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The Impact of Game Design on Player Engagement and Retention

User retention should be one of the primary metrics tracked by every game developer or app publisher. It has an impactful effect on ROI and directly determines its success.

Players tend to have short attention spans and will quickly lose interest if your game doesn’t engage them. Here are some strategies for increasing player engagement and retention.

Game mechanics

Retaining players is one of the primary challenges for mobile game creators, as player retention serves as an indicator for how well their game is being monetized and targeted to its intended target market.

Player engagement can be determined by various elements, including game mechanics, story, rewards and progression systems, agency and control structures and social elements. One of the key aspects is being able to interact with the game universe using various gaming techniques such as physics simulation, scripting and visual scripting; additionally, this allows for familiarity in gameplay which helps increase player engagement.


An immersive story can greatly increase player engagement in any game and serve as an effective means of encouraging behavioral change and long-term retention.

Game design involves two sides – creativity in creating its setting, story and aesthetics; as well as technical expertise when determining game mechanics and balancing. Together these aspects combine to form one of the most robust and complex fields of study today.

Games that require minimal player activity may allow for extensive story exposition to unfold naturally while players click links while playing; however, stories which are essential to behavioral intervention might benefit more from being presented separately (and professionally) prior to any gameplay.

Rewards and progression systems

Player motivation requires rewarding them frequently with rewarding experiences that are both meaningful and frequent. Progression systems offer such rewards; typically these incremental improvements to the game help players achieve goals such as leveling up, completing quests or unlocking skills within skill trees.

Players need clear opportunities to temporarily step away from a game and return at another time, in order to prevent burning themselves out in one session and potentially quitting completely.

Understanding what drives retention is of equal importance in both free-to-play and paid upfront games, whether free-to-play or paid upfront. This requires looking beyond time-based metrics and instead identifying key thresholds that signal high retention such as levels reached, matches won or currency spent; then targeting player nudges towards these thresholds.

Agency and control

Players’ experiences in games are defined by their level of engagement and ability to interact with it, with well-designed games aiming to offer immersive and captivating playback for players – however some techniques used in their creation may also lead to addiction or have negative repercussions for them.

Feedback, both outcome (scores and progress indicators) and cognitive mechanisms such as hints and prompts, is integral to player engagement and facilitating learning within games. The challenge lies in providing these sources of feedback without disrupting player flow and their sense of control and ownership over their actions.

Two individual traits have been identified that should help to mitigate the effect of instructional design on user satisfaction and motivation in digital games: sensation seeking (the desire for diverse, novel sensations or experiences) and goal orientation.

Social elements

Video game designers not only design game rules and aesthetics, but they must also devise user interfaces such as inventory screens, health and hunger bars or text scores that enable player interactions and enhance user engagement.

Successful digital games offer optimal challenge and offer clear, frequent, and useful feedback that increases cognitive engagement during gameplay. These elements can assist with knowledge construction – be it factual, conceptual, procedural or metacognitive – by increasing learners’ motivation to engage with learning activities and their self-efficacy beliefs.

Also, social elements (player-character interactions) contribute to satisfying human need for relatedness, with such measures including community or narrative structures that facilitate such social engagement and immersion.