Level Up: How Motivational UX Makes For Amazing Video Games

By Kat Craig, Designer

My earliest memory of video games is being completely lost in a world of tiny bouncing 8-bit dinosaurs as they collected various colored orbs across the screen. I was just 7 years old and the game was Bubble Bobble for NES. This was the gateway to a life-long love affair that continues to amaze, delight, and fascinate me every day. But what is it about video games that I, and so many other gamers, are drawn to and keeps us coming back for more? If we take a look at some of the 9 principles of Motivational UX™, created by Smashing Ideas, we can see how they can be applied not only to design, but how they are key ingredients to some of the most successful video games on the market today.

So what makes a video game amazing? This argument is clearly subjective (some players love the Call of Duty series, while others prefer Mass Effect), but there are a few key elements that often show up in both indie and blockbuster titles that help them rise above the rest. But first, let’s start with the basics of Motivational UX™: Motivational UX™ (MUX) is a customer-centric approach that brings together behavioral psychology, smart UX and fittingly, game design thinking, to technology solutions, in order to create experiences that fully engage the user and increase engagement and retention levels. Within MUX there are 9 Principles that have the strongest impact on user behavior. Exploring these principles within the gaming space helps us uncover the motivation behind a player’s return to certain titles time and time again.  In this article I will be touching on a sampling of the following principles and detailing how they are represented in mass-consumer games: Aesthetics, Content & Story, Self Expression, Exploration, and Belonging. More details on all nine can be found here.



Gorgeous Graphics and Incredible Story.

Games such as JourneyOri and the Blind ForestLife is Strange, and Child of Light use two MUX principles that tend to be at the top of many players’ check list when they are looking for a new game to lose themselves into: Aesthetics and Content & Story. As a gamer you want an experience that is beautiful and immersive, with characters that draw you in with their relatable and well-written stories. Journey and Ori do this with little to no dialogue at all, and yet you continue to travel with the main characters as though it were your own adventure. Child of Light and Life is Strange, both awash in a dream-like watercolor setting, allow you to make decisions as to where the story should go next.  This lets you, the player, feel as though you had a hand in designing the game yourself.



Customization and Discovery.

Part of the appeal of video games is the interactive nature of them and how you can make them your own. Designers and developers accomplish this using the MUX principles of Self Expression and Exploration.  The ability to add your own personal touches when creating a character helped launch the popularity of many MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) and open world RPGs (role playing games). The flexibility and massive scale of these games extend play much longer than traditional platformers of the past. In the Fallout and Sims franchises you can let your imagination run wild and create a character that looks like yourself, or something completely otherworldly. After an hour (or three) of character creation the time has finally come to explore the vast world that awaits. You could be making your way to Solitude in Skyrimbut completely forget why you’re going there because you got sidetracked in Whiterun. Alternatively you could be camping out in Shadowmoon Valley for rare spawns while your quest log sits untouched in World of WarcraftThat’s the beauty of games like this and why millions of players keep coming back. You play on your own terms.



A Welcoming Community.

While some gamers prefer to get lost in one player games on their own, there are also plenty who want to connect online and even create new friendships while going on a raid or even going head-to-head. This gives gamers a sense of BelongingDestiny makes it easy to find and create ‘Fire Teams’ with your online friends. As another example, Nintendo created Miiversea whole social network where you can post screenshots from your epic boss battles and even your own works of art drawn on the Wii U gamepad. On an even larger scale, streaming websites like Twitch.tv provide live video game content of almost any genre, and fans, whether of a specific game or video games in general, ban together to create close knit chat communities.


Video games, in essence, are by and large a form of escapism. For some, it may feel even more like home than their actual home. Whether it’s finally reaching that epic gear status or putting in hundreds of hours discovering new territories, gaming helps you get away from the mundane or from a difficult time. With thousands of video games on the market at any given time, these principles are represented in varying degrees. The designers and developers that efficiently utilize these principles of Motivational UX™ help their games reach a level up above the rest.


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