Thursday, 6 November 2014

[Design Talk] Reward Systems Within Your Game

Hello World,

I have heard it said that games are like mind control. They convince somebody to overcome unnecessary obstacles and act in an anomalous manner. From the view of an onlooker it would seem as though a gamer was crazy. Why would any sane person spend their already limited time and money, doing extra work in which there is no apparent reward?  To most gamers the innate gut reaction to this kind of question is because games are ‘fun’, but why is a game fun?

 At their core games are built on rewards. The medium has been engineered over the decades to be as engaging and fulfilling as possible.  Everything from the thrill of overcoming a boss, to the challenge of figuring out a puzzle are all activities which are innately satisfying. Although games are built on reward systems it is very important as a designer to implement them effectively into your game. And this first step to doing that is to understand the two types of rewards, extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards are some kind of payment received for performing a task. While generally referring to physical payouts, such as money in a poker game, or a salary at a job, games most capitalize on this phenomenon through in game rewards. Think about all those times you have grinded in a game to get the best gear, or unlock the next part of the story.  In a game like Dungeons and Dragons, these extrinsic rewards are seen in the form of items, gold and experience. Loot and XP may not be the only reason you risk your characters life exploring ancient ruins, but it sure as hell helps.

Intrinsic rewards on the other hand are rewards that come from within the action itself. These often take the form of psychological and chemical rewards within our own body. Examples of this are the camaraderie of spending time with friends,  the hope of being successful or feeling a part of something bigger. In short, intrinsic rewards are when the act of playing the game is its own reward.  This style of reward, while harder to create within a game, has a much more lasting effect on the player. It should be the goal of the designer to have every aspect of play be as intrinsically rewarding as possible. This is however much easier said than done, especially in tabletop games.

In a good video game, everything is working together to make that moment as intrinsically rewarding as possible, everything from the music, to the atmosphere, to the in game mechanics.  The developer acts almost as a conductor making these elements all come together to create one experience. This makes it much easier for the game to illicit intrinsic rewards on its own merits, rather than depend on how the player is feeling at that moment. Tabletop games on the other hand are a much more variable medium. The way in which one group runs a game could be completely different to the way another group approaches it. In either scenario, it is the group itself that has the largest bearing on the intrinsic rewards, rather than the system. I believe this is where the whole “System Doesn’t Matter” mentality comes from. That isn’t to say that systems can deliver their own intrinsic rewards, but these rewards are best received when approaching the game from a specific mindset.  I have seen no better example of this than Dungeons and Dragons. DnD is the most intrinsically rewarding when you play the game as a combat heavy dungeon crawler. While plenty of groups have lots of fun playing the game outside this niche, their intrinsic rewards are coming from the group itself.

One of the most effective tools I have found for managing reward systems is to have your extrinsic rewards encourage players to get into the mindset required to fully engage with the game’s intrinsic rewards. When you are creating your game you know the mindset you want your players to be in. You have a clear vision of how a session plays out, how the players act, the types of the decisions they make. While it isn’t possible for all players to be in that mental state all the time, you can encourage them to be in it as much as possible. A good way to do this is to make playing in the right mindset the best strategy for playing the game. If you look at Planet Crashers, I designed the game to be enjoyed in a comedic, beer and pretzels mentality. To encourage this style of play, I gave the players a better chance of success if they acted in comedic and cliché ways. This encourages the players to get into the right mindset to fully enjoy the game.

Some possible methods to implement extrinsic rewards are as follows. 
  • Character Advancement
  • Mechanical bonuses to actions
  • Recovery of resources
  • Loot


Although all of these methods and more can be implemented into your game, it is important to consider what kind of behaviors you are encouraging. Try to align encouraged play with the game’s most engaging play. If the best way to get loot and XP is to go dungeon crawling, your players will want to go dungeon crawling.

If you have any examples of how you have used extrinsic and intrinsic rewards , or have suggestions for future topics send me a message using the contact form on the right hand side!

And as always, Thanks for reading.

-Patrick

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