What motivates players to download a game and continue playing it? The answer lies in-game mechanics and marketing that leverage behavioral psychology principles to help users realize their goals and their innate desire to connect with others. Our host Peggy Anne Salz catches up with Paula Neves, a Product Manager at Square Enix, who describes herself as a “gamer turned psychologist turned marketer” working in mobile free-to-play games. They take a tour of the models and frameworks that marketers need to know to match the app experience they offer and the audience they want to attract. Paula, a Mobile Hero recognized for her accomplishments, weighs in on how we are hardwired to love gameplay that keeps us on our toes and shares how marketers can design loops and flows that deliver fun and drive revenues.
PAS Hello and welcome to Mobile Presence. This is episode 386 and I’m your host, as, always Peggy Anne Salz, with Mobile Groove and this is your destination for what you need to move the needle on your marketing, on your app marketing, whatever marketing. And we do a special mini-series every two weeks where we get the inside track on all of the above because we talk with the marketing experts, it’s their daily job and they’re amazing at it as well because they have earned themselves success earning the title of Mobile Hero, as chosen by Liftoff, a full service mobile app marketing and retargeting platform.
So today on the show, it’s all about gameplay and player psychology, you know, answering those tough questions – what motivates players into picking up a game and continuing to play it over and over again? How can gaming apps companies develop amazing gameplay that will appeal to our innate desires, you know, making us want to play the game and more importantly how can you fill the funnel with the right player types from the get go?
As I said, tough questions and we’ll get some straight answers from a Mobile Hero who describes herself as a gamer turned psychologist, she’s a frequent speaker on this and other topics and educates the industry as part of UA Society where she’s a member. She has held a number of positions in the industry, most recently Chief Mobile Officer at Gazeus Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she’s not in Brazil today, she’s with us, she loves sharing knowledge – that’s why she’s here – and we’re ready to have so bring it on, Paula Neves, Product Manager at Square Enix. It’s great to have you today on Mobile Presence.
PN Hi Peggy, thanks for having me. So, yes, I’m super-excited to be here, you know, representing Square Enix Montreal at a Product Manager, it’s a different shift from what I did at Gazeus Games but it all combines pretty nicely, you know, pretty neatly.
PAS I think so too because I’ve known you for a while, I mean, off the record, I know most of our guests because I’ve been there, done that and so have you. I’ve been watching you – quite an adventure, first of all, because you are definitely not in Brazil right now, you’re in Canada, Montreal, you’re not at Gazeus Games, you’re at Square Enix. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that adventure?
PN Yes, well, today particularly, it feels a little like Rio because it’s warm here in Montreal, we’re going to reach, I think, 40° so I feel like I’m home. Yes, it’s been quite an adventure, I had a really, you know, good run at Gazeus for five years, was really happy there and then Square Enix reached out to me and like you really, you know, introduced me really well, I was always a gamer and, you know, have Square Enix come and talk to you, I was like okay, I have to listen and, yes, I moved seven months ago to Montreal, survived my first winter with flying colors, learned how to ice-skate, so it all looks good.
PAS And that’s what I love about you, you have a passion for what you do and you’ve done that in your job because you have a background in psychology and it’s intertwined – your career in games, gameplay, psychology, they’re intertwined – just wondering where that passion started because, to tell you the truth, Paula, it’s not the mainstream that you have people in app marketing and app development that really have a background in psychology. So it’s a great combination – where did it all start?
PN Yes, so, it was meandering, you know, background but in the end it made sense. I didn’t even know it would make so much sense but I studied in a British school back home in Rio and they always instilled this, you know, drive for knowledge in us and we always read a lot and I always loved to study and read and everything like that, and I was supposed to go to college abroad but, you know, we had a sudden shift in Brazilian politics at the time and I couldn’t go to the colleges I was accepted in.
So I ended up staying in Rio, I didn’t really know what to do because I was always prepared to go out and do other stuff, to go out of the country. And then I was like, okay, psychology seems like a good thing, I love all the human sciences, I love biology, I love everything…
PAS But it has really played off, if you think about games because that’s where it all comes together, right? I mean, it’s not just games, it’s our behavior, it’s a pastime totally mapped to that.
PN You know, once you understand people better, you can do marketing better and then I’ve always wanted to find a job in gaming so when that happened about 7 to 8 years ago, and then I moved onto free to play, it’s like wow, okay, this all makes so much sense, I never thought my Psychology Degree would be so useful, you know, on my day to day basis.
PAS So, you’re early days in this, and this is what I love, this is really like an adventure because it’s enough to talk about player types and we will in a moment, it’s been discussed, there’s a huge body of research on it, but applying it to UA, now that’s something different, in that you’re sort of a pioneer. How far along are you on this journey of applying the concepts to the campaigns?
PN Yes, we’re starting to do a lot of groundwork on that, of course I was lucky enough to have people do the groundwork on the psychology frameworks before me but now what I’m trying to do is just okay, we have this result out of all the, you know, we’re going to talk more about it but all the T-maps, everything that we gather from the user, how can we maybe transform this into personas but concrete personas that are data-driven that we can go into our analytics, look them up, see if they are behaving like we would expect that persona to behave, to then, you know, with those groups, we can do more targeted marketing in a new way from the get-go, you know?
The test, sometimes we do it only to test if, validate or not the personas, choose creatives that would appeal to different personas and see if they react as expected because, again, it all goes back to data, right? And we can also use it to once it’s validated, the personas are validated or, you know, changed or tweaked, we have like a clear path to do UA knowing more precisely what sort of users we want to tackle and we want to bring to the game.
PAS So this is how you would apply it and how you’re going to be telling us you have applied it already. Just in a nutshell, would you say that this is something that also is a must for other marketers at this point because it’s sort of like in a way the next step in engagement. We did acquisition, this is very much about acquisition/engagement is that I’m hearing, so this is not getting users, it’s about getting them to play, correct?
PN Yes, it’s about both actually and I do believe it’s like the new frontier, just like you said, you know. As free to play marketers, we have all this data, we’re super data-driven as it is and I believe we’re reaching a point where that is getting to a saturation point where it’s like exhausting itself and, you know, data tells us what but it doesn’t tell us why, right, and this comes into fill that gap and I remember like one year ago, I was asked on an interview if I thought people would think more and more about psychology in gaming – at that time it was about behavioral economics, we were discussing that, and I said that I thought so, that it would be the next frontier, it’s just the logical next step and we now have all these services that are starting to come up, like 12 traits and Game Refinery just launched their archetypes as well.
So, more and more, we’re seeing, you know, vendors bringing this as a solution which makes me quite happy – it means people are thinking about this stuff.
PAS Absolutely, vendors are thinking about it, as you said, the data is there. Before we had the concepts, they need to be data-driven, maybe couldn’t be and that’s something that’s changed. And right now, a next step for me is we have to go to a break, Paula, but don’t go away because we’ll be right back with some amazing insights into how you can connect the dots in your player behavior to drive engagement and drive loyalty. So don’t go away, we’ll be right back.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. I’m Peggy Anne Salz, our guest today Paula Neves, she is Product Manager at Square Enix and Paula, before the break, we were just talking about how to put together what we observe about behavior and make that part of the concept, part of the campaign, but there’s a lot more to it and there’s a lot of research that probably everyone’s going to have to go out and read as background to this. But just at a high level, you know, starting with the idea that particular games fulfill basic psychological needs, right, and that that results in engaged players – that’s a great loop but it starts with the view that there are different types of players. So, let’s start there – what types of players are there?
PN Yes, so that concept is not new, right, I mean we had the Bartle types are really well known, you know, he a long time ago defined four types of players, so like achievers, explorers, socializers and killers and Bartle, he had this mud game at the time so I think it was the 80s actually and he defined these player types using his mud game which is super nice but it’s also limited because he just had, you know, this RPG mindset for the players, right?
Of course there are different types of players and actually different things that motivates them, right, so there all these different archetypes that we can tackle or not but I think the interesting part of self-determination in theory is that like you said, you have these innate psychological needs, so the self-determination theory says these three universal needs need to be fulfilled in order for us as humans to be intrinsically motivated.
So independent of your type, if you’re like more, you know, a king of the hill type of player or you’re more motivated by social mechanics because you’re a big extrovert or something like that, you know, as long as your game is fulfilling these three needs, it’s a good path to indicate that the players will stick to your game, right?
And these three needs basically are competence, autonomy and relatedness. It’s not only applicable to games, in life, in general, we should fulfill these three, right, in our social life, in our work to be intrinsically motivated and happy. So competence is just us feeling masterly, right, we need to feel successful, masterful, effective, as if we’re growing and learning. Autonomy is just described, you know, by feeling you have some control of your choices and that you’re in harmony with them, that you’re free to do what you want, that you have agency, basically.
And relatedness is just being connected to others, feeling that people care for you and you care for them and that you believe belong, that you matter.
So these three needs, if they’re fulfilled, of course I don’t think they’ll ever be completely fulfilled in anyone, which is good because we keep going to try and fulfill them.
PAS Yes, that keeps us going in life, absolutely. Just to break in here as a layman, so what I’m hearing, competency, that’s me wanting to master the game, autonomy, I want to be in control of the game, I want to be calling the shots, the connectedness, relatedness, that’s the social thing, I want to go up on the leader board, I maybe want to have some in-game chat. I mean, it all really fits together so well in the construct of a game.
PN Exactly and, you know, games today are a form of just, you know, mimicking some of the things – I mean, some of the games today, they’re so complex that they mimic life, right, but this – the good thing about this is that it bends back to a lot of areas in game development so it seems all very intangible but then this backs out pretty nicely to UX, to UY, to VFX and other, and design of the game.
PAS Okay, so this is the basis, that’s very clear, that’s the foundation and it helps design the game. Now if we just take it a bit forward and look at, okay, now that I understand this, how can I actually be aligning campaigns with this or aligning some targets and that’s all about some other research that you’ve looked at and you also mentioned, and I’ll be telling our listeners about that in a moment. Tower of Want, design and marketing according to the fact that we want things. So give me an idea again of how these two play together because that’s going to allow me to take the concept into practice.
PN Yes, sure. So, the self-determination theory as applied to games, I was pretty lucky to pick up from work the guys at Immersive started, so they did a lot of groundwork on this and the Tower of Want was sparked as something by Ethan Levy and it sparked in me this thing because it reminded me so much, you know, of the hierarchy of Maslow which probably a lot of people studied in school.
PAS Yes, I think we all know the Hierarchy of Needs, absolutely.
PN Yes, yes, the pyramid. So, the way we try and apply it, you know, the self-determination theory, you have to fulfill those and even when you’re talking about your marketing creatives, you really need to give the player the illusion of choice, you know, the illusion sometimes of agency because a lot of times the code defines it, right? You’re drawing a card, you have a card game, you’re drawing your card, sometimes the odds are already decided or the outcome is decided in the code but the player needs to feel agency, like, okay, I’m picking, even though he’s really not picking.
And the Tower of Want is a concept that’s really interesting and it just keeps us, you know, keeps us going so it goes more into the long-term of just building that game and designing that game, right? So, when you’re thinking about the game design, players, they always need to be wanting something, which is like us in life. I mean, if we run out of things to want, we have no purpose in moving forward.
So, when you’re designing that the game, you really have to think of that, you know, okay, so he’s doing this to do that and then to do that and then to do that and you have to keep adding layers to your tower, right, so that the player doesn’t run out of things to want.
And that is something that you can use in marketing in a way that if you’re doing, for instance, retargeting campaigns, you will know like at what level that player is at in terms of his evolution and the tower, if you want to say so, and reengage him to go to a next level, to go to a next stage in the tower, right?
PAS Yes, I get it, and it’s also about doing that in such a way that you’re encouraging me, right, there’s steps that aren’t too easy, aren’t too hard, because if they’re too easy I’m going to say, ah, this is no fun, I can do this with my eyes closed – too hard, it’s like no, this game is way beyond me, get me out of here.
You’ve been tinkering, you’ve been playing with this yourself, I think you’ve been designing a game like this or is it in beta – I’m not quite sure of the details but let me in on what you’ve actually been putting into practice because that’s exciting, theory is interesting, practice is much more interesting.
PN Yes, so like I said, I think the Tower of Want, we use it in a way to transcribe the player journey inside a game whereas the self-determination theory is more how to keep them satisfied and intrinsically motivated and engaged in the long run, right? So, it trickles down, the self-determination theory trickles down to even small things, so you said it yourself, it can’t be too difficult or it can’t be too easy, right, so you’ve just talked about flow by the Polish psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I have no idea if I’m saying that right, ever, when I say it. But he defined this concept of Flow which he says it’s this moment of total immersion that we have as players and as people where, you know, things are not – just like you said – difficult enough that we get frustrated but it’s not easy enough that we get bored.
So we’re talking about a difficulty curve in a game here and balancing out that difficulty curve so that’s like one way, just one little way that competence goes into designing the game, how well you do the balancing of your levels and the balancing of your difficulty curve.
Also, like a good example of competence is like everything for the player usually needs to be over the top and with the game we’re designing, now we’re always thinking about that. Okay, if he does something that’s good, a good outcome, no matter if it’s a small thing, we are going to bump up those VFXs so that he feels super-good, super-successful. So that’s giving him a sense of competence as well.
When we go to agency, for instance, always in design meetings and then even in this part, it’s even more UX and UY, we talk about things like, okay, so at this point should we make it a contextual action, should we get the player to press a button to do something or does it happen automatically? And, you know, in a lot of situations I argue okay, let’s, you know, make them press a button or something because then he feels the outcome of whatever he’s doing is because of him.
PAS He caused it.
PN Yes, he caused it.
PAS There’s a lot of decisions here and you’re talking about difficulty, Paula, it’s difficult for me to go to a break right now, we do have to go to a break but this is so interesting and listeners, don’t go away because we’re going to come back, we’re going to talk more about this blueprint and we’re going to talk about some best practice for you as well. So don’t go away, we’ll be right back.
And we’re back to Mobile Presence. We have Paula Neves, Product Manager at Square Enix and Paula, it’s been a delight really, I mean, it has been challenging, I won’t lie, this is a very, very intense topic, it’s a lot to digest and thankfully you have a three-part blog on this topic, I’ll tell everyone about that later, where they can read it, but in the meantime, if we understand the concepts, the question for me is what do we actually do? How can we make a game based on these concepts and maybe just some advice on the first steps. I mean, do I need a small team, do I start with one game, do I need a control group, like a bad game and a good game to see if my theories work out. I mean, how do I really put this into practice and you’re doing this as well in a game, so maybe you can share something there as well.
PN Yes, sure. In terms of like just tangibilising this, the first step and now focusing on the self-determination theory, the first thing I ever do when I’m, in this case when I started at Square Enix, you know, I had a new team, it was a big team already building this game – is sit down with the people involved, you know, the key stakeholders for this and go through the self-determination theory, giving them examples of how it translates into things you can do in a game, whichever game. And more specifically, if we already have a game going, I can also give a few pointers on that.
Because the important thing here is that everyone involved, you know, in creating that game, the key stakeholders always are asking themselves, okay, competence, how can I put that in the game, relatedness, autonomy, for each feature, how can that be put in the game. And I often get asked, oh, but then if I’m designing this really small thing, does it have to fulfill the three things and what I always tell people is like when you’re building your epics and GRI and whichever tool you use, your Trello or whatever, you have your epics, right, your really big features, those really big features, they have to address the three and they will address it differently.
Some features will address two and just touch on the third, you know, it’s different depending on the toolset for that specific feature, but it’s important, in an epic feature, to just ask yourself okay, does the player, does this make them feel masterful? Autonomy, does it give it to them? And relatedness, do they feel connected through this feature in a way?
And then in the end when you have all those feature blocks, they intertwine together, they would give you a balance of the three innate needs, fulfilling the three innate needs. And depending on the game you’re building, it will fulfill more of a need than another one so if you’re building like a game that’s very, you know, where you have to like – a twitch-based game, like a lot of the hyper-casual games where, you know, you have a ball and you have to move fast and the ball has to fall and you have to do that – that is more a game that fulfills the mastery need, right, it doesn’t touch so much upon relatedness but ideally if you want your players to engage and stay for a long, long time playing for years, which is what we want in our game, our game would need to translate these three needs.
So, that’s sort of the way of applying it and then I’m that annoying person in the corner of every meeting saying, okay guys, but how can we give them more agency, you know? So it’s evangelizing the people involved and it’s been working pretty well and now I have designers coming to me and saying, see what I did here, it’s giving them more, you know, autonomy, it’s giving them more mastery, so it’s pretty cool to see it coming back.
PAS But it’s great because it gives you a checklist to design to and ultimately, you know, it’s the same thing in marketing as well and it’s just so much, so interesting, I’m almost heartbroken, Paula, to say that we need to wrap it up. But fortunately, you do have a three-part blog series that you’ve written about this so you take us through the steps, you know, through the models, everything really well done, I have to say, and very succinct, people, so don’t go into fear, just brew up a coffee, get a java, and read it – it’s not a quick read but it’s a good read. And we have that over at heroes.liftoff.io. So that’s where we’re going to read about the stuff you have, Paula, but how do we stay in touch with you?
PN Yes, so, there’s my Twitter account, @pauladneves and also my LinkedIn, people can go and add me there, I’m very – I check it all the time. And yes, I mean, I’m around doing some talks and writing some posts and some articles, so feel free to send me a message on LinkedIn with questions and I’ll be happy to help – like you said, I love sharing and I love learning.
PAS You indeed, I think I’ve known you now for three years, it could be, and you have been evolving this over that time. It’s been a joy to watch you and your career evolve, Paula, love to have you back again. But in the meantime, as we said, you know, connect with her on Twitter, on LinkedIn, both of these details are going to be in the show notes. And of course, again, dedicated page, heroes.liftoff.io.
And if you want to keep up with me throughout the week, find out more about how you can be a guest or sponsor on Mobile Presence, you can email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, mobilegroove.com is where you can find my portfolio of content marketing and app marketing services.
You can check out this and all earlier episodes of our show by going to wmr.fm or you can find our shows on iTunes, Stitcher, Spreaker, Spotify and iheartRadio simply by searching Mobile Presence. So until next time – remember – every minute is mobile, so make every minute count. Keep well, stay safe and we’ll see you soon