hedonic treadmill

Why TwoDots is Impossible to Stop Playing

The latest game to come out of betaworks’ game studio, TwoDots, is impossible to put down. If you’ve played the original Dots, then you’re already familiar with how to score. Connecting same-colored dots horizontally or vertically gets you points, and making a square removes all the same-colored dots that are left on the board. But instead of keeping Dots’ original scoreboard-style gameplay, TwoDots is almost quest-like. With the addition of a new lives system, where players start with five lives, TwoDots invites players to take on a new set of challenges in each world your brave heroes (Amelia and Jacques) visit. If you run out of lives, you’re forced to take a short break while you wait for your lives to replenish. After that, the adventure can continue again.

Past the first world, the levels get progressively harder. New powerups, like bombs, are introduced, anchors are added, and dots get frozen in ice.


Twodots Level 2Twodots MapTwodots Level

If you get stuck on a level and run out of moves, restart, or quit, you lose a life. Lose all five lives, and you can’t play until your lives regenerate. You get one life back every twenty minutes. Connecting to Facebook won’t let you plead with your friends for more lives à la Candy Crush, but will let you guys compare your progress. Of course, TwoDots offers in-app purchases to help you if you’re stuck. Bombs and a set of five extra moves can be had at a dollar apiece. A dollar will also buy you another life if you’ve run out.

For those of us who would rather wait it out, TwoDots sends push notifications when we get new lives. And no matter how challenging that last level was, we will grab our phones and play it again.

Why do we keep playing?

Well, it involves a psychological push, what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Let’s take a quick look at a case study involving chocolate.

Researchers Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn published a 2013 study in which they tested chocolate consumption within two groups for a two week period. Group A was allowed to binge on unlimited chocolates, while group B were told to abstain from chocolate. After the two-week period, both groups returned to the lab and were given the candy. Asked to rate how much they enjoyed it, Group B, upon having the first bite of chocolate in two weeks, savored it more and reported a higher happiness level and a better mood after eating the treat.

This phenomenon, hedonic adaptation, is our tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite recent positive (or negative) events or life changes. Since people tend to adapt to most positive experiences, their enjoyment decreases over time. Aside from the chocolate study, other studies also report that frequent breaks can enhance your enjoyment of pleasurable activities. Nelson and Meyvis, in a 2009 study, found out that commercials actually increase the enjoyment of watching a television program. In a 2008 study, the duo found out that taking a break from listening to your favorite song on repeat also makes the song more enjoyable. Despite the fact that many of the participants didn’t want the breaks – they preferred to keep their pleasant experiences intact and uninterrupted – they appreciated having them, and reported higher enjoyment levels of the initial experience afterwards.

Twodots Map 2 Twodots Out of Moves Twodots Level Fail

TwoDots’ lives system forces you to not play it for a couple of hours while your lives regenerate. As you go from “full of life” to “losing lives,” you have to wait 20 minutes to restore each life you lost. At most (if you burn through all your lives on a really difficult level) it’s an hour and 40 minute wait. That’s enough time to watch a movie on Netflix, go on a summer bike ride, or take a nap. TwoDots harnesses the power of hedonic adaptation well, and it’s breaks – those 20 minutes – keep players interested in the quest without frustrating them terribly.

Short of spending five dollars for bombs on a level you might not even clear, the next option is to wait it out. Forced breaks, or timewalls, disrupt hedonic adaptation so that a player doesn’t get used to the fun experience of playing, and actually intensifies the subsequent experience. With TwoDots and other games that depend on a “lives” system, taking a break from the game actually makes you want to play it more. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to limit how much you can play in a day, this actually creates a habit of checking your lives and playing the game daily…which makes it nearly impossible to stop playing.

Twodots Hedonic Treadmill

Nearly…because at a certain point – past level 59 – TwoDots may just be too hard to play without purchasing a few powerups. At this point, player retention may fall as players feel the game’s level difficulty has become impossible, the waiting time is too long, or they don’t want to buy powerups to finish the level. The TwoDots team may want to test a few variables in the game to prevent hedonic adaptation and improve power-user retention such as:

  • Time needed to regenerate lives
  • Max number of lives players have
  • Bonuses on lives or powerups
  • Progression in level difficulty

Quantifying Fun

All of these depend on finding an optimal range where users don’t adapt and get bored with playing, but where they also don’t get frustrated with playing. A/B testing can help the TwoDots team find the sweet spot where players are actively engaging with and enjoying the game. Quantifiable metrics that are indicative of getting this balance right: 7 and 30-day retention rates, IAP conversion rate by type of IAP, average number of games played per session, average number of lives spent per session, and the IAP conversion rate (or proportion of users who spend money on IAPs). But IAPs aren’t the only measure of success. Users are important too. Keep in mind what Owen Mahoney, chief executive of Nexon, said in a New York Times article about freemium games and microtransactions: “The No. 1 job is not to monetize. It’s to keep the user coming back for years or months on end.”

With hedonic adaptation, keeping the user coming back depends on perfecting the balance between limiting access and increasing enjoyment. Remember, taking a break from a pleasant experience will increase future happiness, but taking a break from an unpleasant experience (when players become frustrated and decide to quit) will increase future unhappiness.