I think it’s fair to say that the energy mechanic is one of the more hated of the free-to-play game mechanics that have emerged over the past few years. In simple terms, the energy mechanic prevents a player from playing a game as much as they’d like to by allocating energy within the game and depleting it with each in-game action. Energy typically restores at a rate that means a player can play for couple of short sessions a day, and if they want to play more then they can buy more energy
The energy mechanic is generally hated by game designers because a) it’s a fairly lazy way of making a game monetise, and b) it stops people doing exactly what game designers like their players to do with their games i.e. play them for as long as they want. For both these reasons, at best the practice is largely filed under “necessary evils” if the game designer wants to make their game and make money out of it.
However, the Psychology of Games website published a piece on playing Candy Crush Saga which floats the idea that in limiting a player’s access to a game, as the energy mechanic does, then it can actually enhance the playing experience:
This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” and refers to the fact that we get used to nice things over time until they no longer anywhere near as pleasurable. It’s the reason why your new car is a lot less exciting after 6 months of ownership, why a new song gets old, and why a fourth piece of pie isn’t nearly as appealing as the first. 3 Like with the study on chocolates, other research has found that frequent breaks enhance your enjoyment of pleasurable activities. For example, Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis reported in a 2008 study4 found that taking breaks while listening to music or getting a nice massage protracted and increased the pleasure subjects received. Other research by Nelson and Meyvis5 found that enjoyment of a television program was actually enhanced by commercial interruptions. All this despite the fact that most people didn’t want to take the massage breaks or commercial interruptions offered to them. They wanted to watch Breaking Bad and have Sven keep working those shoulder muscles until they couldn’t stand it any more. Or at least they thought they did.
If that’s the case then maybe we can stop feeling guilty at introducing the kind of gated experience that so many mobile and social games rely upon to prevent players from burning through their free content in a few hours and drive them to become purchasers instead. And maybe the delayed gratification does actually increase enjoyment of a game and make a player feel more satisfied with paying for it.
And so it is with Candy Crush Saga and other games that counter-intuitively limit how much you can play them in one day. While most of us are used to the option of gorging on a game until we burn out on it and move on, Candy Crush Saga cleverly forces us to avoid that behavior. If you are forced to take frequent breaks, you will get more enjoyment out of the game when you do get to play. And thus you will develop a Candy Crush Saga habit spread over a broader slice of time like jelly spread over a long slice of bread, which gives the developer, King, more chances convert you on in-app purchases or convince you to send game invites to your friends.
Read the full piece over on the Psychology of Games.