The Players Journey

Oscar Clark   •  October 13, 2014

We all want to be heroes (or villains). To be the leading character in our own stories is an important aspect of playing the games we love, even if the story is abstract or apparently absent there is an inherent power in the sense of competence, esteem and autonomy we gain from play.

Most of the best games designers I know think this a lot although there are some inherent. For a start are we really playing the hero or in fact the side-kick. In Destiny we spend a lot of time waiting for our Ghost to do something obscure we don’t quite understand whilst we are fending off hordes of Vex or some such. Are we really the heroes?

More than that we usually lack some important knowledge that our hero should by rights already know. Then there is the trouble with choice; something The Stanley Parable explores brilliantly, what if we don’t want to do something the plot requires us to do? However. I’m not looking to restart the debate of Ludo-narrative dissonance. Instead I want us to consider something else.

Players are not the heroes of the game. Not just because of the issues I’ve mentioned already but because of something more obvious. They are real people. That means they have lives and they can’t spend every waking moment playing your game.

When we design a game, especially now in this Games-As-A-Service age, we can’t just invest in the story arch for the hero, or whatever abstract purpose our game has. We have to take into account the Player Journey too.

Campbell’s Heroes Journey is a well-trodden path and I’m going to help illustrate The Players Journey, of course it’s not the only Storytelling form, but it’s still quite a useful one. I’m also going to take a few very slight liberties with the specific stages, but all within the principles of the original.

  1. The Ordinary World – Players often already have games they are playing, and even if they are between games they are being bombarded on all sides with messages. Why should they play your game?
  2. The Call To Adventure – Discovery is not a passive act. You have to create the conditions for players to find and desire your within your design through art, narrative, social interactions as well as through the other media and of course partners including the platform holders.
  3. The Refusal of the Call – don’t assume downloading a game means it will be played. The reality of a game before we learn the controls is always poorer than our imagination. Get your players playing fast and feeling good about their competence fast. Additionally, we have to consider the physical devices and the moments in time they choose to play this game. Are they interruptible? How much time can they spare? What is their mode of use? This is particularly noticeable on mobile where Games with a shorter incidence of play seem to attract more frequent play, even if playing sessions end up longer.
  4. The Threshold – After the first play we need to think about why our players would want to come back and play again, and again. We want to create a sense of anticipation for their return to play. We can afford to be generous after all we want them to learn the value of continuing to play and if this is a free2play game to create a desire to spend money later.
  5. The Belly Of The Whale – There always comes a point where players fail, but this is a necessary step for us to be able to commit to playing, otherwise where is the challenge? How does your game make me want to get back up and play again? Longevity in games is linked to an innate sense of ‘unfinished business’ after play not just the rewards of success. There is some evidence that Whale players don’t start spending till after 8-12 days. That requires us to sustain their interest a long time.
  6. The Road Of Trials – Once we have passed the danger zone of the Learning Stage and they are still playing then we know they now properly engaged. It’s here that the repeatability of the core mechanic becomes essential; and has to remain fun. Why would we want to play again, and again? There has to be a sustainable delight!
  7. The Temptation – Engaged players don’t just keep playing without an expectation of reward for their effort. Games needs to have a sense of purpose and progression to retain the players’ interest but we need a trigger if we are to get a player to spend money on DLC or In-App items. Players (according to research by Park & Lee) don’t spend money because they are happy. They do so in anticipation of future value. We need to create reasons to want to spend money in the game. That even more the case if we have a F2P game which is hoping to attract Whales (big spenders). These spenders aren’t born, they only emerge from deep engagement with your game.
  8. The Epic Battle – Having a sense of purpose is all well and good, but without an attainable goal or ‘sense of impending doom’ to drive us forward we can easily lose momentum. The Boss Battle isn’t just about a bigger fight; it’s as much about creating a target to aim for which is within reach. If it seems too far away, or we can’t relate to the goals we quickly get bored. There is danger here however, if we create ways for the player to pay their way past the Epic Battle (indeed to pay to avoid playing any aspect of the game) we break the game. That’s what ‘Pay To Win’ means – a broken experience!
  9. The Ultimate Boon – The lure of short term goals and ultimate conflicts is all very good, but in the end we eventually seek something more meaningful. A long term payoff we can anticipate and predict, but where the conditions of that reward can’t quite be pinned down – leaving scope for anticipation and ideally with enough unfinished business that will keep our attention for a long time to come. In the end we need to be able to look back on our playing (and paying) experience and see the utility we gained from this investment.
  10. Rescue From Without – Social factors are essential for long term engagement. Just as the Hero often needs an external helping hand we, as social creatures, need some contact with other players to sustain our interest in the games over time. There is great power in shared experiences and the power to discuss our own magical moments. It’s the heart of storytelling. One of the keys to success in service-based based is the realisation that we need interaction with the Free-Players in order to create the conditions to keep the paying players playing (and paying). Social experiences aren’t binary, we can have shared moments with strangers as well as deep connections exemplified by guilds where the social interaction becomes more important than the game itself.
  11. The Return? – Whilst we can work hard to create ongoing experiences we have to acknowledge that in the end players will churn, they will return to their Ordinary World and perhaps even seek out other adventures. If we have done our work well they will have been changed by their experience and their expectations from other games will be permanently affected.
  12. Master of Two Worlds – Players who leave a game feeling that their investment in terms of money and time was worthwhile will continue to be positive influences for other potential players and may even be ripe to return for the sequel or an extension of the original game. This has to be treated as a new journey, but one with new dangers to face and new treasures to uncover.

These 12 Steps aren’t a fool-proof formula, but they hopefully will help you set your sights further than just the first playing session. We have to consider our players as real people with real lives who want what you have to offer them in terms of entertainment and perhaps, just perhaps this will help us create more sustainable experiences and dare I say… better games?

Oscar Clark   •  October 13, 2014