As part of my work in graduate school, I completed a thesis entitled Continue? What Keeps Players Motivated While Playing Console Role-Playing Games which is as long-winded as pretty much every other thesis title I saw while doing my research and writing, so at least it's in esteemed company.
The main focus of the thesis was to look at the factors that motivated people while they played one of three games on the Playstation 4: Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, and Diablo 3. Each game was tested with 10 participants, for a total of 30. Each participant spent an hour playing the game while their voice was recorded, and after gameplay concluded, they took a short survey.
The research was based around Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a popular theory in motivational psychology that's typically used for research into occupations and sports, but I found that it worked pretty well to use it for the initial onboarding phases of video games as well.
SDT maps motivation to three key dimensions: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. If you want to check out more about SDT, here is a great place to start.
This research revealed several key findings. Two of the games that were tested, The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne, had features that prevented participants from feeling sufficiently competent while playing. These features were The Witcher 3’s confusing combat tutorial and Bloodborne’s poor implementation of introducing players to key concepts, as well as not giving participants a clear path on how to proceed through the game. The most salient of these findings was that, above all, feelings of competence are the most likely to occur during the first moments of playing a game. Likewise, feeling competent is essential for players to feel they are really “playing” the game, that they have agency in the gameworld, and command of their characters’ actions.
Overall, the research revealed that two of the games that were tested (The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne) thwarted participants’ feelings of competence by mishandling the way they gave participants autonomy. The two games did this in distinct ways: The Witcher 3’s combat tutorials were too restrictive, forcing participants to repeat actions for long periods without giving them proper feedback to indicate they were not performing the action correctly. Bloodborne, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction, providing participants with no explicit instructions or tutorials, which left participants frequently lost and unsure how to proceed.
Competence exists as a sort of gateway to the formation of the more complex motivations of autonomy and relatedness. Therefore, competence must be established before any of the other motivators. Of course, this research did not fully explore the true extent of SDT or intrinsic motivation in games. To understand the true extent of the motivations present in these games, a much longer and more extensive testing protocol would be needed, taking place over weeks or months.
Still, the research does show the ways intrinsic motivation can begin to form in players’ minds as they begin the journey through the game, and may shed some light on the early moments in a game that can effectively engage players to make them feel they have proper control over their characters and can competently navigate the game world. Another point that arose in this research is that participants understood the value of the user interface and in-game mechanics that were tested, but disliked using them. This was largely the case because the RPGs tested in this research are very complex, which was daunting to some of the participants.
If you'd like to read my thesis in its entirety, you can download it here