User Engagement: Learning from World of Warcraft


Oliver McGough

August 19, 2014

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It’s every designer’s dream to be able to create content which can remain current for so long. Continue to draw users, not by lack of other options, but on entertainment and user experience alone. And at the end of the day, that is what WoW – or any game – is, a user experience. Games provide players with an experience, removing them from their daily lives. Transporting gamers to a world in which they are a mighty hero. Where they’re powerful, where they have respect and reverence they may not have in the real world.

Of course, there is much more to it than that. Games like World of Warcraft utilise all manner of tricks to capture and keep users. Tricks which are adaptable to any line of software.



When it comes to UX, the possibilities for gamification are plentiful. After all, World of Warcraft, and games like it, are but all giant pieces of software. Software which itself employs UX designers like us.

These games utilise many techniques, to keep the player hooked. Psychological tricks to keep them coming back, to build an addiction. They ensure users not only enjoy a product, but keep returning for more. That is our job after all.

What does WoW tell us?

Provide clear goals and objectives

World of Warcraft contains many hundreds of objectives. From reaching the maximum character level and collecting pets, to killing bosses and ultimately becoming number one. The journey and eventual completion of these objectives are why players play.

  • Why am I signing up for this trial?

  • Why should I use your product?

  • Why am I drinking this water?

  • Why do I sleep at night?

No matter how mundane the task, there is always a reason behind. There is always a reason why we do it. This boils down to a benefit (profit) from the task at hand. From sleeping to be fresh the next day, to filing that report as it’s the job which pays your bills (or Warcraft subscription!).

In World of Warcraft , the objectives are clear. Want to reach the maximum level? Complete these quests. Want to be the best? Kill these bosses. A clear vision of what the player wants from the start allows them to jump straight onto the journey to completion. They have a reason to return each day.

All software has some form of end goal, it wouldn’t exist without one. Clear communicating of that goal to our user is the oft-forgotten part. By ensuring our user knows where the path they’re on is leading, it is easier for them to justify remaining for its entirety. If the focus on that goal disappears, so does our user.

MyFitnessPal deals with this issue of goal awareness well. A calorie tracker, users enter their food for the day and follow the limits set by the app. Requiring a high amount of user input, it is all to easy for the user to lose track and give up.

After each day the app reminds you of your goal based on your eating habits for the day. This reinforces the initial motivation and encourages the continuation of the journey.

Show Clear Progression

So your user knows where they’re headed. They know the reward of investing their time and money in your software. But now that they’re on that journey towards enlightenment, how do they know that the time they’re investing is having any affect? How do they know how far away they are from the end goal?

There are many examples of progression throughout the World of Warcraft. Just about every facet focuses on completing some form of collection or set. From Quests (Missions) to Pets (gotta catch ’em all…); placing a player on a path and encouraging them to reach its end is WoW’s speciality. This drives the ‘addiction’. We’ll home in on one case of that progression: Armour sets.

Pieces of armour within WoW form sets (Gloves, Chest, Pants, etc.). These sets not only look good once completed, but provide extra benefits if they have more than one of the pieces collected. Whole sets can take weeks, or months to complete, thus players need encouragement. They need the endowed progress effect.

The endowed progress effect means that someone is more likely to finish something if they have seen they have already made progress. Think loyalty cards in cafes – you almost always start with one or two stamps. This helpful push to get started convinces you further progression is simple.

By feeding our user breadcrumbs we keep them on track. As the finish line approaches they’re all the more likely to remain. Why leave when the end is only so far away?

This translates especially well to tutorials where we need a number of steps to guide new users. By showing a clear and linear path we can ensure users wont stray. Provided they see clear progression to their goal, there is little reason for them to lose that track and drop off.

Offer a Desirable Reward


So you’ve guided your user along that path to their goal. Congrats to the both of you! They’ve reached their objective, and you’ve managed to keep them invested for the whole duration. The issue is, now what? You built the hype and anticipation through the progression phase, but now your user is at the end of their journey things fall flat.

Rewards are all important. Not only do they compensate a user for sticking around, but if the reward is enjoyable enough, they’ll keep coming back for more. Much like bribing a child to behave well with candy. Psychologists know this as extrinsic motivation. The sake of doing something for an external reward.

World of Warcraft makes heavy use of this baiting. Consistent rewards, or the promise of one, drives players to complete in-game activities. Activities that may not even be fun. That’s right, many facets of this game are not considered fun. Yet still players to log in each day to ‘grind’ with the promise of an eventual reward.

The daily quest is prime example. These are missions repeated each day, often with little or no variation. The reward? A small amount of reputation with one of the game’s factions. (After reaching a certain level of reputation, unique rewards become available for players). This acts as the incentive to log on each day and complete quests. To reach these rewards it takes not weeks, but months of logging in daily and completing these tasks. Boring? Yes. Worth it? Apparently.


This consistent baiting and rewarding is what drives the continued player engagement. Players want to reach the goal as fast as possible, which drives the hunger to log in each day and complete quests. A effective cycle.

This example proves the power of a reward. If we can offer a desirable reward, one perceived as scarce, we increase user dedication to reach that goal. Thus, the more desirable the reward, the more of our user’s time we have to play with. We keep them involved and invested.

Outside of gaming, the Strava app is a notable user of this technique. Users can partake in challenges. The reward for completing a challenge? The ability to buy special shirt from their store.

This challenge involves cycling 120km in one sitting, no mean feat. The difficulty of this adds scarcity to the reward, making it appear all the more valuable. This is something many users will spend weeks, perhaps even months working towards – increasing the time spent using the app. User engagement is a resource, use it wisely.


  • Provide clear goals to your users. Ensure they know the outcome of using your product, else why should they stay?

  • Clear progression increases user engagement. Provide your user with feedback on their progress.

  • Endowed Progress Effect: You can never go wrong with a little helping hand.

  • Ensure there is a worthwhile outcome. Rewards are motivators. Don’t leave users disappointed.

  • After reaching the ‘final’ goal, make sure there is still reason to make use of the service.

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