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Measuring What Players Find Most Rewarding in Games

One of the problems game developers have is figuring out what players want. There are various papers, arguments, and forum threads on what constitutes fun and how to engineer it. Entire books may be dedicated to the question of what players like about video games. If we can find out what they like, we can make more of it.

The PENS model suggested in the article Rethinking Carrots: A New Method For Measuring What Players Find Most Rewarding and Motivating About Your Game seems to be a statistically significant predictor of player enjoyment. That is, someone has come up with a model that is incredibly accurate at predicting what a player may enjoy about playing video games.

The article is eight pages long and goes into some detail, but the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction model breaks everything down to three psychological needs:

  • competence
  • autonomy
  • relatedness

Competence suggests that players enjoy activities in which they can feel effective. Getting to the next level, finding the next item, and surviving the next zombie all allow the player to overcome challenges, and the player enjoys becoming better at these activities.

Autonomy simply means that the player feels he/she has a choice. A game that allows the player to choose his/her way through will be more enjoyable than a game that acts as if it is on rails.

Relatedness is about the fact that video game players are social animals. The article suggests this part of the model has only recently become relevant to the mainstream player, but I think that MUDs, BBS, and various multiplayer video games have existed for a long time. I am sure relatedness applied there as well.

What’s interesting about this PENS model is that it seems to be much more accurate at predicting the success and popularity of a game than trying to measure “fun” in other ways. One of the more interesting quotes:

Describing the player experience in terms of genuine need satisfaction, rather than simply as “fun,” gives the industry the deeper language it deserves for communicating what makes games so powerfully unique. It allows us to speak meaningfully about the value games have beyond leisure and diversion, diffuses the political bias against games as empty experiences, and provides an important new lexicon in the Serious Games arena where, as the name implies, fun is not always the primary goal. When we speak of games in terms of their satisfaction of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, we respect that this is both what makes them fun and also what can make them so much more.

Some new words to make it easier to talk about video games? I’ll take them.

2 replies on “Measuring What Players Find Most Rewarding in Games”

The social aspect of gaming is really something I’m becoming more and more focused on … not just because of what we are doing with Friends Play Free) and not to the detriment of the game design, but more as a foundation on which to build richer in-game experiences. It’s not just about having chat windows, competing against each other in capture the flag or shooting for the #1 spot on the leaderboard. It’s having mutual as well as competitive goals, in game, it’s being forced/encouraged to coordinate efforts and succeeding as a team, setting challenges for those around us and being challenged in return, and it’s about showing off. It sounds cheesy but it’s about connecting with your friends. Yes, muds and bbs’s did it well enough as I can very well attest, but it was a niche. WoW really broke those bounds and broadened the market, but what’s really lacking is providing a social gaming experience for those that don’t consider themselves gamers (and aren’t willing to pay 15 bucks a month for the privilege to play one game)… and to a large extent, I’m talking about casual games.

So many casual games today throw up a leaderboard and say they are done, but it’s short changing the customer and not really building a rich social platform. People want an intimacy of their social network, much like those muds and bbs’s where everyone knows everyone else in their social network. A leaderboard and randomly matched games against random opponents just can’t fully realize the potential of social gaming. In fact, it’s going to take an entirely new distribution model (or at least a significant variation on the try/buy demo model) to really capitalize on it. Think of video games as if they were a frisbee that you can just throw to my friend. You don’t have to think about whether or not they bought the license to catch it, right? Until video games are that sophisticated, and I think they can be, then we have work left to do.

Andrew, thanks for the insightful comment. I know that a few developers release their games under a relatively generous license, basically saying that you and your friends can play. I also remember Total Annihilation coming with a Multiplayer spawn version that you can install on multiple machines. Only one copy of the game was needed to play with up to four (I believe) machines.

But it could be so much more. You may be on to something here…

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