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How Jetpack Joyride uses game psychology to keep you hooked

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I initially dismissed mobile title Jetpack Joyride as yet another clone of Helicopter Game, a one-note Flash game my friends and I used to play in high school instead of paying attention in class (until we figured out how to install Quake III Arena on the school laptops). The web-based game was incredibly simple — click to lift your chopper or release to let it fall while avoiding hitting anything as you fly through a cave.

But it was so addicting.

Considering that Helicopter Game came out in 2003, I couldn’t believe how Jetpack Joyride jazzed up so many people. It’s the same experience!

Actually, it’s not. Joyride takes the same premise and applies almost a decade’s worth of game psychology to create something even more addicting.

The most significant change is how much easier it is. If you weren’t paying attention when you started Helicopter Game, you could die immediately from touching the bottom of the cave. It required constant alertness. Joyride is more forgiving.

The hallway you fly through always stays totally level, so you never need to worry about your path slithering up and down, narrowing and opening at random. In fact, you can run on the ground or rub your head against the ceiling all you want as long as a laser or a missile is not in the way. You can get in vehicles that change the way you move and give you a buffer when you get hit. And you can buy items that give you everything from a head start to a second chance when you die.

Jetpack Joyride encourages you to keep playing because every run feels like it could be the one. But that’s not all.

You can buy unlockable gadgets, borrowing from Call of Duty’s addictive perks system, to give you different abilities like a jump, quicker falling, missile jamming capabilities, and a bouncy ball that deploys when you die to add a few more meters to your final distance. You can also purchase new outfits and jetpacks to customize your character.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been using the word “buy” a lot. That’s right. I haven’t even gotten to the coins yet. Oh God, the coins.

Jetpack Joyride 2

You’ll buy everything in the game with coins that you earn as you play or acquire with real money. That’s how Joyride keeps you hooked and how it gets you to play “just one more time.” You’re always so close to getting the next thing that you absolutely need, and it’s just so easy to start another run that you feel you might as well play just one more time.

Well, that one didn’t count because I died in the first 100 meters. That’s hardly a run. Just one more.

The game even borrows from the Xbox 360’s achievement system with persistent awards and a rotating set of three missions for you to complete, like collecting a certain amount of coins in one run, dying within a specific distance, or high-fiving the scientists that run along the ground.

You’ll want to complete missions, you see, because they unlock stars that will level you up. Then, you can earn more coins to buy more gadgets, so you can make earning coins easier to buy more gadgets to complete more missions. Get it?

And once you’ve beaten all the missions, you can erase your mission progress and start over! Yep, you can “prestige,” just like in Call of Duty.

Joyride also has a slot machine. You collect tokens as you play, which let you take a few spins.

Jetpack Joyride 3

Imagine that, the title even manages to find a way to use gambling psychology to keep you hooked.

It’s a beautiful system, really. You win just often enough at the slots that it’s almost always worth using your spin token instead of cashing it in for a measly 50 coins. I mean, really, 50 coins? Please. I can gather 50 coins in 15 seconds during another run if this spin doesn’t go my way. Might as well try for the big money.

It’s such a significant part of the experience that the game’s ESRB rating actually warns you about the “simulated gambling” and for good reason. In a free-to-play release like this where you literally encounter no limit to the amount of real money you can spend, that’s a prudent warning.

For the most part, Jetpack Joyride lulls you into a trance. That’s how I can waste half a day on it and not even notice. But I also haven’t spent a dime on it.

That’s probably because none of the unlocks appeal to me enough, and they’re all well in the range of a few days of occasional play. It’s a mindset that’s almost impossible to break after an entire lifetime of game-induced conditioning that demand I earn rewards from investing more time and energy, not money. Practice, my experience tells me. Be patient.

You don’t just buy The Legend of Zelda’s master sword for $2.99. You work for it. You toil. You play for hours and hours before you even get to see it.

Regardless, Joyride latches its hooks into you, so you’ll want to play it whenever you have a few minutes of spare time. It’s quick to load, quick to play, and quick to close. It’s in and out of your life in an instant. It doesn’t ask you to think or strategize, only to react. It is the definition of consumable content.

It takes a mindless Flash game and lessons learned over a decade of gaming to create a monster that earned 35 million downloads before releasing on Android and PlayStation devices. The achievement is really quite impressive.

Next time you play Jetpack Joyride — given those numbers, chances are pretty good that you’ve played it — think about why you’re playing it and what makes it successful. Think about the core of the game. Think about why you’ve spent money on it if you have or what it would take to get you to spend money on it if you haven’t.

And then think about how Jetpack Joyride can influence the traditional games it originally borrowed from.

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