It’s no accident that gaming has become a billion dollar industry. As human beings, there is something innately compelling about games that allow us to travel to different worlds and immerse ourselves in a new digital reality. We can fight intergalactic wars, play as our favorite football players and explore vast worlds. When you pick up an RPG, it can be immensely satisfying to sink time into fleshing out your character, just as it can be satisfying to hold off your enemy under hails of gunfire in an online multiplayer. But how do game developers keep us hooked?
For gamers across the world, gaming is an adrenaline rush. But in order to keep us coming back for more, gaming needs novelty. The novelty of unlocking features and leveling up is one of the main reasons we keep coming back for more. There’s also the refreshing feeling of being provided by new downloadable content. With each unlock we make, our dopamine receptors are triggered which acts as a physiological incentive. We get a rush when we level up, or unlock an achievement. On top of this, we get drawn in when our favorite title releases new DLC to spice up the game.
The real meat and potatoes of what keeps us clicking is experience points, or XP. Leveling up systems have become central for retaining users in online gaming experiences. When we start out on a game we only have access to the most rudimentary of equipment, weapons and character design. In order to unlock more content, gamers have to level up by acquiring experience points.
Every game has different ways we can gain XP. The simplest example of an XP system is seen in Call of Duty where you get XP by killing other players in online games. Each online kill offers you a certain amount of XP, and the more kills you get, the more XP you’ll get, and the more you’ll ‘rank up’ in level. Its no surprise that when a Double XP weekend is announced, players rush to play.
So what makes this system addictive? Well it starts off very simple, but the higher you level up the more XP you’ll have to earn between levels. Initially, you’ll unlock equipment relatively easily but the more time you sink into the game, the longer it’ll take for you to unlock additional content. The more you play to unlock content, the more you will have to actively invest in the game. So, if you want to unlock that chilled looking SAS character with a fuzzy beard and put a gold MP5 in his hand, you’re going to have to put the hours in!
By using XP systems, gaming companies manage the content we can unlock and distribute it in a way that provides maximum pleasure, with gamers feeling pavlovian-esque satisfaction each time they unlock something new. As humans, we respond well to incentives, and naturally we are drawn to progression and the fulfillment that progression brings us. The fulfillment of getting to the next stage of a leveling system keeps providing us with hit after hit of satisfaction, which is part of what makes online multiplayer games so addictive.
A Sense of Achievement
It may seem strange but achieving certain milestones on a game is considered a badge of honor. Way back in the days of the Xbox 360, games like Guitar Hero 3 had an achievement called the ‘Inhuman Achievement’, where you’d have to play through Through the Fire and Flames by Dragonforce on Expert difficulty level (Which was very hard to do, I might add!). By completing the achievement you’d acquire a reputation as a very hardcore game guitarist. Having completed a game on a certain difficulty, or being of a certain level on a game, can be a way to impress other players, and we all have an ego.
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Gaming companies encourage players to put their time into gaming by placing in-game achievements and visible leveling systems to allow players who put the time in to distinguish themselves from other players. When your Fifa seasons record Is 30-0, you’ll be the guy all your friends are ducking during the next Fifa session. Likewise, the leaderboards on Gears of War are going to let your friends know you’re on point. By placing achievements in games, developers allow gamers to display their gaming credentials and show how skilled they are at a game. Generally, this is more prominent in online multiplayer games than others but many single player games reward players for completing certain tasks.
On top of achievements made in game, The Xbox One ‘Achievement’ system, and the PlayStation 4 ‘Trophies’ system provide players with a virtual trophy cabinet of gaming based accolades to highlight their skills. Like gaining XP, earning achievements releases dopamine, which acts as a physiological reward for good performance.
In days gone by when you bought a game, that was the finished product. Today, games are constantly evolving with new maps, equipment and stories keeping gamers captivated. Just when you think you’ve got to know the maps well enough, BANG! Another map pack has been released! And thus you start the process of learning the new maps from scratch you’ll have to relearn how to survive.
Just when gamers thought they’d explored the apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 4, the Far Harbor DLC was released with a whole new batch of quests to complete. Players would now have a whole new world region to explore along with loads of new equipment to find. DLC is a great way for gaming companies to refresh the novelty of a game that players may have previously completed or have become bored of. New downloadable content can add variety in the form of new guns and places to go.
Gaming is most effective at keeping us coming back for more when our unlocks and incentives are managed by an experience points system, and the time we’ve put into the game is recognized in the form of achievements that make us stand out as players. In the rare event this fails to captivate us, DLC is released to jazz up our favorite games and make us feel like it was our first day playing again. As long as gaming strikes into our desire for meritocratic achievement and progression, we’ll keep coming back for more. The more we immerse ourselves in these digital worlds, the more depth we are rewarded with. The more we play, the more we can unlock, the more we can stand out, and the more we can explore.