7en has an extremely satisfying narrative arc, and also works as a great example of the difference between ‘satisfying’ and ‘pleasant’ — because it is absolutely not pleasant at all, and yet once it’s over, it’s clear it could have resolved in no other way.)

There are games that work purely on the basis of a satisfying narrative arc with a conclusion that makes us nod, knowing it could have resolved in no other way. Gone Home is a stand-out example of this type of game; there is very little going on in the game besides the slow reveal of each event, each data point, and the primary activity the player is engaged in is mentally drawing and re-drawing their expected narrative arc. At the start, it’s a boundless field of possibilities; as the game progresses, the available narrative space narrows further and further, and our theoretical arcs become more constrained and thus more accurate. The ending is satisfying, at least in part because we’ve been led there through our own thicket of speculations and hypotheticals.

A Pause for Breath

I’ve let this essay get a bit too long, and I want to do a deep-dive on motivations that are not ‘enjoyment’, that are perhaps in direct opposition to the enjoyment of a game. And I still need to talk about practical applications. I’m going to split this into multiple parts; we’ll return with ‘Anger and Frustration’ next time.

Written by

game designer and professional trans person. i made battletech (2018). she/her. @persenche on twitter.

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