August 27th, 2010 by Chris Allen
As we are a small company, we often wear many hats here at Infrared5. While I’m the CEO, I often play the role of Software Architect, Salesman, IT Support Person and even Dishwasher from time to time. Another role that I end up doing, or at least assisting in, is that of a Game Designer. Game Design is an art form unto itself, and involves the ability to know intuitively what’s going to be fun, and perhaps more important, figure out what’s addictive. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the addiction of games lately, as I find it a very interesting subject, and is at the core of making the best games possible for our customers.
So, with that, what gives a game an addictive quality? And in particular what’s different about modern video, online, mobile and social media games? I took a look at what I think are some of the key ingredients (timing, social feedback, repetition, skill, reward, exploration and the near miss) and some successful games that implement these to see if I could crack the formula for what makes an addictive game.
Examples: Bejewled Blitz, Word Play
There’s a saying that timing is everything, and nothing could be more true for games. Bejewled Blitz (1 min game) employs timing in a way that keeps me playing over and over again. The simple premise of the game is to get as high of a score as possible within one minute. The fact that it’s so short gets into my brain and goes something like this: the game ends, and I’m like “well, one more try, it’s only a minute more”. The other game that applies this timing principal to great effect is Word Play, a Boggle style word game for the iPhone also has this type of addictive element. The fast paced game combined with competition from other players only fuels the desire to keep going. It was so addictive for my wife and me that we simply had to delete it off our phones because it was becoming a real problem.
Social Feedback and Competition
Examples: Texas Hold’m Poker, Farmville, World of Warcraft
Competition from your peers seems to be a driver that makes players come back for more and more. Who doesn’t want to the best in your social group, and to get feedback from their peers? From the beginning of video games, there’s been the leader-board, and the glory of having one’s initials on that 1983 Atari Star Wars game at the local pizza place is not something to take lightly. Flynn’s arcade in the original Tron movie where Jeff Bridge’s character is surrounded by onlookers seeing if he can beat the final level is a perfect example of the social impact in making a game worth playing over and over again.
Now a days we have facebook, twitter and other social media outlets where we can share updates on what’s going on in our lives. One of the most successful spin offs of the whole social media paradigm is social games. I’m not sure I need to go into what makes a game like Mafia Wars or Farmville addictive, but I think one of the chief appeals of these games is the interaction with your friends.
Of course MMORPGs like World of Warcraft use social aspects to make their games as compelling as possible. And Facebook games from Zynga and others make having your friends involved improve your ability in the game.
We should also talk about the success of Open Feint and other social integration SDKs like Dimerocker here as well. Open Feint is a platform that many game developers for the iPhone have incorporated into their games to enable social interaction and sharing with friends. Open Feint enables developers to add leaderboards, achievements, challenges and other social features to games they create a more collaborative experience for their players. Dimerocker does pretty much the same thing for online games, and allows for easier Facebook integration as well. The reason that these software packages do well is that collaboration and competition from peers adds a more compelling and addictive experience to any game.
Examples: Tetris, Pac Man, Super Mario Brothers, Star Wars: Trench Run, Angry Birds, Falling Balls
A lot of really compelling games lure their users in with a soothing sense of repetition. Repetition is a theme that crosses all forms of addiction. There’s something in the human mind that makes people want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and some of the most addictive games are extremely repetitive. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a game more repetitive and addictive than Tetris. What gets people hooked on Tetris? I think it has to do with the game being repetitive, and so much so that you internalize the movements and interlocking of shapes. In fact the lining up and fitting Tetris shapes is so addictive that the term the “Tetris Effect” has been dubbed, which is essentially the continuation of seeing those shapes in ones peripheral vision and in their dreams long after playing the game.
Some people missed the point of our game Star Wars: Trench Run that we developed here at Infrared5. The criticism circled around the lack of content, or people thinking it’s too short. The point of the game is much more like Tetris, in that we purposely chose to make it extremely repetitive. To that end, there are some serious Trench Run addicts out there, me included, and had we chosen to make it a long drawn out story based game, I don’t think it would have the same type of appeal.
Of course, sometimes simple is the best choice in game design, and that usually also means repetition. My case in point is the iPhone game Falling Balls by Infrared5’s Engineering Guru, Keith Peters. This game hit the number one free spot on the app store twice in one year. It’s a simple game of moving back and forth using the accelerometer, and avoiding balls that are coming from above. This repetition, and the simple desire to stay alive for as long as possible is all it takes for one not to be able to put this game down.
Another highly successful game that utilizes repetition to its advantage is Angry Birds. Each level builds slowly on the next, with the same basic mechanic throughout (flicking birds at objects one after the other).
Ting-Jui Chou and Chih-Chen Ting go into great detail of the science of repetition and gaming in their paper The Role of Flow Experience in Cyber-Game Addiction. There are various other studies on addiction and the role that repetition plays that aren’t game related that I also think are worth exploring simply for getting a better understanding of how the human mind works, and how this can be applied to game design.
Examples: Rock Band, Street Fighter, Mortal Combat
There are some games, where the overarching goal is simply to master the controls. Take Harmonix’s hit game Rock Band as an example. The unique user interface, the mashing of keys in time to music and the staying in sync with the flowing visual cues on the screen all combine to make this a compelling game that keeps people wanting to play it over and over again. As a player, your skill at Rock Band increases the more you play, and because of this, the more enjoyable the game becomes. It turns into a sort of self perpetuating positive feedback loop.
Another style of game that typically is focused on the controls as the element of addiction if the fighting game. Take the classic Mortal Combat for example. Players get immediate satisfaction as they discover more and more button/gesture combination that in turn give them more devastating moves to “FINISH HIM!”.
Examples: Civilization, Farmville
The odds of winning have to be weighted just right to keep players going. Sid Meier mastered this element in his hit game Civilization, and has openly discussed some of the math involved with getting the reward to punishment equation just right:
Players felt they could lose a 2-to-1 battle every now and then. But they had a problem if they lost a 20-to-10 battle. (!) So we adjusted, and asked, “Now are you happy?” “Well kind of, but there’s one more thing: I had a 2-to-1 battle and lost, which was fine (we went over that). But right after that, I had another 2-to-1 battle and lost again—how can that be!? The computer’s out to get me, obviously!” So we made sure that occurrence wouldn’t happen, and the player was happy.
Here’s the full article on how Sid Meier got the most by weighing the odds just right in his game.
The score of a game also plays a big part in rewarding a player. How many games have you played, simply looking to see if you could beat your high score, or your friend’s high score?
But how about a game that doesn’t have real score per say? Can they be just as addictive? Absolutely! Case in point, Farmville, the number one Facebook game by Zynga. In Farmville the reward is your crops, buildings, animals and other accouterments that the game player collects over time. Zynga did an excellent job at crafting the game in a way that rewards are dribbled out over time, and that the user needs to engage in the game regularly in order to progress. One self proclaimed Farmville addict described it well when interviewed for this LA Times article:
The game is truly addictive, because the harder you work at it, the more exciting things (like houses and animals and seasonal decorations) players can add to their farms. Neglect the game for a few days, and all the work is for naught.
Examples: World of Warcraft, Zelda
Certain games make great use of discovery and exploration to keep players engaged. While WoW (World of Warcraft) is also a great example of using social interaction to create the hook, it also really engages players in exploring the world. They never know what’s around the next corner, or what’s next. WOW does utilize many other aspects to keep people going as well. I highly recommend watching Jane McGonigal’s TED video on Gaming Can Make a Better World, as she goes into detail on WoW, what makes it so compelling to users and then takes these elements and extrapolates into how these can be applied in the real world to make it a better place.
The Near Miss
Examples: Slot Machines, Skeeball
Of course, having people win, or even “almost win” just the right amount is as old as games themselves, and we would be doing ourselves a disfavor if we didn’t discuss casino gaming, as they have been the masters of this for ages. With that, the one game at the casino that everyone knows has the worst odds, yet they can’t seem to get enough of is the slot machine. So, beyond the standard desire to gamble, what makes the slot machine so addictive? It seems it’s the “near win”, or the appearance that you got so close that you want to simply try it again.
Researchers have found that they program their games to tease players with near misses about 30% of the time–a number previous studies have found optimal for getting gamblers to keep coming back [ScienceNOW Daily News].
I highly recommend reading this article on slot machines from Discover Magazine for some scientific insight on the human brain’s reaction to the near miss. Obviously if you can get a game down to where you are giving your players near misses more often, then you will keep their brains into the game.
The same exact scenario of these little mini rewards, and or near misses is also prevalent in the MMORPGs like WOW or in Farmville. With this feature in mind, it’s little wonder that a game like Skeeball was and still is at the top of the app store charts.
Bringing It Together
In conclusion, there are various elements to making a game addictive, and game designers should be aware of the psychological nuances and how to use these to make a game as engaging as possible. To point out the very obvious though, not a single one of the games mentioned above had only one element of addiction. It takes a careful crafting of many of the key ingredients to get a game to be a huge hit that few people can resist putting down. One other thing that I would like to point out, is that I don’t think making a game addictive is evil, nor am I advocating getting people legitimately hooked to a point where it becomes a problem for the individual. These techniques can be used to make educational experiences more fun and engaging, and as Jane McGonigal shows in her work, video games and the skills attained by playing them can be put to really good uses.
I would love to hear your feedback as to what you think makes a game addictive. What have you employed in your games that have made it successful? What did you do wrong? If you have any tips you would like to share, we would love to hear about them!