Scratching the Surface : Keeping Players Playing

Lately, I have been thinking about the factors that keep a player playing a game.  Not the things that draw a player to a game in the first place, but specifically anything in the game that from the time the player first enters the world makes them want to stay there.  What are these elements and how can I recreate and build upon them?

Some background: My thoughts have been this topic for two reasons.  The first reason is because I am working on a game project in which the entirety of concept is not within our control so it is crucial to find effective means for introducing these elements for our target demographic (Grades K-5).  The second reason is I have been playing a lot of the devilishly enjoyable Triple Town by Spry Fox LLC, and naturally I want to dissect the experiences I enjoy so I can learn and add to my toolset (well, natural for a designer I guess).

Triple Town has a strong anti-bear rhetoric. Basically they ruin everything.
Triple Town has a strong anti-bear rhetoric. Basically they ruin everything.

Obviously, this is a broad topic.  The things that keep players playing is surely a long list and variable from person to person and game to game.  But, almost as sure as the topic’s breadth is the existence and reuse of systems and mechanics across games that keep yielding results.

And now, a trivia question:

What was the first console game to save a player’s progress?

Well...maybe not to everybody.
Well…maybe not to everybody.


The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, is the commonly accepted answer.  I ask this question because the major system in Triple Town which I hold responsible for my habit, and the same consideration which I think is a powerful motivation in many, many, games is the feeling of progress.

I did a quick hunt around the web to try and find related discussions of this topic.  One related article I found, Chris Bateman’s “Mathematics of XP”, which discusses experience point (XP) systems, talks about one of the more frequent direct manifestations of progression in games.

XP systems, which Bateman points out gained their first huge spike in popularity with their use in Dungeons and Dragons, are unapologetically intended to model player progression.  The most iconic use of this system is in the Role-Playing Game (RPG) genre. Another way to look at it, as Bateman notes, is that experience points are the system’s means for rewarding a player for time spent in the game by giving them a feeling of progress.  It’s this psychological reward aspect that contributes to the addictiveness and massive popularity of games like World of Warcraft and Pokemon.

Triple Town is not an RPG.  It is a combination between a match-three puzzler and a town building game.  There are many things to like about the game, but rewarding building achievements in each round of play with persistent gold that can be used to make your life easier in future rounds is one of the little design touches that I think is just brilliant.  The way it works is, you do something in the game, say, make a complex structure such as a castle through multiple combinations. Then, when you inevitably get a game over because you run out of space to build, you are rewarded with 200 coins for your “castle achievement” as well as likely at least a few other achievements.  Then, next round, if you decide you need a tree or some other piece and don’t want to wait for it, you may use those coins to purchase the piece from the game store.

With this mechanism Triple Town effectively has two systems of progression going at once: the progression of your single town but also the growth of your pool of wealth which can be seen as equating to your building power, or even a form of expendable experience points.

I realize I am only scratching the surface of what is a very deep rabbit hole, however, I plan to explore this area further in the future.  Specifically, I have begun to wonder if it is arguable that no game exists without some system of progression.  I realize this is somewhat an issue of semantics, as in order for something to move forward (say, to a conclusion which is necessary for most games) then it must progress, no?  But, outside of theoretical considerations and just from a mechanical standpoint it seems like there are few games without some related system and I would like to further investigate the execution of these systems across genres.

If anyone has seen related articles, blogs, or other materials on the subject I would be interested to hear about it!


5 thoughts on “Scratching the Surface : Keeping Players Playing”

  1. I looked for that Chris Bateman article that you mentioned, but I could not find it. I am interesting in reading it! I think what you mention here is interesting. I think that all games have progress, like you mentioned, you make progress towards a conclusion. But I think what sets a good game apart is that the players are aware of their progress in the game. I say this because it was a realization that I had with my tabletop role playing game that I just made. In my game, many of the issues that I ran into could have been solved by giving the players a sense of progress in the game. I don’t think that everything has to have experience points or hit points to show progress, BUT i do think that the players need to be aware of their progress. If do not have an understanding of what my actions achieve in the game world, then my actions lose their meaning and I lose interest. So I think that all effective games give their players some recognition of progress to reinforce behaviors and to motivate players to keep playing. Wow, bold statements. I stand by them.

    1. @Tim,

      I edited the post to include a link to the article,( also, here:, sorry for the oversight!

      Thank you for the thoughtful response. Also, while I feel progress by some definition or another is inherent to all games, I began to have a nagging thought after writing this that for certain types of games, there is a more complicated analysis required. For example, in a symmetrical game such as chess or checkers, we can say there is progress towards a conclusion (as you note) because the players can observe the game state.

      But this type of progress feels categorically different then the individual progress a player feels when their avatar grows in an RPG, which also feels different then the progress in competency a frequent chess player might experience.

  2. I hope study in the real world can also be that addictive, with some kind of experience system or rewarding system.

    Luckily, there are some learning websites such as codecademy which gives learners experience points and achievements while learning.

  3. This is an interesting topic.
    I agree that it seems all games have some sort of progression systems, but the meaning of it depends on how you define progression.
    Flappy Bird seems to be a exception of any general conclusion. I’m wondering something in this game in terms of progress, like what’s the progress in Flappy Bird? Flapping past the pipes? Then what? Ultimately, only death, or losing in other words, is the end of the game. So if we define progress as a middle state towards some conclusion or some sort of ending, it seems that the progress of Flappy Bird is purely going to be the death, which sounds weird especially comparing to, say, Angry Birds whose progress is to destroy as much as possible and kill all the pigs.
    It’d be fascinating if you figured out what the essence of keeping players for maybe most kinds of games, I’d love to hear about it.

  4. It’s an interesting topic. I’m sure many articles talking about it all the time. Sometimes, they say it’s progression, sometimes they say it’s interest curve, and sometimes Flow. I think they are describing the same thing. Generally, small targets and fun gameplay keep you going.

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