Motivations behind game design

People need motivations to do things, so do all gamers. The motivation starts taking effects even before a player buys a game.

To attract people to buy a game is a topic about providing trial versions of games, advertising, writing reviews, social network, communities and other stuffs. Those are not topics I’d like to dabble in this article. Here I’d like to talk about some incentives inside games. In other words, how does game keep us engaged?


Super Mario Bros

Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985 for the Famicom. It is one of masterpieces designed by Shigeru Miyamoto who is called “the father of modern video games”.  The first level named as world 1-1 is so subtly designed that it doesn’t need any text to teach the player how to get started. The player would learn the core mechanism of gameplay  within a few seconds of exploration in game.

world 1-1 starts

Mario is usually at the center of  the screen while you’re playing the game. But in the beginning of world1-1 he stands at the far left of the game scene. It gives a strong hint for the player that he should go right on the next move.

Meet goomba

Then Mario meets the first enemy: a Goomba. It looks like a harmful shiitake with 2 legs and eyes. If the player is directly running into it ,  the Mario would be killed. But don’t worry , the game will start over again instantly. With a small price, now the player grasped which kind of things to avoid.

Miyamoto was playing Super Mario Bros.

After avoided or killed the enemy by jumping on its head, the player should have noticed those shinning blocks with big question marks overhead. They look tempting. To figure out what it actually is, the player might jump to hit one. With a ringing and sweet sound, the player would be rewarded with a golden coin. That encourages us to hit a second one and it would release a mushroom. The position of the first obstacle – a pipe guaranteed Mario running into the mushroom. It makes Mario  bigger and stronger. Now the player has learned all the basic rule of the game without reading a single word.

Teach without teaching

Many games chose a different road to educate players. “Click here, read, then move your character there, following my instruction to press ‘a’ button…”. A game designer should not act like Deckard Cain to say “Hello, my friend. Stay awhile and listen.” A didactic gameplay instruction  would scare those who just want to be amused and relaxed. Seldom want to be educated without feeling a little fun in games ahead.

Never try to inculcate gamers on what to do, where to go and how to play.  Good games don’t tell you what to do. Let them explore and decide. Cede you control over the game and let gamers handle it.  Exploration is the instinctive ability we human have. Utilize it in game instead of  a wordy introduction.

Curiosity make us wondering

A cave

Uncertainty piques curiosity, which is a human inherent trait acts as a key to motivate us to explore.

In the “open world” game Skyrim by Bethesda Game Studios,  if you come across a small entrance to a cave, get inside you may find a sprawling dungeon and progressing to a new  storyline. It’s naturally for you to came up with: “Ha, I should take a look at it!”, All those caves, vales , hills just make you keeping wondering what would be there and what would happens. Finally you may forget about time and get lost in an unreal world called Skyrim.

Walking from one place to other place does not sounds an exciting exploration. Many times a  player was  just running repetitive errants from one place to another place and getting bored.

The hardest part of game design is when the player are not doing anything else. It’s the time when the player feels exciting no more. A vast world without interaction and surprise is a vacant world without soul.


Games are all about purposes. To save princess from monsters is a big and long-term goal that might be completed at the end of game(If the game has one). To kill an enemy is a small and immediate purpose. There are all kinds of purposes for the player like to colonize a planet, escape a dungeon, solve a puzzle or arrange a kitchen. All those purposes designed by game developers keep us busy in games.

Don’t tell what to do

Dark Souls

From Software‘s Souls series do a different way to turn those extrinsic purpose into intrinsic motivational purpose. Dark Souls gives very little information. Generally We have to figure out what should we do and where should we go by ourselves. In this creepy, intimidating and cruel world, to survive is our first intrinsic purpose. We learned how to use a shield to block attacks when being ambushed by a mob of hollow enemies. We rolled to dodge arrows behind them. Asylum Demon is a perfect first boss to let us know an important strategy in this game world which is called ‘come back later.’.

Let me choose a purpose

Asylum Demon

When Asylum Demon jumps down, it makes us feel shocking, terrifying and even ridiculous to throw new players into a deep desperation to facing such a screen-filling fiend. It’s not like those giant bosses in God of War which only shear a drop of blood in one hit. Asylum Demon looks real and it kills deadly real. Facing such an overwhelming enemy and after realizing you were a minimal thread to him, the only thing left us to do was scrambling around to stay alive. Then suddenly you found an escaping door. Out of inferno, heart still pounding, you determined that you would come back later and kill this demon while still licking wounds. There are many ‘come back later’ moments in Souls games. an unreachable chest, a path full of skeletons that kill you immediately, a totally dark pit blinds you but full of malicious foes. It’s your decisions and you have those purposes in mind that you would ‘come back later’ to get your rewards by challenging them.

Dark Souls expects us to decide our goals. We are not told on when to kill, where to go , how to get our rewards. It makes us feel that we are conquering a real world and all decisions are made by ourself.


We humans like rewards. It’s deep in our nerve cells. Being rewarded causes them to release a material called Dopamine which brings us a good feeling of satisfaction.

Reward doesn’t work by itself

Skinner Box

Rewards work with the player’s activities. But IMHO, we shouldn’t overuse those rewards as saviors for repetitive grindings. Those unvaried tasks would soon become mind-numbing, consuming, tedious, exhausting and boring after you repeated them again and again, over and over. Even grindfest players would not endure them if not for proper rewards. Personally I think the mechanism became somehow evil if the designer use it intendedly as a trick for triggering addiction. It treats game players like white mice as a famous experiment known as Skinner Box. Oversimplified and crude rewards doesn’t bring real gratification. It is only addiction. No one enjoys killing thousands of boars or open hundreds of boxes. Why people can’t stop just because there’s a variable ratio on rewards scheduled by game designer. It’s same kind of thing like gamble which keeps people playing more that they really want and spending more money they intend to spare. Some nefarious games even purposely make grindings more painful and tedious so that the player may choose to spend money to skip this stage and get rewards directly.

After game players shift their interests from playing a game to pursuit rewards, many of them might quit the game after their goals fulfilled or rewards became less tempting. their motivations have already undermined to rewards and the game seemed no more enjoyable .

Competency based reward

Rewards takes many forms. RPG games reward players with character growth along with appropriate empowerment, FPS games promise powerful weapons, fearsome enemies, MOBA games give skills unlocking and upgrading. But those rewards are not essential reason why people replay a game for a million times and never get boring. If a person keeping playing a game for months/years, he can call himself as a ____ player. For instance, I had been a World of Warcraft player who played the game for thousands of hours.

All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.

Nolan Bushnell
A new Tauren player in World of Warcraft

This aphorism has been adopted by Blizzard Entertainment as a motto and design principle. The novice experience in World of Warcraft carries this tenet loyally. All Quest NPCs stand there like shinning beacons with remarkable exclamation signs over their heads. Quests are simple rote things like killing 6 boars or collecting 8 herbs. There are rewards everywhere and all the time. Experiences, coins, weapons, gears and trinkets are easily acquired from loots or tasks. The combat is quite simple which is just click-and-wait auto-attack loop. When your experience bar fills up to 100%, you would be bathed in light with a satisfying ‘Ding’ sound. A new skill unlocked and there are always more to be expected.

WOW interface of a maximum level player

World of Warcraft is an enormous world to explore. It’s a great challenge and almost impossible to conquer this game in every aspect. It is too daunting and complex for those who are no a WOW player to look at the game interface of the maximum level player. What happened? How does this game make player to have such a magnificent competence ?

There is a psychological term called Self-determination Theory(SDT). It believes that human nature shows “inherent growth tendencies”. We innately seek to control outcome and experience mastery. This need is called competence. World of Warcraft spurs game engagement through extrinsic rewards. But finally all those gold, experiences, gears would lose their effectiveness over time. It’s our innate needs that keep us playing. So the real rewards are not those virtual items we ground from game. The game truly rewarded us by satisfied our competence need. When a NPC praised your achievements or a guild hanged a dragon head in front of Stormwind, the feeling of the player’s awesomeness would be greatly enhanced. You are getting better and better in the game, and you still want more.


I know there are still many more to discuss on game motivations. I can not cover all incentives of games in one article. In my opinion, exploration, purpose and rewards forms a perfect loop for game designers. Exploration triggers purposes. The game rewards player when purposes are full-filled. Then the player explores more.

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