Getting the Player Hooked on your Game

Have you ever started playing a game only to get bored or frustrated and give up somewhere during the first few levels? Of course you have. We all have. Conversely, can you remember the last time you actually finished a game to the end? You can? How about a game that was so enjoyable you were actually drawn back to it time and time again even after having completing it once or possibly several times?

I would wager that the sum of partially played titles far outnumbers the total number of game completion screens ever viewed by the majority of the gaming public.

The Challenge

As game designers we all strive to create games so addictive and entertaining that everyone who plays them feels compelled to complete them to the end and see that all-too-elusive and oh-so-satisfying end of game “Congratulations!” message and splash screen.

But as game designers, how can we hope to accomplish such a lofty goal?  Read on to learn about strategies we can use to keep the player hooked on our games and coming back time and again.

Less is more
A short game of maybe 5 - 10 levels may stand a better chance of actually being completed by all but the most impatient and easily distracted players. I didn’t just say that did I? Surely I must be kidding right? Yes I did just say that and no, I’m not kidding. While this may seem like a lame suggestion providing justification for creating less than engrossing games, it is actually a perfectly acceptable and reasonable strategy. If play testing reveals that the majority of players lose interest in your game after a certain number of levels, why not just make the game shorter? 

The length of your game can be adjusted to match the quality and level of addictiveness you are able to achieve based on your programming skill and game design ability. You can always release new versions of your game with different graphics and other game element variations rather than producing one huge game containing a multitude of repetitively similar levels. Just don’t expect to be able to charge much (if anything at all) for your short games. This technique is, however, perfectly suited to the try-before-you-buy method of selling games, where a short game with few levels is released as a low priced or free trial version with longer versions containing more levels being available to purchase for those who are interested.

You’re just being difficult!
One factor that can dramatically affect the desire and ability of players to complete your game is the difficulty of the gameplay. Not all users are created equal and we all have varying levels of gaming experience, skill and natural ability. A game that is too hard for the player will be frustrating and not fun to play with the likely result being abandonment. And, as would be expected, a game that is too easy will seem boring and pointless to play giving no sense of accomplishment. The easy fix? Selectable skill levels of course, right? Well, yes - but we don’t need to stop there. 

How about having the ability to enable and disable certain game elements on the fly? For that matter, why not let the player adjust the overall skill level on the fly? (Yes, even in the middle of a level).  In this way we can give the player a helping hand during a particularly challenging section (remember to include a God mode for the absolute newbie - and anyone else with a penchant for immortality) or crank things up a notch when the going starts getting a bit too easy. 

Some individual game elements that could be enabled or disabled individually could be things like endless ammunition, infinite magic, fog of war, rapid fire, adjustable income and cost for new structures in resources management games just to name a few. This would also allow mismatched players to compete more evenly against each other in multiplayer games by allowing each player to adjust their difficulty level independently. 

Which brings us to our next point...

Why are there so few multi-player retro games? Are we all loners who like to lock ourselves away in our bedrooms while we stay up all night playing Manic Miner? Ok, maybe we used to be - but we’re not any more (at least not all of us). We be all growed up now and many of us even have little ones who are only too happy to take the baton and follow in our retro gaming footsteps. As game designers we can help families create wonderful retro-gaming memories and make our games more fun to play by simply adding an option for multi-player gaming. Now friends can play with friends and parents can play with their kids. 

Speaking of which...

Start kidding around
One way to make our games more playable is by making them more inclusive. And that includes the kiddies. Although many retro games are naturally welcoming to children due to their typically low complexity, jazzy color palettes and pleasing gameplay, it doesn’t hurt to keep the little ones in mind when designing a game. This can often be accomplished by simply adding an easy difficulty setting (or renaming the easiest setting to “children’s mode”).

What did you bring me?
We all love getting presents. Especially ones that we find cool, enjoyable and/or useful. What better way to get players hooked on our games than by handing out presents? These particular gifts of which I am referring to take the form of in-game rewards that compel the player to keep playing.

App developers have mastered this strategy with the use of “in-app purchases” - and while I’m certainly not suggesting that we somehow implement in-game purchases in retro video games (please let that day never come), we can still borrow elements from that model to make our games more fun and addictive.

Any multitude of rewards such as power-ups, gold, magic spells, armour, weapons, flying ability, keys, etc can (and should) be offered to entice the player to complete just one more level. Have you ever read a book that you just couldn’t put down? More than likely that was due to carefully crafted hooks or cliffhangers at the end of each chapter giving you an uncontrollable urge to just take a peek into that next chapter. Of course once you start reading it there’s no escape. We can use the same technique to draw players into our games and keep them hooked till the end.

There is no reason why the reward for completing a level in a game should be limited to yet another level full of stuff similar to what we saw in the last level we just completed. At least give the player a way to level up to be able to tackle that next level with confidence. Even if the new level endows the character with nothing more than a new moniker ("You have attained the level of Awesome Warrior/Speed Maverick/Reckless Racer" - or whatever) while retaining the same abilities. The character level could even be saved so the player has the option of starting the game again with an already more powerful and better equipped character/vehicle/spaceship (or what have you) the next time they play.  You could even give the player a sneak peak into the next level they are about to play, the next Boss they will meet or the next super-cool item available to be found.

Which leads us perfectly to...

So you’ve followed all of my advice thus far and designed a crack-ingly addictive game that is guaranteed to keep players glued to their keyboard (or joystick, mouse, trackball or even... wait for it... Atari driving controller) until their dried out eyeballs are staring at your (hopefully pretty cool) end-of-game screen. That’s great but you’ve done your job too well and now they want more! The sequel is still a few months away (you are working on a sequel, right?!) so what are players to do until then? Well I guess they could re-play the game over again couldn’t they? Exactly, but why would they? They’ve seen all the game has to offer already. There are no surprises left.

...or are there?

There sure as heck better be! Remember earlier when I said our goal as game designers is to make games that players will be compelled to complete all the way through to the end? Well, forget it. We can do better than that! We are making Next-level games after all aren’t we? I can’t hear you! That’s better. Of course we are! We aren’t satisfied with mediocrity (obviously since we blew that away about four paragraphs and three articles ago). On the scale of “Meh” to “Wow, that was awesome!” let us always strive to have our games achieve a rating of “Holy crap I’ve never seen that before - why aren’t all games this good?!”

Our games should be so mind-alteringly addictive that the gaming public just can’t get enough. So let’s give ‘em something to tide them over until we put the finishing touches on “Awesomegame version 2” (or 3, or 4 or whatever sequel number we’re up to by now). How do we do that? You guessed it - Replayability!

Since we now have no doubt that players will be completing our game to the very end, we must give them a reason to play it again - several times. .. possibly indefinitely. In fact, this may be the last game anyone ever plays! Yes it’s just that good - or at least we can try to come as close as possible. But how?

What more can we offer players who have already played our games through to the end? The answer is obvious and simple. Give them something different they didn’t see the first time they played. And I don’t just mean different graphics (although that could be one element). Here are a few examples:

New objects
Your adventure game has objects hidden in various locations distributed throughout a maze? How hard would it be to vary the number and type of objects available to be found each time the game is played? Maybe the first time through you offer two types of swords and six potions. The next time there are 5 different swords and 3 different potions. Or armours. Or enemies. Or magic scrolls. You get my point. Instead of creating a total of, say 60 unique items all of which are available to be found the first time the game is played, why not create 400 different items with only 50 available each time, chosen either randomly or according to a particular formula or algorithm. That would use too much memory and take too long to develop you say? It could be as simple as changing the names and attributes of the items but keeping the same graphics. An [xxxx] sword with power level [xx] or an [xxxx] potion with rejuvenation ability of [xx]. The possible combinations for each game would be staggering and would provide excitement for the player. You never know when you will run across a [spazztastical] sword with power rating [1000] giving you the ability to slay even the most ferocious dragon with one blow!

New abilities
Spaceship shooter game? Maybe the first time through you choose the model Z spaceship with rapid fire pulse cannon and the next time you choose the model X29 with zorbomite lasers. Each time you play the game you may choose to spend your upgrade credits differently. Maybe the first time you balance your credits between offensive and defensive upgrades but the second time you max out on weapons while neglecting shields and the third time you might buy heavy shields for ultimate durability while having minimal firepower. A driving game? Choose between engine upgrades, tire durability, traction, acceleration, etc. Role playing game? Different characters with different abilities? Same character with different skill point distribution? Different size vehicles with varying durability, speed and cargo capacity?

New layout
A changing adventure map with rooms in different locations? (Possibly accomplished by keeping the same physical layout while changing the names and attributes of the rooms). A racing game with different track layouts? A space exploration game with different planets having different resources located at varying distances from each other?

New look
Different outfits for your character? (This may be achieved by simply changing the color palette). Different sprite sets for game objects? Different tile sets for background design?

New environment
Varying weather conditions? Changing air quality on a distant planet requiring more or less oxygen to be carried?

As you can see, the options for variable game element are really inexhaustible. If you want to make your game replayable, simply determine which elements can be made variable and provide different versions and combinations of those elements each time the game is played. This can be done as simply or elaborately as you wish based on the limitations of the hardware and your ability to create and implement these elements in your game.

So why do so few retro games employ this powerful and seemingly desirable feature to increase player enjoyment? With the expanded memory of the Spectrum Next it is easier than ever to inject at least a few variable elements into a game to enhance its replayability factor. By adding just a handful of these variable elements to your game the number of total possible combinations can quickly add up and provide a new and different gaming experience for the player each time.

Random colours for the characters clothing or spaceship, random abilities, weapons, maps, items, locations, enemies, power-ups, quests or even random moods and/or behaviours for non player characters can all contribute to a unique gaming experience for the user each time the game is replayed.

And if you want to make your game truly infinitely replayable, go back and re-read the section above on adding a multi-player feature. There is no computerized random number generator in the world that can create an element more random than playing against other human opponents. Employing this one technique not only sends your replayability factor through the roof but has the added (and always desirable) benefit of making your game  a heck of a lot more fun to play.

Just one more thing
And last (literally) but not least, let’s not forget alternate end-of-game screens which may or may not be determined by how well you played the actual game. Oh, and don’t forget to include a teaser at the end of your game for the sequel - which you may now get back to working on 😊

- Spriteworx Team.