On today’s episode we’ll cover “Engagement Curves” in games. Creating engaging games are what designers are always trying to do. Making sure that the game is challenging - but not too difficult. Making sure that the game is fun - but not too easy. Making sure that the game is impactful - but not too serious.
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Hi and welcome to Experience Points by University XP. On Experience Points we explore different ways we can learn from games. I’m your host Dave Eng from games-based learning by University XP. Find out more at www.universityxp.com
On today’s episode we’ll cover “Engagement Curves” in games.
Creating engaging games are what designers are always trying to do. Making sure that the game is challenging - but not too difficult. Making sure that the game is fun - but not too easy. Making sure that the game is impactful - but not too serious.
Maintaining this engagement is hard. How do designers do it? How do educators make sure that they maintain their students’ focus? Specifically, how does engagement help educators make serious learning games?
This episode will address the “engagement curve” of games and how it affects player and user engagement. It will cover what should be prioritized when creating engaging games as well as how timing works in the engagement cycle.
This curve is discussed for continual player engagement as well as how most popular mobile games utilize this for monetization purposes. Finally, this episode closes out on why engagement is important for games and how it can be harnessed for serious game development.
The engagement curve is a way for designers to make sure that players remain engaged in the game according to a pre-determined rhythm. This is especially helpful for those players who are playing in a new environment for the first time.
For us, there was always a first time that we played a first person shooter; a worker placement game; or explored an open world RPG. For experienced gamers these places now come as second nature to us. But, for ALL of us: there was always a first time.
That means that engagement at the very beginning is important for players. The engagement curve is a chart of the intensity of this player engagement over time.
But this engagement curve isn’t seen only in games. You can find it in other mediums like stories, narratives, books, movies, and music. The engagement curve identifies the “ideal” amount of player engagement to keep them interested, challenged, and intrigued.
However, in more static mediums like books, movies, television shows, and stories: this engagement curve cannot change. It has been pre-written; pre-edited; and pre-recorded.
That means there is no change for the user as they progress throughout the process. But games are different: they can change as their players engage with them. Games can deliver a different amount and type of feedback.
Designers need to think about first time users when taking the engagement curve into account. This may not have been the first game that they’ve played before. But it’s their first time playing *this* game. That means that bringing them onboard to the world; the “controls,” and their decision space is paramount.
This also means that designers should focus on the progression system for players. Specifically, what actions they’ve taken and what decisions will affect their play throughout the game. This gives player engagement meaning as they can determine the arc that they’ve progressed through their play.
This leads to the creation of an “ideal” curve. One that has high moments of intensity matched by equally low moments of rest. This “ping pong” effect of back and forth means that players are gradually introduced to different and impactful effects in the game. They are then given “benign” and baseline moments in which to use them.
This is most prevalent in video game tutorials where players are shown how to move; run; jump; or crawl and then must explore a world where they can do all of those motions in order to help them navigate the space. Only later will they need to rely on what they’ve learned here in order to proceed in the game.
Often this tutorial is built into the story of the character. As stories have a more lasting effect than straight “tutorials,” players are lead through narrative conventions where they must “stretch” and move around in a space in order to learn how to use the controls for the game. This decision makes thematic sense as well as connects player actions within the realm of the narrative.
However, sometimes players are thrust into a dire situation where they must now use what they’ve learned in the game for their benefit. A memorable example of this for me was playing through Dead Space for the first time.
Here, I was put into a situation where I immediately needed to put all of my movement actions - turn, look, run - to the test in order to escape a band of necromorphs that were chasing me. It’s one of the first few heart pounding moments in the game that represents one of the first peaks in the engagement curve.
That chase then ends in a quieter navigation throughout the Ishimura where the character has a chance to “relax” for a bit before encountering additional challenges. That up-down effect in engagement and action represents this engagement curve throughout the game which mimics a roller coaster in many ways.
This engagement curve is also reflected in the narrative analogy with the three act play: setting up the incident which leads to the confrontation which then climaxes and reaches the resolution of the story. This intensity throughout the engagement curve is based on the timing of this action and the demands of the player as they navigate the game.
Timing is the most important aspect of the engagement curve. The experiences of the player happen over time as they engage with the game. In board games, this timing can take place in multiple intervals. Most likely with a starting setup of players; followed by earning points or synergizing different elements; and then ending with a climax or a payoff.
Ancestree is a game that embodied this. The starting setup for players was built on a single tile. The rest of the game revolves around building from that tile with each round ending in scoring opportunities.
However; the decision to use that tile at the beginning informed the rest of the game play. The conclusion of each round represented scoring opportunities. This was the falling action and setup for the next round.
There’s a connection here between game design, narratives, and serious games. Here, players need to become active participants in the process instead of passive observers. That means that once they have a “competency” in the game - once they learn how to do something - they should then have a quickly rising opportunity to put it to the test.
Whether that means a new move; a new item; or a new ability doesn’t matter. What does matter is making sure that players continually engage with the game throughout by learning new competencies that they can then easily apply.
The development of these new competencies is central to how players will continue to learn and engage with the game. Player retention is based on what they can do coupled with what opportunities they can exploit. By doing both, games keep players engaged throughout the process.
Sometimes those processes aren’t even very interesting. But through these actions, players develop awareness; knowledge; and competency. They can then use these competencies for the different types of meaningful decisions throughout the game.
One of my favorite couch cooperative games is Overcooked where players must work together in a kitchen to make and serve food. The actions are simple: put a burger in a frying pan; drop some vegetables in the soup; and put lettuce in a bowl. But, combining them and timing them correctly with one another is what keeps the game fresh, exciting, and engaging.
This type of fulfilling and vigorous engagement - similar to a flow state - represents a high level of involvement that accompanies positive feelings. Those feelings could be enthusiasm, inspiration, and pride.
That level of engagement is what all designers strive for: when our players become so engrossed in the game that they begin to detach from reality as they become fully involved in the “magic circle.”
Of course this engrossment in the game is often most tightly connected with monetization of mobile games. Here, developers best understand the engagement curve and how it can be used to keep players hooked and spending money.
Often that translates into time spent on the app, game, or the platform. This means that players are more likely to spend time, effort, and money pursuing game actions. Those actions mean engagement for not only the platform but the user as well.
That’s why it’s to the developer’s advantage to keep track of player engagement as a predictor of their future interaction with the game and the platform for future monetization purposes. The engagement curve here serves two goals: to keep players playing the game and to get them to spend money to do so.
Of course, players that play games are important. Without the players, a game would be without the central element that makes them fun, unique, and engaging. But, games are still abstractions of real experiences.
Games can serve as rich learning opportunities for educators and designers alike. That means that educators are incentivized to continue to create engagement in games. They want to make it so that students, users, and players must continue to do something within the game world. But, defining that “something” is ultimately up to us: the designers.
Unlike other forms of media; games create that interaction from players. That interaction is what makes games fun, unique, and challenging. This means that players must remain actively engaged, instead of passive participants.
This interaction from players in games is what keeps them engaged. That engagement is the kind of interaction that leaves a lasting impression on the learner and how they apply their lessons in the future.
That’s why engagement is so important as a teaching tool. Games, serious games, and games-based learning are incredibly powerful applications for teaching students about problem solving; mastering key concepts; and creating solutions to problems with multiple variables.
That’s where simulations can really shine. Simulations are supposed to remain as true to their real life counterpart as they can. Simulations allow students to do something in a virtual practice leading to the real thing.
The engagement in the simulation allows them to continually practice and learn in a way that they would never been able to accomplish outside of the game.
This form of transformative learning is definitely a challenge. A challenge that some students might not be ready for yet. However, these learning activities are incredibly powerful. Powerful enough to connect to learning outcomes in a way that is ultimately meaningful and engaging to the user.
This episode addressed the “engagement curve” of games and how it affects player and user engagement. It covered what should be prioritized when creating engaging games as well as how timing works in the engagement cycle.
This curve was discussed for continual player engagement as well as how mobile apps utilize this for monetization purposes. Finally, the episode closed out on why engagement is important for games and how it can be harnessed in serious games and simulations.
I hope you found this episode useful. If you’d like to learn more, then a great place to start is with my free course on gamification. You can sign up for it at www.universityxp.com/gamification You can also get a full transcript of this episode including links to references in the description or show notes. Thanks for joining me!
Again, I’m your host Dave Eng from games-based learning by University XP. On Experience Points we explore different ways we can learn from games. If you liked this episode please consider commenting, sharing, and subscribing.
Subscribing is absolutely free and ensures that you’ll get the next episode of Experience Points delivered directly to you. I’d also love it if you took some time to rate the show! I live to lift others with learning. So, if you found this episode useful, consider sharing it with someone who could benefit.
Also make sure to visit University XP online at www.universityxp.com University XP is also on Twitter @University_XP and on Facebook and LinkedIn as University XP. Also, feel free to email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org Game on!
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engagement, curve, engagement curve, game design, tension, relaxation