domingo, 16 de marzo de 2014

The Engagement Circle: How Game Designers Create Engaging Experiences (I)

The 12 Key Stages of Engagement in Games: Exploring how games make us lose track of time (Part 1)

Did you ever wonder how game designers create engaging experiences?
Why do online games. -and MMORPGs in special-, have way higher engagement ratios than any other game genres?

Can we find any common design patterns in those games? 

And, can we apply all of that to Gamification Design to make this type of experiences way more engaging?

This is a serie of 4 posts where we're going to explore the key 12 stages of engagement in online games to discover how to create, define and design better gameful experiences. Let's Go!

Learning from the best: Online Games 

Good games are all about engagement and we could even say (without being wrong) that nowadays, games are the kings of engagement. It's just a fact that in a world where the average attention span is critically decreasing every single year, people keep on spending more and more hours playing games. But there's something even more impressive: the massive amounts of engagement and hours played that MMORPGs rack up. If we compare the number of hours that gamers spent in 2013 on playing LoL, Wow, Dota 2 or any other successful MMORPGs to the average amount of hours that any other daily leisure activities got, there's quite a difference. But there's something else to be added to these statements: the average player is no longer a clear stereotype as it happened in the past days but anyone of us. 

From all of those facts, it's quite clear that there's something "magical" in the way that successful online games (and MMORPGs in special) are designed that makes them so engaging. This is our main starting point: exploring the reasons why online games have those high engagement ratios to see if we can find any common design patterns in them, to later on apply those with gamification. 

The Engagement Circle

The Engagement Circle is a 12-stages circle which aesthetics are inspired by Joseph Campbell's Monomyth and comes from Huizinga's idea of The Magic Circle. It basically is an approach to unravel the mystery that lies within Huizinga's magic circle to discover the common design patterns that make online games, -and MMORPGs in special-, engaging.

To create and develop this circle, some of the most successful online (and some offline best sellers) games from the past and present that I have played along these years have been analysed. Some of the titles included in this list are: Mu Online, Travian, Goal United, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XII, Kingdom Hearts, World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons' Temple of Evil, Baldur's Gate, Diablo II, Celtic Tribes, Order & Chaos, Midgard Raising, Team Fortress 2, OceanHorn, etc.

Let's see which are the 12 stages of a truly engaging experience.

Stage 1: An Epic Journey

"This is where it all starts. The Player's introduced to an Epic Journey through an unknown and mysterious world where his heroic destiny awaits."

The beginning of every game is one of the most important and critical parts of it. Many games fail to engage the player in the very first minutes to never be played again. That's why those first minutes of a gameful experience must be pure awesome. Here are some defining traits of a truly successful start:

A) Catch the user's eye: Use cool samples, great sneak peeks or brilliant intro screens to get the user's initial attention. 

B) An Epic Story: No one wants to go through dull and boring events. Great games start with awesome stories that take place in epic worlds the user never thought of. Besides, all of the analysed games had a truly interesting mission for the player to achieve and encouraged the user to quickly start off with powerful call-to-action mechanics. 

C) Romance: Many of the explored games started showing strong family bounds among characters to the player since the beginning, and mostly of all those were connected to the main questline. Never forget that Romance is one of the main key 16 motivators of humans (for further information on this check this out) and it's a fantastic way to get the player started.

D) Choosing your way: In many of the analysed games, the last step of this very first stage was choosing a race, class, main skill, or taking some kind of meaningful decision/way in overall. This customization process increases the initial autonomy feeling, empowering the user to start playing while strengthening bonds between the player and his own avatar. 

Stage 2: The Apprentice

"The Player's still an apprentice and needs to learn his way to become a more powerful hero. New friends will take him through simple quests to improve his skills within a controlled environment."

Once the player's interested in the game, it's time to teach him how to play. This is where tutorials take place and depending on how well that's designed, the user's experience will be better or worse throughout the game. Always remember that a dull start will lead to boredom and a really difficult one will cause anxiety in the player. These are some of the defining traits of a well designed "Apprentice Stage":

A) Keep it "nice and easy": Every new player needs to go through a simple learning process to develop his game skills. Don't create a complicated and demanding tutorial.

B) Action, Reward (x2-3), Action, Action, Reward (x2-3), etc: One of the best ways that the analysed games got players started and motivated them to keep on playing was by letting them succeed as much as possible. This is what's called the action-reward model. First of all, ask the players to perform a very simple action and reward him when done. Keep on repeating this while increasing the number of actions required for a reward. 

C) Reduced Emergence (Small possibility space): None of the analysed games gave too many options to the player in the beginning because, except for very skilled and hardcore gamers, many choices would get your players confused and anxious. As we said before, keep it simple and reduce the options available to the player in the very first minutes of the tutorial.

D) First quest type: Many of the researched games had several types of quests, and in the beginning, they kept on repeating the same basic type for the user to get used to it. In fact, tutorials were usually linked to this type of quest so the user would learn how to complete them without even realising it. The most common quest was the "normal quest". Other quests included "group quests", "daily quests", "PvP quests", etc. 

Stage 3: The Beginning

"The Hero's completed his training and sets up the way to meet his own fate with new skills. It's the start of the game's main questline."

It's time for the player to move out. Up until now we've been inside a comfortable sandbox but the world is awaiting for us! Once the tutorial is completed, and some small side quests have been done to reinforce the player's overall game skills at that moment (letting him to master some very few moves), it's time to get bigger. These were some of the key factors to keep the player enagaged in The beginning stage:

A) The Mentor & The traits: As many of the researched games showed, this is the time when a mentor will appear and encourage you to go, bu before you depart, this kind of "mentor" will have one last gift for you: a new special skill or trait that you'll keep on improving until you get a new one.

- B) A mysterious event: Something mysterious and unknown usually happened in many of the analysed games. Some of them had some cutsceens to show you something that's happening far from where you are, some others had you watch an event from the past or future and some others made you encounter some kind of weird item. In any case, mystery was one of the key motivators that kept users on playing at this point (see this study for further information).

- C) An evil character appears: There's almost no game without a powerful and evil enemy. The player has set up his way to meet his fate but it's not going to be easy. Almost all analysed games had a terrific evil character that appeared just before you start your epic journey, and in some of those cases, it was that event what made the player change his way in some kind of unfortunate way.

D) Life Jackets and Looting: Before departing to a new world, many of the games showed the player how to loot mobs, teaching him the main item's types, uses, levels and some other important points to remember about his equipment. This was usually done by small side quests where the player was fully protected against being killed or losing all his lifes thanks to any kind of life jackets. be continued...

Victor Manrique

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