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Noodle Theory Part 2: Autonomy and Relatedness
In part 1 on Noodle Theory, we talked about using artificial stat boosts to give players the illusion of skill progression. In part 2, we dive into the other noodle flavors that games use to keep players engaged.
Self-determination theory (SDT) says we choose to do things to fulfill our psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We focused on competence in part 1 since most games have some element of skill (which lets players experience competence). Now we turn to the other two parts of SDT to see what games can offer.
But first, what do we mean by “autonomy” and “relatedness” when it comes to games?
Autonomy is having agency in your life, which means having choices inside your game. Surprisingly, these choices don’t even have to be meaningful! Even giving a player a choice of which random card of three to flip for a reward feels better than just giving them a random reward outright. Different players have different levels of sophistication: some may be fine with this false choice, others may need more theming or actual mechanics for it to matter. But ultimately autonomy means giving players the freedom to choose in your game.
Relatedness in SDT is about connecting with others. Humans are social creatures, and most of us find fulfillment in our relationships. In multiplayer games this is obvious – playing a 20-person World of Warcraft raid with your guild will give you a sense of belonging with that group. But you can also develop relatedness to fictional, non-player characters in games as well. This isn’t surprising; we grow attached to characters in movies, and we don’t even get to interact with them like we do in games.
Armed with our definitions, we can now return to making our noodles.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand these noodles is to see them in action. Hades from Supergiant Games is a masterclass in Noodle Theory. In Hades, you play as Prince Zagreus, the son of Hades (the ruler of the Underworld). You battle through the levels of hell trying to escape upwards to the surface, collecting upgrades and boons from Olympian gods on your journey. But it’s a “rogue-lite” which means you’re usually supposed to fail to escape, and try again. (This is more fun than it sounds.) When you die, you take all the currency you’ve collected along the way back to the beginning, where you can spend them to improve before you embark again.
Let’s look at the noodles:
Autonomy - As you play through the game you unlock new weapons that you can choose for your escape attempt, each with its own playstyle. And each of those weapons has further customizations you can unlock and upgrade. You can wield a comically oversized sword, and hit things very hard, or you can choose a bow and kill enemies from afar. It’s your choice!
During your escape attempts you'll also be presented with a choice of boons from the gods you encounter. This is perhaps the most important autonomy the game provides since it 1) happens multiple times per session, and 2) dramatically changes how you play during the escape. Each choice you make interacts with your other choices, creating a unique combinatorial outcome each time you play.
Relatedness - A host of characters seem to happily hang out in your Underworld home, and there’s a pantheon of Olympian gods that aid you on your quest. Throughout your escape attempts, you slowly deepen your relationships with these characters, revealing a story with more words than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. And of course, because all noodles are better when combined, you have autonomy in who you choose to build relationships with first.
Competence - And finally, since this is a video game, you get stronger as you play. All the systems that provide autonomy and relatedness also boost your power, creating the illusion of skill that keeps you going. You may think you’re now much better at the game, but try starting over from scratch with none of your upgrades or fancy weapons, and you’ll quickly see just how much the game has been helping you along.
It’s not just important for a game to offer autonomy, competence, and relatedness – you could get that playing chess with a friend. It’s important that the game systems provide progression along each of these dimensions every single time you play. When you return home after dying in Hades, you are showered with little bursts of progression along all three axes. What's normally a sad moment – no one likes dying in games – is turned into one that actually feels good!
Just like our skills can plateau or jump suddenly in the real world, the same is true for autonomy and relatedness. You may have some autonomy in your job, but it might be uneven from day to day depending on the whims of your boss. Hopefully you have friends, but there are still days you don’t see them, or days when you’re annoyed by them. A game that is filled with noodles does away with the messy reality of life because we can control the experience.
Once again, this is ostensibly about games but extends beyond it. Peloton is a great example: Every time you ride, you have your choice of instructor, length, music, and type of ride. Autonomy! They encourage you to give other riders high fives, the instructor also shouts out other riders who are participating. Boom, relatedness! And you get better at cycling the more you ride – even if your output doesn’t go up every ride, the number of rides you’ve completed does, and that alone provides some competency – humans like it when their numbers go up! The net effect is that Peloton is a lot stickier than plain old indoor cycling.
A recurring theme in this blog is how gaming is breaking out of being only for “gamers”. Gaming is eating culture, and this means game systems are also showing up everywhere. This time though, it’s more than just collecting badges like the gamification craze a decade ago. Products and services that understand how to actually give users a sense of progression along these axes will have an advantage over those that don’t. Don't forget your noodles.