Player Motivations in Gaming

One of the best resources I’ve come across on the subject of consumer insights in gaming is this book – Glued to Games. A lot of the discussion points listed below are inspired from the ideas in this book, so I highly recommend checking it out.

As I discussed in my previous blogpost – arguing for more consumer insights in game development – something I’ve been thinking about is how to increase my chances of reaching market success in a more scalable and repeatable way. Anyone who’s ever worked on new products in a crowded field will tell you that a magic formula just doesn’t exist. For example if I were to take a successful game in the market. Then take the source code, design spec, economy model etc and use these to make a similar game 2. More often then not, game 2 will not win. It then turns into a guessing game as to why something worked the first time and stopped working when repeated.

The most compelling rationale I’ve heard on this problem is that while most people are looking to reach specific business outcomes, customer motivations to reach said outcomes can differ widely over time. Customer motivations are what drive engagement and spend behavior, so that’s where the power of consumer insights come in because understanding customer motivations is where consumer insights is most effective as a tool.

Glued to Games introduces a framework for understanding player motivations in a Maslow hierarchy of needs format. In this post I’ll introduce the main ones:


Feeling competent encapsulates the moment to moment feedback on feeling effective. If players don’t experience competence, then they usually won’t even bother to give the game a second try. Competence is usually achieved by:

  1. Giving the player clear goals
  2. Receiving meaningful informational feedback on our actions that allows us to learn and improve
  3. Pursuing challenges that stretch our abilities but that we believe we can overcome (optimal challenges)

Old school games like Pong and Space Invaders did this really well

A sub-section of competence is control mastery, also known as, “learning curve”. Control mastery from a consumer insights perspective measures whether players feel effective, or successful when using the game’s controls.  A game cannot win with only intuitive controls, but games very rarely overcome low scores in control mastery.

Efficacy. This measures whether players feel skilled, or unskilled, when playing the game.  Players report low efficacy when the AI is too difficult, when they don’t understand the rules, or other factors that make them feel ineffective. Again this ties into the concept of giving players optimal challenges. This could come in the form of increasing complexity of songs in Guitar Heroes, the strength of your opponent in an RPG, or even the complexity of a map in a puzzle game.

Meaningful growth measures the degree to which players feel they are growing, becoming more effective, or becoming more powerful as they play the game. This tends to expose the problem found in copycat games because growth ultimately has to be meaningful and needs satisfying for players. It becomes very apparent in a quantitative assessment with a large group of users whether something is not meaningful because you get low scores in this area since users have already seen or done it before, ultimately finding your game progression less needs satisfying.

On receiving informational feedback, the three more prominent sources are feedback tend to be:

  • Granular competence feedback describes the one to one relationship with a player’s individual actions, such as the effect of colorful lights and sound when hitting a correct note. Or even blood and enemy reactions when hit.
  • Sustained competence feedback. This could be hitting an unbroken string of multiple notes correctly. Celebrating an “in the zone” moment.
  • Cumulative competence feedback. Permanent player growth that doesn’t disappear with an off button. With a casual game like Kim Kardashian, it could be fan accumulation and celebrity progression. With an RPG, it could be new weapons or skills.


Autonomy is not simply just freedom or independence. It is volition. A player wants to self-endorse the path that he/she has chosen. It is the opposite of feeling controlled. What-if scenarios tend to be very big drivers of this behavior. For example…what if I invested in a church instead of farm. What if I placed my archer here instead of there…  This type of strategic thinking is ultimately what drives players to return to your game.

A sub-driver of autonomy is giving players a sense of Identity. Customizing your character along numerous dimensions, such as appearance, abilities, ethics.

Goal interest. Measures the player’s interest in the games’ overall goals. For SimCity, it could be the general goal of building a great city.  Or a heroic narrative to inspire personal agency in a player’s actions.

Meaningful choice. Measures how well the game presents choices that matter, or have meaningful impact on outcomes achieved. The key here is that choice needs to be meaningful for autonomy satisfaction. This is something that I’ve made the mistake of myself in the past by confusing meaningful choice with cognitive overload. For example: when I present a player with several weapons, am I just annoying players because they need to put together a spreadsheet to figure out what the best option is? Am I not really presenting multiple paths to victory? Games like The Sims or Minecraft do this best because there are no predefined scripting of player activities.

Lastly high autonomy scoring games also will high levels of goal anticipation. Players tend to stick around in your game longer if you can improve the messaging of future gameplay opportunities


High relatedness scores can massively extend engagement because games worlds are proven as places where people can meet, hang out, and share experiences. Mobile games, possibly due to form factor and shorter session times, tend to have a lighter focus on relatedness.

A key tenant of stronger relatedness scores is acknowledgement. This could be from other players or even NPCs. Relatedness also describes an affinity with characters or narrative

A sub-driver of this need is support, which describes that others not only understand us but facilitate satisfaction of our autonomy and competence needs. In mobile we’ve seen this in the form of giving lives (Candy Crush) or troop donations (Clash of Clans).

Lastly the impact we have on other players. This could be as simple as a shared joke or as complex as a deep emotional connection. Tools such as social chat or sharing replays of strategy help facilitate this sense of impact. Constructive competition (as opposed to destructive eg. ganking or unfair ambushing) also works to deepen the social bonds within a game.


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