In the world of creating games for a large audience, the goal of the producer/creator is to engage very specifically with the mindset of the audience that the game is being designed for. Understanding that mindset is imperative if one is to succeed at delivering a product of merit…a game that will be played for many years to come.
I believe that the most important step in this process, is for you to understand what I have dubbed the “Juice.” The juice is the innate quality of the gaming experience that will cause a player to wish to play and will fuel their desire to continue to play on a regular basis. There are many forms of juice.
Winning money, prizes or awards is unquestionably one of the most potent forms of juice. Take a drive down Las Vegas strip. The evidence of this juice is as blatant as one could possibly imagine. Las Vegas was built on slot machines, not the gaming tables, nor sports wagering, nor the restaurants or shows. It was built on people coming from all over the world to deposit their money into a simple device that provides a minimal gaming experience, but which reinforces that experience with a reward-based system that is backed by a payout program which is intricately designed to keep the player engaged, while slowly draining their wallet. Most slot machines require little or no skills, very nominal (if any) game playing experience, and are predominantly focused on the visual distraction of flashing lights, animations, fun sounds and engaging familiar themes to entertain and distract while keeping the juice of the player entertained long enough to put a much of their money as possible into the system. The payout table of a slot machine is very specifically programmed to allow a player to have a long playing experience, while mathematically working to drain their money, one spin at a time. One of the few slot machines which offer a bit more opportunity for the user to control their winning destiny, is video poker, which presumably allows the end user a greater potential for altering their outcome than picking payout lines or other incidental variables in the slot machine logic patterns, by allowing the player to choose which cards are held, and which are turned in for another round of cards. Slots are not the only winning money juice, the lotteries are equally intense and powerful in allowing a small amount of your weekly income to be drained on the absolutely miniscule chance that your money will resolve in a financially life transforming experience, by having picked the winning numbers.
You are actually more likely to be struck by lightning while simultaneously being attacked by a shark, than you are to win a lottery. But the illusion of the big dream coming true, is so potent, so alluring, that lotteries will remain the grand hope of much of society, so long as the lotteries are allowed to operate.
Once you pass the slots and lottery, the involvement in the winning money juice expands to add the skills of picking numbers as one would in picking their lottery ticket, with Keno or waiting for their numbers to turn up arbitrarily with Bingo. Add a bit more skill in picking your wagering options and you get roulette, blackjack, poker, baccarat, craps, pai gow and many others. With rare exception, these games are still driven by the winning money juice. Poker advocates will espouse on the skill and competition of playing poker, which is another juice to be discussed in this article, but very seldom is a person solely interested in playing poker without the promise of a reward in cash, prizes, points or other consideration.
The second juice to discuss is bettering your opponent(s). This juice is the dominant factor in all virtual reality games, augmented reality games, skill games, team sports, competitive sports, poker, fantasy sports, board games, mobile games and console games like Call of Duty, and other forms of competitive gaming. This juice is a very powerful factor that goes back to our primitive roots in which one tribe would need to better another for access to drinking water, food, mating rights and other critical details. The need to dominate, the need to be better, the need to surpass everyone else, drives the gamer to pursue every last option at their disposal to win. Some will inevitably take it too far (see Lance Armstrong for example), but most will enter a game of competition to prove that they are the very best. The Olympics deliver this on a global basis, and have been the paramount skill competition since their invention in ancient Greece. This juice is a need to accelerate one’s skills to the point of besting all in the competition, and is reinforced by feelings of superiority as the person experiences the rise to the top. It is just as addictive as the juice to win money and can drive complete life-transforming behaviors… just witness the personal sacrifices made by an Olympian athlete in training, or any other athlete working to achieve professional status. This juice is obsessive, addicting, and incredibly powerful.
Besting one’s own personal achievement is yet another juice worth evaluating in the gaming model. I personally play a small group of games that deliver this juice. I do not seek to crown a leaderboard. My goal is to improve on whatever result I have been able to generate thus far. In a snowboarding game, I am working to beat the fastest time I have been able to achieve in previous runs down the mountain. In mobile games, I am working to level up and get to the pinnacle of that game’s success. Whatever the structure of the game, the juice drives that player to make countless attempts to surpass all that they have accomplished thus far. This is equally addicting to other forms of games because the power of improving one’s own performance can be life transformative. Again, look at an Olympian in training. It is no surprise then, that the opportunity to level up in a game that you are playing has been shortcut by a financial model of in-game purchases. The psychology of taking a player to their personal limit, and then offering them a chance to purchase the shortcut to the next level has become one of the most potent and profitable chapters in gaming history. Candy Crush, Game of War and thousands of other games have all demonstrated the innate passion of a player’s desire to escalate their gaming experience by digging into their wallet and purchasing the resources to level up.
Social connectivity and collaboration is another powerful juice for us to review. Like sheep, cows, and alpacas, humans are herd animals. We seek to stay in groups that make us comfortable. Facebook became the massive success that it did, because it was the best experience for congregating the human herds electronically. It surpassed MySpace because it featured better functionality to allow humans to connect with one another in ways that make people feel genuinely part of a greater whole. So it is no surprise then, that social games like a Farmville grew into the massive success that they did, because they allowed a social connectivity in gaming that brought the very essence of herd mentality to the forefront of the gaming experience. It is not that social games are particularly compelling as a gaming experience, but their allure in terms of allowing one to game with friends under social circumstances cannot be overlooked. Games like World of Warcraft have proven that collaborative game play is a very powerful component in a successful gaming model. The desire to engage with a team and achieve an established goal is as old as time. Football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball and many other team sports demonstrate this form of juice, and World of Warcraft, Red Dead Redemption and many other online games are further evidence of the massive power of collaborative gaming models.
Intellectual growth is yet another juice that drives a gaming or puzzle experience. Crossword puzzles, mind twisters, word games and similar experiences, show that a person will gladly devote countless hours to playing a game, for a combination of juice experiences, but at the end of the day, most of these games are driven by a desire to improve one’s vocabulary, or to demonstrate to one’s self that their knowledge is as extensive as they have imagined.
Sheer aggression is yet another of the addictive juices worth exploring. Look at a sandbox experience in a game like Red Dead Redemption for example. One may argue that a run and gun experience is a skill game which feeds on the juice of besting others to your own personal rise to crown a leaderboard. But it would be naïve to overlook the variable of human release of aggression as a juice that must be unleashed through whatever channels are available. Wars have marked the human experience since the dawn of time. That is because humans are a very aggressive specie. As society and the laws formed within a society preclude releases of aggression, the human specie has grown to quell that behavior at all possible opportunity. Run and gun games and similar gaming experiences release that aggression and allow a human to personally experience a simulation of a very hostile and violent behavior pattern. The juice in an aggressive game model is to allow a person to find that visceral release, and channel it into a socially accepted behavior. Many argue that aggressive games increase the aggressive behavior outside of the gaming experience, and there is a proven validity to that perspective. But it is just as important to realize that a human is aggressive anyway, and that when a game allows a release of that aggression, a human has found their ability to channel that feeling into a violent outcome without any legal or moral consequences. I personally feel this is a valuable asset to society, not a curse that is solely causing negative behavior.
While other juices exist in gaming, the ones illuminated in this blog are certainly on the forefront of the most popular varieties. When planning your game, you will be wise to truly understand the reason why the juice you are appealing to works, and design your game playing experience to maximize the emotional thrill that that juice conjures.