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EGD News #37 — Motivations to play

This newsletter was posted on July 10th 2020.

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On to this week’s news.

Intrinsic motivation to play 🎮

My big passion in game development is to understand player motivations and why certain games can engage and retain players, while others don’t.

In June, the LevelUp blog posted an article series from Celia Hodent, former Director of UX (user experience) at Epic Games, which dives deep into the steps needed to develop a game with UX as a priority. In a recent podcast interview, Celia explained that “UX is to shift from our perspective as a game developer to adopt the player’s perspective.”

The article’s purpose was to explain why UX is so important in games. “My goal here is to explain how to develop such a game UX mindset and build a UX strategy to help game developers delight their players more efficiently with the games they are crafting.”

Celia then describes how a player perceives a video game and how it makes itself into the player’s head:

“Discovering and experiencing a video game happens in people’s minds. To anticipate how players will experience a game, it is critical to know the main capabilities and limitations of our brains. [This is] what is going on in our brains when we learn or process information. This process starts with the perception of input (i.e., a tutorial text).”

“As we process the information conveyed by our many senses (we have way more than five), our memory is likely to change. When we learn something, new synapses — the connections between neurons — are created or are strengthened.”

There are three steps that a UX design mindset needs to take into consideration.


The first item is perception. Here Celia talks about cues that are in visual and audio format. But it’s been proven that people see different things when images are shown to them. Because perception is subjective, meaning that players will interpret video and audio cues differently, game developers can’t just create those cues.

All cues need to be tested with the target audience, and that’s why starting with a target audience is so valuable. At Epic, they conducted an interesting test to reveal icons not working as intended:

“In 2013, we invited a few people to play through a prototype of [Fortnite], and we asked them to tell us what they believed the icons were communicating. The original “trap” symbol was not perceived as such by all players who tested the game then. Some players thought it looked like ammunition or trees. Thus, the designer perceived the icon differently from how the target audience who interacted with it. After the test, we decided to change the icon to look like a bear trap. There are no bear traps in Fortnite, but in our continued testing, all the players understood the new symbol.”


I liked the Forgetting Curve that Celia talks about. You memorize new things, and 30 days later, you’ll only remember 10% of what you “memorized.”

“Given that the human memory is limited, and we are bound to forget many things, how can we ensure that returning players are not going to forget key information?”

Celia points out that vital information that the player can’t play without should always be available, with no need to store into human memory.

“The most efficient methodology to avoid the forgetting curve’s impact is to reduce the memory load in the first place. The more information is ALWAYS available to players, the less there is to learn and remember, which underscores the importance of having a good heads-up display (HUD).”


“Finally, let’s talk about attention. Although we believe that we are good at analyzing our surroundings, we have pretty limited attentional resources. We are not able to carefully scan what’s going on around us. Rather, our attention works like a spotlight: we direct our attention to something while we filter out other stimuli.”

The route here is Perception -> Attention -> Memory

Attention is the manager of the brain factory. It’s one of the most critical cogs in the machine. As Celia points out, attention has friends: emotion and motivation. You grant attention if you are motivated, and motivation comes from our needs getting satisfied, which generates emotions.

Hence, emotions -> motivations -> attention.

Usability and engage-ability

In the following article, Celia offers a toolbox for developers. “To anticipate all the frustrations that players can have with the game that isn’t by design while offering the most engaging and fun experience, we use two main UX pillars in games: ‘usability,’ and what I call ‘engage-ability.'”

“Usability is about the ability of the game to be used, which entails considering human limitations in terms of perception, attention, and memory. Game usability heuristics ensure that the game is going to be as intuitive and easy to use as possible.”

Once the player has understood the game, the controls are working, and the players can get into the flow of “just” playing the game, the success of the game comes down to “engage-ability” to continue to play.

Celia explains that a fully functioning game, with FTUE and UI, works, but fails to capture an audience. “A game can be easy to use (i.e., the interface is intuitive, and players can easily understand their goals and accomplish actions) yet boring.”

“Throughout my work at Ubisoft, LucasArts, and Epic Games, I considered three pillars to improve the engage-ability of a game:

1. Motivation

2. Emotion

3. Game flow”


“What good games do well is that you are intrinsically motivated to play the game. Intrinsic motivation is to do certain things just for the pleasure of doing them, not to get something else.”

“[Let’s look at] self-determination theory. It explains that we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to do an activity when this activity satisfies our need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.”

Motivations for picking up a new game:

  • We want to get into this game because a Youtuber mentioned it, and our friends are playing it.
  • Based on Self-Determination Theory, humans need to feel connected to others. Since this game is getting mentioned and played by people that matter to us, we feel that playing the game will fulfill this need to be connected.
  • As Celia points out, “relatedness is about having meaningful relationships with other people in a game.”
  • Because the need is getting satisfied, we feel excited about the game, which is a strong emotion, and our brain grants attention.

Emotion and flow

“Emotion in games is mainly about what we call “game feel” and about offering new content. It’s about the physical reality of the game; how believable (rather than its photo-realism). I won’t get into any detail here, but emotion is also about the surprises and novelties offered to players.”

In EGD News #27, I talked about how Superhuman‘s Co-Founder and CEO Rahul Vohra described his work on building an email software experience, using game design principles. Rahul’s team had applied emotions and flow in their work.

On working on emotion, Rahul’s team had applied the Hunter Institute’s emotional vocabulary. “We designed for enthusiasm and excitement: we want our users to come to us super excited. We designed for optimism and hopefulness: our users want Superhuman to dramatically improve their lives. We designed for pride and triumph: When you hit Inbox Zero, especially if it’s the first time in years, you feel like you accomplished something special.”

To explain flow, Celia says that “You’re in a state of flow when you are deeply concentrated in doing an activity that is both worthwhile to you and challenging.”

On flow, Rahul gave an example. “In Gmail, when I archive an email, I’m back on the inbox, and now I have to decide what to do next. And I have to make this decision — every single time. And for a high volume emailer, that could happen hundreds or thousands of times per day. This destroys flow. In Superhuman, when I archive an email, I automatically advance to the next email. I don’t have to make any decisions at all. That creates flow.”

Long-term engagement

In successful games, the players feel that they can aspire to goals that are on the horizon. Perhaps there are visible goals, like opening the next chest (loot box) on the trophy road or long-term goals, like getting accepted into the platinum battle league, which would require hundreds of gameplay hours. At some point, these long-term goals are passed, and successful free-to-play games grant new goals after those have been achieved.

When building for long-term engagement, ask this question from your target audience: In games that you like to play, which goals personally matter to you the most? You’ll most likely see two kinds of goals coming up: getting stronger and getting some sort of accomplishments done. Let’s break these down.

They are getting stronger. The player is gearing up. They are upgrading their stats. They are collecting better or specific characters. They are upgrading their character roster. But this is game design jargon. The player will say something like, “They spent months in the game to get Spiderman,” or that “I came back every day since to see if I’d finally get a legendary character from the chest.” Look for that as a cue.

They are achieving accomplishments. The player completes a seasonal battle pass. The player’s guild becomes a top 3 guild in Finland. They complete all the PVE chapters. They’ve gotten somewhere, they’ve beaten harder content and made it. The player will say something like, “Our guild showed up to every [live] event, and we finally got to the top 3”.

Here comes the magical loop of a successful free-to-play game: you get stronger, to beat harder content. Then you again want to get stronger, to yet again beat harder content. The loop goes on.

Note: Unlocking Darth Vader in a Star Wars game can be a double-whammy since the player got a highly sought after character, who is strong in gameplay. But the novelty of Darth Vader will wear out soon if they aren’t useful for beating harder content.

Finally, to return to relatedness, the driving force of free-to-play games. Like Andrew Chen from a16z said in a recent interview, “If you’re a kid, you spend all your time playing with your friends in Roblox. You use it as a social network. You hang out with your friends there and talk with them. You build a persistent identity. You might play Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite for years before you’re allowed to have a ‘social network’ account. I’ve become interested in the idea that these multiplayer game experiences are the next social networks. That’s been a key part of my thesis.”

For Gen X and Millenials, the factor of social relations in games is already immense. Many times in my career, I’ve bumped into players who’d say that “I would have already stopped playing this game unless for the guildmates.”

Further reading and watching

Here are some of the best online material on UX, player motivations, and self-determination theory.

Blog 📄

Since it July and people have more time on their hands, I wanted to share my library to you. In the posts that I publsihed this week, I take a look at the most important books that I’ve read in the last three years.

“This page is a reading list with, in my personal opinion, the best books to read in various categories based on countless hours of reading. I only list the best books to read, so you can be sure that each one is fantastic and will be worth your time.”

The Best Books by Joakim

Podcast 🎙

In this week’s podcast episode, I’m talking with Celine Pasula, the CEO of Fingersoft, a gaming company best known for their Hill Climb Racing mobile games. Being a CEO is something new for Celine and in this episode, we talk about her ways of learning to become a leader and what has been challenging in her work.

Celine Pasula, CEO, Fingersoft

Last week 🗓

If you missed out on the EGD news last week, I took a look at Atomico’s investment framework for gaming. In addition, I shared thoughts from a podcast episode with gaming investor Blake Robbins.

EGD News #36 — Investing in gaming

Articles worth reading 📃

+ How to design a Battle Pass — Recently, Alexandre Macmillan, Joseph Kim, Giovanni Ducati and Jeff Witt did a webinar on the topic of Battle Pass. It’s a familiar concept, made popular amongst game designers after it was introduced as Fortnite’s core monetization feature back in 2017. Here are the slides from Alexandre.

+ Harnessing the Hybridcasual Opportunity — In this Department of Play article by Will Luton, he explains that “hybridcasual really isn’t a genre. Rather, it’s a game design and maintenance approach informed by lessons from casual, hypercasual, and the broad evolution of F2P mobile games.” And Will provides three great check lists for developers to get hybrid casual right. As a reference point, we here at EGD did a webinar recently on long term engagement in hybrid casual, you can check it out here.

+ Why Figma Wins — Kevin Kwok wrote an essay on Figma, the new browser based Sketch and Adobe Illustrator competitor. He goes into depth on why browser-first matters, and how Figma is built for design, not just for designers. In this great read, Kevin highlights that Figma’s runaway success is based on hundreds of successful loops, and different network effects, baked into the product and the business model.

+ How To Get Worse At StarCraft II — Mastery of skills is a core component in competitive games. This is a great read about learning curves, hundreds of matches, and how to get better at competitive video games. “In order to get better, you must feel uncomfortable. And if you get to a point where you feel comfortable, you need to force yourself out of that situation.”

Quote that I’ve been thinking about 💬

For real people, if something works in theory, but not in practice, it doesn’t work. For academics, if something works in practice, but not in theory, it doesn’t exist.” — Nassim Taleb

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