5 Key Design Factors for Long-Term Engagement with Gamification

5 Key Design Factors for Long-Term Engagement with Gamification

long term engagement with gamification

Don’t forget these 5 key gamification design principles

This is an Op-Ed by Victor Manrique, CNO of Jugo, the startup that improves your personal skills through games, former co-founder of Cluers, and blogger at Epicwinblog.net 

He earned this Op-Ed opportunity by being a Top Gamification Guru

Did you ever lose track of time because of a game? And did you ever ask yourself why?

Games are one of the most engaging things that we can find because they involve and fulfill almost all of our main human motivators and happiness factors while creating so much fun (see my post on “why people play“), but some very special ones have this stickiness that makes us want to play them for a long period of time.


As it turns out, if we analyze and explore some of the best selling games ever as well as the most popular ones nowadays, it can be stated that there are 5 key engagement factors that all of those games share in common, while matching these requirements:

  • Every single one creates real short term engagement by itself, and the sum of them produces long term engagement that lasts in time

  • They are independent from each other but also related in some way.

  • All of them can be applied to gamification, setting apart the ones that are only found or work properly in games.

I’ve compiled my five biggest key design factors that also match all of the requirements above to make a long-lasting, engaging gamification experience.

1) Make Action & Progress Loops

Human beings like habits, and our brain usually craves patterns that it can follow. Everybody has habits and they are one of the main keys of behavior management. As Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) or Prof. Kevin Werbach (For The Win) state in their books, habit loops are a very powerful source for encouraging people to take some actions, while giving them any kind of feedback that motivates them to repeat that behavior in time.

In gamification, we can identify two different types of loops: action and progress loops. Basically, action loops are based on taking some kind of action, getting something for it and stay motivated to do it again, while progress loops focus on mastery and the player’s improvement in time. If the system is well designed, players will keep on coming back to finish those quests and get their rewards. Besides, they will not only be motivated by the rewards achieved, but also because of the progress made in the rankings, the improvement of their skills, new unlocked challenges, and newly earned access to special privileges (See SAPS).

Some very good examples of these combined loops can be found in games like Travian, Mafia Wars, Celtic Tribes or Top Eleven.


2) Remember VIP Goals

VIP goals, which stand for Valuable, Interesting, and Possible, are one of the main elements of progress loops that I’ve just mentioned, but its success depends on following some specific guidelines

In any gamified system, we need valuable goals for players, or in other words, they must have some intrinsic/extrinsic value for them. They also have to be interesting and engaging, because it’s not only about the goal itself, but also how we reach that point. And something commonly overlooked is that players must also feel that they these presented goals are actually possible and achievable in a short amount of time.

Some great examples of VIP goals are Nike+, Duolingo, and some of the campaigns of Kickstarter.


3) Design Good Reward Systems

Rewards are related to both loops and goals, being a step in between and that’s why basically, every gamified system needs some kind of rewards whether they are real or virtual, extrinsic or intrinsic, positive or negative. In short, they are a very basic but powerful element in any system because they reinforce or discourage the player’s behavior in time.

There are many types of rewards but what we want to create is a system that has different kinds of rewards according to the phase the player is on at the moment. So in the beginning, it’s good to have some fixed rewards that create the first action loops.  Once the player has become an active user, it might be good to combine those with some interval rewards, that are linked to new actions, while in the end we want variable rewards depending on the player’s choices.


4) Start Solo; Evolve into Social

Take a look at your smartphone’s App Store and check out what are the most downloaded and profitable games for mobile devices. Did you realise that there is a great number of MMO games? And that almost all of the most profitable games are related to some kind of social feature?

Humans are social animals and relatedness is one of the most powerful drivers of engagement and motivation. Despite this, some gamification systems may feel like barren experiences when starting out because a social community has not been established around it yet. That’s why I recommend to design experiences that can hold its own without a social experience but still has the functionality to evolve into a social experience as more users become active.

There are so many examples of this type, and many of them are related to growth hacking strategies, but one of my favorites is Dropbox and its storage system.


5) Have an X Factor

The last engagement factor I want to touch on is the”The X Factor”, or in other words, that special ingredient that every really great game has. It can be anything from a core mechanic that produces so much excitement to an epic story, a creative theme or a unique identity or style, but what they all have in common is that they boost the user’s engagement in a way that no other game or system does. However, some of these features can be difficult to implement in a gamified system but we need to try finding our very own X Factor to really create a memorable experience.

Some examples of this X Factor can be found in Tetris and its core mechanics that have engaged players for so long, Final Fantasy and its epic story that makes you want to keep on going to see what’s going to happen next with the characters, Angry Birds and Candy Crush with their creative and colorful themes that produce so much fun, or World of Warcraft, The Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars Online with a totally unique identity and style that creates a passion and cult feeling that only the most powerful and well-known brands in the world have been able to achieve.

Try to identify what your own gamification system has and ask yourself “What is my product’s x factor”?


In the end, designing a great gamified system that lasts in time and keeps users fully engaged is a difficult task. Following and implementing these 5 factors in the right way increases the odds of being successful and achieving our main gamification objectives.

Flickr CC Image by Rob Boudon


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. Great article, Victor! I would say that rewards might not be always a need (I am thinking, for instance, in systems where purpose is the main motivation to play). Of course, this can be also kind of a semantic discussion, as if you play a game to, let’s say, raise funds for a good cause, this can also be taken as an instrinsic reward (I’m doing the right thing so I feel rewarded). Anyway, I totally agree that rewards are needed in almost most gamified systems. And even when they might not be needed, the are always a fantastic tool for engagement and behaviour change 🙂

    • Hi Suso! Thanks for leaving your comment and ideas! Yes, totally agree with what you say, rewards are always a great reinforcement. Besides, and as you say, rewards don’t really have to be extrinsic as they can also be intrinsic. I usually consider them as a general concept rather than a close category for pure monetary rewards, but you have a point there 🙂
      Glad you liked the article and keep in touch!

  2. Victor, all great recommendations. I especially agree with #4. Social proof is a huge participation driver in well-designed gamified solutions, but the experience absolutely needs to stand on its own until there is a critical mass of participants to give it social momentum. Additionally, my experience is that its hard to push social on users before they’ve reached a point of personal commitment — users often want to see first what’s in it for them (if anything) before they start connecting or inviting others to join with them.

    • Thanks Barry! Yes, getting to the point where you become a fully social system is probably one of the hardest steps to achieve but also one of the most rewarding ones. As you say, reaching a certain critical mass requires a lot of effort and mainly, a great value proposition (as gamification doens’t usually work out good if the VP is terrible). Anyway, when you get to that point the “game” changes totally, and usually for the better!

      I’m glad to see it also happened to you, like it’s always better to start as a solo experience to engage those users and then, offer them some more excitement through social features 😉

      Keep in touch and thanks for leaving your comment!

    • I guess I’m against the grain on this one. I play “social” games, but don’t get into the social aspect. As soon as I have to start recruiting friends to play, I quit. I even play MMORPGs solo! I’m very competitive against myself, but not against others. Even in cooperative play, I don’t like to bug my friends to send me in-game stuff or try and schedule times to be in game together, etc. I love earning badges and achievements and all that, but I don’t really care about the social aspect…

      • Beth, while you may be “against the grain”, that’s perfectly normal. Not everybody is motivated by socializing with others, (i.e. the socializer type), you’re more likely an achiever!

        Have you heard of the Bartle player types before?

        • Yes, I’m a combination of achiever and explorer. I like to earn badges and levels and I like to collect things, like pets in WoW, which serve no purpose other than to be cosmetic. But I like to collect things in RL, too. I don’t really WANT them, it’s the thrill of the hunt! But I also like to just roam around and see what I can find. I really dislike games that force me on a specific path, I prefer open worlds.

          • Makes sense. Everyone plays games for different reasons but it just so happens that the most popular games right now are driven by action and competitive mechanics. If you’re interested in exploring…Dear Esther is a cheap game that’s well regarded:


      • No worries Beth! We are all different and we all love different stuff 🙂
        I have many friends that play MMOs on their own like you, and they hate getting into alliances or having to take care of others, but thats normal! As Ivan say, not everyone is keen on socialising all the time, the same way not everyone likes PvP, but PvE, because they are less competitive
        But in any case, the key is trying to implement mechanics for all types of players while focusing on your main target 😉
        But i can tell you that If you develop a solo experience that also allows social features, success is more likely to happen 🙂

  3. Possibly one of the best overviews I’ve seen of gamification – note: no mention of points, badges or leaderboards when talking long term engagement! Something that is lost on most articles about gamification. Good one.

  4. I agree with tanyalau, this is the best explanation of gamification I’ve ever read, and is a great way to explain it to those who are against “games” in serious environments. It’s not about games, it’s about using the game mechanics or lessons from game design. I’m spreading this one everywhere I can.

  5. Thank you for your kind words Tanyalau and Beth! I always try my best (and work hard) to share great content and it’s really nice to see that people find it useful 🙂
    Yes! No PBLs as the main features! They are a great source of short-term engagement that usually last some days/weeks but after that, users need more fun and motivation! (that can also include them, which is usually recommendable).
    And yes, gamification is not games. It can be mixed with games or serious games, ARGs or anything related to it but as a concept itself, it’s more like a design tool to create fun and motivating experiences within a non-gaming context while using all that we can learn from game design techniques (which is quite a lot! :D)
    Thanks again for sharing and i’m really glad you liked it!

  6. Very convincing article Victor! One major challenge i experienced in enterprise gamification of non-gaming context is, instructing players to achieve goals (what to do) by hiding complexity of the system. Sometime we make a great games but that fails to attract players, specially to corporate-players those who never show interest in games. For small games like Angry bird, little story & in-game instructions of bird’s actions are convincing. Same is applicable to enterprise gamification instructions? Do we have standardization of game instructions to handle enterprise gamifications to attract wide range of player’s psychologies?

    • Hi Vishal! Thanks! 🙂
      Yeah, hiding complexity is one of the major tasks that any gamified system has, specially in the beginning! There’s usually so much to do if the system is well designed so that’s why a good onboarding is so important,
      Speaking about the corporate world and enterprise gamification, I think that the key is starting small, as in any other game. Try to begin with some small but key action loops, like daily tasks while adding more complexity in time. A good starting loop could be: action, reward, action, reward, action, action, reward, progress, etc
      That can be done limiting the options available with access items, or unlocking options!
      And about your last question, what do you exactly mean? 🙂
      Do you refer to player types or to the different types of mechanics that fit different player types?

      • Thanks Victor! This is helpful..
        Regarding my last question. I’m curious about, a generic game onboarding mechanics that fit different player types.

        • Great! I’m glad Vishal,
          So about that, i do have to say that every gamified experience is going to be different and that’s why we cannot talk of generic approaches,
          Usually, action and progress loops + goals fit quite good in the very beginning, and almost every kind of player will like that (even those will have a different layout in each case), but apart from that, try to first of all, analyze who are your main player types to implement a special mechanic that they could like in the onboarding. could be any of them but keep it simple!
          Every new gamification project will be different, so don’t focus too much on generic stuff and make it personalised 😉
          Anyway, if you want to talk more about it just send me an email and I’ll be glad to chat with you about it!

          • If we are targetting 25 to 55 age group of professionals within gamified system then definitely we need analysis on object’s responses based on age/experiences. But this would involve more psychological research.
            As you said above, It seems “action and progress loops + goals” can cover most of the audiences at beginner level and refining this steps further based on analysis can simplify much complicated system learning.
            Your suggested approach i can consider as initial-generic approach 🙂
            Thanks for your valuable inputs!!

          • If we are targetting 25 to 55 age group of professionals within gamified system then definitely we need analysis on object’s responses based on age/experiences. But this would involve more psychological research.
            As you said above, It seems “action and progress loops + goals” can cover most of the audiences at beginner level and refining this steps further based on analysis can simplify much complicated systems.
            Your suggested approach i can consider as initial-generic approach 🙂
            Thanks for your valuable inputs!!

          • Thank you for interacting and for your passion Vishal! Always great to chat with people like you! ; )

            I’m @victormanriquey on Twitter! So keep in touch and good luck! Tell me how it goes with that project of yours!