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Pyramid terms


These are the key principles taken from The Pyramid of Game Design, Nicholas’s book that sets out how to make a successful service or F2P videogame.

See: The Pyramid of Game Design (book)

The Pyramid

Base layer

The heart of the game. The moment-to-moment gameplay in a video game, often contained within a level. It is a match in Team Fortress 2, a level of Candy Crush Saga or a narrative level of Uncharted.

Retention layer

This is what keeps players playing for days and weeks and months and years. It is progress and unlocks and tech trees and narrative and achievements and leaderboards and more.

Core loop

Connects the Base and Retention Layers and can usefully be thought of as a Gearbox (see below).

Superfan layer

Where the game has become a hobby for a subset of players. They play this game more than any other game, and it occupies a huge amount of their time and possibly money.


The Gearbox encapsulates the techniques that connect the Base and Retention Layers. For service games, a well-designed Gearbox is the difference between success and failure. The easiest way to visualise the Gearbox is to consider the Pre- and PostEvent Screens. Imagine the car setup before a racing game; the hero and weapon selection before a first-person deathmatch; or the screen where a player selects which powerups to take into a Match-3 level. Then imagine the corresponding victory screen at the end of the Base Layer experience, where the player learns what rewards she earned from the event she just completed. The Gearbox enables players to understand the value (over and above “fun”) of playing the Base Layer, which gives the developer more techniques with which to craft fun, rewarding gameplay.

These terms are explored in much more depth in Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

The session


The fundamental unit of service success. A Session involves the player choosing to come back to your game now, despite the variety of competing entertainment choices that exist on their smart device, PC or console. It involves them doing some fun, rewarding activity. Successful game developers signal when it is a good time to leave and plant strong Return Hooks to bring each player back for the next Session.


Makes it easy for players to decide to fire up your game, rather than choosing something else from the plethora of alternative entertainment choices (including other games but, more dangerously, Facebook, Instagram and other social media experiences).


When the players have a fun, rewarding and enjoyable experience.


Also known as “Time To Go”; when we start signalling to players that they have had a good session (whether that be measured by fun, achievement, progression, etc.) and hint that now might be a good time to leave.

Return hook

Gives players a reason to come back at some point in the future, whether that be minutes, hours or days away.


Imagine a middle-aged man passing the time in his own space. It might be a garage, or a garden, or a spare room. He might be gardening, tinkering with a car or doing a small piece of DIY. He may have a beer in his hand or a cup of tea. The important thing is that he is on his own, doing nothing in particular, in a way that is somehow satisfying and relaxing at the same time. That’s pottering. Video games are full of it.

These terms are explored in much more depth in Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

Influence Principles

The Influence Principles are based on Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which you ought to read. 


Pronounced “Double-A”, video games that don’t quite reach AAA heights. Often means games with shorter experiences, or produced by independent studios with smaller teams. AA games can be extremely good, but they have lower budgets and, generally, less of the bombast associated with AAA games.


Pronounced “Triple-A,” video games with high production values and high values. The game industry’s equivalent to movies’ blockbusters.


A task that can only be completed once, like the Trophies in a PlayStation game or Xbox Achievements, and recorded in an Achievement section of the game. They are different to Challenges (q.v.) which can be completed many times. See Chapter 3 The Retention Layer, Retention Layer 17: Achievements.


A form of software development that encourages rapid deployment, adaptability to change and iterative development. The technology partner of Lean.

Appointment Mechanic

A game design technique where the game allows players to initiate a task or process that requires them to return in a fixed amount of time to complete the task or claim a reward. An appointment mechanic gives players some control over when they choose to return to the game, which makes it different to a Tamagotchi (q.v.).


Average revenue per daily active user


Average revenue per monthly active user


Average revenue per paying user


Average revenue per user


Customer acquisition cost


Collectible card game


Euphoria, pizzazz, Peggle time or Popcapification. A collection of techniques used by a video game to make a particular moment feel especially rewarding to a player on an emotional level. Can include music, sound effects, animation, time dilation and any other technique that amplifies the emotional reward for something that the player has done.


A task or objective that a player can do many times, earning new rewards each time, in contrast to Achievements (q.v.) which can only be completed once.


Cost per acquisition


Cost per install


Cost per mille


Cost per thousand


Day-1 retention. The percentage of users who logged in on day zero who also logged in on day one.


Day-30 retention. The percentage of users who logged in on day zero who also logged in on day 30.


Day-7 retention. The percentage of users who logged in on day zero who also logged in on day seven.


Daily active user


Downloadable content


Effective CPI

Endless Runner

A game, typically on mobile devices, where players must keep moving forward along a route for as long as possible, avoiding hazards and trying not to die. Popular examples include Subway Surfers and Minion Rush.



Feature Phone

A basic mobile phone from before the era of smartphones such as the iPhone. Functionality included phone calls, texting and basic gameplay. Internet connection was limited. The archetypal game on a feature phone was Nokia’s Snake.


First-person shooter


First-time user experience


A form of reward that involves random elements, such as loot boxes or loot crates.

Game Jam

A gathering of people for the purpose of planning, designing and creating a video game in a short span of time, usually between 24 and 72 hours.


Level of detail


Lifetime value


Minimum awesome product


Monthly active user


Minimum desirable product


Everything outside the game. The ways in which a game is influenced by activities outside the core rules of the game. For example, poker is a very different game when played for high stakes in a casino compared with playing with your children using matchsticks as chips. Often used to refer to how a multiplayer online game evolves as players develop new strategies, leading to the development of counterstrategies, which means that the original strategies fall out of favour.


Minimum feasible product


A player who gets innate satisfaction from playing the game “optimally”.


Massively multiplayer online [game].


Massively multiplayer online role-playing game


Multiplayer online battle arena. A multiplayer game where teams of players vie for control, such as League of Legends.




Multi-user dungeon


Minimum viable product


Control by the few. Often used to refer a situation where a few big players control an industry, such as the publishers in video games, movie studios in film and the big four of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon in technology.


Pay to win


See ceremony


Playing a game with no immediate purpose or intensity. Examples include rearranging the inventory in a role-playing game, decorating a farm in a resource management game or crafting a new deck in a collectible card game.


Player versus enemy. Gameplay that involves the player against computer controlled opponents.


Player versus player: Gameplay that involves the player against computer-controlled opponents.

Retention Layer

The part of the game that gives the player long-term purpose, whether that be narrative, progress, achievements, beating high scores, etc.

Return Hook

A technique used by game designers to give players a specific reason to return to the game and start a new Session (q.v.).


Roleplaying game


Real-time strategy


Self-determination theory, a framework for what motivates people to play games, or to work, encompassing competence, autonomy and relatedness.


The building block of service game design. A single gameplay experience. A player can have multiple sessions per day.

Social Games

A term that has fallen out of fashion for games played on social networks such as Facebook.


A committed player of a game, measured by time or money.

Superfan Layer

The part of the game that engages Superfans. Often, but not always, involves “me and my friends” playing against “you and your friends”, i.e. groups of people competing against each other, whether for in-game resources, for status or directly in competitive play.


A virtual pet created by Bandai in 1996. Tamagotchis required players to return to the game regularly, at a time of the game’s choosing, otherwise the virtual pet would die.


Three letter abbreviation.


Time to penis. The length of time before someone has created a phallic object in your game. It is small.


User generated content


User interface


User experience


A high spender in a video game. See also: Superfan


Experience points