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We all want to be heroes (or villains). To be the leading character in our own stories is an important aspect of playing the games we love, even if the story is abstract or apparently absent there is an inherent power in the sense of competence, esteem and autonomy we gain from play.

Most of the best games designers I know think this a lot although there are some inherent. For a start are we really playing the hero or in fact the side-kick. In Destiny we spend a lot of time waiting for our Ghost to do something obscure we don’t quite understand whilst we are fending off hordes of Vex or some such. Are we really the heroes?

More than that we usually lack some important knowledge that our hero should by rights already know. Then there is the trouble with choice; something The Stanley Parable explores brilliantly, what if we don’t want to do something the plot requires us to do? However. I’m not looking to restart the debate of Ludo-narrative dissonance. Instead I want us to consider something else.

Players are not the heroes of the game. Not just because of the issues I’ve mentioned already but because of something more obvious. They are real people. That means they have lives and they can’t spend every waking moment playing your game.

When we design a game, especially now in this Games-As-A-Service age, we can’t just invest in the story arch for the hero, or whatever abstract purpose our game has. We have to take into account the Player Journey too.

Campbell’s Heroes Journey is a well-trodden path and I’m going to help illustrate The Players Journey, of course it’s not the only Storytelling form, but it’s still quite a useful one. I’m also going to take a few very slight liberties with the specific stages, but all within the principles of the original.

  1. The Ordinary World – Players often already have games they are playing, and even if they are between games they are being bombarded on all sides with messages. Why should they play your game?
  2. The Call To Adventure – Discovery is not a passive act. You have to create the conditions for players to find and desire your within your design through art, narrative, social interactions as well as through the other media and of course partners including the platform holders.
  3. The Refusal of the Call – don’t assume downloading a game means it will be played. The reality of a game before we learn the controls is always poorer than our imagination. Get your players playing fast and feeling good about their competence fast. Additionally, we have to consider the physical devices and the moments in time they choose to play this game. Are they interruptible? How much time can they spare? What is their mode of use? This is particularly noticeable on mobile where Games with a shorter incidence of play seem to attract more frequent play, even if playing sessions end up longer.
  4. The Threshold – After the first play we need to think about why our players would want to come back and play again, and again. We want to create a sense of anticipation for their return to play. We can afford to be generous after all we want them to learn the value of continuing to play and if this is a free2play game to create a desire to spend money later.
  5. The Belly Of The Whale – There always comes a point where players fail, but this is a necessary step for us to be able to commit to playing, otherwise where is the challenge? How does your game make me want to get back up and play again? Longevity in games is linked to an innate sense of ‘unfinished business’ after play not just the rewards of success. There is some evidence that Whale players don’t start spending till after 8-12 days. That requires us to sustain their interest a long time.
  6. The Road Of Trials – Once we have passed the danger zone of the Learning Stage and they are still playing then we know they now properly engaged. It’s here that the repeatability of the core mechanic becomes essential; and has to remain fun. Why would we want to play again, and again? There has to be a sustainable delight!
  7. The Temptation – Engaged players don’t just keep playing without an expectation of reward for their effort. Games needs to have a sense of purpose and progression to retain the players’ interest but we need a trigger if we are to get a player to spend money on DLC or In-App items. Players (according to research by Park & Lee) don’t spend money because they are happy. They do so in anticipation of future value. We need to create reasons to want to spend money in the game. That even more the case if we have a F2P game which is hoping to attract Whales (big spenders). These spenders aren’t born, they only emerge from deep engagement with your game.
  8. The Epic Battle – Having a sense of purpose is all well and good, but without an attainable goal or ‘sense of impending doom’ to drive us forward we can easily lose momentum. The Boss Battle isn’t just about a bigger fight; it’s as much about creating a target to aim for which is within reach. If it seems too far away, or we can’t relate to the goals we quickly get bored. There is danger here however, if we create ways for the player to pay their way past the Epic Battle (indeed to pay to avoid playing any aspect of the game) we break the game. That’s what ‘Pay To Win’ means – a broken experience!
  9. The Ultimate Boon – The lure of short term goals and ultimate conflicts is all very good, but in the end we eventually seek something more meaningful. A long term payoff we can anticipate and predict, but where the conditions of that reward can’t quite be pinned down – leaving scope for anticipation and ideally with enough unfinished business that will keep our attention for a long time to come. In the end we need to be able to look back on our playing (and paying) experience and see the utility we gained from this investment.
  10. Rescue From Without – Social factors are essential for long term engagement. Just as the Hero often needs an external helping hand we, as social creatures, need some contact with other players to sustain our interest in the games over time. There is great power in shared experiences and the power to discuss our own magical moments. It’s the heart of storytelling. One of the keys to success in service-based based is the realisation that we need interaction with the Free-Players in order to create the conditions to keep the paying players playing (and paying). Social experiences aren’t binary, we can have shared moments with strangers as well as deep connections exemplified by guilds where the social interaction becomes more important than the game itself.
  11. The Return? – Whilst we can work hard to create ongoing experiences we have to acknowledge that in the end players will churn, they will return to their Ordinary World and perhaps even seek out other adventures. If we have done our work well they will have been changed by their experience and their expectations from other games will be permanently affected.
  12. Master of Two Worlds – Players who leave a game feeling that their investment in terms of money and time was worthwhile will continue to be positive influences for other potential players and may even be ripe to return for the sequel or an extension of the original game. This has to be treated as a new journey, but one with new dangers to face and new treasures to uncover.

These 12 Steps aren’t a fool-proof formula, but they hopefully will help you set your sights further than just the first playing session. We have to consider our players as real people with real lives who want what you have to offer them in terms of entertainment and perhaps, just perhaps this will help us create more sustainable experiences and dare I say… better games?

If you’d like to know more, Oscar will be discussing this topic at the IGDA Webinar on Wednesday 15th October – if you want to join that register at

p.s. You don’t have to be an IGDA member to join in.

Comments are closed.

  1. “There is some evidence that Whale players don’t start spending till after 8-12 days. That requires us to sustain their interest a long time.”

    “Players … don’t spend money because they are happy. … We need to create reasons to want to spend money in the game. That even more the case if we have a F2P game which is hoping to attract Whales …”

    Treating people as money bags.. Disgusting! These thoughts… I am just happy that I don’t work in your company.

    Sorry you felt this way. I’m actually trying to encourage designers to NOT treat players as money bags. Quite the opposite. But for me to communicate in a relatively short space I sometimes choose shorthand phrases like ‘Whale’ to describe the phenomena of players who are deeply engaged and who actively want to buy game items.
    I think games developers contribute to the entertainment of people and that this is worth paying for. If we are making commercial products its important to understand players motivation to spend at all.
    I think this is demonstrated in the part of the quote you skipped. “Players don’t spend money because they are happy, they spend because they expect future value.” That means that when they spend in a game they want something worthwhile that they appreciate and that will increase their ongoing experience of the game. To me that means we have to put players needs first.

  2. Great article, Oscar!
    ..and that picture of you running from the zombies is awesome!

  3. jaqueline egidiocabral

    October 24, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    you may use


  5. Interesting. I always tell would be game designers to read “A book of Lenses” and if possible get the deck of cards that go with it. I also tell them to read the “Level Up” book, which describes exactly what you’ve just mentioned in the article almost to the letter.

    People forget how important the player journey is and even recently a certain game (which I’m convinced was butchered just to create 2 DLC packs) is now missing almost that entire journey. I’m sure you can guess which game that is if I say that the actual DLC was supposed to be set on the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn and continue after the initial story was completed…

    Because of this choice somewhere along the design process (to take quick profit over long term retention) the unmentioned but, obvious game may never manage to reach it’s intended potential as a great player journey.

    One of the key things I have found is that, if you get the player journey and story right, even a simple block can take on the epic persona of a great adventurer.

    1. Thanks Peter – I really like Scott Rogers book – but don’t remember him using the Heroes Journey – I’ll have to go back and re-read it.
      I absolutely know what game you are refering too and I tend to agree… but for me there are wider problems such as a plot that makes no sense and no sense of purpose after you hit level 20. But with regards to engagement even the idea of using paid for DLC in that context misses the point especially after we have spent $60 (and perhaps even an additional $400 for a next Gen console to play it on).
      One of the key lessons from F2P for me is that content often is more valuable for retention than it is for revenue. There are no ongoing revenue streams for Destiny (not yet) and that seems a little odd to me.

      Don’t get me wrong I’m still playing it… just not sure why – especially given I don’t have the reflexes/skill to enjoy the multiplayer aspects. I attribute that to the fact that I have spent money on it and that I want to get the maxium utility of what I have aready purchased. Thats a powerful factor and one which works where you have brands, like Bungie, who can pull it off.

      But will it last?

      Are you still playing TitanFall? I’m not…

  6. thanks for the article,use the same process when designing games..

  7. Pangeran Wiguan

    October 13, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Then how about a game with many main characters?
    How do we approach the players?

    1. Hi Pangeran,
      First the aim of the article was to encourage developers to think about the development of the player’s personal story as well as the development of the game story.

      Games with multiple characters, like any narrative based medium, will have a story arch for each character. Its why a lot of people like me think about Star War and Han Solo’s moment in the Cantina when he shoots Grebo. Its important for the story of Han that he shoots first, because in doing so he establishes himself as a no-nonsense killer in order to make the decision to return to save Luke (and the Galaxy) later in the film significant. When Lucas changed this to Grebo shooting first in the Special Editions, it was to the detriment of Han’s personal story.

      Each named character in a game we meet need to have some kind of purpose, something which makes them more than cannon-fodder; and perhaps even the cannon-fodder need something to make them seem more realistic. Their story arch however is usually as a support to the wider narrative arch for your main story. Notice I didn’t say player there, or hero. The relationship between the Player and the protagonist of a story is problematic in games.

      Look at most First Person Shooters. Although many have their own personalities, more often or not they are cyphers which allow us as players to occupy them. Many (such as MasterChief) never speak themselves. Others such as Shepherd have a range of expressions we have to select from. But are they really the protagonist in the same sense as a novel. Usually not. Usually the forward driving momentum of the story comes from an external factor. A computer or general, perhaps even outside events like a horde of Zombies chasing you. The player only rarely gets to initiate the action in a game – partly as a result of the inevitable need to limit the scope of the design.

      If I’m right then the Story arch needs to be carefully thought through not just in terms of the progression of the ‘Hero’ and the supporting characters (including the Player’s Avatar) but also in terms of the user experience itself.

      Thats what I’m trying to get across when I talk about the Players Journey. Its the first (and every subsequent) time experience. Its their engagement with your game over time. Its about thinking about the space between playing sessions and the types of devices they use to interact over the lifetime of their game.

      We have to separate the design of the game between the Hero of the story and the lifecycle of the Player.

      Does that help?