Endgame – Why we keep playing on

Posted on 16/05/2009

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There are plenty of reasons for us to play games. Most people, me included, just play for the fun of playing itself, but there is more to get out of a game than just your typical “gamer’s high”. Which is a good starting point for this whole idea – what are the most effective direct reward systems in games themselves?

“Gamer’s high” is a bit hard to tackle, since it’s a highly subjective thing. Mostly it’s presenting the player with a challenge, and then let her beat it. For me this works best if I have a part in actively figuring out how to actually pull it off. The bigger the challenge, the better the “high”. God of War and Shadow of the Colossus pull this off nicely, they introduce us to seemingly impossible tasks which can be overcome more easily than initially perceived.

Upping the percieved player power by presenting seemingly insourmountable odds - God of War's Hydra

Upping the percieved player power by presenting seemingly insourmountable odds - God of War's Hydra

The more skilled a player though, the harder it is to get to that point. Some players might just find that kind of fulfilment on Doom’s nightmare difficulty, or on the upper tiers of Tetris. The reward here is immediate, and mostly it’s the gameplay itself that constitutes it.

Simply put, “winning” the game is the most widely spread, most traditional reward mechanic. Closely related to that is gameplay as reward. Since “winning” the game often times isn’t as important as actually playing the game. As in the player overcomes a huge challenge and then is presented a new twist on the established gameplay, some new exiting level, new enemy types – and of course new challenges to overcome. These two reward mechanisms are probably the most broadly used ones, and they tend to intertwine with others.

Character improvement as found in most Roleplaying Games is basically just a slight change of the established gameplay, items and upgrades too. But I would like to look at those as a separate entity of player rewards, since they in themselves are a lot more graspable.

The player character gets better at doing whatever he does in a game, usually this goes hand in hand with a certain part of the game becoming a bit easier, which usually is needed for some upcoming challenges. The Metroid games would be a perfect example for that – although they are not really roleplaying games, character improvement is a central part of their reward techniques.

Suit upgrades reward the player with new game mechanics.

Suit upgrades reward the player with new game mechanics.

Character improvement in itself is something that could be filed under the greater category of “unlockables”, which in itself is a rather large category that could in theory contain everything related to “progress” in a game. But usually I would only file improvements under unlockables if they are not directly related and needed in a game’s progress, and just represent a fun treat, like Silent Hill’s silly magical girl costume, the camouflages and masks of the later Metal Gear Solid titles, or the Nazi zombie mode of the latest Call of Duty.

But those are all gameplay related rewards, a lot of games feature unlockables that are just small treats, totally unrelated to the game itself, sound tests, artwork galleries, developer commentaries. While aimed at the overachiever crowd of gamers, these don’t really translate back into the gameplay experience directly.

Which is also something a rather recent development in the field of player reward does. Achievements usually have no in-game feedback whatsoever, also feeding into the overachieving crowd, just handing out little treats one at a time. Which is not to say that doing interesting and entertaining things with achievements isn’t possible, I am just personally a bit weary of them, since some games just tend overdoing them, handing the player achievements for starting the game the first time for example.

Something I have not yet touched upon entirely is the element of plot. Story driven games work in a similar way to all other story driven media when it comes to “rewards”, which in this case would be experiencing the plot of the medium. There are however a lot of different approaches to how games can use story as a way to reward the player. The most obvious one being the traditional cutscene, which in recent years has become less and less of an accepted “reward” it seem, which in itself is an interesting topic, but none I would like tackling in the context of this article.

Other methods include feeding plot pieces to the player via text snippets, audiologs and in-game encounters, which arguably keep the game flow more steady, without inviting the player to put the controller down, becoming just a passive spectator.

Due to my own lack of exposure to the genre, I can’t comment on the techniques employed by MMO titles, though I would be surprised if those were differing a lot from the aforementioned ones.

Whichever one of these techniques is the most effective is usually up to the individual player. To me, the most effective method is one that encourages experimentation within the actual gameplay and rewards that immediately, the most prominent example being Crackdown’s upgrade system, that encourages the player to explore as much of the gameworld in any direction as humanly possible to hunt for minor boosts for the player character. Here the translation is immediate, each of the agility orbs increasing the jump capability of the character a tiny bit.

Crackdown's hidden Orbs feed directly back into the gameplay when discovered.

Crackdown's hidden Orbs feed directly back into the gameplay when discovered.

Other games rewarding the player in a similar manner are mostly found in the realm of roleplaying games, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series being a front runner for rewarding the player immediately with stat upgrades whenever he does something successfully. Pick locks, the character gets better at picking locks, be acrobatic, the character gets better at being acrobatic, thus adapting the gameplay to the player’s taste, one step at a time.

Ideally, player behaviour should also directly feed back into the plot, but implementing that is quite a hard thing to pull off it seems, since there are rather few games doing that, but with improving technology, and the eventual shift from graphics obsession to plot improvement, I am rather sure that we will see such mechanics at work in the near future.

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Posted in: gaming, theory