Dark Souls, where dying is the motivation to keep playing

The Engagement Loop: Candy Crush, Clash of Clans and Dark Souls. The slots machine of 21st century

What do a Slotomania, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and Dark Souls have in common? Yes, they are really successful videogames. All of them were released between late 2011 and early 2012. More than two years later they are still one of the hugest successful videogames of all the times on very different platforms, from mobile to desktop without forgetting the seventh console generation (PS3 & XBox). But why are they so successful? Since they have really different nature from one to anther, you can think that each one of this games has a special thing that makes it outstand on its own genre. But, what if I said you that all this games look alike and, in fact, they are 'just the same'? Let me introduce you the Engagement Loop to help you understant better why this games have become what they are right now.

This article comes from a motivation I recently had with the vision that exists on videogames companies, where I share knowledge as data scientist as well as game designer. The main worries in this sector are always monetization, monetization, making money, grow more and more, caring less about the product. In one of our usual discussions, I let them know that the problem is never about monetization, but about retention and engagement. People who are retained and engaged with the game are willing to spend more and more time playing, exploring its full features and so they are more willing to pay on F2P games, or to expect new content (DLCs) or new releses of the console games. A lot of the monetization problems I've seen on the games I've dealt with are because they have really poor retention and engagement. People never will pay if they are not engaged.

Think about two restaurants one beside the other. Both have the same dishes and prices without any difference. Let's also suppose that both have the same name (imagine for the purpose of the experiment that they are both a fast food restaurant from one of the famous brands available in your town). The only difference is that one opens all the doors and invite you to come in and try the food, has a lot of lights and there are already some people inside eating but the other one has no one inside, only one waitress behind the bar, there's only one little light on the ceiling, there are some spiders on the windows, the floor is full of dust (and of course is not Halloween). Which one are you willing to go for a dinner? And once you've already had dinner, in which one are you more willing to return for another meal on the future? The same happens with F2P games, where the user can choose among a huge set and is willing to stay at the one that makes him feel more comfortable, more 'Engaged'.

What the Engagement is all about

Engagement has become one of the clue KPIs on ecommerce websites. It measures the relationship between a user and a brand. Imagine a person that signs in on eBay but only visits the site once and never comes back. Imagine a second person that signs in on eBay and since then, he or she starts visiting it everyday, looking for really good sales and, even making purchases time to time. They are really different people: the first one is less engaged with eBay than the second one, he or she cares less about eBay and its content.

Engagement is also present in different moments of our lifes: when you marry someone, you're engaged with him or her (or at least you're supposed to be engaged!); people is usually engaged with a bank, a doctor or an insurance company; when we like a song, we're engaged to listen to it during some time (for intance, when you're in love or during a break in a relationship); even we're engaged (more or less) with some restaurants where we go more often than to the other ones...

So, it looks like Engagement is everywhere in our lifes! Not just on a virtual environment, but also in our real world. So, let's see how can this make a good game become a huge success with the Engagement Loop.

The Engagement Loop

Let's look at the following picture in order to understand better this concept.

The four components of an Engagement Loop: Motivation, Action, Time and Feedback.

The four components of an Engagement Loop: Motivation, Action, Time and Feedback.

There are four basic elements on a single engagement loop are:

  1. Motivation: the user must have a motivation to perform an action in the game.
  2. Action: the user must perform an action, interact with the system.
  3. Wait: the user must wait a certain amount of time, this can be really different from one engagement loop to another: one engagement loop can make the user wait for just some miliseconds (the amount of time neccessary to calculate the result of the performed action by an algorithm) and another can last for days, weeks or months!
  4. Feedback: after the waiting for some time, the user gets certain feedback for the performed action. This feedback is really critical because it has to give some extra motivation to the user to make him start a new loop over and over again.

The Engagement Loop in 21st Century videogames

If the engagement loop has been successfully well designed, it'll make the user want to start a new loop over and over again and this way, he or she will be engaged with the game. Let's see some engagement loops of the games we started this article:

Slotomania or the slots machines engagement loops

The engagement loops are a thecnique that was born with physical slots machines, and lately was incorporated to online social casino and gambling games.

Slotomania slot machine

One of the Slotomania slots machine by Playtika

Slotomania by Playtika is one of the most successful social casino slots game on Facebook and mobile. With more than 50 rooms to play, it covers really different kinds of slots machines with different scatter triggers, bonus minigames, etc... How can they make so huge number of rooms without any trouble? Well, that's because the engagement loop was born precisely on slot machines and Playtika has done a really well job applying it to the social environment!

  1. Everything starts with a motivation. You see some casino lights, an avatar that catches your attention, a super jackpot available on that machine, the music of the room,... But without any doubt there is a motivation all over this artifacts: win (real or virtual) money.
  2. With this goal in mind, it's all focused to the main (and only) action of a slots game: make a spin. The user makes a spin and then all the reels start moving.
  3. That's when the user has to wait some time for a response to the performed action. The waiting time is not really long: usually from two to five seconds.
  4. The feedback in a slot game is really simple: winning or losing. In case of winning (usually new players always win the first time they make a spin), the user sees lots of lights, flashes, the amount of won coins, sounds and a lot of extra stuff. That's really important, because it gives the user extra motivation to keep playing and start the loop over and over again. Even when the user loses it's also a motivation, because he knows that, if he keeps pulling down the lever, there is a choice of winning.
Slots mechanics Engagement Loop

Slots mechanics Engagement Loop

We can see here that this is a really short loop, that doesn't last more than a few seconds. Even there are slots machines that can literally stop the reels to make the waiting time shorter. The key here is that the user gets an extra motivation over and over to keep pulling the lever. At least until he runs out of coins. When this happens, there are two choices: the user is already engaged to the game, he needs to keep doing this loop again and again, so the user pays with real currency to earn virtual currency in the game (or casino chips in a real slot game) or the user hasn't really engaged with it, so he leaves.

Candy Crush Saga or the match three style game

Everybody has heard about this match three game. You're a little girl in a huge world with lots and lots of levels. Each level has a grid with some candies on it. The game is just a variation of the 'match three' games like Bejeweled. Each level has a bard with different patterns full of sweets and candies between three and six different colours and, sometimes obstacles on it (chocolate, jelly,...) The basic move is change the positions of two near candies to align groups of three or more of the same kind. Once grouped, those candies disappear and make the sweets above them to fall on the spaces they have left behind.

Candy Crush Saga by King.com

Candy Crush Saga by King.com, a new look to the match three game

The user has some goals en each level: earn some points, destroy a certain number of red candies, finish within a limited amount of time,... So, if the user succeeds on his journey, he completes the level and can proceed to the next one. If he fails, he loses a life and he has to start this level all over again. The user is given an extra life each 20-30 minutes and that will be one of the most important elements of the engagement loop

The Let me play loop

  1. The motivation of the game is to complete level after level. Right now the game has more than 700 levels and this number is growing up every week.
  2. The action is, of course, play the level. The randomness of the level (you don't know which candies will fall after you pick up the existing ones) is at the same time another engagement loop inside the big one.
  3. The time can be very different from one game to another. Talking to their data scientists, they told me that there are people that finish a level in less than a minute and people that can keep for hours the same level to study all the available movements to be sure about what to do next. Here we can see that it can take a huge amount of time to complete a simple loop
  4. The feedback is straightly forward from here: the player either succeds or fails in the completion of the level, so he can start a new one o repeat the same failed level.

There are some power ups that can accelerate the time part of the loop (power ups that can destroy all the candies on the screen, all the red ones, etc...) and another ones that can let you have more time to play a certain level (either more movements or more time on trial levels). This is always really well calculated to balance retention and monetization because, if the level is too easy, players will be retained more and monetized less (they won't have a reason to pay) but, if it is too difficult, they will more probably leave the game despite that some users will also pay. So the tricky part about a match three game comes with the balance of the difficult, that can make your players more engaged to the game the more levels they are able to play and complete without consuming lifes or power ups.

Once the user has completed different Playing loops, he is already engaged to the game so that's when the evil come, when difficulty increases and when the game monetize really well: you run out of lifes, so you can pay for more; you run out of movements, so you can pay for more; you only need to explode one extra red candy to win, so you can pay to purchase a lollipop hammer to smash it down, etc... Everything has been well calculated to let the user play the necessary engagement loops to feel the need to keep joining candies after candies. When this time has come, the game becomes more difficult with every level until is 'almost impossible' to beat the next one without any kind of help.

A typical Candy Crush Saga Level

A typical Candy Crush Saga Level

But wait! I've told you there was another engagement loop inside the gameplay of the level and I haven't yet told you about it! Let's see if this smashing candies loop looks familiar to you:

Smashing candies loop

  1. The user is motivated to complete the level. Lots of candies of different colors, shapes and sizes are placed around the screen and there's always some movements to be done, so the user must take the decission to which is suitable to be moved at this step, so among all the possible moves the user is looking for a good move.
  2. The user makes the move he wants (or should I say he pulls the lever?) and everything starts moving around.
  3. All the candies on the screen start moving, falling down, new ones appears at the top of the screen, etc... (or should I say that the candies start spinning around?)
  4. The user gets a feedback of the amount won points around the screen (or should I say won coins?) or the percentage of the objective he has completed so he can start the Smashing candies loop all over again.

What's this??? Isn't it the Slot machine engagement loop behind a Candy Crush level??

The two nested Engagement Loops at Candy Crush Saga

The two nested Engagement Loops at Candy Crush Saga

This game is not less than a simple slot machine that is played in a different way. The player doesn't have a lever but tens of theme, so he can choose which one to pull. That gives the game certain randomness (or not, depending on the programmers) and hope to the user that he'll receive better candies on the next moves. Like a slot machine, he has the hope that the next one will be the good one so he keeps doing engagement loops one after the other until the end.

Clash of Clans or the short-long loop

At Clash of Clans from Supercell, the engagement is set from two different points of view. You start as a leader of a primitive clan, and you're guided through a tutorial to learn the basics of creating your own village, with its resources buildings, its protections, its fighters, etc... On one side, as long as the city grows up, the user has more resources and power to invest in make the city bigger and bigger from one side, and attacking another players online on the other. On the other side, as well as you can attack the other, others can attack you to steal your resources. To deal with all this fights, people start buildign their own fellowships and communities so they can defend their members and fight all as one. The engagement loop is double and one helps the other to make it more and more successful.

Clash of Clans from Supercell

Clash of Clans characters fighting, from Supercell

Simulation Loop

The first part of the loop is the simulation, where the user makes his village bigger and bigger and try to store as much resources as possible.

  1. The motivation here is to make the village more bigger and powerful.
  2. The user must perform actions like harvest his resources or improve his buildings, characters in the game.
  3. It takes some time to improve the buildings and replenish the resources, so the user must wait until the cycle is completed.
  4. The feedback is clearly an improvement in the village: more resources, more fighters, more characters, etc...

One of the hardest points where Clash of Clans has really strong features is in the waiting period, where with each level, the time to wait increases exponentially, from seconds to minutes, days and even weeks. The first loops are then really short (just seconds) but it the waiting time keeps growing more and more. Once the user has the need to make something be finished in no time, he has to pay to shorten the time that takes improve the feature he wants. Here is where the second loop comes in the action.

PvP Loop

The second part of the loop is really short. The user is about to be attacked by a rival, so he must run to the game or, within a few minutes his village will be destroyed if it doesn't have good defenses.

  1. The motivation of the loop is to defend the resources and buildings the user has built with efford and time (no one would want to see his village destroyed wouldn't they?)
  2.  At this point the user must act and come to the game to put all its defenses on, make the most fightes possible or put all the traps he can to protect the village. He can also summon someone from a nearby clan to help him defend his village from the inminent attack. In some cases, the user has no battery on his phone or tablet, so, although he is notified of the inminent attack, he doesn't know it and his city perishes.
  3. The time to wait is a combination of the time that the user has to defend the village, the time that the rival has until it reaches the village and, finally the time that it takes to finish all the battle and do all the looting part.
  4. The feedback is almost inmediate for the user: the village is defended with little damage, so he can reconstruct it until the next siege, or the city is destroyed and he has to start all over again by reparing buildings, relooting, making a new army, etc... It also goes for the attacker, which, in case of winning win a lot of resources for his own village and, in case of losing, he loses all his troops.
Clash of clans multiple loops along with their monetization strategies

Clash of clans multiple loops along with their monetization strategies

We see here that one part goes along with the other: we have a long terms loop in the simulation one, where the user makes more money and resources to improve troops, buildings, put traps, etc... in combination with the PVP loop, where he tries to grow faster by invading rivals, or to survive to the frequent attacks of the others. In that case, little PVP loops take part in a long Simulation loop that takes more time. As said before, time is really important in this game, so in the middle of both loops we find lot of extra resources, power ups and all this stuff to reduce the time to complete both loops and accelerate the growing of the user village.

Dark Souls or the mastery of non F2P games

Here it comes the odd game in the equation. Dark Souls by From Software. The only non F2P game from our particular list, but also with a really hardcore engagement loop in the mind of the designers. It's loop behaviour goes really further than any other one, so let's go and see how it works:

Knowledge Loop

  1. The main motivation of the game is that you're told a story, about the lord of the flame and his vessels. It looks really further in time but there it is. Suddenly you start locked in a cell, undead, and without knowing why are you there, or for how much time you have been locked there. From this time, you're free by a misterious knight and... you're not told anything about what to do next. The motivation here is to discover, to know something, because you don't know anything about the game. In fact, as long as you keep playing, you discover new characters, new enemies, but you don't have any idea who they are or what are they doing there.
  2. The action comes after the motivation, so you start by going out of your cell and investigating that dark place. But, while investigating, without knowing how, a huge huge monster comes in front of you and, most probably, you die with only one hit... Here it comes the second loop, the dying loop we'll talk later.
  3. The waiting time in the knowledge loop can be really long. Even longer than two or three full gameplays of the game. The story is not told if you focus just on killing foes. You have to look to every detail in the game: that monster that doesn't have an arm, that character that is sitting there, but after ringing some bells in the game disappears, that character that you rescue from its death and in exchange kills the keeper of the fire,...
  4. The feedback here is almost zero. The only feedback is the fragment of the conversations among the characters, their actions (becoming hollow or crazy, disappearing, etc...), the little description of the found actions,...

This first loop is then focused on learning, trying to dicover what's happening, why the characters from the intro, that killed thousand of dragons can finally be beaten by you, where do the characters come from, why do they disappear, etc... And that's really a well formed group. The three previous games didn't have a story to told, they were only about playing and playing and not abot learning. I always like to compare this loop with a little boy in his bed with the lights off who sees a monster on the window.He doesn't still have the knowledge so he fears what he doesn't know, at least util his parents turn the lights on and shows him that there is really no monster there. He has been given some light in his life and he can keep learning. Dark souls really does it, by with so little information behind the scenes, that everything has to be supposed or discovered gameplay after gameplay. There are even people that have mastered this game and they have never seen that merchant hidden in the dark that sell you special items... That's one of the magic of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls, where dying is the motivation to keep playing

Dark Souls, where dying is the motivation to keep playing

Dying loop

That's a game made to die over and over again. But... how can this be engaging? Well, it is.

  1. Inmediate after you die, you become hollow and return to the last bonfire you lit. The motivation of dying is to go to the place you died (which can be really far from you revive as hollow) and recover all the souls and humanities you had. The souls are the currency of the game (you can upgrade your weapons, level up, etc...) and humanity helps you to revert your hollow status and become undead. This is your most loved treasure in the game, it has taken you hours to farm all those souls and now you don't have anything, so want to do anything to recover all those souls and humanities, that's your main motivation.
  2. The action is really simple, you have to go where you died (without dying in the process or you'll definitely lose all the previous souls and humanities).
  3. The time can be quite long because you have to rewalk all the path again from the bonfire to where you died. The problem is that all the foes you killed before will have respawned, so you can die again anywhere on this path.
  4. The feedback is now quite simple: if you reach your dying spot, you can recover your precious souls and try to kill the beast that previously killed you (perhaps dying again...) or you can't reach that spot because someone kills you or you fall down in your journey so, you finally lose everything you had before your first death. It also starts over the knowledge loop on the first case and the dying loop in the second case.
You Died

You Died in Dark Souls, the most common message on this game

Mastery loop

As you're learning and dying, there is a final extra motivation to all of this: the mastery loop. It goes for people that want to win all the achievements or discover anything available in the game. When you've playing for a long time, you killed thousand of knights but, in one moment, without really knowing how, one slashes his sword and... you're dead. How can this be possible? You've learnt how to kill those guys and it was impossible for you to die but you did! What happens here? There is also an extra component in the mastery loop: you can play in a multiplayer environment, so you can go and invade someone's world to steal his souls and humanity, or get invaded by someone like you, which makes the mastery of this game more and more difficult.

  1. The motivation is that you thought you knew everything about a certain aspect of the game (how to kill those enemies) so your theory is broken down when you're killed or invaded by someone in this game.
  2. The action is the same as the Dying loop, so you have to go where you died again.
  3. The time is the same as the Dying loop.
  4. The feedback is that now know better this enemy. You also have the feedback that you're not save and you can be invaded (or invade) at any time. You've been killed from a different way than before and now you've mastered new stuff. It also has increased the difficulty of the game (this is the magic of Dark Souls), so by the way, this shows you new challenges in the game, new things to the mastery loop.
Dark Souls Loops

Dark Souls Loops interact really well to work from real frustation to the magic of this game.

Now that we know how are those three loops working together, we can gess why dying in this game is not frustrating enough to stop playing and you keep playing and playing. This game reproduces in your life what it happens in the game: each time you die, you become hollow and want to recover your life; in the real world, you get consumed over and over again by dying in the game, by performing those loops, until you're almost hollow! That's amazing! A thing that only happens in the videogame is reproduced on the real world! The initial frustration becomes a need and you finally understand that this is not frustration, that this is your real life. You're hollow in the game, you're engaged in your real life, really engaged to the game so you want to keep playing, discovering things that you don't know, recovering your lost souls, leveling up your stats, improving your weapons performance,... because like in real life, in Dark Souls you're not the main character of the story, but a collateral damage of everything that happens around you.

Now you understand what the engagement is all about, how does videogames make you feel engaged through iterating different loops that keep your attention, give you a motivation and a need through its iterations. Lack of knowledge, lack of information, lack of coins, everything is taken from you to make you feel that you need it back and spend hours in front of them playing and playing (and in some cases, paying and paying).

Conclusions

In this article we've learnt a lot about how do big videogames engage their users in very different ways. The popular F2P games can reach lots of people with their virality strategies and so reduce their cost per install (CPI) so they have to take into account the Engagement Loop to make the user viralize more and more and keep lowering their costs as Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga does.  On the other hand classic console games are said to disappear within a few years, but I don't agree. I can't imagine a F2P version of Dark Souls, where the user pays to recover their lost souls and humanities. This would absolutely break their Engagement Loop based on this Mastery and Dying Loop, it would definitely make the game lose all its magic.

There are some other elements I haven't told on this article that comes in combination with the Engagement Loop and that are always present on all videogames:

  • Music: think about why Dark Souls only have music on their final bosses while the rest of the game is quiet and you can only your steps, your swords slashes and the enemies sounds. Think also about each world in Candy Crush having its own music to distinguish them all, how this music evolves along with the story, etc...
  • Tutorial: would you be able to make your first house in the village of Clash of Clans without any help? Could you guess what a power up works without any hint? Or even in Dark Souls, that give you the basic hints to know how to parry and smash in its own line to give the minimum to the user so he can keep discovering and learning (remember the Knowledge Loop!).
  • The look and feel of the game: why do you think Candy Crush Saga is so colorfully pastel and in counterpart Dark Souls is so terribly dark? Would it succeed (or even make sense) a Dark Souls game acclimated on a big city or even in a spaceship? I don't whink so.  People usually plays to evade themselves (you can take a look at this survey from Super Data Research) so which sense would have to create a game based on people real life? None of the worlds presented are real. Even the slots games from Slotomania are not in a common environment but based on fantasy or funny characters. The medieval world takes implicitly its magic, its mystery and people know a lot about it (movies, books, etc...) and it's like coming back to Romanticism and Victorian Era. That's the reason why From Software wants us to take a look back and return to those places with ghosts, dragons, undeads, mystery and magic, to evade ourselves from our rutines and discover a whole new and different world.
  • The in game messages: althought that don't abound in the game, without them the story (and the Knowledge Loop) in Dark Souls would have no sense (at least less than it has right as it is right now!)
  • The social part of the games (chats, multiplayer environment,...). It lets developers viralize on F2P games like Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans, make their alliances and clans, ask for extra lifes and resources,... And also adds more difficulty to Dark Souls (if it wasn't difficult enough)

I hope you enjoyed this article and now I'd like you to join the conversation, so feel free to discuss anything you want here!

See you soon on the next article!

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