5 Ingredients for Long-Term Engagement in Games and VR Experiences

Illustration by Felipe Lara

What makes a game successful depends on your goals, sometimes it is revenue, sometimes it is number of downloads, impact on your players, etc. However focusing on these outcomes is usually not very helpful as a developer, it is much more helpful to define success in terms of engagement because engagement can be linked directly to the kinds of decisions we need to make during development.

In a previous article I mentioned how engagement follows a 4-step sequence: stand out, connect, engage, and grow. The next step is to figure out what are the ingredients in a game that can help you do that. In this article I am going to talk about 5 ingredients that will help your game or VR experience be more engaging in the long-term.

Your Ingredients

Illustration by Felipe Lara

In the many years I spent developing MMOs for casual gamers — kids and families- I saw how there are four basic elements that can be combined very effectively to get the attention of players and have them stick around: art, fun mechanics, story, and community building:

  • ART — Art is what first catches your players’ eye and makes them want to take a closer look at your game. At first players won’t know much about the specific mechanics and stories in your game, it is through visuals that resonate with them that they decide to pay more attention.
  • FUN- But art by itself, no matter how cool it is, won’t keep your players for long. Finding fun stuff to do that is easy to understand, with clear goals, is what makes players want to stay more than a few seconds.
  • STORY- Even fun activities get repetitive unless there is a larger meaning and purpose. Having a longer-term purpose or story that players can relate to is what makes them want to keep coming back. Shooting hoops is fun, but doing it everyday for hours can get boring quickly, unless the activity is part of a larger story like training to defeat an old rival team.
  • COMMUNITY- All good stories need an ending, but the meaning and purpose that you get from being part of a community can last for years. The games that we keep going back to over and over are the ones that let us connect and be around people that we care about.

All these four elements are important to create a successful game that follows the sequence stand out-connect-engage-grow, but some are more important for one step and some are important for others: standing out depends much more on the art and how things look like than on the details of the story, but engagement depends much more on the mechanics and story than the art, and growing depends heavily on the community building aspect. I’ve seen many good games that don’t succeed because they lacked one or more of these important elements.

It is also important to notice that most games, from free-to-play mobile games to VR experiences and educational games, will benefit from having all these ingredients. If you decide that you don’t need one of these ingredients, if you think don’t need a story or you don’t need community building mechanics, at least you should have a clear reason why not, and you should have an idea of how are you going to get your game to stand out, connect, engage, and grow with the ingredients you choose to include.

There are other elements in a game that are very important like monetization, which is essential to make the game development sustainable. Or marketing, which can help your game get noticed. But the part of marketing that I think is more essential is not the promotion itself, but defining and thinking about your target market, and getting feedback from your target players all through out the development process. Then, your art, mechanics, story and social mechanics will resonate with your players, and your marketing will be embedded into your other elements.

Power Up With a Theme

Illustration by Felipe Lara

What I’ve noticed through the years is that games are much more powerful and effective at engaging players when all the elements mentioned above -art, mechanics, story, and social interaction- work together and reinforce each other. Having a strong “theme” will help tie together the elements of your game and will make much easier to connect emotionally with your players. But for a theme to do that, you need to have the right understanding of what a theme is. Theme is not topic. Saying you want to do a pirate game is not enough. There are many different potential approaches to a pirate game: is it about gathering treasure? Is it about fighting the law? Is it about ship battles? It is not about a conflict either. Defining your theme as the conflict between pirates and the Spanish Armada is not enough. You need to pick a side, you need to have an opinion about the topic or conflict you are talking about: “ A pirate life is a wonderful life, because it is more free and exciting.” When you state your theme as a clear point of view you get a much clearer idea of what mechanics and what stories you need. In this case, it all would need to revolve around the excitement of being a pirate and being free of responsibilities and commitments. In his book “The Art of Game Design,” Jesse Schell relates an example from when we worked on a pirate’s virtual reality ride for Walt Disney Imagineering and DisneyQuest. In his book he writes how as soon as we nailed down a theme for the ride, many of the design decisions about art style, game mechanics, story, and even technology became clear. As a result all these ingredients ended up supporting each other to create a much more powerful and award-winning VR experience.

Conclusion

There are 5 ingredients that in combination help your game be much more engaging and successful: art, mechanics, story, community, and theme. When you put those things together in a game or experience: art that resonates with your audience, mechanics that are fun and have clear goals, a story that adds meaning and context, a community makes you feel part of something larger than yourself, and a theme that ties it all together and connects to points of view that you resonate with, you get a much more engaging experience, and your chances of success grow exponentially. You can find more info at felipelara.net