The 5 key factors of long-term engagement for Gamification
This article was originally posted at Gamification Co. as an Op-Ed. You can see it here
Did you ever lose track of time because of a game? And did you ever asked yourself why?
Games are one of the most engaging things that we can find because they involve and fulfill almost all of our main human motivators and happiness factors while creating so much fun (see my post on "why people play" here), but some very special ones have this stickiness that makes us want to play them for a long period of time.
As it turns out, if we analyse and explore some of the best selling games ever as well as the most popular ones nowadays, it can be stated that there are 5 key engagement factors that all of those games share in common, while matching these requirements:
- Every single one creates real short term engagement by itself, and the sum of them produces long term engagement that lasts in time.
- They are independent from each other but also related in some way.
- All of them can be applied to gamification, setting apart the ones that are only found or work properly in games.
The 5 Key Factors
These are the 5 main factors of long term engagement in gamification experiences that match all of the requirements:
- Action & Progress loops: human beings like habits, and our brain usually craves for patterns that it can follow. Everyone of us has some good or bad habits and they are one of the main keys of behavior management. As Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) or Prof. Kevin Werbach (For The Win) state in their books, habit loops are a very powerful source for encouraging people to take some actions, while giving them any kind of feedback that motivates them to repeat that behavior in time.
In gamification as in games, we can identify two different types of loops: action and progress loops. Basically, action loops are based on taking some kind of action, getting something for it and stay motivated to do it again, while progress loops focus on mastery and the player's improvement in time.
As an example of how to combine these, we can build an action loop implementing some quests in our system that the player can repeat in time getting some XP points, badges, rewards or any kind of item. If the system is well designed, players will keep on coming back to make those quests and get their rewards. Besides, they will not only be motivated by the rewards achieved, but also because of the progress made in the rankings, the improvement of their skills, or the new levels that unlock other stuff, or give them access to some privileges.
Some very good examples of these combined loops can be found in games like Travian, Mafia Wars, Celtic Tribes or Top Eleven.
- VIP Goals (Valuable, interesting, possible): Goals are one of the main elements of progress loops that we just mentioned, but they have some specific instructions that we should follow to make the work properly. In a more psychological approach, goals are great for engagement because when reaching them, they create a feeling of fulfillment, achievement and mastery that releases big doses of dopamine making us happier. Apart from that, getting to the point where we complete them is a path towards learning, something that we all like!
So back to gamification, VIP Goals stands for Valuable, Interesting and Possible goals. Not every goal works out good and encourages people to achieve them, so thats why they need to be VIP goals but... What do we mean with that?
In any gamified system, we need valuable goals for players, or in other words, achieving them must have some intrinsic or extrinsic value for them. Besides that, they have to be interesting and engaging, because it's not only about the goal itself, but also how we come to that point. And last but not least, our players must feel that they have a real chance to achieve them in a short period of time!
So when creating VIP goals in a gamified system, we want them to be meaningful for our players, dividing them into small goals towards a bigger objective to keep flow going on, and mixing them with a small touch of epicness. Only true heroes can achieve VIP goals!
Some great examples of VIP goals are Nike+, Duolingo, and some of the campaigns of Kickstarter.
- Well designed rewards systems: Rewards are related to both loops and goals, being a step in between and that's why basically, every gamified system needs some kind of rewards whether they are real or virtual, extrinsic or intrinsic, positive or negative. In short, they are a very basic but powerful element in any system because they reinforce or discourage the player's behavior in time.
There are many types of rewards but what we want to create is a system that has different kinds of rewards according to the phase the player is on at the moment. So in the beginning, it's good to have some fixed rewards that create the first action loops; after that, it might be good to combine those with some interval rewards, that are linked to new actions while in the end we want variable rewards depending on the player's choices, that will lead to the main goals prizes.
As with VIP goals, rewards need to be valuable, meaningful and fun, or otherwise, no one will want to get them! If you want to get some inspiration on how to design a nice rewards program, check out Team Fortress 2 and its items system, it's just an awesome mix of virtual goods and real money!
- From Solo to Social: Before keeping on reading, have a look at the App Store or the Google Play Store and check out what are the most downloaded and profitable games for mobile devices. I'm quite sure you will recognise some pattern...
So...did you realise that there is a great number of MMO games? And that almost all of the most profitable games are related to some kind of social feature? Is that a coincidence?
Well, not at all. Humans are social animals and relatedness is one of the most powerful drives of engagement and motivation as well as one of the key factors of well-being and happiness, and games are not an exception. All this said, it is difficult that all gamified systems can implement social features or start as a social platform due to the lack of an initial critical mass in most of the cases, so that's why we want to start it as a great solo adventure to evolve into a more social community.
But keep this in mind, social games have levels of emergence and complexity that solo games cannot even dream of. Most of the times, we only play due to the people that play with us, and it is proved that engagement usually skyrockets when a game implements some kind of social feature if it's done well. So start it as a solo game and let it become social progressively.
There are so many examples of this type, and many of them are related to growth hacking strategies, but one of my favorites is Dropbox and its storage system.
- The X Factor: the last one of the long term engagement factors is what I call "The X Factor", or in other words, that special ingredient that every really great game has and makes it unique and amazingly engaging. It can be anything from a core mechanic that produces so much excitement to an epic story, a creative theme or a unique identity or style, but what they all have in common is that they boost the user's engagement in a way that no other game or system does. However, some of these features can be difficult to implement in a gamified system but we need to try finding our very own X Factor to really create a memorable experience.
Some examples of this X Factor can be found in Tetris and its core mechanics that have engaged players for so long, Final Fantasy and its epic story that makes you want to keep on going to see what's going to happen next with the characters, Angry Birds and Candy Crush with their creative and colorful themes that produce so much fun, or World of Warcraft, The Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars Online with a totally unique identity and style that creates a passion and cult feeling that only the most powerful and well-known brands in the world have been able to achieve.
In the end, designing a great gamified system that lasts in time and keeps users fully engaged is a difficult task the same way that creating a unique game experience is not easy at all.
Following and implementing these 5 factors in the right way increases the odds of being successful and achieving our main gamification objectives.