Rewarding Play III

Now that we have seen how games meet a player’s needs through gratification and rewards, how can a game be improved to do a better job of meeting those aspirations and therefore appeal to more players? There are four aspects of how a need is met that make it more likely.

Expected

Would you rather have $50 dollars or a 50-50 chance at winning $100? Study after study confirms that humans are pre-disposed toward the “safe bet.” In fact, the most famous studies show that people will choose a more certain payout over a chance at a much a larger payout, which is why this tendency is called the Certainty Bias. Players, being mostly humans, will prefer games where they have an expectation of meeting a need, rather than just the possibility of it. So, a singleplayer campaign is a better place to meet the need to demonstrate competence because the AI enemies are guaranteed to eventually take a dive and let the player win. (At least in a well-designed game, they will.) However, success in multiplayer is always uncertain, and so it is less appealing to players looking to demonstrate competence. If a designer knows which need their game is intended to satisfy, it is often possible to make those rewards more certain without cheapening them.

Efficient

The human brain is a fantastically efficient decision-making instrument, capable of analyzing complex models of the world and making subtle strategic decisions, all while using less energy than an average low-watt light source. (Which is why you should take “dim bulb” as a compliment to your biological optimization.) We will always prefer activities that fulfill the most needs for the least effort, known in psychology as “laziness.” The processed sugar in a few M&Ms provides as many calories as a double-handful of broccoli, and we all know which one our taste buds tell us is better for us. Broccoli's mortal enemy Players evaluate games in the same way. If two games both satisfy the need to defeat a human opponent, but I am already good at one of them, I’m probably not going to sacrifice efficiency by trying out the new game. Which leads to a small number of franchises dominating the multiplayer community, with new games getting little or no traction. If a designer understands which aspiration they are fulfilling, they can make their game more efficient at it than their competition.

Essential

The current vogue in behavioral psychology is to rail against the dangers of extrinsic motivation. The primary argument is that if an activity is interesting on its own, encouraging the activity by adding an extrinsic reward actually decreases the activity’s intrinsic value, so maybe designers should stop reflexively dumping achievements and trophies and levels and loot into every game. Since games cater to aspirations, not physical needs, and since they are exotelic activities without a concrete result, it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between an intrinsic reward and an extrinsic one. The issue is often over-simplified as “external rewards are bad,” meaning external to the player themselves, but since all needs involve an external good paired with an internal lack, every reward is cast in a suspicious light.

Urine Trouble Now!

Ill just hold it...

For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can sidestep the issue entirely by appealing to practical concerns about schedule. If a game is fun early in production, it is meeting some need through its essential gameplay, the core of the experience. Rather than add non-essential systems and rewards (incurring non-essential costs and delays) it is a better production decision to focus on improving those essential activates. Any motivation caused by an essential activity can be assumed to be intrinsic to the game and therefore safe from demotivating side-effects.

Exclusive

The absolute best way to meet the player’s needs better than the competition is to not have any competition! Find a need that is going completely ignored by the market, and then craft a game specifically targeted at that aspiration. Admittedly, this a risky and difficult proposition, but nearly every major gaming franchise has been successful because they created a new audience by fulfilling an unmet need. If you are fortunate enough to be working on a game like this, it is even more important to understand the unspoken desire you are fulfilling and hone your game to be even more effective, or some other developer will.

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Rewarding Play II

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.

Gratification

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.

Don't ask to see the "A"

Thanks for the support, Dad

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.

Rewards

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.

The shortest distance between three heads

Worth an achievement

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]