The Player’s Journey


Yesterday I wrote about games as pleasurable learning engines that offer up skills to master, and reward you with ever-greater challenges & opportunities. Progress metrics like points, badges, and levels are icing on this learning/mastery cake. They help you gauge where you stand, and how far you’ve come – but they’re meaningless as a stand-alone system without an underlying learning engine to keep you truly engaged.

This concept is at the heart of the Player’s Journey framework, which is built around designing three key stages of the player’s experience:


  • onboarding – the initial Newbie experience that teaches the ropes and sets expectations for what’s to come
  • habit-building – the triggers, activity loops and feedback systems that turns Newbies into Regulars
  • mastery – the ‘elder game’ that opens up to Enthusiasts who’ve mastered the system and want to go deeper

In a well-designed game, each stage is connected to the others, and all the individual design elements coalesce into a coherent  and satisfying learn –> practice –> master experience arc.  Take Journey for instance – a gorgeous, innovative and emotionally compelling PS3 game.  In the early levels, you learn how to walk, jump and fly, and discover that your one goal is to “move towards the light.” Along the way you encounter obstacles, solve puzzles,  discover bits of intriguing backstory, and occasionally run into other players in the desert. After completing the game, you’re rewarded with an ambiguous, haunting, thought-provoking ending sequence – and invited to play again and put your newfound knowledge to work. 


Journey creates a strong sense of place – and reveals different layers upon replay. By modern  gameplay standards, Journey is brief (2-4 hours) – but it’s a deeply satisfying and powerful experience. Your transformation from Newbie to Master is laid out with narrative artistry – plus lots of  breathing room for your imagination.

We can’t all create Journey-level game experiences – but we CAN take inspiration from great games, and design onboarding, habit-building and mastery to be coherent and compelling parts of a whole. In the next few posts I’ll show you how.

P.S. for more on games as learning engines, check out Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for Game Design – GREAT background reading.