Marketing & Metrics

Game Design 101: The Psychology Behind Successful Mobile Games


Designing a mobile game that stands out from the five-hundred games launched each day on iOS is no small feat. With equal parts science and creativity, mobile game designers and developers can create successful mobile games based around simple human psychology and drive immersion, engagement, and revenue.

Brush off your old Psych 101 book with these basics and learn how they’re deployed in successful mobile games.


Cognitive Flow

When Steph Curry gets in “the zone” and makes every shot he takes he’s engaging in cognitive flow – or full and energized immersion. Game designers will induce cognitive flow by designing levels to be challenging yet rewarding with pinch points at the exact right moments.

Examples of pinch points might be having a typical player run out of coins before they unlock a popular new machine in a social casino game or have a very difficult boss at the end of a mission that the average player will lose against and therefore make an in-app purchase or watch an ad for an extra life. They’re designing both for a great user experience and revenue opportunities.


Positive reinforcement

We’re all familiar with this one – if you want something to be repeated, reward a person for doing it.

Mobile game designers use this basic psychological principle in level up bonuses, hourly bonuses, and consecutive daily bonuses to increase retention and engagement. Mobile game marketers will push for features like rewarded push notifications and free coin links on social media pages as ways to reward players for opting in to push or liking them on Facebook. These tactics are used in the top successful mobile games like Candy Crush, Slotomania, and Clash Royale.


Simplicity Theory

You’re designing for players who are using a handheld device with an average session length of seven and a half minutes. They don’t have time for complex plotlines and in-depth character arcs unlike their console game cousins.

Mobile game designers must take into consideration that people are biased towards simplicity – which is why simple games that are easy to learn like Angry Birds are so popular. Ways to design simple are decreasing visual stimuli, designing the game to be playable with one hand, and providing a continued tutorial as they level up and unlock additional features versus having a long intro tutorial.


Self-Determination Theory

Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness

You may not have read this chapter in Psych 101 but it is one of the basic theories of human psychology.

First, people enjoy being autonomous and feeling that what they’re doing is self-endorsed. Game designers and marketers can prompt these feelings through game mechanics like tailored push notifications, email campaigns, and social media by reminding a player a sale is going on – but leaving it up to them to purchase or not. Autonomy can also be implemented by allowing a user to choose their journey within the game or giving them the option to go back and complete a level for a better ranking.

Competence, or feeling a high-level of success at something, is crucial for the initial levels of a mobile game. Designers want players to feel that they’re good at the game – that it isn’t too difficult or too easy; they feel accomplished after playing which results in them wanting to play again.

Last, but definitely not least, is relatedness. This involves the community that your players are engaging with including in-game, on forums, and on social media. Players want to feel like they belong to an engaged group they relate to. By adding in-game sharing with Facebook friends or creating a really engaging and active presence on social media, designers and marketers have a greater chance at increasing engagement, retention, and revenue and being a case study for successful mobile games.


Game designers can implement the above theories into mobile game design to help a game’s stickiness by:

–  Adjusting a game’s difficulty at different levels/stages of the gameplay

–  Adapting in-app purchase prices based on what people are buying and determining the best possible first deposit amount and in-game moment.

–  Creating new levels, challenges, and in-game features that excite users like other successful mobile games including Marvel Contest of Champions and Summoners War.

–  Understanding when players most often leave the game and implement some of these psychological theories to reduce churn rates 

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