Essay: Intrinsic Motivation in Yakuza 0


Over the last decades, increases in computing power and game development techniques have allowed virtual worlds to become increasingly complex, allowing for exponential immersion and engagement with the player (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). This evolution has also prompted the study of factors behind player engagement in video games, in particular with regards to intrinsic motivation. According to the self-determination theory (SDT), intrinsic motivation relies on triggering three key feelings (Ryan and Deci, 2000): autonomy, representing player choice; competence, the ability to fulfil goals and challenges; and, lastly, relatedness, the sense of belonging in the game world and relating to it as the playing character. These feelings, considered necessary for successful play in general (Frederick and Ryan, 1993), are derived from the player being ““in-character” within a particular gaming context” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006) and can explain why players find some games satisfying and, in turn, fun (Malone and Lepper, 1987). The essay will use the SDT theory to analyse how Yakuza 0 (Sega, 2015) uses these three intrinsic motivation factors to create engagement and a sense of fun with the player. Lastly, the essay will examine the limitations of Yakuza 0’s implementation of the theory.


Autonomy: Freedom and Empowerment

According to SDT, an initial intrinsic motivation factor is autonomy, in other words “the feeling that you are acting volitionally” (Recchia, 2013). It is important to player motivation as it creates a sense of agency, allowing players to feel a sense of empowerment in shaping the game’s narrative (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).

Yakuza 0’s main narrative is centred around story chapters that have to be played in order, and are triggered willingly by the player through a map marker. Each chapter represents a self-contained story following the main narrative thread, and often involves a unique location that cannot be accessed again or beforehand; once completed, the player returns to the game world and recovers full freedom and map access. At first glance, this makes for a very rigid system, as player agency is not involved in the main narrative structure in terms of story choices, or events order. However, Yakuza 0 uses a simple mechanic to mitigate this set-up : the player can choose exactly when to advance the story and do these chapters and does not get punished (or rewarded) for choosing when they want to trigger the next story chapter.

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Figure 1: The game emphasises the player freedom in the map

Autonomy is however developed significantly outside these story chapters: barring very few story-related exceptions, the player then has full freedom over the map and over the many activities it contains, which the game encourages the player to remember (figure 1); the player can undertake any other task in the game world and in any order. This is of particular relevance when considering the high amount of side-quests (100), and the length and narrative importance of each character’s business activity quests (Kiryu Kazuma’s estate management, and Majima Goro’s club management). Indeed, both quest types provide a significant amount of narration, character progression and rewards, in addition to unlocking further locations and mini-games; accordingly, they represent a large amount of in-game time and activities (figure 2).

These side-quests may be completed in any order without any prompters or restrictions, and can also be ignored without any penalty, an important factor as autonomy is based on the “degree of choice one has over the tasks and goals undertaken” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). It is also interesting to note that, once again, the game does not punish or restrict the player by forcing them to complete the side quests within a set amount of time to before the end of the game, emphasising that the player can choose exactly when to handle them.

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Figure 2: Completion list showing the large amount of trackable activities and mini-games

Equal freedom is applied to the plethora of mini-games available on the map (darts, bowling, pool, karaoke, dancing, arcade games, shoji, gambling, etc.), which can be accessed at any time and can also lead to further quests and narrative or gameplay rewards.

This variety of quests and activities outside of the main narration, and the freedom offered to the player regarding their completion rate and order, allows the game to carefully “balance [the player’s] boundless curiosity against a finite pool or resources” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2010), allowing the player to make their own game by choosing what to do and when. In other words, as highlighted by Schell (2015, p.150), this allows Yakuza 0 to be a “game that gives you freedom to play how you want to play”, a crucial factor for autonomy.


Competence: Immediate Feedback and Gradual Mastery

SDT also highlights the need for competence, an intrinsic motivator representing the ability for the player to be challenged, to gradually master game mechanics, and to feel a sense of overall mastery progress. The feeling of competence is among the most important factors of satisfaction and therefore key to successful motivation, as it is directly linked to the player feeling accomplishment and control (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).

An initial application of competence is to make the player feel they are “effective and successful moment to moment” (Recchia, 2013), which Yakuza 0 achieves through combat. As a brawler-focused action game, Yakuza 0 allows the player to get into regular fights and to get immediate feedback through fighting rewards (figure 3): for every successful hit, money will fly out of the enemy and into the protagonist’s wallet and enemies’ health will go down, displaying the important immediate and visible feedback highlighted by Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski (2006).

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Figure 3: Combat feedback through flying money and health damage

Another important factor to enhance competence is through “opportunities to acquire new skills and abilities” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). To achieve this, Yakuza 0 makes use of a skill tree directly linked to combat: with money gained, players can unlock new skills and special moves, and can then apply them straight away to further their fighting ability and variety. This is further enhanced by the scaling of enemy difficulty in-game: as the game progresses, enemies’ health bars will grow longer, and they will equip gradually more lethal weapons such as swords and guns, which need to be dodged or will cause significant hinderance to the player and severely damage their health. This is an important feature which triggers more competence as “tasks within the game provide ongoing optimal challenge” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006): gradual evolution of in-game fights gives constant and gradual challenges that the player must adapt to and overcome, and trigger more competence motivation.

Interestingly, Yakuza 0 explores the concept of challenge through non-violent activities as well in mini-games like karaoke. Competence is approached differently but is nonetheless present: the player must press the right button at the right time, through an intuitive and simple interface. Feedback, in this case, is presented in an audio-visual form, with a music video unlocking to reward the player who has consistently pressed the right buttons at the right time (figure 4). While the competence in this mini-game does not progress with time as combat difficulty does, it is instead the player skill that is allowed to progress through repetition. Once again, players are never penalised for failing and may re-try the mini-games as often and whenever they choose. This provides an interesting alternative of triggering competence, this time occurring when “game controls are intuitive and readily mastered” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006).

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Figure 4: The karaoke mini-game, requiring simple button presses to score points. The reward video is also pictured here.


Relatedness: Feeling and Belonging

Beyond autonomy and completion, Yakuza 0 uses another factor outlined in SDT to help the player feel an increased sense of intrinsic motivation: relatedness. Relatedness, also referred to as “presence”, can be described as a need based on interaction and as the “desire for connection with others – to feel that one matters” (Recchia, 2013). While it can be initially perceived to require a multi-player experience and interaction with other real people, it is important to note that this is also a feature that can be found in single-player games. Indeed, this is explicitly noted by Recchia who states that “we can feel a degree of relatedness even to game characters”. When Ryan and Deci (2000) discuss relatedness as “the need to feel belongingness”, taken to the context of a video game, it can therefore be assumed that in-game characters can be part of the equation.
Yakuza 0, as a narration-driven game, achieves this through several mechanics. While the player does not make in-game decisions that can change the main storyline, they are exposed to several recurrent characters and build a relationship with them throughout the game through various friendship activities (karaoke, darts, dancing), but also via the scenario and regular cut-scenes. These story pieces help create empathy though emotional cut- scenes, fully voiced and realistically modelled, where characters close to the protagonists can be seen addressing the player while in emotional distress or danger (figure 5). These help create a sense of empathy with the in-game characters, and to feel, as Reccha (2013) notes in his description of relatedness “that one matters and that one matters to others”.

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Figure 5: An emotional cut-scene involving a protagonist and someone close to them in a state of distress.

In parallel, Yakuza 0 also achieves this through lighter-toned side quests where the protagonists must help various characters in the game world, usually to overcome hardships or to help fulfil their wishes. The humorous tone used in this narration can also help the player feel that they are connected to others, another important factor to achieve relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2000) (figure 6).

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Figure 6: A quest outcome emphasising the connection between the protagonist and the quest giver

More pragmatically, it is worth noting that Yakuza 0 also uses its game world to create relatedness, triggering “the sense that one is within the game world” (Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski, 2006). Indeed, in their study questions, they use the following question to assess the sense of presence with study participants: “when moving through the game world I feel as if I am actually there”.

Accordingly, Yakuza 0 uses high fidelity graphics to recreate a virtual version of two of Tokyo and Osaka’s districts, Kabukicho and Dotonburi respectively (Kamurocho and Sotenbori in-game), going as far as recreating the exact streets and shops from the real-life location, including notable tourist sights like Osaka’s Kani Doraku restaurant and its iconic billboard (figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7: Iconic Osaka restaurant Kani Doraku in real life…
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Figure 8: … and in-game.

Use of a night and day cycle and of various background noises (pedestrians talking, pachinko machine sounds, music playing when getting close to bars and clubs, thugs calling the protagonists from afar for fights) also help enhance the sense of presence and induce the player into feeling they are one with the time and space.


The Limits of Intrinsic Motivations in Yakuza 0

While Yakuza 0 makes use of the aforementioned SDT triggers, it is worth remembering, as noted above, that they do not apply to all the elements in-game; for instance, autonomy does not apply to all the narration. However, as explained by Reccha (2013) this is not necessarily an issue as the key is the player’s perception that they can achieve autonomy. For instance, he notes that for SDT elements to be achieved it is enough to “feel that one’s actions are volitional and self-directed even if the game is in fact nudging them in a certain direction”. It can therefore be argued that, although Yakuza 0’s main narrative thread itself breaks autonomy, it is enough for the player to be nudged towards it; as mentioned above, this is also mitigated by wide variety and meaningfulness of side quests in terms of narration.

More generally, with regards to competence and relatedness, it can also be remarked that SDT principles may not work for certain players who will not enjoy the game’s mechanics enough to feel competence, or engage with the characters and world enough to feel relatedness. Indeed, as recognised and noted by Ryan, Rygby and Przybylski (2006) in their studies outcome, “there is considerable variation between individuals in their overall experience of and motivation for computer games”. While this does not invalidate the positive experience with regards to intrinsic motivation that some players will experience playing Yakuza 0, as with most subjective theories, it will not apply to every single player.



Yakuza 0 makes extensive use of the three Self-Determination Theory triggers to motivate players. It uses its extensive side-quest system and numerous mini-game activities to instil a sense of autonomy, allowing the players the important feeling of choice and empowerment. Yakuza 0 also makes use of its combat system to to give players a sense of completion, through direct rewards such as money and health damage, but also though long-term difficulty curve and special abilities unlocks over the course of the game. Through its narration, characters and settings, the game also instils a sense of relatedness with the player, giving them the chance to feel part of a world and linked to its inhabitants. Finally, it is worth noting that, as noted in STD and motivation studies, not all participants will be affected by SDT triggers the same way, meaning that while Yakuza 0’s application of SDT principles will be very successful with some players, it will not be universal.



Frederick, C. and Ryan, R. (1993) ‘Differences in Motivation for Sport and Exercise and Their Relations with Participation and Mental Health’. Journal of Sport Behavior, 16, pp.124–146.

Malone, T. and Lepper, M. (1987) ‘Making learning fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations in Learning’. Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, 3, pp. 223–253.

Recchia, G. (2013) Self-Determination Theory at GDC. Gamasutra. Available at: (Accessed 21 November 2017).

Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000) ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being’, American Psychologist, 55(1), pp.68-78. Available at:…pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2017)

Ryan, R., Rigby, C. and Przybylski, A. (2006) ‘The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach’, Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), pp.344-360. Available at:…/2006_RyanRigbyPrzybylski_MandE.pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2017).

Ryan, R., Rigby, C. and Przybylski, A. (2010) ‘A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement’, Review of General Psychology, 14(2), pp.154-166.

Schell, J. (2015) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Sega (2015) Yakuza 0. Sega.


Kani Doraku Image (2012). Available at: (Accessed: 21 November 2017)

Sega (2015) Yakuza 0. Sega. All images my own.


Dark Souls and Flow

  Psychologist and theorist Csikszentmihalyi conducted decades of research to understand how certain pleasurable activities induced a phenomenon called “flow”, which he later defined as “a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in adult play” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As noted by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), flow is important to video games as it is precisely the feeling that game designers seek to elicit from the players. They further this point by remarking that “games are one of the best kinds of activities to produce flow”. How does Dark Souls fulfil this potential?
  Dark Souls quickly establishes its unforgiving nature. The player starts with a small pool of health points and very little armour, a set-up made worse by the fact that encountered enemies can kill them with as little as two attacks. This feeling is further amplified when coming across level bosses, enemies who often dwarf the fragile player and deal devastating damage (figure 1). The character’s fragility even manifests itself in the player movement: the game makes it is easy to fall into holes, to run into a trap, or to approach a hidden enemy the wrong way, often resulting in immediate death. These mechanics serve to introduce a key element of flow that Csikszentmihalyi calls “the merging of action and awareness”. Indeed, Dark Souls requires the player’s full mental and, through the controls, physical attention to stay alive in the game. This single-mindedness manifests by the player being at one with the game: when dodging, the player does not consciously think of pressing a button to dodge, they simply think of the action, and reproduce it physically without a single thought; in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “the action carries us forward as if by magic”. While this is common to most games, Dark Souls’ constant level of threat enhances this feeling and makes it even more vital for the player’s survival, thus starting the process of flow.


  Early in the game, Dark Souls also tackles the challenge of “clear goals and feedback”, another of Csikszentmihalyi’s key requirements for flow. Games can be defined as computer programs made of rules, and their gameplay relies on creating understandable goals and feedback. However, as Baron (2012) points out, it should also be considered that “there are inherent limitations on how much information we can parse at any moment”. Dark Souls takes this into consideration and uses an interesting strategy to induce flow: making goals and feedback as simple and discrete as possible. In the first section of the game, the player is given one simple mission: find and ring two bells, and, quite simply, survive this mission. The player quickly realises that all the available areas in the game will lead them to the goal; reaching it is simply a case of moving forward. Furthermore, there are no given side quests, or even a quest menu. Feedback is given an equally minimalistic yet efficient treatment: in Dark Souls, every hit matters and results in your life bar diminishing, each amour can be tested immediately, each move costs stamina, a limited resource that can be depleted, and each leveling-up is indicated through numbers. If you fail, you die, and if you survive, you progress. Such is the vital feedback for the player, further exemplified in the bare but informative user interface (figure 1).

By its implementation of information, its ability to engage the player mentally and physically, and the single-mindedness its gameplay creates, Dark Souls therefore combines several of what Salen and Zimmerman (2004) call “flow activities”, helping trigger peak engagement from the player. Csikszentmihalyi labels this particular combination the “concentration on the task at hand”; he describes it as a state that induces the player to focus all their attention on the activity, leaving room from nothing else in their mind, be it their surroundings or everyday worries. Another logical consequence of this intense concentration is the phenomenon of losing track of time, or in Csikszentmihalyi’s words the “transformation of time”.

As the player’s concentration hits its peak and obscures time, their mind is now free to refine their in-game survival skills. In another application of flow, playing Dark Souls becomes “a challenging activity that requires skills”. As seen above, the player must survive against difficult odds by learning the necessary playing skills to progress. However, in order to be conducive to flow, the game’s learning curve must observe a very precise balance between challenge and skills (figure 2), following the principle that “in flow, the players are balanced between boredom and anxiety” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997); when successful, this balance creates a flow channel or, as Chen (2006) also calls it, the flow zone. Interestingly, the wording of this chart is not innocent: as observed by Rogers (2014), the concept of difficulty promotes “pain and loss”, but challenge promotes “skill and improvement” instead, the latter offering a very different dynamic that is significantly more conducive to flow. Dark Souls places itself firmly in the challenge camp and avoids a pure difficulty approach with a key mechanic: reliable patterns. While very difficult to defeat, enemies and bosses all have unique patterns of attacks and timing, and regular attempts to defeat them allow the player to observe and memorise them. This gradual mastery helps the player build the skill they need to progress, and prevents prolonged anxiety as defeat always leads to an opportunity to better their skills, and the belief that this knowledge will eventually tip the balance in their favour. The game also avoids boredom by constantly introducing new enemies: their patterns are not known yet, but the player knows they can be.

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  This gradual knowledge can also be linked to the “paradox of control”, which occurs when “players attempt to assert control by taking actions” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). In Dark Soul’s hostile world, where every step is dangerous, the world itself becomes an enemy; this is something that the player, a participant and not the maker, cannot change. However, Dark Souls once again finds an interesting solution to this design challenge with bonfires. Bonfires can be found throughout the game world and are kindled by the player; they remain dormant until the player activates them, and represent the only way a player can fully heal, replenish healing potions, level up, or, later on, travel quickly through the world. Importantly, these allow the player to establish an enclave of their own in the game where usual rules do not apply: enemies will not approach, healing occurs spontaneously, and, in a game where there is no pause button, the world can effectively be stopped for as long as the player wishes while they sit around the bonfire. By subverting its own rules with this mechanic, Dark Souls allow the player to assert control. It could be argued that the game offers another way for the player to assert control: memorisation. By memorising the game’s geography and enemy patterns, as seen previously, the player is also able to gain the upper hand on some of the game’s traps and challenges and gains a measure of control.

An interesting side-effect to the finely tuned challenge and to the way the play can exert some control in the world is the resulting “loss of self-consciousness”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that this occurs when “the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements”. This can be taken almost literally for a game as demanding and yet rewarding as Dark Souls. Indeed, because its challenge curve through patterns is so well balanced, the player gains a strong sense of achievement as they progress through the game and learn patterns: they gain skills to defeat what were previously very challenging enemies; they memorise the world and avoid traps; they understand weapons and armour and how to use them efficiently; they assert some control in a previously totally hostile world. These constant rewards help the player reflect on their experience and create a positive feedback loop, further enhancing flow.

If Dark Souls achieves flow so well, however, why do some players not enjoy the experience or ever reach flow in the game? Salen and Zimmerman (2004) tackle that question by remarking that “there is no guarantee that the game you design will be put to use by players that are ready or able to experience flow”. Indeed, flow has an unpredictable human element, and as Chen (2006) notes: “like fingerprints, different people have different skills and Flow Zones”. Dark Souls’ tough but fair strategy may therefore make the game seem uncompromising to many players, who would conclude that the flow state is too difficult to reach. Conversely, this strategy is the key reason why other players reach perfect flow, which a less precise system may not have allowed for. It could be argued that the designers therefore decided to prioritise the few players who could reach perfect flow over the ones less susceptible of doing so.

Dark Souls successfully exemplifies all of Csikszentmihalyi’s elements of flow, and achieves them through varied and efficient means. However, it should also be noted that not all players will respond to this implementation of flow positively, as flow is strongly dependent on the individual.


Baron, S. (2012) Gamasutra – Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design [online]. Available at: ?print=1 (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Chen, J. (2006) Flow in Games. MFA Thesis. USC School of Cinematic Arts. Available at: (Accessed: 4 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Happiness and Creativity: Going with the Flow, Futurist (Sep/Oct 1997), Vol. 31 Issue 5, Special Report on Happiness, pp 8-12. Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

FromSoftware (2011) Dark Souls . Namco Bandai Games.

Hamlet, (2015) Dark Souls 1 Asylum Boss [image]. Available at: (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Rogers, S. (2014) Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design. 2nd Edition. Hoboken: Wiley, p.361.

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp.336-339.