What makes an app addictive? If you own a phone then you’ll know what it’s like to spend an inordinate amount of time swiping and tapping your way to the next high score or leaderboard position. Usually when you should be doing real work!
It often seems that the big developers, the people behind games like Temple Run, Agar.io and Piano Tiles, have mastered the art of addictive design.
But where do indie developers stand? As I’ll show in this article, they too can make their games just as addictive. What’s more, it’s possible to do so without feeling any guilt about “manipulating” your players. To the contrary, you’ll have an absolutely clear conscience.
What Makes Mobile Games Addictive?
At the heart of addictive app design is the understanding that human beings are intrinsically pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures. Successful developers have mastered the multi-faceted mechanism of turning their users’ initial interaction into habitual behaviour. They do this by leveraging insights about the kind of stimuli that encourage repetitive reward-seeking.
All of the top grossing mobile games (as of March 2016) in the App Store, for instance, involve their users in a highly addictive gaming experience.
When a new user opens your app, you have the opportunity to lead them on a journey that instills a desire to keep playing. How well you do this will determine the number of times, if any, that they return. And more repeat visits mean more in-app purchases, more ad views and more social media shares…appreneur heaven, in other words.
The odd thing about the kind of features that engender addiction in an app, however, is that they usually work just under the surface. They’re subtle. If you didn’t know about them, it’s unlikely that you would think to include them.
So that’s where this article comes in! We’re going to look at over thirty ways of making your app so addictive that it causes your users to fall madly in love with it. Well, it’s probably going to resemble more of a passionate but short love affair, but anyway…
Understanding Game Addiction…is it Bad?
The first thing to point out is that psychological and neurological understandings of addiction are very murky. Even the world’s leading experts disagree on a lot of things. I was even tempted to put the word addiction into quotation marks at the beginning of the article because, though it’s widely understood in regards to gaming, it’s probably not the best term to use for an article on this topic. What we’re really looking to develop, as will be outlined below, are habits.
On a simple level, when a player is rewarded for a particular activity, their brain releases dopamine. This spurs them to seek the same reward, through the same activity, again and again. The further they progress into a game, the greater the reward and so the release of dopamine. On the other hand, when a player fails to achieve a reward, their adrenaline levels increase, bolstering their resolve to try again.
(Source : Statista)
Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, writes, “The games are infuriatingly simple and as soon as the game is over it leaves players feeling frustrated, annoyed or even angry if they’ve scored badly, or happy, excited and even euphoric if they’ve done well. For those not doing very well, the only way to stop this cognitive regret is to play again immediately. For those that do well, they immediately want to play again to try and beat their high score.”
I’ve split the tips into three categories – basics, specific examples and addictive visual design elements. There’s also a short section about monetization. This one deals with the general psychological principles that underlie hugely addictive games.
1. Understand the “Hook” Sequence
Nir Eyal released his highly regarded book, Hooked, in 2014. In it, Eyal seeks to understand the process that underlies habit formation, especially as it relates to technology. His central argument is that four steps – trigger, action, variable reward and investment – must all be undertaken if an individual is to repeatedly use a new product.
As an app developer, this is one of the most important ideas that you can understand. Let’s use an example to illustrate the diagram above. Suppose that you create a word puzzle app. The emotion (the trigger) that prompts people to start using it, in all likelihood, will be boredom. The user then opens your app (action), and starts to play, being rewarded (variable reward) for their actions by the satisfaction that comes from guessing the right words. They remain unsatisfied, however, because they have not completed the whole crossword.
After they have finished, they are encouraged to play another game and share their score with their friends, which builds investment. The next time they experience boredom, it’s your app that first comes to mind. Thus, a habit is formed.
Asking the following questions will help you make sure that you involve all elements of the “hook” model:
● How can you make it ultra easy for the player to start your game? You want the journey from emotion to gameplay to be as short as possible. As you’ll see below, push notifications can help with this.
● How can you provide a reward that is satisfying but leaves the player wanting more? Setting small as well as big goals is important. If you think about the times when you’ve finished a linear video game, you’ll likely remember feelings of satisfaction. You want to avoid completion in mobile games!
● In what ways can you encourage further investment (time and energy spent) in your app? Can you include share options, mini-games, retries etc.?
2. It’s All About Rewards
The “action” is the most important part of the cycle described above, and the one over which you have most control. This is where you build emotional rewards, that will trigger a release of dopamine, into your game’s design.
Temple Run 2 is an example of a mobile game that has an extremely well-developed rewards structure. You can collect gold coins and also pick up intermittent boosts (more on the power of this later on). Similarly, there are two leaderboards – a global one that ranks worldwide players and an internal one that sets benchmarks for achievements in the game. The game’s difficulty increases as time passes, making the achievement of continued play its own reward.
3. There are a Limited Number of Potential Rewards
As has already been said, addiction is about rewards. What’s interesting is that there are only a handful of pleasures that human beings seek. Nir Eyal outlines three distinct categories of rewards that any technology developer can seek to supply their potential users with.
Broadly speaking, they are:
● The Tribe: Acceptance, recognition, sex.
● The Self: Mastery, competency, completion.
● The Hunt: Food, money, information.
The vital thing to remember is that on a subconscious level your brain can’t distinguish between the real world and a virtual world. A gold coin has value whether it’s real or imaginary.
Examples of “tribe” rewards are the opportunity to share your results on social media, being listed on a leaderboard, or even having the game congratulate you on being so wonderful. “Hunt” rewards are typical gold coins, diamonds and other virtual goods. “Self” rewards are fairly self-explanatory. You can include them by making sure that your players are able to feel that they’re gradually improving.
4. Intermittent Rewards Are Best
It’s been conclusively shown that rewarding intermittently, as opposed to regularly, encourages repeat behaviour more effectively. When you’re not sure what’s round the corner, the natural tendency is to keep on playing in expectation of a reward. There are heaps of scientific research that back up this interesting phenomenon.
To quote Mark Griffiths again, “Behaviour that is reinforced sporadically, at unpredictable times, is more likely to continue than behaviour that is rewarded at regular, predictable intervals.”
On a practical level, you want to include elements of both regular and intermittent rewards. A good example of a game that does this is Winter Fugitives, in which the player can collect both coins and surprises in locked cupboards. By copying this design element, you can achieve the best of both worlds.
5. Build Gradual Investment
Here’s a simple fact of human behaviour: when we expend time and energy, we expect something to show for it. Not particularly complicated, right? Well, you would be amazed at how many developers neglect or ignore this principle.
If we look at a game like Doodle Jump for instance, we can see that whilst it’s incredibly easy to play (you can pick up the controls in seconds), it’s also notoriously difficult to master. This means that players will be happy to expend energy learning the game because doing so doesn’t require much effort. As it gets more difficult, they invest more and more. This increased investment makes it all the more likely that they will form a regular habit.
Similarly, gradual mastery of a game should be rewarded by bigger prizes, which further incentivise players to return. Many developers incorporate virtual trophies and high-score awards to achieve this.
6. Replace Behaviours, Don’t Create New Ones
Have you ever noticed how popular games tend to share a similar structure? Side scrollers, platformers, eternal runners?
Your goal as a developer shouldn’t always be to reinvent the wheel. It’s much easier to replace an existing behaviour than to create an entirely new one. When you improve on an existing archetype, you’re much more likely to succeed.
This is particularly relevant if you’re using source code from a site like SellMyApp. Doing so provides a unique opportunity to build on and improve existing popular games.
Look at the example of the two word puzzle games below. One is clearly more attractive than the other (the one on the left, in my opinion). This simplicity of design (a topic I’ll discuss in a little more depth later on) reduces the effort required by the user to start playing and so is likely to be more effective at keeping players in the long term.
7. Punishments Work Too!
Use this one at your own risk! The power of intermittent rewards, mentioned above, was discovered by a chap called B.F. Skinner. He was responsible for the school of psychology called behaviourism.
In a nutshell, he set up an experiment in which pigeons were encouraged to peck at a lever in exchange for food. When the food was released intermittently, they would peck more often over a longer time (hence the tip above). He also tried punishing the pigeons when they didn’t peck. The result? It worked just as well!
You can try this in your own app or game. A good example comes from Farmville. Because players’ crops die when they’re not harvested, many will repetitively check them.
Case Study: Is Tinder One of the World’s Most Addictive Apps?
Before we jump into specific examples of addictive game features, let’s have a quick look at Tinder. There are loads of unique design elements from which appreneurs like me and you can draw inspiration. In fact, it may well be one of the most addictive apps ever created.
First off, Tinder is designed, in many ways, to act like a video game.
Instead of being rewarded with gold coins or boosts, you collect matches. This ties in with the “tribe” category of rewards described above. Every match makes you feel a little more accepted, and so prompts you to keep on swiping in pursuit of another “hit”.
Secondly, it’s very easy to access. Pings alert you to a new match and you’re able to open the app and start swiping in a matter of seconds. The human brain is constantly evaluating the effort to reward ratio of proposed activities. That’s why we often crave to engage in supposed high-reward, low-obstacle behaviours. When it’s as low as it is with Tinder, well…it’s a no-brainer!
Thirdly, the visual design is instinctively appealing. We like to look at faces. By providing us with a constant stream of happy, good-looking faces, Tinder is taking advantage of a hard-wired human preference, again stimulating that dopamine hit.
Fourthly, options are limited. In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz describes how having lots of choices actually makes us feel less decisive and less happy with the path we ultimately decide to go down. Consider the following quote:
“Part of the downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs, and trade-offs have psychological consequences. The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.”
Tinder remedies this problem by providing only two choices: yes or no.
Finally, it involves an element of surprise, or intermittent conditioning. Because you never know who a new message is from – it could be the best-looking guy in the world, your soulmate, or a crazy dude – you’re response is usually immediate. Thus the habit is solidified.
Ok, onto some more examples….
Specific Examples of Addictive Design
1. Rhythm, Repetitiveness and Music
Good feelings are the foundation of it all. Piano Tiles 2, one of the outstanding mobile success stories of recent history, takes the understanding that there is something intrinsically pleasing in iterative repetition and carries it to a whole new level.
Whilst it goes without saying that you should always build an element of repetition into your games, your real success will be determined by how much you can innovate on this basic feature. Both Piano Tiles and Piano Tiles 2 added music, rhythm and familiarity (all the pieces of music are well-known) to their gameplay. The result is utterly engaging!
You’ll likely find that you can make a few tweaks, rather than a big overhaul, to achieve the desired effect…allowing players to choose their own background music, for instance.
2. Powerful Stories
Have you ever binged on a Netflix series? If you have then you’ll understand how enticing stories can be. The desire for a sense of completion and to know what’s going to happen next can both be incredibly powerful.
The good thing for us is that we can incorporate elements of story into our own games. Not only will this keep drawing the reader back so that they can satisfy their interest, but it will also make your app more memorable. This is important for the first part of the “hook sequence” described at the beginning. When a potential user experiences boredom, your solution will be in the forefront of their mind.
The independent mobile game Lonewolf crafts a wonderful story around a basic sniper game. The effect is to create a level of engagement that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
3. Free Daily Rewards
Remember, though we’re using the word “addiction”, what we’re really trying to establish are habits. We want to cement the behaviour of using your app to overcome negative feelings. The issue is that you need to encourage players to regularly engage over a relatively short time period – if the gap between sessions is longer than a week then habit formation stalls.
One excellent way of incentivising your players to use your app on a daily basis is by offering a free reward. Color Switch, another massive success story, does this in the form of a gambling wheel. The genius of this approach is that it blends together two very powerful psychological triggers – the offer of a freebie and intermittent rewards based on the turn of the wheel.
4. Leaderboards and Competition
Keeping in line with the categories of rewards described above, the opportunity to beat fellow players is a huge incentive. It fits both the categories of “tribe”, because users will feel respected, and of “self”, because they’ll have a sense of mastery.
You want to offer two things: a competitive leaderboard and an internal set of standard achievements. The best games fully integrate these features into their gameplay and that’s something you should do too. How many games have you played where leaderboards are something secondary rather than integral to gameplay? Quite a few, I’d guess.
The example of Piano Tiles 2 is worth looking at again. Each level, or new piece of music, is itself an achievement on a kind of leaderboard. Similarly, there are three competitive mini-games, after which you’re told how well you did, compared to everybody else in the world, woven into the flow of the gameplay.
5. Leave Tasks Unfinished
Try an experiment tomorrow morning. Pick one of your regular routines, something like brushing your teeth or emptying the dishwasher, and stop doing it halfway through. Leave it unfinished. I guarantee that it will play on your mind for the rest of the day.
This little quirk of psychology is something that you can use to brilliant effect in your apps. Whenever we stop a task halfway through, we experience a kind of cognitive “uneasiness” until we finish it.
This is one reason why puzzle games, like Brain it On and Monument Valley, which are pictured below, are so successful. The levels comprise complex tasks and, when you’ve completed one, you’re quickly moved onto the next. The idea is to have the player’s mental to-do list always unfinished.
6. Enforced Time Limits
A player’s attention span is limited. Returning to Netflix briefly, if you are one of those people that’s binged on entire series, you’ll know the feeling of “burnout” that you get at the end of a marathon session, or even before the end if there are lots of episodes. This feeling is anathema to habit formation because it causes people to take longer breaks away from the activity.
By imposing time limits on gameplay, in much the same way that Candy Crush Saga does, you can reward your players without giving them an overdose. This will either encourage them to buy more game time (thus increasing investment) or come back when their free time has replenished. It maintains that desire to keep returning at a simmering level.
7. No Time Limits
OK, no points for consistency! This, however, needs to be said in light of the above point. Some games, especially those that are ultra-casual and often played in conjunction with some other task (like actual work), might not be improved by having a time limit imposed. In fact, it can act as an obstacle to encouraging repeat behaviour. If your game is meant to be played over a longer and sporadic period, like a crossword is, then consider dropping the idea of a time limit.
8. Push Notifications
You want the journey from a user’s experience of a negative emotion like boredom onto your app to be as seamless as possible. This means, if you can, allowing your players to start earning their rewards in a single click. Have you noticed the one-click buy function on Amazon? Well, there’s a reason for it!
Fortunately, it’s relatively simple to achieve one-click ease-of-use. All you have to do is use push notifications. Twitter and Facebook (pictured below) have been doing it effectively for years. The other benefit is that, by strategically setting them to appear on your users’ phones at certain times, you’ll be keeping your app in the forefront of their memory. If you can design the notifications to give some kind of reward or validation (as with social network apps) then even better.
9. Links to Social Apps
We’ve already spoken about social proof and the “tribe” set of rewards. Alongside your basic gameplay you should always offer players the chance to brag about their achievements. Doing so rewards them for the right kind of behaviour in just the same way that giving them gold coins does. It also promotes your app in the process!
Below are three examples of this technique in action. They’re taken from our huge guide about app monetization (certainly worth a read if you get the chance). The important thing to note is that each feature is included in the natural flow of the game. At the end of each level or session, players are given the option to quickly share their score on social media or ask friends for help.
10. Consistent Updates and Releases
The life-cycle of mobile games is relatively short. According to AppAnnie in their 2015 retrospective report, downloads usually peak after around four months, from which point they start to dry up. So, if you are creating a casual game that is likely to have a short shelf life, it’s important that you provide regular updates and/or new releases.
The other alternative, of course, is to consider going down the route of a utility app that provides a function that people require on a regular basis to fulfill certain common needs. The Facebook app is a great example…it doesn’t matter how much you use it, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get bored. In terms of gaming, certain apps, such as word searches or crosswords, fall into this bracket. If you regularly do a crossword every Sunday, then you’re not going to stop using the New York Crossword app, for instance, after you’ve beat all the leaderboards.
11. High Investment in the Learning Phase
The more you can get people to invest early in the game, when their “addiction” is at its lowest level, the more you improve the chances that players will keep returning. By making sure that your players understand all of the different aspects of the gaming experience that you’re providing, you’ll also make it seem much easier for them to achieve the rewards they’re after, thus increasing the chances of…you guessed it, return visits!
Juggernaut Wars does this to great effect. They have one of the longest tutorial phases that I’ve ever experienced. They make you play a fight sequence at least three times before guiding you through the menu area in depth.
12. Paid Retries
The paid retry is a great way of both making money and rewarding your players. If you time the popup to appear at the right time, ideally after a user has just expended a lot of time and effort, then they will be gifted with a strong sense of relief…assuming that they buy of course!
What’s My IQ, a quiz game, does this splendidly. Players are given a certain amount of free retries, solidifying the repetitive behaviour, before a paid option is offered. Though there are separate levels in the game, they are all fairly long and it’s incredibly frustrating to have to go back to the beginning.
13. Small and Big Goals
There’s a reason that most casual games have incredibly short lifespans. Whilst they usually incorporate lots of addictive elements like repetitive gaming, gradual difficulty and intermittent rewards, there’s nothing for the player to strive for after they’ve played it a few dozen times. There’s usually an unsurpassable upper level of difficulty and this leads to a loss of interest.
With this in mind, it’s important to offer some kind of broad outcome, along with checkpoints along the way. Remember the point earlier about the unease people feel when a task is left unfinished? Well, it applies just as much to a whole game as it does to a single level.
If you’re game is made up of levels connected by a story, there isn’t an issue. If, however, you’re responsible for a casual game, there are various ways you can incorporate “big goals”. For one, you can offer a leaderboard with in-game checkpoints. This is exactly what the developers behind Temple Run 2 did. Another alternative is to include upgrades and achievements as players progress, thus building up a permanent character profile. This is what is done in Deer Hunter.
Visual Design – 5 Tips
1. Choose Enticing Colours
I’m always surprised by the sheer number of apps that have terrible colour schemes. The whole point is to create an experience that people want to return to. The use of grays and blacks and clashing primary colours is a sure way not to achieve this.
Take the example of Cartella, an calendar app from a Brazilian pharmacy. The striking pink headers and buttons on the ambient pastel background have a very pleasing visual effect.
2. Include a Hypnotic Soundtrack
This is one of the easiest ways to add more repetition and harmony, both things that are inherently pleasing, to your game. Many of the games that have been included in this list, including Color Switch, Piano Tiles 2 and Brain It On have immersive soundtracks.
3. Use Humour
This is another addition that you can make that will build on your core gameplay. Humour will create a more positive experience for your players, further reinforcing reward-seeking behaviour.
The thing about adding humor is that it needn’t involve restructuring significant parts of your game. It can be as simple as writing funny pop-ups for the end of levels or spicing up your instructions.
The app to copy in this regard is Stupid Ways to Die. It’s a very warm and inviting game that uses humour to engage its players, who almost always end up coming back for the laughs!
4. Focus on Cleanliness, Intuitiveness and Simplicity
An app that’s simple to use will be much more effective at encouraging repeat behaviour than one that isn’t. You should always be seeking to remove obstacles to player rewards and having an interface that can be navigated almost on autopilot is one method of achieving this.
A great example is the Pomodoro app, a productivity tool. The interface is very minimal with an intuitive design. The aim is to have it so simple that users will eventually start to use the app without even thinking about it, the essence of habit.
5. Native Ads
One of the big problems for developers is balancing user annoyance with the need to display ads. There’s little point in releasing an app if you’re not going to monetize it and ads are the only viable choice for many. You can overcome this problem to an extent by blending native ads into the visual flow of your game.
You can see an example of a native ad in the screenshot above. It’s much easier on the eye, less intrusive and also converts well compared to some other ad types.
6. Bonus Tip: A Personal Touch
Finally, in pursuit of a comfortable, pleasing user experience, you might want to include a touch of personalization. This is something that the indie developer Ouwie!, responsible for Eat the Line 2, did. A message outlining the story behind the app is included at various points, piquing the sympathy of the user. A simple message like, “Great to have you back,” or, “Hope to see you soon,” can go a long way.
Addictiveness and Monetization
We’ve written two huge guides on app monetization – a colossal one about in-app purchases and another about advertising. Check those out for a full picture of the best ways to generate revenue with games and utility apps.
Below I’ve listed some of the monetization options that are best-suited for games. They are often based on action/reward cycles themselves and they also fit very well with the kind of features that addictive apps tend to have.
● Let people build a collection – I knew a chronic collector once. He wasted huge heaps of money and space on every sort of collectible imaginable…stuff that would be junk to most people. I was always baffled as to why. The reality of course, is that collecting isn’t logical, it’s an addictive behaviour that people get pleasure from. Offer some rare items for sale in your store, you’ll be amazed at how many people are willing to pay for them.
● Offer unique surprises – Give people a taste of premium goods by occasionally offering them for free. This tactic takes advantage of intermittent conditioning too.
● Run giveaways and sales – Running giveaways will prompt people to keep returning to your store to see what’s on offer.
● Include a premium version – Premium versions are one of the best ways to monetize addictive games. They sell very well because they’re usually pitched just after a player has finished the first batch of content or levels, when both investment and interest are high.
● Offer goods after investment – Don’t start to hardsell until you’ve got people hooked and invested with the tutorial phase. You might even consider not making some goods available until players have invested a certain amount of time progressing through levels. This is what Futurama did with their match-3 game.
Conclusion: the Key is in Blending Them all Together!
For those who have made it this far: well done! You’re now equipped to develop apps that are as addictive as heroin! Well, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but you can still blend a pretty powerful mix!
To round up, I want to look at one more example of an app that’s highly addictive. The interesting thing about it is that it brings numerous design elements seamlessly together in a single playing experience. The result is an array of highly-addictive rewards piled on top of each other.
And that, really, is the important message. You should be trying to incorporate as many of the tips outlined in this article as possible. The more you can get in, whilst maintaining a positive playing experience, the more addictive your app is likely to be.
Agar.io made nearly $500,000 last month. When you see the incredible gameplay you’ll understand why.
First off, it’s a multiplayer game, so it’s all about having the bigger “blob”. Immediately this offers the reward of social validation and achievement. Similarly, there’s an in-game leaderboard.
It’s also wonderfully simple and repetitive, so ties in with our instinctual like of those kinds of activities. You “grow” by eating readily available “food”, so the reward/feedback mechanism is almost instantaneous. More so, the fact that you can “eat” other blobs also provides an element of intermittent rewards.
Finally, you can customise your own blob – mostly through in-app purchases – and so make a statement to all the other players. This provides more “social” reward.
If they were to add a soundtrack, a well-designed colour scheme and a daily reward…well, who knows how much more successful it might be!
What Are Your Thoughts
So there you have it! Our guide to designing addictive games. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below to let us know…