(In case you find this familiar, it’s an updated version of an older article I’d written in a now-defunct blog. I’ve grown quite a bit as a designer and teacher in the past few years and it’s altered my views on this a little. This re-written article reflects my updated views on the matter.)
When designing games, we tend to find ourselves using the term “reward” in abundance. When we are talking about risk/reward mechanics, for instance, or when discussing randomized, “gatcha” rewards that are so pervasive in mobile titles these days. It is, after all, why players flock to the games we make, to be given these little gifts as affirmation of their achievements in our little sandboxes.
We also often forget why and how we distribute these rewards. A lot of games these days bury you with rewards to keep you playing – often, as a player, you have no idea why you have just received 10000 sapphires, 200 tokens and 60 gold dust. While it may feel good in the short term to be showered with gifts, it wears out pretty quickly (in most cases, you’ll have to pay to maintain this level of generosity OR the real value of those gifts work out to be virtually useless).
The opposite is also true – denying rewards to players because they failed challenges they were not expecting to overcome drives players away just as quickly.
So how do we keep rewards relevant and satisfying to the player? Here’s an idea: both you AND the player must know WHY a reward is given, and it’s usually one of three main reasons: Skill, Effort or Luck.
Skill is a common reason for rewarding players. It does not take into account how long you’ve played a game or how tirelessly you practice. You either overcome the presented challenge or you fail it. It encompasses a large range of physical and cognitive challenges, from hand-eye coordination in first-person shooters to multi-tasking and micro-management in real-time strategy games.
It’s not often seen in the mobile market because it can be frustrating if the player is just looking for a time-waster on a long train ride, but it’s the primary form of reward in hardcore games, where some players can practice a particular genre of games for decades to be good at them. (Hardcore games should not be confused with triple-a games – the former describes the challenge presented by the game, while the latter has more to do with the production quality of the title).
It is then pretty easy to understand why hardcore players often complain when rewards are given in the games they play to non-skill remuneration, such as luck or pay-to-win (often associated with mobile titles, which also explains the whole Diablo: Immortal fiasco) and grinding (an effort-based reward mechanic, which we’ll discuss later).
Effort-based reward systems are commonly found in mobile games and role-playing games (especially traditional Japanese ones). It takes into account how long and how hard you’ve been playing and rewards you accordingly. Usually, the rewards are cumulative – so the longer you play, the more powerful your in-game persona becomes.
This is great for casual games, because effort-based games require little to no prerequisite player experience for play – almost everyone gets rewarded equally over the same time period of play. While RPGs are the most transparent examples of effort-based rewards, some games with a trial-and-error style of progression like Limbo and Detroit, can also be (arguably) classified under this, rewarding players with narrative and level progression, rather than experience points or loot.
My personal theory is that this reward mechanic is seeing a lot of traction these days, especially in mobile (the platform with the most reach at 2.5 billion gamers) because it’s something we’ve been taught as children by parents that grew up in a different time (that hard work equals results) but seldom witness in our adult life. So in our brief ride home on a crowded subway, we immerse ourselves in the fiction of a world where that actually happens.
Probably the most self-explanatory of the lot. Luck-based reward mechanics are basically gambling mechanics – slots, dice, random loot in treasure chests, physics simulations beyond reasonable player extrapolation, et cetera. While it is the easiest mechanic to implement, it’s also the one that’s the least “earned”, which may be a good or bad thing depending on your target audience. It’s a simple enough concept, I’m not going to spend too much time here.
Let’s face it, most of the games we play draw from all 3 categories of reward mechanics, so how do we then ensure that we can create a satisfying experience in the world of hybrids? Don’t panic, everything I said before still holds – you need to remember what is your LEAD mechanic.
The lead reward mechanic should be the main governing factor as to how often and well a player is rewarded, the other 2 play support in this game-plan. The best example I know of is the Borderlands series, they designed all the reward mechanics around the primary reward factor of skill. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing or how lucky you are, if you can pull off a head shot consistently, there will be plenty of rewards for you.
That is actually a pretty good way to think of about it – the primary reward mechanic should be the base factor you are working off, the other 2 are multipliers. If you aren’t good at the primary mechanic, no matter how well you do with the other 2, you’re multiplying by zero.
If you don’t make up your mind about your primary reward mechanic, you’ll satisfy no one and piss off everyone, regardless of your intended audience. Skill-based players will be wondering why they aren’t rewarded for playing well, effort-based players are frustrated why they are still getting their ass kicked after a hundred hours of playtime, and gamblers don’t get the thrill of a jackpot win after being very lucky. You’ll end up in the middle of nowhere like the classic example of Hellgate: London.
So in summary, it’s very important to do two things when designing rewards. One, know your audience: what are they craving to be rewarded for? What kind of affirmations are they seeking in your game? And two, cater to your audience: Even if it’s a game with multiple reward mechanic, pick one to be the lead mechanic, and make sure it’s the one that satisfies your intended audience.