Projects and habits: the two pillars of engagement

Clash of Clans is one of the best retaining mobile games on the market. At a GDC talk earlier this year, Supercell designer Jonathan Dower gave a mind-blowing stat: Clash’s two year retention is 10%. For most games, 10% is a good number to have retained at 30 days.

Long-term retention. How do you get it? How do you create an app that will bring a user in and keep him coming back for two years?

Inspired by Supercell, here’s a framework that I’ve been thinking about. I call it Projects & Habits.

Projects: goal-directed behavior

Sometimes when a human does something, he does it for a reason. Psychologists call this “goal-directed” behavior. For example, in the opening sequences of Clash of Clans, I’m told that I have to build a cannon if I want to protect the villagers from the invading Goblins. When I tap to build a cannon, I’m doing it in order to protect the villagers. This is a goal-directed action.

To elicit a goal-directed behavior, the app maker must move the user’s mind in a few ways. First, she has to present some incentive that the user cares about. This can be especially difficult in the first moment’s of a user’s experience with your app: the user just showed up, and now she has to present some reward that he’s going to care about. Then the app maker has to show the user what work he has to do in order to get the reward. She has to make it clear to his understanding, and she has to make it a good enough deal that he’ll actually do it. In the example above, Clash leverages a basic desire to help out these poor (pretty, female) villagers and save them from the violent-looking Goblins. That’s enough to get me to take the simple action of tapping a few buttons.

When a user is in the situation of having some incentive in mind that he wants and intends to work for and he knows the work he has to do to get the reward, this user has a project. The app maker’s job is to help the user develop lots of simultaneous projects on long and short time scales.

But projects aren’t enough to sustain long-term engagement. This is because goal-directed behavior relies on the current motivational state of the user. Motivation wanes. Life gets busy. What once seemed fresh grows tired. What one seemed important gets overshadowed.

In order to keep a user coming back to your app after his mood has changed and your freshness has worn off, you’ll need to make it a habit.

Habit

Other times when a human does something, he does it out of habit. For example, when I sit down on the bus I usually pull my phone out of my pocket without even really thinking about it. This is a habit: it’s a learned behavior, triggered by some recurring context, and it’s insensitive to changes in the value of the reward for completing the action. It’s so insensitive that I don’t even know what kind of reward I’m hoping to get. It’s purely automatic.

Habitual behaviors are stable — the very nature of a habit is that it doesn’t require special motivation, and it’ll keep occurring even if the reward doesn’t occur in the same way every time.

The interplay

In order for a product to be highly engaging for a long time, it has to achieve an effective interplay between goal-directed behavior and habitual behavior. Supercell games Clash of Clans and Clash Royale are masterful examples of this.

Goal-directed behaviors are essential, because all habitual behaviors had to start out as goal-directed behaviors. When a user first shows up in your app, there are no habits. Your job is to build them, and you build them by putting users through goal-directed behavioral loops.

When a user goes through the same context-work-reward scenario again and again, a habit begins to form. Your job as an app maker is to form those habits, and continually strengthen them. You do that with rich goal-directed behavioral loops.

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