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In this installment of the game tools series, we’ll be looking at value and loss avoidance. If you’ve missed any of the previous blogs on game tools and game mechanics, then please do check them out. The three prior to this one were Randomness and the illusion of control, Exploration and decision making, and Mastery Mechanics to engage players. Give them a read now or after you’ve finished this one.
So, what do we mean by value and loss avoidance? What we mean is the activity of players trying to maximize their gains, the value of those gains and minimizing or avoiding any loss that could occur in the process. Just about any player or individual who has invested time, money, emotions into a venture would like to maximize the value of that investment and avoid losing it. This is almost common sense you might think, but it is also a very powerful tool to use within gamification and gaming.
There are a few factors in how these tools and mechanics work psychologically. In no particular order we’ll quickly go through the main factors; firstly, we are dealing with a want from the players for taking risks. Taking a risk is a thrilling feeling and the value of winning after having taken the risk increases conversely with the level of the risk. Secondly, the player wants transparency of information on outcomes and consequences. This is because most people want to feel in control and having transparency of information on what they could gain or lose influences their internal balance of weighing risk versus reward. Thirdly, players have a strong need to not miss out on something that is perceived as important. This is self-explanatory really if it’s important then naturally you wouldn’t want it to slip away. And lastly randomness and scarcity. The last point links into the first three but is explored more extensively in the previous blog posts and in some of the mechanics to follow.
Each of these or all of these can be found in several tools and mechanics that you can use to engage players in a gamified experience or game. Some of the more recognizable and prominent ones that the majority of people come across are for example time reliant rewards, random rewards (the (in)famous loot boxes), helping hand mechanics, lottery mechanics, easter eggs, and the fear of missing out or FOMO consequence. Let’s go through a few them and see how they work and how best to use them.
Time-dependent risks, rewards, and consequences are probably the most common mechanic you’ll come across and is also one of the easier ones to use. They generally appear as countdown timers for a specific action or event. The player feels the need to take part in the event because time is literally running out. It also creates or empowers a sense of FOMO in the player, because when time runs out the reward is probably gone, maybe forever. Auction sites, like eBay, use countdown timers, and as anyone who’s ever been on them will have experienced, is the frantic bidding war that happens near the end of an item on eBay. It’s a very effective tool for creating and increasing the perceived value of an item and by default, it also increases the engagement of those taking part.
But do use it with an amount of caution, because if it is used too frivolously, your players may develop an unhealthy obsession with the activity and may even burn out from it. As not being able to achieve a time-sensitive reward often alienates them from the experience, leaving them feeling powerless because they can’t influence the course of time.
For a direct example of time-dependent rewards that have a recurring effect, you need only look at the lottery system in many countries. The players get a new chance every week, but they only have until the end of the week to take part. It’s a very effective system overall, as the value (perceived or otherwise) of the win is often huge and the cost to take is both low in real monetary cost as well as time investment cost, as it usually costs somewhere between two and eight, dollars, pounds, euro’s etc. and take up maybe two minutes of time. And because of that people keep doing it.
Random risk as a mechanic can directly affect your players. Nothing is more exciting or anxiety-inducing in a player than an event or reward that is completely random and out of their control. This holds true for random consequences and punishments as well. The most known example of random rewards and risks is the loot box system in many games at the moment. Basically, it’s the digital version of the Skinner’s Box, but it is very effective in engaging players. As long as it doesn’t have a direct influence on the experience, in other words, it shouldn’t make those who get the right random reward better and those who get the wrong random reward worse. Getting the wrong random reward will negatively motivate your players, as it will feel more like an unwarranted punishment than a reward. A way of lessening this feeling with offering greater transparency on what the rewards, risks, and consequences can be. Armed with this the negative motivational can hopefully be reduced with your player experience.
Therefore, when you use random rewards, consequences and/or punishments, be careful to not go into the negative motivational area too much, as the player may become obsessed or become withdrawn from your experience. For a punishment use it sparingly, as a last resort, and particularly in an area where your players are resilient enough. Consequences, on the other hand, can be very useful, as they can be very motivating when used correctly. Consequences are inherent in every tool really, the time-dependent mechanic has built-in consequences, FOMO is a consequence. A consequence is in the case simply a more severe outcome that has enough emotional weight added to it that it pushes and motivates a player to engage in the way that you wish them to.
The helping hand tool is hopefully a very familiar mechanic. You’ve probably seen it somewhere before, on quiz shows like Who wants to be a millionaire, Deal or No Deal, and so forth. Pretty much any quiz show has a helping hand mechanic embedded in it. Fundamentally it is a mechanic that allows your player to continue beyond the point of what they believe they could. Their progress, as it were, is momentarily blocked by an external force, and this same force also then creates a small “get out of jail free” card. The clear majority of players will take this card and use it because they believe they are at the point of beating the challenge, and the motivational chemicals in their brains are pushing them to find out what’s beyond that sudden barrier that has appeared before them.
A more disturbing way to use the helping hand tool is as a series of breadcrumbs. The player, at certain points in an experience, is being purposefully blocked by the external force, and the only way for them to continue is with a “magical” helping hand. The helping hand has now become compulsory and is no longer an optional choice. The player, therefore, feels compelled to use it, because they can’t continue without it. They will eventually become disillusioned from this mechanic, especially when it costs money. Many mobile game companies use this method, like Candy Crush, you can keep playing and then suddenly it gets so difficult you need another chance to try again, but the helping hand that gives that chance now either cost money or time. You are now caught in the system. It’s a very effective tool, but only in the very short term. Over a longer period, it will eventually kill the experience you’ve created.
The final game tool that we want to look at it is one now commonly known as the Easter Egg. The name itself is self-explanatory, but for those that may not be familiar with the tradition; an Easter egg is basically an unknown, random, but welcome surprise to a player. As with an Easter egg hunt, you don’t know where the eggs are (if there are any at all), but when you find the little chocolate egg, you’re very happy that you did.
Many games and gamified experiences use this tool very effectively. The best example of Easter Egg usage is within the Alternate Reality Game (ARG’s) genre, which bridges the area between a game and a gamified experience really. Unfortunately, ARG’s have fallen out of fashion lately, but I believe that they are very useful systems and tools, and because of their nature of never appearing to be a game and using a lot of secrecy to effectively deliver the experience, the majority of the embedded rewards are Easter Eggs.
To summarize quickly; an ARG is an immersive, broad-spanning, trans-media narrative experience with the goal of discovering and learning something epic. Each step is a puzzle, challenge, test to get to the next one, and each clue or perhaps helping hand is an Easter Egg along the way, designed to aid the player. The player is naturally overjoyed when they find the Easter egg clue and thus they are able to move on. Within ARG’s it is an incredibly powerful motivational tool.
Other games and gamified experiences use Easter Eggs as bonus rewards for players who go the extra mile. For example, in an exploration game, if the player purposefully goes off the beaten track and takes the time, away from the main objective, they can be rewarded with an Easter Egg that holds an exploration bonus. They will be surprised and feel vindicated for their actions and therefore feel more motivated to continue onwards.
All of these mechanics and tools are fairly easy to use and easy to implement. They do not require a lot of development time or investment and they all essentially use aspects of life that everyone is intimately familiar with. And the great benefit is that they are very effective.
As with any power, there also comes responsibility. We’ve mentioned it a few times, but it is worth mentioning one last time, be careful when using these tools. Using them too often and in too great a volume can lead to negative experiences for your players. Use them sparingly, the benefit is that your players stay positive and engaged, and when you do use them, they have the correct emotional weight behind them to be incredibly effective. At the end of the day, we all just want our players to have fun, learn and continue to have positive experiences.
I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.
Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.
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