Endgame: The Final Phase for Experience Design
This is the phase where users have done everything there is to do at least once (according to their perception), and they are figuring out why should they stick around and continue to play the game (especially when there are newer more exciting alternatives out there).
Many have said that, in World of Warcraft, the real game starts when your character has reached the max level. This is not intuitive for non-gamers, because the basic assumption is that once you reach the max level, there is nowhere to go. In the case of well designed games, that actually is the beginning of a multi-year journey.
Unfortunately, not many companies design for the Endgame, which I believe is a huge mistake. Your veterans are usually your best monetization vehicles, your best community moderators, and also your best evangelists.
The problem is that they have been there as long as they can remember, so why should they still continue to stay on board? Have you designed anything that specifically keeps them engaged and motivated?
The game-term Endgame
Often times there is a misunderstanding towards the term “Endgame.”
Some people think that this means the game is about to end, and ask, “What about games that are meant to last forever such as infinite games?”
In reality, in the gaming world, the term Endgame is not where the game ends. The Endgame is where a user has reached the highest level and is transitioning from the basic day-to-day scaffolding mechanics to a new set of mechanics that only advanced-level players can infinitely do.
The Endgame is about endless fun
In Plants Vs Zombies, once you finish all the levels twice, the Endgame is about custom challenges that you can unlock and conquer. In the Diablo series, it’s “Diablo Runs” where players band together to defeat the final boss multiple times a day in order to get enough loot to perfect their gear. In FarmVille, it might be using all your gold and plants to create masterful artwork and take a screenshot before they all wither out.
Gamers sometimes complain in many games that the game developers need to do more work because there’s really nothing to do in the Endgame, which means they have done everything but long for more. Some games may have the general journey (Scaffolding) of striving toward the max level, and the endgame lies in player versus player battles, or Group Quests of Max Level Players taking on extremely difficult challenges.
Differences from other Models
My terminology is also different from other gamification professionals’ last phase of a player’s journey. Kevin Werbach and Amy Jo Kim call the final phase of the journey “Mastery,” as the player has now achieved the highest level of play.
While I think the phrase Mastery is accurate, I believe that the term “Mastery” creates a feeling that it is actually the end of the journey – you have achieved mastery and are looking for something else to master now. With “Endgame,” it is still a “game” you play and try to master. It suggests that the journey keeps going.
So let’s examine how the endgame can be more engaging based on the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis
Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning and Calling in the Endgame
During the Endgame, it becomes much more difficult to install more Epic Meaning and Calling into the process.
Since people have been doing the Desired Actions so much, at this point it is less profound to introduce, “Wow! By the way, this is part of something greater!” From other writings, you will know this should be introduced in the Discovery phase and the Onboarding phase, while reinforced in the Scaffolding Phase. The Endgame now becomes a good time to implement meaning fulfillment, which should have started in the scaffolding phase.
What this means is that, for the things users have done during scaffolding, now is the time to see more feedback on the good work they have done and the impact they have made. If you can show them the actual impact they have made, for instance, more trees planted, more people being fed or more people writing letters to them saying how their lives have changed, that’s a big meaning fulfillment. That keeps users from leaving because ultimately it makes their own lives more meaningful.
Another game technique to use within Epic Meaning & Calling in the Endgame is implementing Elitism. When a player has been playing a lot, it is likely she has a strong standing in the game or leading a group, and if she believes her group is a top-tier group and needs to remain on top, she will stay in the group to play for extensive long periods of time. As that group may also have younger members, the veteran player can also feel like an experienced master by helping the newbies learn the ropes and facilitate all the activities, which extends into Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness.
Sometimes these leading veteran players even keep track of everyone’s activities such as timezone, participation, and trading preferences all in a spreadsheet. That’s because now they believe their group is bigger than themselves and they actually need to sacrifice for the group and game in order to to get group benefits or to not bring shame to the group.
Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity in the Endgame
One of the most sustainable Core Drives in the Endgame is Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity. The very problem with the Endgame is that things become monotonous and there are no longer new surprises to consume the user. In your Endgame design, you want to incorporate as many random and unpredictable elements as possible. This can be in the form of rewards, challenges, or social settings.
Unpredictable rewards in the sense of Easter Eggs, Mystery Boxes, or Social Treasures are great ways to make sure the user stays entertained and engaged during the experience. In games, sometimes there’s a boss or a level that is extraordinarily hard and always changes randomly, so in that case even though the player has completed the challenge many times, there are always new problems to solve. If you can create variables in the challenge the users need to tackle, that is often an ideal and scalable way to engage them in the Endgame.
Of course, some companies add unpredictability to the Endgame experience by continuously adding more content to the experience. This works, but unfortunately, it becomes difficult to scale because the moment the new content stops, the user leaves the system for greener grounds.
Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession in the Endgame
Sometimes a simple and somewhat relaxing way to create activity (but not necessarily engagement) is to have users continue to accumulate things in the Endgame. In the real world, some of the richest people are continuously engaged in the activities of accumulating more wealth, even though it may no longer be necessary. In games, some veteran users continue to play a game just because they are accumulating more resources or points. There isn’t necessarily a true “goal” in the activity, but the act of collecting and accumulating creates what we described in the previous chapter as Blissful Productivity. It feels nice and relaxing if your small actions are accumulating something, whether you have plans to use that something or not.
Another way to implement Core Drive 4 into the Endgame is to have the Alfred Effect make users feel so comfortable, that they constantly come back to feel that they belong. Whether it’s their micro-optimized naming and filing systems, their navigation app that always remember 9PM on a weekday is gym time, or the eCommerce site that remembers your purchasing, payment, and shipping preferences, it becomes a habit for users to come back and feel that sense of control, organization, and automation.
Collection Sets are also great mechanics to expand on within the Endgame. When you have so many pieces within a variety of Collection Sets, you become extremely motivated to complete your set. Add those collection pieces to variable rewards, and players in the Endgame are continuously trying to commit the already-familiar Desired Actions in order to obtain those scarce pieces that they are lacking.
Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience in the Endgame
Along with Collection Sets and the drive to accumulate, the experience should still continue to Dangle rewards or content that are almost unattainable to keep users engaged. To prevent any resources from becoming too scarce, oftentimes in games there is the concept of the “Big Burn,” which are things that require an almost ridiculous amount of points or resources to obtain. These Big Burn items would often become a set of status symbols for the veteran player, showing that they were able to earn it.
Also, in many games the game designer would create extraordinarily difficult stages in the Endgame – ones that are almost not meant to get beaten but continuously let the player feel like there is still something to obtain. Some are even titled “Endless” just to show you can’t really “beat” the challenge, but can only advance as much as you can until the challenge becomes algorithmically harder without stopping. That way the people who are hard-core will always have a goal to reach. However, eventually, even that gets monotonous and boring, as once the user loses interest in the carrot, the appeal is gone. That’s the issue with Left Brain Black Hat Core Drives – it is much more difficult to indefinitely string people along without giving them a joyful experience.
Another design to execute in the Endgame is to mix Moats with unpredictability. These are randomly generated challenges that require great skills and planning to overcome, and could often become intensively difficult in certain combinations. This forces users to continue to use new ways to utilize their veteran skills to overcome the challenge, which leads us to Core Drive 3.
Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback in the Endgame
If you have been studying Octalysis, you will know that Core Drive 3 is the Golden Right Top Core Drive: it is White Hat Gamification, which means users feel powerful, and it is also a Right Brain Core Drive, which means that it focuses on Intrinsic Motivation. If a Gamification designer can maximize on Core Drive 3, then more often than not, players stay in the Endgame for the long run.
Games that master Core Drive 3 in the Endgame such as Poker, Majong, Professional Sports, Chess, Starcraft, Shooting games, and League of Legends-like games, all have mastered the art of creating balanced yet dynamic environments filled with meaningful choices. If you look at most professionals at the top of their field, from sushi-making to chiropractors, you will also see that they see their work as a craft that requires never-ending perfection and creativity.
Unfortunately, Core Drive 3 is also the most difficult to design for. It’s easy to slap on layers of game mechanics and techniques, but making the core activity itself meaningfully engaging is a great challenge. How to do this well is always case by case, but as a rule of thumb, try to break down the tasks into interchangeable pieces and combinations where users can meaningfully make decisions that reflect on their personalities, styles, and strategies. Give users as much autonomy as possible, and have their never-ending skill sets match off with the ever-growing skill sets of other players, which also extends into Core Drive 5.
How to create more Core Drive 3 in the Endgame is something that I am continuously studying, and I believe is the holy grail to long-lasting engagement in any experience. In some way, this process of discovery and mastery is my Core Drive 3 challenge within my own Endgame of understanding how to design for behavioral better.
Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness in the Endgame
Another great way to improve multiple Core Drives in the Endgame is to allow veteran players to compete with each other. This can create a lot of activity in the Endgame because when players are competing with each other they are both Improving in the activity and continuously creating more challenges for each other. Many games like Street Fighter, Starcraft, or Super Smash Bros. have impressive longevity because the interesting aspects of the game grow as each player gets better and better.
Also, as mentioned above, often times Big Burn rewards are often simply status-based rewards like a custom avatar, better equipment, or an activity that looks cool and says to everyone, “Look what I have achieved!” Anything the user can use to show off his seniority becomes something that makes engagement stronger. Of course, it is even better if the user is in a social group that takes on many Group Quests together. The risk here is that if the experience designer is too reliant on Social Influence to keep users in the Endgame and there are very few other Core Drives that motivate them to stay beyond the Endgame when a few important player leaves, it creates a big exodus where everyone else leaves too.
Finally, constantly creating new social settings, whether in the form of people or context, makes the experience more engaging. Think about Water Coolers or Chat Rooms, where because the people going into the Chat Room are constantly changing and generating unpredictable and creative content, there is longer-lasting engagement in the Endgame.
Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment in the Endgame
In the Endgame, implementing the feeling of Development & Accomplishment is also a little difficult because, again, the player has done everything at least once according to him or herself.
However, if you have continuously been setting up the other Core Drives well, where you have a great amount of Scarcity in your system, the users are continuously using their creativity to solve new problems or compete against each other, or they have hit strong milestones with collections or status, they may continue to feel a sense of accomplishment upon each Win-State.
The key here is to never make any challenge too easy, but still continue to use Feedback Mechanics to show the progress of the veteran user. They will continue to stay in your system if you can provide them that feeling of fiero, which again means triumph over adversity.
Also, if the veteran user has gathered a great list of Boosters to make their play more efficient than other players, this added benefit may make them feel smart in everything they do.
Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance in the Endgame
When a user has spent so much time in your system, oftentimes they have built up many things to lose, whether it be resources, points, reputation, status, data storage, or friends. At that point, players may be motivated by avoiding embarrassment in front of newbies, or avoiding the guild they worked hard to build up collapse.
However, what the system continues to have a strong grasp on the user, is the Sunk Cost Prison, where even if users suddenly have the thought of leaving the system, the mere pain of losing everything that has built up would shut off that thought. Of course, if there are no other Core Drives in place, especially White Hat and Right Brain ones, there no longer is a sense of play and joy, but the user feels terrible for not being able to quit.
Oftentimes, if the experience designer continues to create more content, users may get hit by a FOMO Punch, where they are afraid of missing out on new features, new power-ups, or new opportunities to become better. That may keep the veteran user on for longer, but only if the user has reason to believe great things will be coming soon.
Another strong type of Core Drive 8 within the Endgame is Status Quo Sloth. This is where through rigorous discipline on each phase and through the Octalysis Strategy Dashboard, the user starts to build a habit of committing the Desired Actions within your experience and actually feels a bit uncomfortable when she is not doing those actions. Of course, similar to other examples, if there are no other Core Drives that motivate the user at that stage, something more extraordinary that appeals to their sense of Curiosity, Creativity, Accomplishment, Meaning, or Social Desire would eventually motivate the user to change her behavior to pursue a better and fresher future.
It’s not how you start – it’s how you finish
Nowadays there are many game companies who are doing tremendously well throughout the Discovery, Onboarding, and Scaffolding Phases, but when I look at their Endgame (and it takes many hours to study their Endgame), most are put together without careful thought, hoping that the same Black Hat, Left Brain designs would continue to do their magic. However, when users start feeling demoralized based on the experience and no longer derive joy from it, that’s when they quit and find the next big hit. For company employees, it is a bit harder to quit whenever an employee no longer feels happy about it, but whenever the next opportunity becomes possible, she leaves the company and calls it the best day of her life.
Continuously designing for motivation no matter what stage the user is in is not just a good habit – it’s an occupational necessity.
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