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Designing for Motivation

What is motivated game design and, more importantly, why is it important? In this first in a series of technical articles by designer David Ghozland (Splinter Cell: Conviction, Rainbow 6 Vegas), he explores the concept of the 'motivation loop', drawing examples from titles such as Blizzard's Diablo and id Software's Quake IV.

david Ghozland, Blogger

June 7, 2007

23 Min Read

The importance of a game's experience depends on the how much general interest it can generate. Creating and keeping the player’s interest is the way to manage his motivation. His motivation is the factor that will determine if a player will continue playing after a few minutes, as well as how long he will play and whether he will finish the game.

As game creators, we have the advantage of knowing that the player is motivated when he starts a game, because the player has already taken the first steps: both buying and launching the game on his PC or console (this motivational work has been done by marketing).

This is where we step in, seizing these invaluable moments when the player starts playing. These are the very first minutes when we must deploy a maximum of ingenuity and design. The first contact is done at that critical moment; when everything begins and when everything can end as well.

The player’s action responds to a paramount need which we should never forget or undermine – that is, HAVING FUN (everything else just serves to increase the intensity of the game experience). The essence of our work is to answer this necessity while keeping or even increasing his initial motivation throughout the game. If the player loses his motivation, it is because he does not have fun anymore. He will first “switch off’, and then stop playing.

Managing the player’s motivations means meeting his needs. If the general need is to have fun (the reason for the purchasing the game), then the needs that must be answered by a game designer are created beforehand by the game design and are also accepted by the player.

I. Motivated Game Design

The game designer is in the position of “the one who proposes”. The proposal is: "come and play in my world, following my rules." It is a negotiation between the game designer and the player, where the game's design must convince the player of the legitimacy of its rules, and persuade him about the game's interest. The gameplay and the game systems will play the role of immersive catalyst, in order to monopolize the whole attention of the player. The persuasion capacity of a game designer is measured by the strength of his game systems.

It is all about universe coherency, about credibility and also accessibility. The player has to “believe” in the game, identify himself with something and quickly get one’s bearings.

The tutorial is essential to guide the player in this development. This is an interactive part where the player becomes acquainted with the game. In general, the tutorial should be the first level(s) where the basics are taught; however, this should not be apparent. Motivated by his need to learn and to understand, the player will be even more receptive if the tutorial seems to be a “natural way to go”. A tutorial that only enumerates rules and controls is absolutely anti-immersive and not very motivating.

Once in possession of a "young hero’s set", knowing the bases of the world, the interface and controls, what motivates the player to go on?

The story? It is, indeed, a considerable source of motivation – considerable, but not sufficient. The narration can keep a spectator in suspense, but cannot in any case compel a player to act.

The world? Indeed, if the universe "speaks" to the player, if it is original enough and its coherency is sufficient, then it is a motivating element. If at the beginning it is necessary to discover the universe, then at the end the objective is to control it and master it. Even if it is not the principal motivation, one can consider the universe to be a background motivation if it is rich enough.

The gameplay? Yes, the game design is the essence of the game and it is here that we find the real potential for motivation. This is also the point that I will develop further on.

The motivation depends on the needs. After the first minutes, the needs of the player immersed in the universe are directly linked to the game. These needs are artificially created by the game design according to the tacit agreement with the player.

This silent agreement takes the form of a promise stated by the game design at the time of the presentation of the game’s universe and the game itself. For example, a RPG promises character growth combined with a measure of empowerment. A FPS, on the other hand, promises large weapons and powerful enemies.

This is an explicit shortcut to highlight the relationship mechanisms between the game designer and the player and thus of the motivation. In order to obtain more quality and more efficiency, we have to consider from now on the player as a variable of the game systems.


II. The PNRC System

The purpose of the system that I am presenting is to manage internal motivations both coming from the game and in the game context. The player’s external motivations are non-estimable and unverifiable. We cannot know if the player made the bet to finish the game or if his circle wanted him to stop playing. What we are interested in here is the motivation induced by the game mechanisms and systems.

We have to offer challenges to the player in order to entertain him and test him along with rewards that would motivate him to continue playing. Motivating the player is also to understand his needs with the purpose of fulfilling them. It is thus to know but also “to control” the progress of his needs in order to increase them, vary them and modify them from the beginning till the end of the game.

A reward can take several forms but it must be in correlation with the universe and with the player’s expectations. A reward is related to a challenge, a test or an effort, and thus must be proportional to the difficulty to obtain it.

To reward a player in a FPS with a bouquet of flowers would be a proof of no common sense. However, in a game of seduction this kind of reward is in adequacy with the game universe. Likewise, to loot Excalibur on a goblin or a rusty dagger on a giant are serious mistakes in the game design. The player receives a reward either disproportionate or inferior to the difficulty and the reward system collapses. Another dangerous and common practice is to have random rewards. Based only on luck, this system is difficult to tune and it can be a source of frustration to the players.

We have to reward for a given challenge, according to the difficulty and the needs. This is the PNRC system or the Motivation loop:





We have to know at any time what the state of the player is. By getting this information we can determine what his needs are, what rewards will be adequate and what level of challenges we can propose.

Hence, we can say that the player’s motivation is an outcome of 4 following functions:

  • PLAYER STATE (P): This is the state of game variables of the player’s avatar. His life, armor, and the quality of his equipment, etc. It is also his talent, his knowledge of the world and of game mechanisms. We can say that this is the strength of the player.

  • NEEDS (N): These are the needs at the moment when the challenge arises. These needs depend on the player’s state and on his advancement into the game. There are also the needs added, by the game design, as the player goes along.

  • REWARD (R): This is the player’s expectation of the reward. The value depends on the type of reward (function of the needs); it depends on the estimated difficulty and also on the player’s past experience with the reward system.

  • CHALLENGE (C): This is the player’s expectation regarding the challenge. The value is high if the player believes in his own capacities. However, if he does not feel comfortable or if he doubts in his skills, the value is low.

For a particular Player State we have the following equation for motivation (M):

M(p) = N(p)*C(p)*R(p)

Indeed, the function of time P(t), is the parameter of N, C and R. These three functions interact in multiplicative ways. As soon as one is null, the motivation for this player state is null.

For example, for a particular player state (P), a player can be demotivated when his good performance is not recognized by the system. Poor reward (R ~ 0) results in poor motivation even when the player believes in his own skills (C high) and his needs are significant (N high).

Another example: the player can believe in himself (C is high), and considers that a high performance results in high reward (R high), but he is too well equipped or armed (N ~ 0). M is then low.


III. Motivating Systems

Once the learning phase is achieved, the player is in expectation. He has new skills, a lot of good will and a basic set of equipment to begin his career as a hero. From now on, the role of the designer is to open up his universe and to guide in it the player step by step. He does this by offering progressive challenges rewarded by new tools to help him to take up new challenges and so on. The game designer creates the needs for the player; he organizes his wishes and provides the challenges and rewards to satisfy him.

The game design must build the loop of player’s needs, and then answer them by a succession of challenges/rewards. This structure inherent in a game is built around the principles of progression, growth and accomplishment.

To create a challenge/reward cycle is relatively easy. The one most used is the D&D method commonly known as “door, monster, treasure.” This system is functional but restrictive and repetitive. It allows building solid bases but it remains tedious and wearisome in a short run. This tool is raw but functional and if it does not allow subtle tuning, it is a motivating system.

Motivation on the Reward

The “reward system” is the fundamental base for all motivation management. The rule is that every player’s effort must be rewarded. Even though the reward could take many forms, its role is mainly to motivate.

In action-RPG titles such as Diablo or Guild Wars, the gameplay is built on the growth of the character's strength. This is carried out by a system of experience and levels associated with a system of equipment. To reach the next level the player has to cumulate enough points of experience. By passing through a succession of challenges, he will obtain this experience as well as the equipment needed for the next challenge.


Diablo's inventory system at work

The motivation loop is closed and the player runs from monster to monster to satisfy his thirst for power. The needs N are big (equipment and levels) and expectations on reward R are big (experience and treasures). Expectations on challenge C are proportional to the strength P of the player. Since P continues to grow, N, R, and C follow the same evolution during the game.

picture_5_everquest.jpgEven though this system looks ideal and scalable, it has its weaknesses. When the limit of progression is reached, the game looses its interest and the motivation disappears. If there is no limit, the system does not offer any objectives or references and thus the motivation is very weak.

In the case of Everquest, the scarcity of rewards that gave birth to a "camp system" exhausts the players’ motivation until they are completely de-motivated. The rule that every effort merits a reward is no longer valid.

In the case of Diablo, the randomness of categories and reward characteristics increases the motivation of players to replay in order to achieve the perfect item. The disadvantage is that the player has no real reference of the ratio challenge / reward since one “unique” item can be the reward for next to no challenge.

Motivation on the Needs

The core of the game play in RTS is generally the source of the motivation. In StarCraft, the entire game mechanic is based on resource acquisition and control. The player starts the game close to sites with just enough minerals and gas to be able to begin the development of his base and his troops.

In this case P is at its minimum (the player is weak) and N is big (need for development). Challenge expectation C is small but greater than his power P (defend his development). Reward expectation R is big (to obtain a complete base and an army to fight) hence the motivation M is significant at the beginning of the game.

Thereafter, once his resources are exhausted, the player will have to find some new ones to exploit. N is still big, C depends on the strength achieved by the player P (battle for the control of new sites), and R remains big (possibility to upgrade units and to construct new ones).

In general, RTS games are based on construction mechanics that require resources. This mechanic is constantly motivating because troops and buildings will be destroyed during battles, and as a result new resources will be needed. The needs N are still significant, P changes with battles, C depends on P, and R is linked to needs N. The motivation loop is well established and exists until there are no resources left.

However, the strong point of this system is also its weak point. The game is decided once a player does not have access to resources any more; however, waiting for the game to be over can take a long time. The motivation loop is broken since it is impossible to access resources. Thus, there is no reason for the player to continue; he quits the game leaving the winner frustrated to have won by the retirement of his opponent.


Blizzard's popular sci-fi themed RTS Starcraft


Some RTS titles like Age of Empires tried to propose solutions to keep the motivation going by either creating other resources that would be easier to access (food and farms) or by creating a possibility to obtain resources by other means (trade, reinforcements). In other RTS title, such as Total Annihilation, M.A.X, and Company of Heroes, resources cannot be exhausted and both the motivation and the gameplay are based on the number of sites to control and on time optimization.

Motivation on the Challenge

In fighting games and sports games, the motivation is related to the challenge. The player state P follows the learning curve which represents the level of player’s skills. The induced need N is then a need for knowledge and excellence. It is the need to dominate all aspects of the game and to master all controls in order to face successive challenges C (beat the adversary). The reward R is the victory in each challenge which proofs the skills and which brings the player closer to the final victory.

The motivation loop is an ascending spiral that results in the player’s progress and in his skill affirmation. Yet, a simple victory is not a sufficient reward to keep in a long run the motivation.


Namco's PlayStation 2 3D fighter Soul Calibur III

Games like Soul Calibur or Need for Speed suggest unlocking the options according to the performance or to the accumulation of points (new characters, new arenas, looks, etc.). It is a parallel system of motivation that is linked to the game mechanics while preparing the multi player.


Motivation on the Player State

In general, shoot'em up and beat'em up style games are based on the player state P. The player’s characteristics (character, ship, etc.) are upgradeable but are not permanent. Everything the player can acquire is temporary. He can lose his bonuses at the end of the level or when he dies. The player’s objective is to keep his strength as high and as long as possible to defeat the final boss.

The need N of the player is high, and he has to increase his strength P through bonuses and upgrades. Challenge expectation C is directly linked to P: weak when the player has no upgrade and strong when he acquires enough bonuses. The reward R is represented by a consequent increase of fire power and hence by the decrease of the difficulty.

Since the difficulty is here independent from the player state P, the motivation of the player decreases with his strength to finally disappear when the difficulty rises too high. We quickly reach a selection between the strongest and the most perseverant players that progress and the others that give up.

There exists some efforts in these types of games to make them more accessible, including permanent bonuses, adaptation of the difficulty level, and the possibility to win without upgrades. For now, however, core gamers remain the main target of these kinds of games.

Mixed Motivation

Most games build their motivation on the four PNCR functions. Because these functions are interdependent, to succeed in an efficient management of motivation one has to balance the four parameters. It is a question of tweaking and tuning to achieve the desired game experience.


id Software's first person shooter Quake IV features mixed motivation

For example, online first person shooters like Quake or Unreal Tournament have a mixed motivation that is based at the same time on the challenge C (tournaments Game play), the need N (arms/ armor/ ammunition/ health), the player state P (bonuses and temporary boosts), and the reward R (score and the victory).

In the context of tournament and competition experience, even if the main motivation is the victory, the balance among the four functions is essential.

IV. PNRC Applications


To achieve motivating game systems, we need to take into consideration every PNRC variable and to ensure the follow-up of the motivation for each challenge. We can conceive the game structure as a succession of iterations of challenges along the difficulty curve. Each iteration is linked from the previous to the next one by the player state P.

The player state allows retrieving necessary information for the adjustment of the "challenge" and of the "reward," the reward responding to the "needs" created by the game design. The objective is to increase or at least to maintain the motivation of the player during his progression.

The motivation will change from iteration to iteration, and it will increase or decrease, according to adequacy of the game compared to player’s expectations. To keep the player motivated, the reality of the game system (S) must be equivalent to the expectation (E) of the player.

If at the beginning of each iteration of challenge, the player starts with motivation Mprev, let’s then call Mnext the motivation at the end of the iteration:

There is: S <> E (Equivalency)

N and P are constants at the considered time:

S = (RS*CS) E = (RE*CE) (Definition)

And: CS <> RS > N (Conditions)

S is the motivating factor from the system parameters and E is the player’s expectations. P (player state) represents the player’s strength at the given time, N his needs:

  • The motivating value of the system has to be equivalent to player’s expectation.The challenge has to be proportional to the reward and, if possible, slightly superior to player’s capacities.The reward has to fulfill player’s needs and has to give him a bonus that is relative to the difficulty of the challenge.

  • The challenge has to be proportional to the reward and, if possible, slightly superior to player’s capacities.

  • The reward has to fulfill player’s needs and has to give him a bonus that is relative to the difficulty of the challenge.

The resulting player's motivation, Mnext, is then the initial motivation, Mprev, affected by the ratio of system and expectation:

Mnext = (S/E)*Mprev

Note: if the ratio of S/E is constant during the whole game then the motivation is a geometric progression: un+1 = q un

For example, if a player can have no expectation on needs, N = small, but he can have a big expectations of challenge, CE = large. If CS <> CE, even if his needs are fulfilled, the system still has to take into account his performance (RS > RE > N), otherwise S is smaller than E and the motivation Mnext decreases.

Score System, Key system, and Multi-Choice

Here are 3 examples of the management of the motivation commonly used that will well illustrate the PNRC mechanic and its advantages.

Score system:

The score system is a good way of how to manage the motivation. It is an integral part of a reward system, which allows both rewarding and confirming the success of the player (R). This goes from encouragement to applause, from score bonuses to experience points.

The player is rewarded by points and/or by ranking. The score determines the progression, and the bonus rewards the performance. The player creates a logical system where the game universe is organized and structured in form of point values. The difficulty of the challenge is measured by the number of points it brings and vice-versa. The player is then pushed to bigger and bigger challenges (C) in order to gain more points.

The experience points follow the same principles with the difference that the score is integrated into the game system. The progression takes the form of levels and associated talents (N). Another motivating aspect of the experience system is the resulting ranking compared to other players and compared to the world. The problem with this system is the limit of the progression (maximum level), once this limit is reached it sounds the death knell for the motivation.

Here, the motivation is related to the progression and the performance. The score is thus an efficient tool of the system to recognize player’s efforts and to follow his evolution (P).

Key system:

The system is an additional layer of the challenge/reward mechanic. Challenges (C) are trials where in order to progress the player must first successfully finish previous trials. The principle is that the player is in front of a locked door and he needs a key to open it. In order to succeed in this challenge he needs first to find this key (N) which, however, is a reward (R) in a different challenge. The key then becomes both the need and the reward and thus increases the motivation to gain it.


Giving a choice to the player increases the possibilities of both the game and gameplay. Motivating is also used to increase the player’s chances to find what he is looking for (N). Being able to apprehend the challenge before the confrontation is an enormous advantage. The fact that the player can prepare himself for the confrontation (C) is in itself a very motivating element.

Also, having even a partial knowledge of the reward before the challenge is quite interesting. The player can avoid the frustration of discovering a non satisfying reward or he can strive to gain a reward (R) that motivates him.

I am talking about positive motivation that pushes the player forward to a feeling of accomplishment. However, there are opposite motivations based on negative characteristics as well, such as addiction, alienation, anger, frustration, etc. It can be interesting to exploit these feelings sometimes, for deeper needs, but to build a complete system based on this would be destructive. At the end, the player would be left feeling bitter and would be repelled by the game.

With score system, key system and multi-choice, the motivation loop is a loop of positive reinforcement that feeds itself. The player is immersed in the game and pushed forward. He will live through a motivating experience.

V. A Little Further

Inspired by the theory of processes and adapted to video games, the system PCNR that I propose is a simple and satisfying tool to manage players’ motivation. We could extend it to more variables but with the risk of increasing the complexity.

In this article I presented only the mechanisms of the motivation within the process frameworks that lead to it. There are several points that were not discussed, such as evolution of the needs and their hierarchy, as well as the future needs that the player is yet not aware of, which are also added to the motivation loop. Also, we cannot forget motivations issued from the context and the story as they are non-negligible ingredients of the motivation.

Finally, communities and groups bring additional dimensions to the player’s motivation. The multiplayer and the massive multiplayer game types have specific constraints that should be taken into consideration. Some aspects of motivation depend on the relations with otherplayers, on types of players, and their specific needs.

I will focus on all these points in my next article where I will explore in more detail how to respond to a universe much more complex that it appears to be.

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About the Author(s)

david Ghozland


David Ghozland in a veteran of the video game industry who has worked in the industry since 1998. He began his career as a tester on Ubisoft's platformer Tonic Trouble for the Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color, and PC. After this, he moved on to be a game designer for Visiware on the action adventure game Planet of the Apes. He later joined a start-up, Zebox, as game designer and project manager on the RTS Blood of Kings, a title that was eventually canceled. After a short freelance period, he joined Nevrax as a level and event designer on the MMORPG Ryzom. He is currently working for Ubisoft Montreal, and just finished up work on the movie license tie-in to Sony Pictures' Surf's Up. He has also worked on Farcry Instincts Evolution and Farcry Instincts Predator as a lead level designer and lead on the games' multiplayer features. He also worked as the level design director on Ubisoft's Rainbow 6 Vegas, recently finished an arcade sports game as a game designer, and is now a designer on Splinter Cell Conviction.

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