11 min read

Motivation in games

Motivating a player to get past that initial 30 second glance at a game and into a rhythm where he or she plays for hour and hours can be tricky... When playing a game, I’m willing to bet you aren’t fully thinking about why you're doing what you're doi

Motivation in games.

Motivating a player to get past that initial 30 second glance at a game and into a rhythm where he or she plays for hour and hours can be tricky...

When playing a game, I’m willing to bet you aren’t fully thinking about why you're doing what you're doing. You just complete the tasks that you are given like some mindless robot. So how do games get you to “waste” your time like this and how can you as a game designer get your players to see the end of your perfectly crafted masterpiece of an indie game. 

I have identified a couple of methods designers use that achieve this sort of addiction, some of them are good and some of them are evil. First off let’s define some terms that is used in this article :

  • Motivation : Motivation is the reason for playing the game. Why do i keep doing what the designer asks me to do? -  from a player’s standpoint.

  • Grind : Grind is any repetitive action that the player has to complete in order to keep progressing in the game.

  • Fun : We play games for entertainment (to escape the shitty world we live in). So fun is when the player plays the game not for the reward he/she is going to get but for the time spent getting to the reward. Getting an item from a random cave in Skyrim for the 10th time to progress IS NOT fun (although the random encounters you have on the way to the cave is). Nearly beating the high score in doodle jump IS fun (for me atleast). 

The categories of motivation :

  1. The sense of achievement

  2. The curiosity effect

  3. Narrative Ransom

  4. Competitive nature 

Ok so my views on this subject..

Motivation is a concept that is interwoven with game design itself. If there was no motivation to play a game I would JUST NOT PLAY THE DAMN GAME. So every game has motivation. Some players and designers i've talked to feel that there is a difference between the motivational methods used in games. I feel that it doesn’t matter if you give a player a virtual item to keep him/her playing, or design the game around difficulty to keep him/her playing. Both are DESIGNED to keep the player motivated and playing. 

People usually point to mmorpg’s like World of Warcraft when talking about meaningless rewards but I feel that the problem lies not with the reward but with the grind. The grind in those games are really prominent and mostly the reward you gain is not what you wanted. 

Also there is FarmVille... This games whole point is to keep you playing as long as possible and there’s nothing wrong with that but the reason it wants you to keep playing is evil. When you play FarmVille you feel that the grind to get the reward is not worth it. You then think : “Oh, i don't have to play this part of the game, i can just PAY TO SKIP it and get my reward right away”. So to sum up :

  1. Get player addicted.

  2. Make the path to reward not fun at all.

  3. Give people the option to get the reward but not do the work. 

How i think we as game designers should keep players motivated is by minimizing the grind that is experienced on the journey to the reward. A game i feel does this very good is Thirty Flights of Loving, when i played it there was never a feeling of : “I can’t wait to get my reward at the end of this stupid level” The gameplay itself was the reward. Fez also springs to mind when thinking about this. 

First up we have :

The Sense of achievement.

The sense of achievement is a old and well used method to get players playing for longer. It works by designing a game around difficulty and giving the player a sense of achievement by carefully crafting the game to seem like the task at hand is just in reach of the player’s abilities. 

Old games from before 2000 were like this. You would play a game and fail 100 times but that rush you get from completing the level makes up for all the times you failed and when a new challenge is presented, the need for that feeling takes over and gets you playing again.

A couple games that use this primarily :

  • Super Meat Boy,


  • I want to be the guy,

  • Mighty jill off,

  • Dark Souls 

As a game designer you could easily implement this into a game that is designed to be difficult.

A couple of points to keep in mind :

  1. Try and design levels as to have tension attached. An example of this is a countdown timer in which you must complete the level in time. A tight spot or hard to execute maneuver is also effective.

  2. Don’t get the player frustrated. If the player feels that an action is impossible and then succeeds he will feel that it was the game glitching or just luck.

  3. Something Super Meat Boy does well is keep the excitement up by having no delay between death and respawning and. Never let the excitement die down. A example of what not to do would be : in the time that the level loads show an advertisement to some in game item. Rather have a countdown timer or a black screen or if you can no loading.

The curiosity effect. 

The curiosity effect, i feel, is one that human’s simply can’t avoid because its hard wired into our brains. Its works by telling the player that he will be rewarded if he completes a task, but the player is never told how big the reward is, only that there is a chance that the reward will be very big. So naturally the player wants to complete the task because he wants to know what the reward is going to be.. 

A good example game that Edmund McMillen created is AVGM - It stands for Abusive Video Game Manipulation. If you haven’t played it go play it quickly and come back. Also he did a retrospective write up on his blog about the game here : Linky 

He noted in the post that AVGM is a bad thing which i don't necessarily agree with, its just a different form of getting players hooked. Some players sincerely like getting virtual items.

When we look at League of Legends or DOTA 2 we can clearly see that this method works.

LoL is a big and complicated game, when we look at a simpler game in witch you get items for clicking 1000’s of times we can see the curiosity effect at its best. 

A couple of games that use this primarily: 

  • Need for Speed, with its system that lets you choose rewards.

  • Meat boy (flash game). This is a game that i feel uses the curiosity effect in the best possible way. When you complete 5 levels another 5 levels Unlocks and the levels are generally exciting so you want to unlock the new levels. 

Some pointers on using this method in your games:

  1. Don’t give the player what he wants. This sounds evil but the reality is that if you give me what i want, what incentive is there to keep playing?

  2. When thinking about item design, think of stuff that would make the players life easier but not take away any of the challenge/fun of the game. A example where this happened is Plants vs Zombies. When you unlocked the Kitty Tails the game was so easy to beat, although this only happened in the pool area.

  3. Try to be comic about the items you give the player. If you can make a player laugh at what he has unlocked, he will tell his friends and he will feel as if that item has given him some sort of REAL VALUE and he will keep playing. 

Narrative Ransom. 

Narrative Ransom works by giving you the beginning of an interesting story and then holding it ransom until you do some “grind”. Most games these days work like this and some people argue that if you don’t give the player something to do its not a game its merely an interactive story. 

The first thing that springs to mind is Gravity Bone or Thirty Flights of Loving from Blendo games (Brendon Chung). Its a game which i find has all the narrative punch of Call Of Duty Modern WarGhost 1521359 without the shity grind getting in the way. In gravity bone there is nothing keeping you from exploring the narrative. Although this makes the game much shorter, the feeling you get upon completion is : TIME WELL SPENT. 

Another medium that uses this method almost exclusively is TV.

We see in series that mostly they end on a shocking revelation that dispose of information that makes you wonder about the nature of the characters or the developments etc. 

Games that use this primarily:

  • Battlefield 3

  • Dead Island 

Another medium that uses this method almost exclusively is TV.

We see in series that mostly they end on a shocking revelation that dispose of information that makes you wonder about the nature of the characters or the developments etc.

A bit of advice when using this method in your games :

  1. For this to work the story should be very strong in its own right.

  2. Don’t give too much information at the beginning of the game. Just poke the player’s interest a bit.

  3. Try and create an emotional bond between the player and the character. This will cause the player to want to spend time with the other characters. A good example of this would be The Walking Dead.

Competitive Nature.

The competitive nature of human being’s makes it easy to attach value to a number. So if my number is higher than yours i am a better human than you and i’ll get all the fame. You don’t even need another person for this to work. You give a player a high score and he will naturally try to beat that and improve himself. 

We see that mobile games mostly fall into this bracket because when you're designing for mobile you don’t know the how the play environment will be like. So most mobile games have you just chasing a high score except the wonderful Superbrothers Swords and Sworcery.

Games that use this primarily:

  • Doodle Jump

  • Running Fred

  • Guitar Hero 

A couple of pointers when using this in your own games :

  1. The game should be designed in a way so that the more you play the better your personal skill level gets. A sort of practice makes perfect game.

  2. Leaderboards would be great if you could manage it. An good example of this is doodle jump where the top 10 scores are saved and shown on the playing field when you play.

  3. Randomness or luck also doesn't work well here. A game like chess would be a good example because you can add a number to it, you get better the more you play, there is no randomness.


Some games use more than one of these motivational methods and thats not a bad thing. Now that you got the player motivated and playing, what you do with that motivation decides if the game is a success or not. 

If you could create a game that uses the motivation to enrich your life you have successfully created, in my opinion, a great game. 

I can think of a few games that do give real life value. Braid is a good example. When i played that for the first time i had so much to think about in terms of regret and not just that, it encouraged thinking which a lot of games don’t do. Super Meat Boy is also a good game because of the sense of achievement that you get from completing the insane levels.It also made me laugh alott so i was a happier person because of it. 

As McMillen said in his post The Curiosity Effect feels hollow but i can’t see how this motivational method is any different from the other. Games still haven’t been explored very much and i think once we reach the medium’s full potential some great things can happen. 

If i can get one point across in this article it would be : Don’t design games around the reward. Design games around the whole experience leading up to the reward. 

There may be and probably is more ways to keep a player motivated, but these are the most prominent. If you can think of more ways share them in the comments or email me at [email protected].

You could also engage in a conversation with me on twitter @Kobusvdwalt9

This article was originally posted at

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