Book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal is well known between people in the industry. It’s not surprising. Retention is always one of the most important KPI, especially in mobile free to play business. Hooked framework is describing the loop, which your players have to experience on their journey with your game. From the first impulse which convinces them to install, open and play to return back the next day and experience the whole loop again.
First, short introduction about how Hooked framework describes four steps required for building habit forming products:
- Trigger – cue users to do action which leads to use of your product. First time it’s an external trigger (for example video ad or word of mouth). All next triggers associated with the same products are triggered internally through the user’s memory.
- Action – it’s the user’s behavior motivated by anticipation of reward.
- Variable reward – immediate gratification of user’s needs.
- Investment – user’s behavior focused on creating a value, which increase rewards in the future. Investing more into product increase chance that user pass through whole loop again.
Hooked Framework + games
As “Hooked” is written for a broader spectrum of products I decided to go deeper and identify how we can look at mobile games through optics of this framework. Understanding all single steps is important, but as they don’t figure alone, it’s important to examine them together with the whole context.
If the examples and principles of this framework seem obvious to you, don’t forget that the majority of our experiences become from successful games and products. One of the reasons why they become successful is very probably a fact, that they are able to form habits between their players and users.
Let’s imagine a fictional player and a fictional mobile game where we will identify key aspects of his journey and how playing this game can become a habit. The stronger habit it will be, the stronger the retention we can expect. Easy. Because the habit is forming over time, we will go through a few loops where we will be able to identify how different elements are changing and developing.
1st Loop – External Trigger
Although we can identify more types of first external trigger, the number one is of course marketing. Short ads on social networks, promotions in stores or directly in other games. Video ads creators have just a few seconds (1.7 on mobile devices) to attract potential players by creating specific feelings which are appealing and fulfilling their motivations. For the purpose of this article we will stay in a model, where our potential user is active players of mobile games. It’s much simpler to convince somebody who has inner motivation to play games as a hobby or lifestyle, than somebody who can’t imagine any added value in this activity.
Other forms of external triggers can be inviting friends through an integrated system directly in the game, word of mouth or any other platforms sharing information between users, content creators and their audience.
If you succeed, a potential player decides to give your game a try. They have found something appealing that activates his behavior toward your game. If it was graphical style, sample of interesting gameplay or captivating emotion, they still have a long way ahead. But congratulations, the first important step is done.
1st Loop – Action
Now when a potential player has your attention, the next step is required – action. Downloading of a game, installation and passing a tutorial – everything should have less friction as possible. From clear interface to minimal loading time. There is just one attempt and the player’s first time user experience (FTUE) has to be just perfect.
Example: Crash Bandicoot: On he Run! starts the first session directly by arcade gameplay. No boring menus and setups, just direct action. All necessary for advancing in the game will come later.
Don’t forget, that player came into a game with some basic expectations created by external triggers. Fulfilling them is now his primary motivation, why he decided to invest his time and effort into starting to play a new game. If we are talking about marketing, the fact is that we have our presentation materials under our control. Although it’s a hard task to communicate it well, it’s important if we want to succeed and reach the next step in Hooked Framework – variable reward.
1st Loop – Variable reward
Were the player’s needs satisfied? Important question. As I mentioned before, all players are coming into a game with some sort of expectations and motivations. Nir Eyal is describing three basic types of rewards: the tribe, the hunt and the self. But when we think about reward as fulfillment of a player’s motivations in a game, we can go deeper. Maybe you know Bartle taxonomy, which divides players into 4 segments: Killers, Achievers, Socializers and Explorers. But currently we can go even deeper. Companies like Quantic Foundry or Game Refinery introduced their own systems to clasificate player’s motivation which are much closer to current needs of the industry.
If all steps of the Hooked Framework are aligned and focused on gratification on specific motivators and emotions, the probability that the player will not end a session with disappointment is higher. Think about it while designing the whole FTUE.
Example: Homescape ads showing different game. They had to add this kind of gameplay into the game to align the player’s expectation and reality.
1st Loop – Investment
If the player feels rewarded, it’s time to let them invest into a game. Here we can talk about progress in a game, which will increase rewards in the future. As players start to understand a game’s core loop, the future reward can be more specific in the term of actual game mechanics (ingame currencies, unlocking new features or content).
Ultimate investment is of course purchase of virtual stuff for real money (IAP). But the main and most common investment is gameplay, which costs the player’s time and mental energy. So let’s our player have fun through fulfilling quests, developing their avatar or whatever is important for progress.
So the player successfully finished the first loop of the Hooked framework. Let’s hope that the experience we have prepared for them was interesting enough and they will want more.
Example: Sim City Buildit – In the first session the player builds a nice small city. They created roads, factories and water supplies Citizens are grateful for caring and the indicator of their happiness is almost 100%. Nobody wants to disappoint them. Also they already unlocked new buildings. They understood that with expanding city, the more interesting and varied gameplay they will experience.
2nd Loop – Internal Trigger
The big moment is here! Does our player have enough motivation, which will tickle his internal trigger? If the answer is yes and they will open the game again next day, we can count him into D1 retention. And that’s matter.
The second loop of habit forming framework just began and the player came into a game with expectation, which is little different than it was last time. They tried real gameplay and aligned their original expectation with reality. After a positive experience from the first session they want to experience more – they were rewarded and they made an investment in the form of time and energy. Now it’s our turn to provide them exciting gameplay and game features to fulfill modified expectations. But everything has to be still related to original motivation and emotion.
Note: Now everything is starting to be more connected. You can start observing the same patterns in smaller and also larger scope.
2nd Loop – Action
What do players have to do to open our fictional game? Usually just tap on the game’s icon and wait until the game will load. Will they be able to identify the right icon between others?
The second gameplay session should have as less friction as possible too. It’s not difficult to forget basic controls during the night. Post-tutorial help can be useful and nice here. Plus we have to rely on the fact that the player understood the core loop and principle of the game in the previous session. Clear UI, goals or tasks are our friend here.
2nd Loop – Variable reward
As I mentioned at the beginning of the second loop, the player’s motivations and expectations changed a little bit. With this fact in mind we have to design rewards in the second loop.
As free to play games are selling virtual goods, it is crucial that players will understand the value of in game currencies and resources. Not only in the form of real money, but also in the form of gameplay, emotions and fulfilling their motivations. Because desire to get them more will be the main trigger to play any game again and again.
Example: After I joined the live ops event by completing level (action), I got a reward in the form of infinite lives + I unlocked a new feature where I can invest my time and energy.
2nd Loop – Investment
As in the first loop, we have to let’s player invest more time and their energy into a game. With a player’s progress, the investment can be in various forms. New possibilities, new challenges, new features, live-ops events. What could look in the first session as overwhelming, now should be appreciated and welcomed. Investment into these new possibilities will increase reward in the future.
And here we end. But if the player is hooked and will continue in playing our fictional game, the more and more loops of Hooked Framework they will experience.
The Hooked Framework helps us to break up the user experience into smaller steps and work with them in a bigger context. Context where everything is connected and we have to work together. That’s what I see as the main advantage of this approach. I’m sure that you could find better examples and implementations in existing games. And that’s ok – to be aware of the bigger concept behind single game’s elements is a key to understanding and designing better games.