Motivations in Games
by Sarbasst Braian

Hi everyone. I'll try to bring forward some of the elements that bind people to a game for hours and days. These elements can be used to create a game or application that motivates the user to use/play it. Think of it, an educational game that the kids at school will enjoy and learn from, or of course a game of games!

Now this is not the almighty recipe for creating the captivating game of the year, but some of these elements are often overlooked. And that's a shame.

The elements are:

  • Reward
  • Competition and comparison towards others
  • Anticipation
  • Participant ship
  • Tempo
  • The Grand Ending


There are many different levels of rewarding, and they are related to one another. If you achieve the right balance of rewarding, depending on your game goal and type, you will succeed in capturing the player. Now that, my friend, is a bold statement.

Let's look at this as some rules within a specific time span, say between two character levels, or between the first upgrade and the second.

First the different aspects, and then some more comments on each.

  • The player needs to be rewarded often and in small portions.
  • The player needs to be rewarded with a greater reward that is expected and the time of the reward is known.
  • The player needs to be rewarded with a greater reward that is expected but the time of the reward is unknown.

Smaller and often

If the smaller rewards are useful in some way they will not become routine and needless. If you give the player a healing, it is useful to the powerful and novice. But if you reward with a great flashy effect it will lose its strength along the way. You are quite safe if you make the small rewards lead to a greater reward, e.g. money, experience for leveling, points for extra life, and so on.

Greater and known occurrence

This is something the player will anticipate and strive to achieve. She can see the goal as she progresses towards it. There could be many known goals. There is nothing wrong with giving away a lot of goals and give the player the thrill of imagining what to do and how to get to them, as well as dreaming of different combinations and so on. But remember, once you give away a greater reward the smaller rewards will mean a little less.

Example: The leveling of a character or skill tree and descriptions of skills and their cost.
Example: The different items the player could buy if he had the cash.

Greater and unknown occurrence

When the player has a chance of getting a greater reward and it could come anytime the anticipation is always there, and in the times of gloom there is always a hope of getting some reward. This hope can save the day many a times. Remember though, the player needs to know about the rewards and expect them, but their trigger could be anytime within the rules.

Example: Every time you defeat an spaceship you could get a "Ancient artifact".
Example: Every trader could have a "Crystal sword" but the chances are very low.
Example: If you kill an orc you might find a "Steel Claw" if you are lucky.

The relations between the rewards

Ah, the most interesting part! One should first focus on the goal and type of the game. Is it to be replayed a lot of times or more like "play it, have an experience and then put it on the shelf"? Should the same game (not replaying it) be able to be played a long time?

If the player becomes too powerful due to the rewards the game will have a climax and then the game cannot beat what it has previously given the player. Thus the game will have reached its designed content limit. Designed content limit is not the same as the game limit. The player could play a lot of quests and content in general, but it's more like a walk in the park, and the next "level" of rewarding is not as important, or even unreasonably far away.

A very potent and time-cheap design method is to give the player a difficulty option or adapt the game by changing some colors and increasing the difficulty.

Never ever "steal" a greater reward given to the player, not even to make the game more exciting and/or harder. The frustration is exceptionally high, and the relationship (trust) between the player and the game will be crippled. If you decide to "steal" a greater reward be sure to explain why the game did it.

Example: Never take a level from a character as a punishment or special event. If you do tell the player why.

Always reward smart playing and creativity by the player. Sometimes the reward is automatic since it was probably the right way to play the game. As you all know the right way to play a game doesn't necessarily mean the way the designer intended the game to be played. The majority of players are like water: they always find the natural way of flowing down the mountain. But what I'm talking about here is some designed content.

Example: If the player clicks on the well in the middle of the village he doesn't have to purchase new water skins.

Competition and comparison

  • If the player can be acknowledged by others he will be motivated to continue and strive to perfection. This acknowledgement could be in the game or outside. Of course this is not applicable to everyone but surprisingly many of us.

    Remember the example of rewarding with a flashy effect? Well, if the other players see the effect, and the player knows others can see it, it will have its strength every time the player is rewarded by it (that is, if others see it at that given time).

  • If the player feels (is reminded) that she is getting better at the game, the motivation factor is increased also.


Small, frequent hints about what is to come build anticipation and provide very good way of building motivation. The important thing about anticipation is the trust between the player and the game. The player needs to be rewarded a few times to come to trust the game. Then a positive spiral is created and the player and the game will steadily climb into a memorable experience. Alas, beware, once the player is betrayed by the game, the relation has to be crated all over again.

An example

The player has previously helped a village and the reward was a unique item and a nice story revelation. Before that he helped a little kid find his lost dog, and the reward was a very funny story and some very tasty candy. Now the player trusts the game.

If you give him a hint of some event, or a quest or whatever, the player will anticipate the ending and strive to achieve it. Also some hints here and there of the grand content of the game will lead to an ever present, underlying anticipation.

The hardest part is to reuse the material used for the anticipation.

Never, ever send a player on a quest/task without designing the harvest of her labors.

Participant ship

If the player feels that he is a part of the world and that he is affecting the course of events, the motivation to continue is greatly increased. Here we give the imagination of the player a chance to be one with the game world. The UI (user interface) is one of the important parts of this. If the UI is out of line it will interfere with the "becoming one with the game" part.

A good example is when you are watching a movie and you are enthralled by it, and a friend asks you something. Now it will take you some time to get into the movie again. Think of a UI that shatters the flow of the game on every turn.

In addition, the player should not be hindered from using his abilities. For instance, if the player is very good at a fast 3D shooter with a really high speed, he will find himself limited when playing another 3D shooter which is slow. The problem in this example is hard to get around. Often the target group is chosen and the issue is solved. Still there are some given standards, and one should think twice before aiming lower than these standards, especially with a sequel.


The music, the environmental feel, and the action or tranquility of the game is the tempo. The important part is to change between fast/exciting and slow/relaxing. Otherwise each will lose its strength. The contrast is actually vital to uphold each extreme's meaning.

Even by itself the tempo can be very powerful in capturing the player for hours.

There is a lot to be learned from the movies industry. Did you know the best way to describe silence is to have a distant and small sound that reminds one of the silence? This could be something like a crow, a creaking door, and so on.

If you put the player in a very intense environment where she has to put her senses and skill to the test, you will need to give her some time in a calm and tranquil environment afterward so that she can rest. Also, the contrast will make her feel the intense environment fully (once it starts again).

The grand ending

If the ending is very good the player will have a solid anticipation when she is playing your next game. Not only that, the ending is one of the things people tend to remember long after they have played the game. This is the final reward and the meaning of the game. This is where the meaning of the hours played will be revealed.

The ending is a very important part and actually often overlooked. One good method is to design the ending early in the development.

Complex UI

If the players are motivated enough you could have the most complex UI ever created. Now, I'm not saying that a complex UI design is the best way to go, but often a more simple design is used when a more complex one would be better.

A UI that is mastered by the player should not hinder his abilities to interact with the game. This means some slow method to achieve something will have to adapt to the skill of the player, providing a faster method later on. In the end the UI is almost "invisible".

An example: To choose a weapon the novice player will probably use a menu and see the actual weapons and so forth. But the expert will use the keyboard to do the same action. The keyboard is the final level of UI to achieve this purchasing of weapons.

Another one: a very advanced navigation system might require five frustrating hours to master but in the end the gameplay will benefit from the rich environmental feeling, especially if navigation is a major part of the game (such as in space games).

The optimal approach is to provide the player a set of interfaces for different levels of mastery. The hard part is to make these sets work together and resemble each other. Since the player might master one aspect of the interface (e.g. navigation) and not the rest. This sounds harder than it really is. All you have to do is to provide an alternative, faster way, even if it demands more from the player.

That's my silver coin.
Good Luck Champions!

Sarbasst Braian

Sarbasst Braian is the UI/Game designer at MindArk, developer of the upcoming Project-Entropia.

Sarbasst would be happy to receive feedback at

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Date this article was posted to 10/30/2001
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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