Game Design

How UX Can Improve Player Retention

Written by
Mike Moran
August 29, 2022
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Creating games that have this sort of hypnotic power isn’t magic, it’s science. It’s all about understanding what makes things engaging to the human brain, and using these strategies in your game design.

Have you ever gotten so immersed in a game you forgot all about the outside world?

The hours flew by as you completed quest after quest, leveling up and racking up meaningful achievements in this vivid fantasy world. When you finally glanced at the clock, you gasped in shock. It’s 2am and you’ve been playing for 5 hours! 

Creating games that have this sort of hypnotic power isn’t magic, it’s science. It’s all about understanding what makes things engaging to the human brain, and using these strategies in your game design. 

UX principles are based on cognitive science. The key to powerful engagement, immersion and retention is to take into account how our brains process information.

UX and Cognitive Science

This diagram is a very simplified reflection of how the brain works. First, it uses perception to gather information in the form of sound, sight, smell, taste and more. 

Then, while that information is processed it is influenced by many factors including attention, emotion and motivation. Finally, the synapses of the brain are modified and the memory is stored. 



The Importance of Retention

In order to make your player feel more immersed and engaged in your game, you’ll need to think about how you can capture their attention, hold their attention and keep them coming back.

This is the reason why retention is one of the most important aspects of user experience. 

This is true no matter what type of monetization structure you use. Even if your players pay up front, you still should be thinking about how best to retain them. After all, players who stick with the game are more likely to tell their friends about it and offer you free word-of-mouth advertising. 

The aspect of UX that relates to retention is known as engage-ability. 

The Three Engageability Buckets

Engageability can be broken down into three essential pillars. They are Motivation, Emotion and the concept of Game Flow. 



Motivation is the most important pillar, and game flow and emotion both work to support it. Emotions influence our behavior. For example, if you see something that scares you, you will run away. 

And finally, Game Flow is where the player “loses themselves” by being deeply immersed within the game and the time flies by. 



Celia depicts motivation as a tree, because it has a lot to do with choices. Understanding what motivates your players will help you to understand why they make the choices they make. 

The tricky thing about motivation is that there are so many different theories behind what really motivates us and influences our decisions. Check out how many theories are listed on Wikipedia. That list doesn’t even begin to cover it! 

However, there is currently no unified theory that brings all these ideas together and explains how human motivation works. 

Despite this, Celia attempts to create a map of human motivation for game developers. It divides motivation into four main buckets: 



These buckets are:

  • Implicit motivation and biological drives. 
  • Personality and individual needs. 
  • Environmental-shaped motivation and learned drives. 
  • Intrinsic motivation and cognitive needs. 

(It’s important to note that these buckets are not mutually exclusive of each other and they are also not hierarchical.)

Implicit Motivation & Biological Drives


This type of motivation refers to the most basic needs and instincts humans share with all other species of mammals. These include the drive for food, sleep, sex and to the desire to avoid pain. 

Plus, there are also other implicit motivations that will drive our social behaviour. These include the desire to achieve power over others, the motivation to achievement and the motive of affiliation, which is the desire for peaceful, harmonious relationships with others. 

The strength of these drives is very different for each individual person. For example, some people will value power and domination more than others, while some people will be more motivation by their relationships to others. 

Personality and Individual Needs


When we look at differences between individuals, we tend to look at personality. One of the most widely-accepted metrics for determining personality is the OCEAN or “Big Five” personality test. It measures your personality against 5 different traits: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. 

Of course, this model has its limitations. For example, it’s not stable over time. The personality you have when you are a teenager will not be the same as the one you have when you are in your 60s. 

Also, just knowing the personality of your gamers will not allow you to predict their behavior. Human personality is too complex to be able to understand completely, let alone predict. 

However, the OCEAN model is the best and most complete model we currently have, so we can still keep it in mind when designing games. For example, if a player scores high in the “Openness to Experience” measure, they may have more motivation to finish their creative tasks than someone else who has a low score on that trait. 

Environmental-Shaped Motivation & Learned Drives


This type of motivation is very interesting, because video games themselves are an environment which shapes the players behavior. Most of the time, these behaviors are shaped by rewards and punishments.

You can give players rewards to encourage them to do a certain behavior, or give them punishments to discourage them from another behavior. This is the “additive” or “positive” motivation. 

The inverse can also exist and you can modify player behavior by taking away punishment or reward as well. For example, you would encourage a behavior by removing the punishment or discourage the behavior by removing the reward.  

Either way, the behavior of the player is influenced by the “carrot” or the “stick”. 

Types of Rewards

What types of perks and punishments will you give within the game environment? There are two main types: Continuous Rewards and Intermittent Rewards. 


Continuous Rewards

With Continuous Rewards, players will always get rewarded when they do a particular action. This is critical for learning, as it will give the player consistent feedback. 

Also, the consistency will have a positive effect on the overall game feel. There will be very little frustration or discouragement, as the player knows that they get a reward every time they do that behavior. 

Intermittent Rewards

This is when the behaviour is sometimes rewarded. This type of reward is essential to maintain engagement. Think of a slot machine. You don’t win every time you play, but every now and then you’ll get a jackpot. 

The thrill of the intermittent reward and the fact that you never know when it is coming, is what encourages you to keep pulling the level of the slot machine again and again. You don’t want to quit, in case the next try is the one where you succeed. 

Within the category of Intermittent Rewards, two factors that you’ll need to look at are “interval” and “ratio”. 


“Interval” refers to the amount of time between each reward. “Ratio” describes the behavior that triggers the reward. Both the interval and the ratio can either be fixed or variable. 

This is becoming a bit complicated, so Celia shares a few examples from games. 


Examples of Fixed Interval Rewards


In games such as Fortnite and Clash of Clans, you get a reward after a fixed and determined amount of time. In Fortnite, very day when you log into the game, you have a reward waiting for you. In Clash of Clans when you are building something, you have a clear timer on it and you will know when to come back and claim it. 

This can be a great way to tempt players back into the game, as they will have a reason to come back at a particular time. 

Another example can be removing the reward at a specific interval. For example, In Fortnite when you get a reward it will disappear after a fixed amount of time. 



This encourages the player to come back to the game within the set timeframe, so they can make the most of the reward before it expires. 

Examples of Variable Interval Rewards

A variable interval reward appears over time unexpectedly. You know it is coming, but you can’t predict when it is going to arrive. 



For example, you never know when a rare spawn in World of Warcraft will pop up, or a bonus cherry will appear in Pacman. 

Examples of Fixed Ratio Rewards

A fixed ratio reward appears after a player completes a certain action, or a certain amount of actions. 

The player knows that they will get their reward after they have completed a fixed and determined number of actions. Skill trees are a great example of this (like this one from Fortnite) as the player will be able to see how far away they are from the next level on the skill tree. 

For a reward to have a fixed ratio, the player should know how many more actions they need to take before they get to their next reward. 


Examples of Variable Ratio Rewards

In contrast, a variable ratio reward shows up unexpectedly after a various number of actions. The player is not able to predict how many actions they will need to take before they get their next reward. 

Again, this is one of the most powerful types of rewards because it is similar to a slot machine. You will get something valuable, but you won’t know when you’re going to get it. 

Here’s another couple of examples of this, in the form of upgrades on Fortnite and treasures on Hearthstone. There’s always an element of chance to these types of rewards, which is what makes them so addictive. 

How These Types of Rewards Impact Player Behavior

Now that you have an understanding of the different types of rewards, you can take a look at how they impact player behavior. The following charts reflect the response rate, taking into account all the actions that players make in response to these rewards. 


What these charts tell us is that with “fixed” type rewards, the behavior pauses once the player gets the reward. Also, if the rewards stop coming, the player immediately stops being engaged. 

However, if you look at all the “variable” type rewards, we see that these offer the most consistent response. The highest and most consistent response rate of all is when the reward is linked to a variable ratio. 

Some researchers have said that having extrinsic rewards can deter intrinsic motivation. In other words, you were drawing because you like drawing. Someone starts paying you for your drawings. Then they stop paying you. You may feel less motivated to draw as a result. Of course, this really depends on a lot of factors. 

A great example of this when player motivation drops after their in-game character reaches the highest level, because there are no more meaningful goals to work toward. In this situation, it’s very important to create community and player interaction to give them another reason to keep coming back to the game. 

Celia also offers a few very important pointers and guidelines for adding rewards and punishments into your game design:


It’s a bit complicated, but all these different types of rewards have their advantages and disadvantages. The key really is to mix it all together and to offer a range of different types of rewards and punishments throughout your game. 

Intrinsic Motivation and Cognitive Needs

When we talk about intrinsic motivation in the context of game design, we are talking about Self Determination Theory. The following slide outlines the three most important aspects of this: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. 


Essentially, these three drives are towards feeling in control, feeling like you have freedom and self expression and feeling cooperation and competition. An extrinsic reward can undermine motivation if it thwarts any of these three needs. 


For example, this is why slot machines have a handle that the user pulls. This gives them a sense of “autonomy” over what is happening, even when the results are completely random. 

However, SDT alone can’t explain the entirety of human behavior. There are a lot of complicated factors you need to take into account and allow for, such as individual needs and behaviorism. 

Most of all, the key is to make sure that the goals and rewards you design into your game are always meaningful to your players. 


Autonomous Vs. Controlled Rewards

Some theorists of Self-Determination have moved away from the dichotomy of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and are focusing more on distinguishing between controlled vs autonomous motivation. 



For example, you may have: 

  • A non-contingent reward that is not related to player behavior, it’s just a random treat. 
  • A task-contingent reward which rewards engagement, such as finding a chest while on a quest. 
  • A completion-contingent reward, such as when you receive a reward after finishing a mission. 
  • A performance-contingent reward, such as getting stars in Angry Birds for a good performance.

Rewards contingent on excellent performance can sometimes be seen as controlling. However, they can also be motivating because they give a strong sense of progression and they can act as feedback on competence. 

Rewards contingent on tasks themselves can feel less controlling. However, they don’t offer a sense of increased competence. Therefore, they could actually be the least-effective option, when it comes to intrinsic motivation. 

Again, rewards are quite complicated, multi-faceted and not at all predictable. 



So, perhaps you should be very generous with your rewards? Let your players be “swimming in rewards” so that the game experience is exciting and meaningful? 

Well, this can be a great strategy, but only if the rewards give the player meaningful value. You don’t want to give too many rewards too early on before players know their purpose, or comprehend the value. 



These are some of the key takeaways when it comes to rewards and motivation. Again, the most important thing is that the reward is meaningful. Otherwise, the player won’t care enough to work toward it. 

Sometimes players can get meaning from belonging to a group. Joining a guild or a faction can be highly motivating and meaningful for a player. 


For an example of this, you can take a look at the Knights, Samurai and Vikings factions in the game For Honor, or the Valor, Instinct and Mystic teams in Pokemon Go. 



The most important thing to remember about motivation is that it is never simple. If you ever hear a simple one-size-fits-all description of motivation, you should be mistrustful of it. There is never one solution that will encompass the incredible complexities of our motivation. 


Emotion is important to motivation, because our emotions influence our behavior. For example, if you detect a danger and you experience the emotion of fear, you’ll run away from it. 

Emotions are important for survival and help us learn. They guide us as we interact with our environment and show us how to seek out pleasure and run away from pain. 

Emotion is always influenced by our cognition - our prior knowledge, expectation and judgement of a situation. This is why if a particular champagne looks good, you’re likely to get more pleasure out of drinking it. 

However, if a player has a frustrating experience in the game, they are more likely to connect the game itself with frustrating emotions. Therefore, helping players to reassess their negative feelings can have many benefits. 


If a player loses in a game, don’t make them feel dismayed by displaying their loss in big flashing red letters on the screen. Instead, emphasize what they did better on than the wining team, or show them that despite their loss they still improved on their personal metrics or goals. 

Overwatch does this, for example. At the end of every match, players see their “career average” which includes several metrics including healing done, weapons accuracy, number of kills, etc. This type of cognitive reappraisal can help players manage negative emotions that are connected to losing. 


We usually mention Game Feel when taking about motivation. This describes the overall experience of the game and whether it feels good to interact with. It’s important to consider the three C’s: control, camera and character. For example, controls are quite important because if the player doesn’t have real-time control, they might feel like the game is controlling them instead. This will decrease their feeling of autonomy, which is essential for intrinsic motivation. 

Your game should also create the feeling of Presence, which is when the player feels like they are “inside” the game and totally immersed in the virtual environment. 

Elements of novelty, discovery and surprises can also help to improve the engagement levels. 


For example, in Fortnite it feels great to open card packs because they are pinatas you attack with a melee weapon. The llama responds to your actions, which makes the experience fun and entertaining. 

Like the designer of a slot machine added a handle for the illusion of control, you can add in animations and reactions when your players open a chest, pack or loot box. 


Here’s another great example of Game Feel from Fortnite. When the players hit the item at a weak point, they harvest their items more quickly and get a pleasant sound effect. 


You can also surprise your player by adding something unexpected. For example, in Fortnite players open chests. However, you never know when a chest might contain zombies! 

The most important thing to remember about emotion is to consider how players are feeling when they are immersed in your game. How can the emotions they feel meaningfully support the game and make them want to keep on playing?

Game Flow


If you can achieve good game flow, you’ll put your players in the “zone” and keep them engaged and motivated for the long term. 

Celia doesn’t cover this in detail in her talk, as she is talking to an expert game designer audience who would already know this concept inside out. However, if you need a refresher on game flow, there is a good one here

Essentially, game flow is all about Difficulty Curve, Pacing and Learning Curve. 



The important point to remember here is that the challenge level of the game cannot increase at the same pace as the player’s abilities do. If it does, then the players will always experience the same level of challenge. They will never have moments of feeling especially challenged, or especially competent. 

Instead, game flow should feel like a wave. A staggered “saw tooth” style difficulty progression will help to create moments where players can compare their new abilities against their old abilities and realize how much progress they have made. 

A great example of this is in the game Shadow of Mordor. In this game, players are able to kill Uruks captains who killed them previously. It is very satisfying to eventually kill them and players can really get a sense of their progress and growth. 

It’s also important to manage stress. People are generally less efficient when they are under stress, as it makes them feel less competent. A small amount of stress can make a player pay more attention, but too much will affect their memory. So, it’s important to find the ideal balance between the difficulty of the task and the expertise level. 

For example, in Fortnite the first thing a player does is kill several enemies. This situation teaches about shooting and is somewhat stressful, yet the enemies are located behind a wall and can’t get at the player. This gives the player time to learn how to shoot without too much stress. 

Feeling competent within a game is very important for retention. Analytics for the game Paragon found that players were leaving because they didn’t grasp the subtleties of gameplay and kept failing. 


For example, playtests were showing that many core players didn’t understand that they should let their minions attack first and not target enemies within tower range. 

Once Celia and her team built a tutorial level designed to explain these rules, they found retention dramatically improved. 

Teaching the game to players is incredibly important. Players must feel competent in order to feel engaged and motivated, especially when playing in a multiplayer environment. 



When it comes down to it, Game Flow is all about Difficulty Curve, Pacing and Learning Curve. These factors are important because they affect the player’s perception of their own competency. Therefore, they are essential for motivation. 


In conclusion, these are some of the most important pointers to remember when it comes to engagement, immersion and retention. 

One of the key takeaways is that Usability greatly influences all of the above. It affects whether or not the player feels like they are in control of the game. If you have too many usability issues, players won’t feel a sense of mastery. 

Also, when players don’t see the value of a reward, or don’t even understand that they are getting one, this won’t help with their motivation. This is why it’s so important to always make sure that your game has a high level of Usability and that everything is clear and easy to understand. 


What do all of these Engageability buckets have in common? 

The main thing that ties them together is that we must always bring it back to the player themselves. What’s in it for them? Why do they care about the tasks they are working toward and the rewards they are getting? 

Here’s one more example: 


We do play testing to find any issues within our games. Whenever a design is not being experienced the way we want by our players, we ask ourselves why this is going on. 

There are three possible reasons:

  • There is something missing from the design that hasn’t been implemented yet. 
  • All elements of the design are there, but they are not balanced well. 
  • Everything is there and balanced well, but it’s not being conveyed effectively to the player. 


When Celia was building Fortnite, players often gave feedback that the game felt “grindy”. When they were harvesting, they felt like they only got one item per hit, which is not actually the case. So, this was a usability problem that made it feel like they were getting less from harvesting than they actually were. 

A possible solution for this is the addition of “weak points”. Players in Fortnite can harvest faster when they hit a weak point, which gives them greater satisfaction. 

However, the challenge was to get players to understand how the weak point metric worked. At first, players would simply ignore the yellow sign for weak points. So, Celia tried changing the weak point sign into more of a highly visible blue target. However, players would still ignore it as they thought it was telling them that they were targeting that particular item. 



The solution? The development team made the weak point mechanic into a “Weakpoint Vision” special ability the player could unlock in their skill tree. This game the weak point context and purpose. With this simple change, players understood why the weak point mechanism was meaningful, because they already knew how long harvesting took without it. 

This is a great example of how, when you first see a player behavior that is not intended, the most important thing is to figure out the real problem to address. You need to have a good understanding of the UX ingredients, so that you can identify where the problems really come from. 

When you have an in-depth understanding of player engagement, you’ll be able to know which ingredients to tweak so you can identify the real issues and address them accordingly. 

Don’t Forget About Game Developers’ Motivation

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about player’s motivation. However, shouldn’t we talk about game developer’s motivation? 

Feeling intrinsically motivated is important for creativity. If you are following a “recipe” your games will end up feeling the same. You’ll start to feel stale and bored and you won’t take any risks or put your “heart and soul” into the game. 

When it comes down to it, game development is always a creative adventure. Never be afraid to think outside the box and find your own recipe. 

UX design isn’t an exact formula for success. Celia ends the talk by explaining that UX practitioners can supply game developers with research, methodology and guidelines. These are the key ingredients for to offering a fantastic user experience. 

However, it’s always up to the game designer to add their own creativity and make each game a unique recipe. 

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