Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of game designer Adam Rademacher, looking at reward systems and the best way to implement them in games.
Why are players playing your game? What motivations did you inspire in them? Are they the motivations you wanted?
In just a few short years we've seen reward systems in games evolve beyond measure - from what was once a simple quest for points to a whirlpool of reward systems... what's a designer to do? Take a deeper look at your game, and look at what rewards you're giving the player - and more importantly, why you're giving them. Adding a reward system to your game can often feel like a wild stab in the dark, which is why so many games have turned to the shotgun approach - throw everything in and hope that one catches the player. Even worse, you could throw a reward system into your game without even understanding what motivations it gives your players. We can do better than this. Let's take a look the reward systems, reasons behind the rewards then talk about how to use them effectively.
COMMON REWARD SYSTEMS
The 'old faithful' of the industry, points were initially added to arcade games as a way to drive competition. Points are intentionally a multiplayer-driven reward system, that exists only to pull on the player's pride and skill. Any kind of arbitrary counter in a game can fall into this category.
Another 'old faithful' of the industry, but this one is primarily a single-player driven reward system. For playing well, players are given the illusion that they have become more powerful. In reality, the game usually has a difficulty curve to match the power growth of the player to make this also arbitrary and meaningless. Note: multiplayer RPG progression, especially MMORPG progression, is not a reward system. It is a core mechanic of the game.
Story as a reward system seems to come and go in popularity. It hinges on the game's story being good enough to be a reward, and most games unfortunately can't claim this. Nowadays this is mostly seen in "lore chunks," where players are given special, extraneous information about characters and history while the main story remains unaffected. I can't honestly think of a game that does this really well, so if you can please leave a comment about it and let me know.
so many games have turned to the shotgun approach - throw everything in and hope that one catches the player
Give them more for getting more. Greed is a cardinal sin but it's also an effective reward system. It's similar to the concepts behind progression, but the mechanics are different. The philosophy is, "the rich get richer," so it's generally based on some kind of interest or percentage boost. It's a common sight in simulation and Tower Defense games (this might sound weird, but it's a good way to get a player to think more efficiently in tower use ), but hasn't made much of a splash outside of that, mostly because of the difficulty in balancing it. There's a threshold where the player has so much of something that it becomes worthless though, so be careful with this one.
Money is like points that can be spent in the game for things to change the nature of the game. You probably understand what money is, but just recognise that it's any score system that can be 'spent' at some point to get something. Not greed, not progression, not points, but a little of all three - money is a point system that can be spent to earn progression and gets better the more you have of it. Because of this, it has the downfalls of all three reward systems it draws on; players without enough of it will fall behind in the game, it runs the risk of becoming worthless when the player amasses too much, and players won't want to spend it while it still has value. Money is probably the most common and the most commonly misused reward system in games today.
Power-ups make the game easier for a brief point in time. They're different from progression because they give the player real power, and the difficulty changes while the player is 'powered up,' and they are temporary increases in power. These are becoming less common by the day, which is unfortunate in the grand scheme of things...
Aesthetic rewards are the coolest but also the most involved to create. A special animation, effect, sound, etc. with or without a real gameplay consequence. God of War does an excellent job with this reward system, allowing the player to get merciless kill animations on certain enemies by executing specific commands in the game. These do get old after a while unless you're going to sink half of your art budget into making different variations, so use them sparingly. Besides, it's hard to feel like a bad-ass if you're a bad-ass 100 per cent of the time, right?
Meta-rewards reward the player outside of the game for something they did in the game. Leaderboards, achievements, Facebook wall posts, and any kind of real-world return all fall into the concept of meta-rewards. The only important thing to know about meta-rewards right now is that they are completely inconsequential to the gameplay. No one in their right mind is going to buy your game and play it only to get the achievement points. They are only motivation for someone who is already motivated to play your game.