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User Research: Why players love game that makes them frustrated

Why is it that too easy games often make players feel uninterested, while frustrating players stick in games and keep playing? This can be explained using the following psychological theory.

Game Developer, Staff

August 31, 2021

5 Min Read

Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice, as super popular title released in 2019, it’s still often to see players complaining that they were killed and can not pass several chapters in a variety of game community, while looking for help over and over again to practice and very few players because of the difficulty in game to give up directly. In fact, in many games that need certain level of controls, you can see a large number of players who are addicted to the game while “complaining” about the difficulty of the game. We have to admit: as players, we don't like easy passes and prefer difficult and challenging games.

Why is it that  too easy games often make players feel uninterested, while frustrating players stick in games and keep playing? This can be explained using the following psychological theory.

01 Attributional bias makes players feel great and satisfied

We are always looking for reasons for our own/others' behavior and the results of that behavior, and psychology refers to this inferential process as Attribution. The internal and external factors are in the attribution dimension (Locus of Control) and psychologists use control points to describe internal and external causes of behaviors. Internal attribution which mainly refers to causes related to the player himself, such as effort, control and skills, etc., while external attribution which often refers to the external environment of the game, such as game mechanics, matchmaking system, etc.

Only fair games are worth playing in players' eyes. Once players think their frustration mainly stems from external factors - which is mainly the game itself, such as unfair matching mechanism and poorly designed control system, they will quickly become dissatisfied and super angry, and even quit the game. Conversely, if players attribute their frustration to internal factors - their own efforts and luck - they are prone to see hope in the game and look forward to the next success or better luck, and this group of players often shows stable long-term motivation and higher stickiness in the game.

The recently popular casual game, "Synthetic Watermelon", successfully leads players to attribute their frustration to their own control and luck.

In this game, different fruit falls and players move the falling fruit so that the same fruit touches the synthesis of larger fruit, until the synthesis of the "big watermelon". If the fruit has been unable to synthesize and the pile of fruits becomes too high, it touches the top of the red line, which brings a fail and the game is over.

Through many attempts, it is observed that the opening stage of each game is often very simple, because of the falling of a lot of the fruit. And players tend to successfully synthesize 1-2 big watermelon. However, when the watermelon size becomes too large, the game difficulty increases, and the game will "deliberately" fall some smaller, different types of fruit, until the synthesis becomes more difficult. And in the end, it is easy to fail the game.

This setting of easy first and then hard is to avoid the basic attribution error; if the player suffers a setback at the initial stage of the game, the player will attribute it to the game design rather than his own skills and luck. And since the beginning is easier, players get a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when they get a good score and keep synthesizing in order to continue this good feeling. At the same time, due to the simple rules, players will blame their mistakes on "accidentally" placing the wrong fruit or having bad luck to randomly get different fruits in the later stages of the game. Additionally, they tend to think they will definitely get higher scores as long as they put more effort in next time.

In this "attribution bias" psychology, players try to play again and again, helping increase the stickiness of the game.

02 The Placebo Effect Reduces Frustration After Failure

The placebo effect was first discovered by Dr. Henry K. Beecher, and it refers to the practice of taking a fake drug that has no effect at all without the patient's acknowledge, but the patient gets the same or even better treating results as the real drug. This plausible phenomenon is common in both medical and psychological research.

Prolonged experience of failure may cause great frustration within players, who then gives up the game, and then needs a certain psychological compensation mechanism to convert the player's negative emotions into positive ones and regain interest in the game.

In many games with a certain degree of difficulty, players are given a certain amount of compensation after experiencing failure, such as the "system-assigned bots" which are common in many competitive games or modes. This system will automatically assign bots to join the game after players have experienced multiple failures, although most players can accurately identify the bots, but the joy and accomplishment of defeating them is a "cheap" sense of achievement and psychological placebo for them.

In Knives Out, most players can identify which bots are placed automatically. They are often poorly equipped, have fewer lootings, but they can give players a sense of psychological accomplishment in killing them, which is a "placebo" provided by the game developers for players.

Placebo effect is also common in the game "recharge discount", most of the game will set a certain recharge benefits, which is a disguised placebo effect. For players who do not recharge so often in game, but it also helps increase a certain recharge amount, to a certain extent to give players psychological comfort.

03 Summary

For players, frustration is not terrible, and the sense of accomplishment after frustration can help them gain great psychological satisfaction. For game developers, how to make players "reasonably" frustrated, and how to arouse players' higher interest in the game after being frustrated, is the direction and subject of constant efforts.


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