The primary difference between gratification and reward is the timing of the need fulfillment. If the need is satisfied during the activity, then the player experiences gratification. If the need is satisfied as a result of the activity, the player feels rewarded. A well-designed game will satisfy the player’s needs through both methods at the same time, but many needs are more sensitive to one or the other.
The need to demonstrate competence, especially competence under low-pressure circumstances, is an aspiration best met through gratification. Because competence is theoretically achievable by every player, it feels hollow to follow a demonstration of competence with praise, loot, or some other form of reward. Successfully following instructions and getting through a tutorial hardly seems like much of an Achievement. In fact, by the time the reward is awarded, the player’s need to display competence has already been met, so the reward feels like an afterthought, the over-enthusiastic encouragement of a parent at a soccer game.
Gratification, on the other hand, happens at the moment of execution and amplifies the player’s experience of meeting their need for competence. The audible pop as an enemy’s head explodes from a headshot, the giant red number floating up after a critical strike, or even the silence of a battlefield after the final attacker is defeated, all of these enhance the moment of success. They make it more gratifying. Even activities that take virtually no skill at all, but only require the player to do an obvious, trivial task, can be made gratifying by the right sounds and visuals. In some games, the “Press Start” screen is empowering and need-fulfilling.
Some needs are better met by rewards. These can either be something the player expects and has been building toward, or an unexpected acknowledgement of something the player has achieved, but are always awarded after the activity is finished so the player can fully appreciate them. Usually it is a good idea to slow the pacing and provide a lull for them to bask in their accomplishment. Rewards generally ought to be something useful, but since they are highlighting the fact that a need has been met, they can simply be a trophy signifying that event.
Although it is very similar to demonstration of competence, the need to demonstrate excellence is better suited toward rewards than gratification. Perhaps the method that a player used to get the final kill in a multiplayer game wasn’t that special, and there is no need to add spectacle to enhance the death itself, because the real reward is a slight delay followed by the announcer saying “Team Eliminated” and the winner’s rank going up. Picking up the loot from a downed boss doesn’t need much in the way of effects and sounds because the items themselves are the rewards for an excellent display of skill. Xbox Achievements and Playstation Trophies are better used for rewards for excellence precisely because they aren’t that gratifying and feel awkward when awarded for more mundane accomplishments.
[To be continued]