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Achievements, Social Games and Virtual Goods

How can game designers engage players? It's a clever game mechanic and it involves achievements, rewards and loops. Why are they important? Read this post to find out. This post was first published as part of a series that discusses social game design.

In our last post, we started a discussion about understanding micro-transactions (the sale of virtual goods) in social games. (Edit, Sept. 7, 2010 –thanks for all your comments.) We explored the importance of understanding how game mechanics could be used to create demand for virtual goods. We argued that virtual goods establish value in a player’s mind, they are meaningful and context-relevant objects that motivate a player to action. So since we’re on the topic of user actions, we thought we’d next discuss how game design can be used to motivate certain behaviours in games, like seeking achievements. As you’ll see, understanding this is important because it relates to user actions in games…which may influence the success of a game.

High Achievers, Compulsion Loops

Games have core compulsions or “things that a player must do” in order to achieve something. Usually, a player will be motivated to achieve something to yield rewards (story advancement or being able to access limited virtual goods). But that’s not all. Achievements offer a way for players to communicate with one another about their accomplishments. It serves an evidential function, since it gives players a way of verifying their in-game acts during social encounters. When achievements are dosed out incrementally (players get little rewards every time they do something), they’re continually motivated to act. Therefore they not only engage more with a game–they barter, exchange and discuss “strategy,” but the same actions can also be used to monetize a game.  This cycle is called the compulsion loop: it will drive a player to continue playing, continually seeking achievements and therefore completing repeated micro-transactions in a game.

What are the Implications for Game Design?

For businesses and game designers, understanding this game mechanic is beneficial to understand micro-transactions: award the player with granular achievements when they do something fairly low-risk or for small amounts of investment (time or money) and get them hooked into the loop, so they can do it repeatedly. Also, since it is difficult for game designers to determine accurately “what will sell” in a game, a compulsion loop is a much better way to approach understanding purchase motivation. (It’s easier for game designers and businesses to try to determine “what people love to do”.) For example, it could be filling out a survey, downloading an application or buying more in-game currency to save time and level up faster. This game mechanic works, because ultimately, all games resolve themselves down to the compulsion loop.

PS: We’ve touched on this idea before, but some would say that understanding how this “achievement stream” works may also open new opportunities for learning. Some argue that game-like external rewards can also be used to help make people lead better lives. It’s believed that incremental achievements may improve player performance in not only in games, but also modify real-life behaviours. What do you think? As always, you can email me at michael [at] ayogo dot com or leave a comment.

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