· 15 min read
Why Habit Formation Is The Key To Long Term Retention
Nathan is a game design expert at GameAnalytics. Currently founder and game design instructor at GDquest.
Forenote: The goal of this article is to give you pointers about how habits work, beyond good and evil. It tries to depict some unconscious habit-related mechanisms that come into play in our games. Only that way can we get a better grasp of how we function from a psychological standpoint – and take design decisions in consequence, aware of the consequences of our choices.
“We are what we repeatedly do”, said Aristotle. In other words, we human beings are shaped by our habits.
Each and every one of us has hundreds of habits. Be it heading to the kitchen as soon as we wake up to make some coffee… or logging onto our preferred MMO to tackle our dailies before work.
As you know, habits are mechanical. A player who gets used to playing your game well will most likely keep coming back to it. A player who gets used to coming back to your game will also likely keep coming back to it. It is that simple. And that’s why habit formation, the process of creating habits, is key to forming steady communities in the long run.
Before we jump onto the specifics of habit formation as far as games are concerned, let us take some time to better understand the psychology of habits.
What are habits?
“A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously” (Wikipedia). In other words, it is a pattern of behaviors we repeat almost without even thinking about it. Like looking both ways before we cross the street.
A habit is acquired. We have to consciously repeat a process enough times and with a certain frequency before it becomes automatic. So do your players.
To be a bit more specific, habits are formed of a cue (a signal), and a routine (or automatic response). Whenever the cue comes up, the routine is being triggered.
We all have hundreds of those habits engrained in ourselves. For example every morning, when I wake up (the cue), I open the shutters (the routine). When I start the computer (the cue), I always check my messages first (the routine). Habits are about as mechanical as “if” statements in game development.
On a side-note, if you ever wondered why behavior trees work so well for game AIs: we do behave in such a procedural way ourselves. To a certain extent at least.
Now, habit formation simply is the process by which habits are formed. That is to say the loop that is going to create a link between a cue and a routine.
How long does it take exactly for a new habit to form?
A report from Lally and al. released in 2009 shows that the time it takes for a habit to fully form can vary tremendously. In their study, it took from 18 to 254 days for the participants to develop an automatic reflex. This corresponds to the point when they reached their asymptote of automaticity: the point beyond which a habit has fully developed. On average, it took the participants 66 days to get into a new established habit. This is quite different from the empirical 21 days rule we can see shared around the internet!
To say the least, there is no scientific consensus today on the time it takes for habits to form. This means that we have no definitive rule of thumb to know when our players fell into a playing habit. What we do know however, is that a behavior becomes automatic through repetitions. And it seems that insisting on repetitions early reinforces the behavior much faster.
Simple habits can start to be formed in a matter of days. Everything that is very easy to do and naturally rewarding will soon turn into a habit. This is often a trap for us: it is very easy to check your Twitter or Facebook whenever you open your browser. It is both effortless and pleasant to open the cupboard and grab a piece of chocolate! But neither is a healthy habit.
Games are good at making actions feel rewarding, thus at reinforcing the creation of new habits. But this is not all. Another very efficient way to get into new habits is to build them on top of existing ones.
Efficient habit formation
We have seen that habits are made up of a cue and a routine. In order to facilitate their formation, we want to create a link between multiple habits. We want routines to become new cues. Let me clarify that with an example:
- You see that you have notifications on your smartphone. That’s a cue.
- You check your notifications and read through them. That’s a routine. But that’s also a cue!
- You click on your Candy Crush notification and play a quick game. That’s a new routine based on your habit of checking notifications.
Those types of habits form fast, as they extend established mechanisms.
If you want your users to get used to the feel of your game, you have see whether or not your design favorites links between relevant cues and routines. In game design terms, this corresponds to the concept of feedback loop.
The feedback loop
In video games, a feedback loop works as such:
- The player has a mental representation of your game’s system and of their short-term goal.
- He acts in consequence (presses a button…).
- The game’s system treats the input based on its rule set.
- It sends some feedback to the player (animation, reaction from the ai, score bonus…).
- The player processes this feedback and update their representation of the estate in the game. And the loop starts again!
But to sum it up, the concept of feedback loop just means that the player acts, and the game reacts. Over, and over, and over again, in a continuous way. This is where you are going to put your cues, in order to eventually trigger a routine from the player.
So the feedback loop generally starts with a cue that comes from the game, which triggers a response or routine from the player. The game treats that routine, and updates itself to provide the player with new cues. Here’s an example:
- A monster appears on the screen. That’s a cue.
- The player attacks the monster until it dies. That’s a routine.
- The game shows the monster’s death animation. A little chest appears on the ground. That’s a new cue.
The loop goes on, and on…
The 3 secrets of habit formation
According to Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. (author of the handy book 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People), there are 3 techniques to facilitate the formation of new habits:
- Break the steps the user has to take into tiny chunks.
- Eliminate the need to take decisions.
- Show them their continuous progress and positive feedback.
In other words, the secrets of efficient habit formation in games boils down to a short feedback loop. Good games are naturally good at enhancing habit formation. If gamification is so popular nowadays, it is because it has the power to both speed up and strengthen the feedback loop of any application.
So first of all, you want to break down the steps the player has to take. This can be done in many ways. In both AAA and casual games, those steps are shown explicitly and given to the player one by one.
A game often invites the player to repeat the same steps over and over, so once the player knows its rule-set, he also knows what to do. This is true for arcade games in particular. Other games give the player sets of very clear short-term goals using quest systems. This also has the advantage of eliminating the need for the user to take decisions.
For instance, in an MMO, an NPC will tell you something like: “kill 3 chickens and bring me back their meat”. In World of Warcraft, the map would even tell you where to find the chickens exactly. The player knows what to do, where to go… and what he will get in exchange! There is a clear reward that’s being offered in exchange for completing the task. On top of that, gaining experience points or clearing each sub-objective give the player hints about his progress! Score, combos, and other animated objects also offer valuable, continuous feedback.
That is how successful casual games operate and retain large amounts of players.
Looking at the design of our games from that angle feels like controlling the player. Don’t users crave for control, may you ask?
For one, I want to say that when I am speaking about habit formation, I am thinking of helping the player to feel comfortable playing our game. The goal is first and foremost to make them want to come back by themselves, by providing a fluid experience. Also, guiding the player doesn’t mean using obvious text panels and telling him exactly what to do. This can be implicit and done through clever level design.
We may think that our users crave control. But at first, not really. If you want unexperienced users to learn how your game works, it will generally be counter-productive to give them complete freedom. Every habit you want encourage will be based on a unique cue that will eventually trigger a routine from the player. This cue has to come up with a number of times before the habit starts to form.
Eventually though, as they get to know your game better, your players will appreciate more and more room to experiment freely. They will get better at processing everything the game will throw at them. But that is often after the playing habit has started to form. In practice, this is for example the player of an MMORPG who wants to do complex raids in the end game.
And by the way, the habits you are looking to reinforce won’t necessarily be formed thanks to your game only! We have to keep in mind that some of the player’s habits are not necessarily specific to our projects. A Diablo player will have no trouble jumping onto Path of Exile for instance, as both title share many similarities. This is important to note as we have to take those players in account as well. I.e. Diablo 3 felt frustrating at first for many Hack and Slash players as they were forced to go through the normal difficulty mode.
In order to get a better understand of how we can harness the power of habits in practice, let’s take a look at a game that works well.
You could take any successful multiplayer or social game to study how they make the formation of habits possible. As we have seen, habit formation is strongly linked to your feedback loops, which lie at the core of all games. Any good game design stimulates the formation of new habits. We are likely going to play an entertaining game again and again! But we can still encourage the wrong habits or failed to reinforce existing ones.
Case study: Final Fantasy XIV
In the long run, the survivability of an MMORPG relies hugely on having a large community of both active and experienced users. Because of that, they need to build strong playing habits. Final Fantasy XIV managed to do just that. It is a pretty fresh MMO that built both a large and a faithful audience. That is why we are going to take a look at it right now.
The first moments of the game are spent creating your avatar. At that point, the game catches the player’s attention thanks to its fine art direction. The character creation menu is highly polished and anchored in the game world already (with its lovely ethereal visual effects). Past the character creation, each player goes through a tutorial phase that will introduce him to the world of Eorzea.
Fast-forward to the first quests. A bit like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 14 provides the player with quests that will lead him through an area. Not only do quests provide the player with small, explicit short-term goals, but their succession create a clear path through each zone. Procedural events breathe some variation into the linear path the player is given.
The game is filled with activities that all revolve around its core gameplay. This helps to reinforce the player’s mechanics and to make the world of Eorzea feel rich. Each activity or action the player takes comes with its own reward: experience points, money, items, etc.
The game offers a system of daily quests called “mandates”. They offer bonus rewards that are pretty handy to quickly level up in crafting jobs. The game encourages you to experiment with classes as you can level them up all with a single character. Final Fantasy XIV is one of the few MMOs that force you to run through its dungeons. Clearing dungeons and bosses is mandatory if you want to progress into the main story. This forces every player to get at least a basic understanding of team play, and prepares them for the end game. Which in turn helps to improve the whole community. Last but not least, the game gives you the option to play in short or long sessions.
All in all, Final Fantasy XIV offers a pretty classic MMO experience, but a polished one. There is nothing extraordinary in that short case study. But we can note that Final Fantasy XIV, like most good modern MMORPGs, offers a short and clear feedback loop. Not only that, but the game encourages the formation of strong playing habits by offering a lot of content that revolves for the most part around its core mechanics.
A quick note on Ethics
As we designers play with the psychology of our users, we do have to be careful with the ethics of our design choices. There is a fine line between encouraging the creation of lasting habits and encouraging addiction. Let us face it: games are addictive by nature. They easily fulfil our need for positive feedback.
Long-term retention does not only rely on habit formation. It relies on healthy habit formation. We want our users to keep coming back to the game in a positive way. We want our users to have a pleasant experience. Addicted players don’t.
To sum this article up, getting our players into a habit of coming back to our game is necessary to build a lasting community. To facilitate habit formation, we can build our early game around gameplay loops that focus on 2 characteristics:
- Giving the player clear steps to follow.
- Giving the player small steps to follow.
All we have left is to provide the player with continuous feedback in the form of score, experience points, rewards, or in-game animations.
To answer some interesting feedback and comments, here are some notes to help clarify the content of the article.
I would like to stress out the fact that when I talk about habits, this could be anything: it is not only about having the player come back to your game every day. For example, rolling at the right time in a Souls game is a mechanism you have to learn:
- You see a skeleton raise his sword. That’s a cue.
- You roll. That’s a routine.
You have to train this skill to the point where it becomes mechanical. Until it becomes a habit. In other words, habits exist both at macro and micro levels in our work. That is why I tried to make a parallel between the concept of feedback loop and habits.
Games are very good at creating and reinforcing habits, and that is the reason why gamification is so popular since a few years. A language learning tool like Duolingo gives you a clear set of lessons to follow. It rewards you with points every few seconds, whenever you successfully translate a short sentence. In other words, it eliminates the need to take decisions, it gives you continuous feedback, and breaks your learning path into tiny chunks: lots of short sentences to translate. It uses the 3 powerful tricks we have at our disposal to make the task of learning a new language easier.
When we create games, we apply design patterns that exploit psychological mechanisms (like the brain’s Reward System). We can always create Skinner boxes, use grinding mechanics to push the player to play again and again. Or we can spend time coming up with creative mechanics and rich worlds, that arouse the player’s curiosity, that provoke their genuine interest.
We have the choice to either perceive our players more as human individuals or more as consumers. However, I think that not only as designers, but as human beings ourselves, it is our duty to respect our users