Clever Ways Developers Manipulate Their Video Game Players

Manipulation. It’s something that happens, often without us knowing it. Advertising, delegation, when your uncle gets out the nipple clamps. It’s everywhere. Including video games. But it’s not always a bad thing.

The core principle of a video game is entertainment. By using a controller or even our own bodies, video games allow us to experience a sense of immersion however deep in worlds beyond our reality and its rules. Yet the question persists: how do you keep players invested? How do you make sure your game stays in the mainstream eye?

Let’s begin with the layout of games. Back in the mid nineties, Wired writer Jeffrey Goldsmith described what’s known as “the Tetris Effect”. This, he argued, was when colours, patterns and layouts of games continue to exist in the minds of players even when they’ve stopped gaming, similar to how people reported seeing the blocks of Tetris when they closed their eyes after a prolonged session with the puzzler.

This was a lucky result for Tetris, but it’s a factor that’s gone on to shape how our games look and even how they’re coloured. Developers will, more often than not, aim for a simple, aesthetically pleasing design which reacts with repetitive motions. If all of these factors are in place, then the game stands a much greater chance of sticking in the minds of players long after switching off the console.

Rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band nailed this approach, and as a result the hooks were planted deeply into their player base, pulling them back time and time again.

However, while you can nail the aesthetics, that’s nothing if the gameplay is garbage. Developers have to be creative in getting you addicted. It starts, scarily enough, much like how a drug dealer would hope to get you hooked: with a free sample – and a big win.

Whether the game you’re playing is an arcade beat ’em up or a long drawn out RPG, an unwritten rule is to reward players continuously and generously at the start. EXP, loot, and cinematic moments might be doled out in the opening hours in an effort to entice players to keep chasing those rewards. Then, the game slowly reveals itself for what it truly is, as loot becomes spaced out and the time investment to get these rewards increases. Add to this the devious idea to randomise what loot you get in games such as Borderlands and Diablo, and you multiply the investment factor no end.

Take Destiny as an example. After going through the back end stats of the game, the average player had spent over 500 hours on the game. 500 hours! That’s enough time to go on a seventeen day cruise to Hawaii and still have time to shop in port.

Without knowing it, gamers have placed themselves into a gameplay spiral, chasing rewards and chances to get rare gear all because of that sweet hit of sugar they got at the beginning.

It’s also why many games opt for a ridiculously simple approach to their gameplay. Obviously this doesn’t cover all games, but if you look across the board there seems to be a general consensus in keeping things as easy as possible for players. Difficulty, despite what fans of the Souls series will tell you, is more often than not a barrier to entry and most devs will want to retain as much of their potential audience as possible. It’s a case where dumbing things down is actually an effort to keep the majority of people invested, which itself is a massive point of contention within the industry.

It’s also why some developers go that little bit further and even offer their game for free, meaning the upfront cost barrier is literally nothing, or at least that’s the impression it gives. These freemium games are usually stacked with microtransactions and paywalls: both words which are mud to players, but there’s no denying that intrigue and investment levels in these games are much higher than those that cost £60 to even play in the first place. While the majority are play and forget, there’s a reason why games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans took the world by storm for a long old time without asking for a single penny up front.

But what about failure? What if your players simply can’t muster up the skill to breeze through your game? Surely defeat is a turn off to a game and you’ll see your base shrink? Well not if you’re clever about it. Instantaneous replay is a brilliant example of when a developer throws you back into the game before you’ve even had time to soak up the defeat.

It takes an already established idea – the countdown continue screen – and boils it down to it’s essence. While the countdown was designed to persuade players to pump in the quarters, this isn’t the case in this day and age, so an instant restart that puts you right back in the challenge means you keep investment high. Super Meat Boy and Trials HD are great examples of this.

Finally we come to an aspect that you might not first think of when loading up a single player game: the illusion of socialization. Humans, at their core, are social creatures, and we reflect that desire in our gaming. MMORPGs, online shooters and multiplayer games in general often top the most sold list. However, just because you’ve got a single player game doesn’t mean you can’t adhere to this yearning for interaction. In games like Stardew Valley and Fire Emblem, NPCs pick up the role of other players and offer a sense that even though you’re gaming solo, you’re actually immersed into a living world.

This might not seem important, but creating a welcoming and interactive experience really does make all the difference when looking to keep people playing your game. If you can make a world, even a bleak and dreary one, feel lived in, then you’re immediately making the player feel like they too can exist in this fantasy, and if you do it well enough, it can trick them for a long old while.


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