While online games have been around for a few decades, their popularity has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. According to Entertainment Software Association, as of 2014, 59% of Americans play video games regularly and the total amount spent on gaming reached $21.53 billion in the US.
Online Game Market Forecasts also estimates the worldwide revenues from online games will reach $35 billion by 2017, which is almost double compared to 2011 and emphasizes even more the constant increase of the online gaming industry.
Online games rely on a broad range of elements such as graphics, gameplay, story or community, to attract and retain players. Yet, whether they are AAA or indies, at the core of all successful games there are common psychological triggers that make them interesting.
Starting from this idea, combined with my interest for psychology and digital maps, two of my friends and I began designing Trianon, a mobile online game that allows users to rule lands on the real map of the world. While the concept was simple, the mechanism behind it was far more complex and included multiple engagement techniques.
We also made use of the available data offered through the Google Maps and OpenStreetMap APIs. The amount of information was overwhelming, so we had to filter it and extract only what was relevant to our needs.
The first step was finding out if there are any similar games available in order to learn more them. After a comprehensive research on Apple Store, Google Play, gaming forums, GIS communities and other places, I filtered the results and made a competitive analysis with the top 5 games.
In part, all of them had somewhat similar game elements or mechanics, but overall they were far from our concept, which confirmed the originality of Trianon but also the technical challenge we were facing.
It wasn’t something I planned but the research for the app coincided with my graduation thesis deadline, so I took it as an opportunity to transform my thesis into an elaborate research for the app. It was titled "Persuasion mechanisms used in online games" and I tried to go beyond the usual questions for such a product and dig a bit into the psychological elements behind it.
As a result, the research identified and analyzed a unique list of 23 structural and psychological mechanisms for increasing players' engagement in online games, ranked the mechanisms by efficiency and verified how much they influence the behavior of players.
The survey on which the research was based on was composed of 30 items, which were phrased so that they could verify the effect of the chosen persuasion techniques.
I used Google Forms and promoted the survey for 3 days using Facebook ads. I targeted the ads to people interested in gaming and got 219 answers from people ranging from 13 to 45 years old, out of whom 91% declared they play online games regularly.
The results allowed me to discover more insights about online games and validate some of the mechanisms we wanted to integrate into Trianon, but also helped filter the feature list.
Talking to people about the app to find out if it is of any interest to them and showing them low fidelity sketches triggered a lot of questions. They were intrigued by the idea of the game and pointed out issues I didn’t take into consideration until then, which was extremely useful.
Overall, the feedback was positive but I also noted a list of things we should change or rethink.
The interesting part was to see the way they were thinking about the game, and the different approach they took in order to understand the challenges of the gameplay. It helped me create a mental model I could map and use as a reference.
Based on the research data, I managed to identify some essential themes and patterns that I used to create the primary persona profile.
The in depth survey questions I asked previously proved to be invaluable and helped reveal specific psychological characteristics that defined our target audience.
The primary persona was a 16 years old high school male student, playing online strategy games for a couple of hours a day. He chooses his games based on how interesting the game mechanics are and is willing to pay for them, make in-game purchases or pay a monthly subscription.
Most of the game elements were build based on one or more of the 23 structural and psychological mechanisms I identified in my research. All of them were used to help the app offer a superior experience to users and increase players' engagement, without influencing them do something they wouldn’t normally do.
Techniques like the endowed progress effect, hedonic adaptation, loss aversion or self determination theory were integrated into the gameplay and tried to hook users by providing extra motivation to play the game.
To test our idea, we decided to build an MVP, so the structure had to be selective in regards to features, but also offer a complete experience of the gameplay in order to provide a relevant result.
In order to do this, I focused on delivering the main user journey in which users could manage lands on the map and removed some of the features that were not essential for the MVP, like land customization, user interactions and expansions.
I used sketches throughout the entire process to visualize connections between game elements, represent user flows or high level ideas. Sketching a high fidelity version of the app helped mostly with feedback. Since I was not investing a lot of time into drawing the screens, I was able to change my mind and iterate without a major effect on my deadline.
Ever since I started designing the game, I had an idea on how the app layout should look but when I actually started sketching I realized there were a lot more options to take into consideration.
I drew them all, picked a few, drew them again in context and chose a version that highlighted the map and offered enough information without occupying too much screen real estate.
In order to test the interaction design of the MVP, I went further and converted the sketches into a digital prototype. I used Axure since they also offer mobile support and I wanted to make it as real as possible.
I used the prototype to see how the app would feel in a digital form and to understand if there are any changes required. I also used it to get feedback from friends, colleagues and other players, observe their way of playing the game and iterate based on exposed design bugs.
Developing the app is still in progress and I am currently guiding my 2 friends in implementing the MVP. The app itself is very challenging both from a technological and product design perspective, due to the enormous amount of information that needs to be handled, organized and presented selectively to the user.