Playing with agency
: how player agency affects game retention

Student thesis: Masters ThesisMasters by Research


The ‘live game’ or ‘game as a service’ sector in the games industry is increasingly concerned with analytics and the use of data-driven design in optimizing key important metrics. Chief among those metrics is retention; the extent to which players continue to play the game.

Designers create systems which optimize retention and often the success of these systems is compared to known phenomena from behavioural psychology. However, games are both complex interactive systems and usable products, and not truly scientific in their analyses; while data can verify the outcome of a change or ‘a/b’ test, it’s more difficult to prove causation than in an academic experiment. This study uses a hypothesis adapted from behavioural economics’ ‘IKEA Effect’, that giving a player more volition to progress at their own pace, making decisions about their own effort level will result in improved retention, positioning the hypothesis as the central design pillar of an experimental ‘hypercasual’ video game released on Android and iOS devices, geared solely towards testing the hypothesis. The literature explores the landscape around analytics and data-driven design, post-rationalisation of games which appeal to behavioural biases and explores the nature of agency in games. The ‘Shooty Blocks’ video game with its control and experimental versions is designed to collect retention data using common games industry tools and methods, comparing variation of player agency with retention KPIs.

Results included positive outcomes related to game-as-experiment aspects of the methodology, placed within the context of literature. Findings related to the hypothesis are inconclusive; retention metrics for Shooty Blocks were seen to be largely the same across both versions, making it difficult to identify a link between the varied agency and retention. Explanations for this could be potential underdevelopments such as an insufficiently isolated experimental condition, need for more pronounced player awareness of game currency’s utility, and a need for further game balance.

Further work to improve the design, rigour and scope of Shooty Blocks are discussed, as are potential methods to use the game (or games like it) as teaching tools and to work towards future collaborative game-as-experiment approaches using hypercasual games.
Date of Award29 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SupervisorDayna Galloway (Supervisor) & Andrew Reid (Supervisor)


  • Agency
  • Retention
  • Hypercasual
  • IKEA effect

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