Opinion: Why Game Developers Need a Chief Psychology Officer

Game Developers Need to Know What Motivates Gamers

The Psychology of GamingThis article summarizes Jon Jordan’s opinion that major players in the gaming industry should consider hiring a Chief Psychology Officer. He toys with the idea, after having a discussion with his colleagues regarding his personal experiences with CSR Racing, a free-to-play game. The idea may be unusual, but there is merit to what he has to say, especially since psychology, after all, is the study of human behavior.

How CSR Racing Got the Psychology Wrong

Like all great ideas, the idea came to Jordan after he was thinking about a million other ideas. From what he can remember, it started off with him telling a colleague about his experience with CSR Racing. He said, “What’s interesting is that of the 40 or so games I’ve played, the only one to actively fail you within the first five minutes was CSR Racing.”

He felt that the game was programmed to let any player win the first two races in the game, then lose the next. Then the player has to go to the garage and buy a car using the in-game currency. He goes on to say, “Most tutorials are all about winning and making the player feel happy, but CSR Racing does the opposite and immediately gets you into the process of upgrading your car.”

The Psychology of In-App Purchases

The discussion gained even more momentum when a colleague started to share his opinion about another related game, Fast & Furious 6.

Fast & Furious 6 Game monetization

He counters, “It’s not as bad as Fast & Furious 6 where you're immediately given a time-dependent offer to spend real cash on a car you can easily buy with soft currency a couple of hours later.”

Note that this discussion puts to a light a new business model in the gaming industry – in-app monetization. What these new games attempt to do is provide a real-life sense of monetization options, such as dealing with limited fuel slots and having to wait for part upgrades to arrive, as if they were being imported and shipped.  This is a new trend in app monetization that we have not seen before.

Different Interpretations of CSR Racing

However, the discussion did not stop there. They started to talk about another aspect of CSR Racing – the boss battles.

For Jordan, he felt negatively about the fact that when he beat the first boss, his opponent immediately told him that he’s upgrading his car so that they can battle again, also just so he could win convincingly. At this point, he felt that the game created a natural breaking point, where it inevitably turns players off because the opponents become “unreliable.”

CSR Racing Game Psychology

His colleague had a completely opposite reaction to boss battles.  He said to Jordan, “Your problem is that you've approached it [CSR Racing] like a free-to-play game.” While there is irony in the statement – as CSR Racing is a free-to-play game – it only leads to the realization that every game, whether free-to-play or otherwise, should always employ the retention techniques employed by all the $50 console classics.

Monetization and Retention in Mobile Gaming

In short, game developers are very good at making games, and over the past couple of years, mobile game developers have toyed with new terms like distribution, marketing, user acquisition and monetization – especially monetization. The big gap, however, is tailoring the user experience so it bridges gameplay and retention.

It is a hasty generalization to conclude that all companies fail to recognize that there is an obvious dissonance between gameplay and retention. In fact, some companies have developed expertise in this area, as evidenced in their five-minute pre-game tutorials.

What Jordan is simply driving at is the fact that games must be patterned on actual human behavior. In fact, he believes that game developers should actively hire psychologists, so that there would be a team of professionals who could study the behavior of players and actively change small elements of the game to improve retention, engagement, and monetization.

How Psychologists Can Help Game Developers

At the very least, psychologists should conduct user research, which largely entails testing whether players experience games the way companies intended. Basically, user researchers work with the production team to understand their goals for a game, then they can translate those goals into testable questions.

Game Development and Psychology

The team might want to make sure a certain level of a game gives players a sense of excitement or anxiety, for example. As such, the psychologist will design a study that might bring people from the target audience into a controlled environment, get them playing and then administer surveys or observe them through a one-way mirror.

This represents a new way of doing things, as currently, the industry is doing the entire process backwards. Instead of addressing all inconsistencies and gaps during the game development stage, they look at analytics post-launch to find obvious pinch points in the data. Similarly, techniques such as A/B testing give good results, but only provide a black box solution to pre-set problems.

Developers need to have expertise on-hand before the launching of every game so that subtle cues into plot and gameplay can be patterned by actual human behavior in order to guarantee retention and ultimately, monetization.

The Future of Psychology in Gaming

While the application of psychological principles to game design is still in its infancy, this should be seen as an opportunity in the industry rather than a weakness. This presents a forefront of a new discipline – one which will have significant value, especially in this time and age.

As the gaming industry becomes more and more fragmented, there is a need for game developers to truly understand how humans play. It is no different than how marketing companies design products for consumers. As long as there is a good understanding of actual consumer behavior, developers are more equipped to design games that will make their target audience tick. This can be applied to strategic decisions like the storyline execution as well as to executional decisions like the color of the buttons.

Such studies offer a fascinating means for psychologists to apply their understanding of human behavior. After all, games are all about engagement, motivation, reinforcement, attention and other topics dear to psychologists.  That's why game developers and psychologists should start working together in the future.

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