A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Level Six: Integral Perspectives II

Process Phase Level Six

Beat 3. Rewards

In Beat 1. Goals, we looked at intrinsic goals and how these relate to our motivational model developed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I. The discussion of extrinsic goals we saved for this beat because extrinsic goals, much more than intrinsic goals, are inextricably linked to rewards. In this beat, you will weave motivation, goals, and both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards together into a unique motivational “value chain” for your game.

First, let’s enlarge on our topic from Beat 1. Goals how intrinsic and extrinsic rewards either complement each other or interfere with each other.

On the one hand, there’s a whole mountain of scientific evidence from studies and meta-analyses that extrinsic goals are detrimental not only to intrinsic motivation, but even to creativity. One basic test comprises two groups of people who are given the same task. One group is promised a reward for that activity, like sweets or grades or money, depending on age and context, while the other group is not. Invariably, the group that wasn’t promised a reward enjoyed the activity more, repeated that activity more often without being explicitly tasked with it, and/or scored higher on a creativity index. Sweets, grades, and money are, of course, extrinsic rewards. In other words, extrinsic rewards have a habit of overriding whatever would make an activity or a task enjoyable in itself.

On the other hand, games have a “dual” nature courtesy of being competitive at heart, serving both mastery goals and performance goals. The player can enjoy the gameplay intrinsically and enjoy extrinsic rewards, including beating or winning the game, at the same time. (But, as mentioned in Beat 1. Goals, there are games that have no extrinsic motivators or rewards beyond beating the game as such.)

Does this mean that there is no problem involved with mixing intrinsic and extrinsic rewards when it comes to games? Sadly, no.

In Designing Games, Tynan Sylvester is highly critical of extrinsic rewards for all the reasons given above, and rightly so. When an enemy drops loot after being killed by the player, his example goes, the player’s intrinsic motivation to fight that enemy within the context of the game’s setting is severely compromised. This is convincing. Many games ride piggyback on this dynamic, to turn the game into a slot machine where the next extrinsic reward is always right around the corner. So keep playing. And don’t stop. Or contemplate.

How, then, should we handle extrinsic rewards when they seem both supportive and detrimental for an enjoyable playing experience?

The solution is to align extrinsic rewards with the development arc where they belong, and only belong: the player development arc as the home of fiero class emotions. The other two arcs, the story development arc and the character development arc, should exclusively provide intrinsic rewards toward the player character’s wants and needs and a deeper understanding of the game world, respectively.

Mapping this to Sylvester’s example of the loot-dropping enemy, the design rules could be like this. First, killed or captures enemies should only “drop” things that they would plausibly carry. (This should reduce the number of loot-kills.) Then, if an enemy carries anything of value, it should be extra plausible in ways that could be expected, or could have been expected in retrospect, or even actively sought out by the player character. (This takes several addictive slot-machine mechanics out of the equation.) This valuable thing, finally, should help the player character in the context of a specific task, objective, or subgoal. (Reducing the amount of non-specific valuables like gold, coins, etc., reduces the number of meaningless killing sprees to buy or upgrade weapons.)

All you have to do is keeping your rewards aligned with setting, immediate contexts, and narrative. Regular enemies, for example, would leave their valuables in the camp or with the baggage train, not schlep them around on duty or on the battlefield. But if an enemy is on their way to buy a new set of armor, they could be expected to carry either cash or items of exchange matching their intentions. And a specific enemy who might be in possession of a map or other tactical information could be pursued by the player for that very reason. Also, what about enemies who don’t carry any valuable items, don’t pose an immediate threat, and might, in certain situations, even be unarmed? Here, the player would have to make up their own mind and find reasons to kill that enemy or not.

Sadly, this is not what we see in games most of the time, and it gets worse when role-playing elements are involved. As long as the game expects you to kill non-player characters left and right for loot in order to proceed, killing them has nothing to do with player agency whatsoever, let alone choice.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a good example. It’s an excellent game with an absolutely dazzling and beautiful game world, but in the reward department it is very effective at assassinating intrinsic motivation. The never-ending cycle of looting and killing to upgrade equipment and, especially, gain experience points lures the player into meaningless extermination sprees against enemy soldiers and local fauna alike. Also, as soon as the player character has acquired the hidden blade, the player must jump through hoops to regain the ability for non-lethal takedowns. But why would they—non-lethal takedowns bring no experience points, they’re useless against higher level–enemies, and the player can’t even hide the body! To top it off, pocketing loot and experience points is accompanied by audiovisual cues straight from the Bejeweled department. Add to that a most uninspired tutorial level, where everything is about introducing basic combat and climbing and looting, and nothing about amazement and wonder and awe. Still, it’s a terrific game—but it could have played in a whole different league.

By keeping extrinsic rewards out of the story development arc and out of the character development arc, the decision to kill an enemy can become a matter of necessity, a matter of assessment, and even a matter of character. All of which makes the gameplay vastly more interesting. But for the player development arc, it’s different. The very fact that the player becomes better at something can both be an intrinsic reward in the context of mastery goals and an extrinsic reward in the context of performance goals. To extraordinary player achievements, you can attach everything from high scores or badges to player status or access to additional game content, and so on, as types of extrinsic rewards that we will examine in more detail below.

It’s all about reward alignment, but not in the sense of how businesses are supposed to align rewards with desired employee behavior. It’s about aligning your intrinsic and extrinsic rewards with their proper development arcs all the time.

Creating and aligning rewards for your game as a whole and for each development arc is hard. The reward system of a game is not a game. It’s a motivation machine that has to work properly and reliably with different kinds of players in different kinds of situations. Will your game need both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to power and sustain player motivation? Then you need a system with two registers, each with a number of tiers and layers for motivational drivers.

For our reward system’s intrinsic register, we will utilize our findings from Level One: Integral Perspectives I and from this level’s Beat 1. Goals. For the extrinsic register, our reward system will utilize the toolbox of gamification. This might sound curious because the term gamification refers to the use of game design processes and mechanism in non-game contexts. But what the gamification toolbox contains is a well-organized collection of extrinsic motivators adapted from game design, ready for use—and, as mentioned, the reward system of a game is not a game.

To build our reward system, let’s start with the extrinsic register. Gamification has a mixed reputation, to put it mildly, and both its good reputation and its bad reputation are perfectly warranted. Gamification can be a force for good and enrich our experience, and it can be a force for evil that seduces us to waste our time and talents. On the evil side, gamification can mask, and even addict us to, repetitive, unpalatable tasks through meaningless rewards, thereby obviating the need and the effort to make such tasks less repetitive and more palatable in the first place. (As the cartoonist Zach Weinersmith quipped in an SMBC comic, it’s as if Sisyphus were rewarded with meaningless points and progressed one level each time he reaches the summit and the rock rolls back down, providing him with more strength and also a bigger rock.) On the other hand, gamification can make learning easier and more enjoyable, e.g., learning to handle or operate complex interfaces and machinery; it can help us find solutions for difficult problems; it can promote behavior change and motivate us to choose long-term goals over short-term rewards for a more healthy lifestyle.

The first text you should read about gamification is Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, which nowhere mentions the term gamification but is still the best introduction to this field. Importantly, it extends gamification’s tool palette to motivation and reward patterns in general, extrinsic ones as well as intrinsic ones. Indeed, later on, we will meet McGonigal’s “balanced work quotas” again, together with a handful of other aspects, to populate our model’s intrinsic rewards register.

Extrinsic rewards—meant for the player development arc only, as a reminder—succeed almost universally for two reasons. On the one hand, they directly address the probably most basic principle of human behavior to seek to repeat pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasurable experiences. On the other hand, they are highly abstracted, often in symbolic ways. Both characteristics in tandem make them work nearly independent of individual differences and personalities. The psychological model most intimately connected to this is behaviorism, and the motivational models and tools associated with it are classical and operant conditioning, reinforcements and rewards, and reinforcement and reward schedules. (Punishment, except for the moderate absence of rewards, is not part of this model, or of behaviorism in general. Punishment doesn’t facilitate but prevent learning and lasting change.)

The most basic motivational drivers in terms of extrinsic rewards form the so-called PBL layer: Points, Badges, Leaderboards. These should not be dismissed as mere lightweights. Points, badges, and leaderboards fueled the early generations of video games, and they kept being relevant for a whole range of games and purposes precisely because they are highly abstracted, instantly comparable, and indifferent to personality or individual preferences. And they need not literally be points or badges or boards; they can be stars or souvenirs or trophies that can be collected throughout a game or achievement and progress messages that are automatically posted on social media, and anything you can think of that fulfills the same symbolic function.

The PBL layer fertilizes the ground, so to speak, for the second layer of extrinsic rewards that resides on top of it. This layer was collected and condensed by Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham in Gamification by Design into the SAPS range: Status, Access, Power, Stuff. All four elements are still highly abstract and universally applicable, but they’re not as purely symbolic anymore as points, badges, and leaderboards are. SAPS is where success is transformed into assets: status to status items, bragging rights, prestige, and similar; access to special content, products, information, or services without monetary value (e.g., access to a level or character skin or weapon that is part of the game the player has already bought, or the right to buy a product in a certain color that isn’t regularly available); power to certain functions like board master or event coordinator or moderator for a community, game forum, or game chat; and finally stuff to special content, products, information, or services that do have monetary value (but preferably not that much).

PBL and SAPS work closely together as items from the SAPS range can be displayed, indicated, and referred to by items from the PBS range as a kind of shorthand.

To sum it up, the PBL and SAPS reward layers are universally applicable and extremely versatile. Not only can a cleverly devised PBL/SAPS-based reward system power your game’s player development arc, it can create and power a whole gaming community around your game.

Let’s move on to the intrinsic register, to be applied to the story development arc and the character development arc.

Intrinsic rewards do not operate universally. Much less abstract in nature than their extrinsic cousins, intrinsic rewards have to account for the emotional and cognitive complexity of individuals. For maximum versatility and effectiveness, intrinsic rewards need to spread out, so that the reward system can serve different types of behavior and different wants and needs, all of which fluctuate between one player and the next, and might also fluctuate from one day to the next for one and the same player. The psychological models intimately connected to these types of rewards are cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism. The tools associated with these psychological models, in turn, are numerous, and open-ended.

Here’s is a small selection of such reward-heavy tools, just enough to give you ideas and get you going. Some, like set completion, might look extrinsic, but they’re not. Collecting and completing something, e.g., is not a separable reward for something else. It’s an inherently enjoyable activity that contains its own reward.

To start with, there’s the self-determination model, on which much of our motivational model from Level One: Integral Perspectives I is based, and the flow model, which we discussed in detail in Level Two: Interactivity. Then, there are Jane McGonigal’s seven categories of balanced gameplay from Reality Is Broken: high-stakes work, busywork, mental work, physical work, discovery work, team work, and creative work, which are not just motivational but also highly rewarding. Not every game must fully implement all seven types. But you can offer some symbolic treatment for those that are missing. If it’s a single-player game, non-player characters could help the player character out in a coordinated team effort from time to time. If your game doesn’t include creative work, give the player something to arrange or customize or individualize, whatever it is. If the game doesn’t involve cognitive challenges, give the player some mental work like optimizing the use of their inventory space (many players like optimizing their inventory in clever ways, so don’t over-automatize to begin with). And so on. Be creative!

Next, there are the information gap and curiosity gap models by Daniel E. Berlyne and George Loewenstein, respectively. As these titles suggest, information is distributed and dispensed in specific ways so that seeking out new things and finding out what happened, or what happens in the end, is perceived as a powerful reward.

Also, there are set completion models like Ellen R. K. Evers’s set stimuli and the pseudo-set framing from Kate Barasz et al. For that, items are arranged in true sets or pseudo-sets so that the player acquires each item not just for its own value, but also to complete the set. Holding the final piece of a puzzle, crossing off the last item from a list, completing your 1953 Bowman set at an auction, or putting the sixth and final gemstone into place is deeply rewarding because people love to bring about completion. This, for example, can be combined with Nunes and Dreze’s endowed progress effect when you give the player a few pieces of the puzzle, a few cards to start the collection, or a gemstone in advance, but increase the total the player has to collect, cross off, etc., by that exact same amount. The effect is that, even though both challenge and reward remain the same, the player displays more persistence toward reaching that challenge’s goal and perceives the reward as even more satisfying. Plus, you can use player type taxonomies, originally researched by Richard Bartle and later expanded by himself and others. It is a tool that is highly useful as long as you heed Bartle’s admonition that players need not conform to one particular type at all times; that balancing types is the important thing; and that what players do is less important than why they do it. If you know what different player types perceive as rewarding and why, you can draw them in with well-chosen incentives.

Then, as final examples, you can and should use agenda-setting and priming from media psychology, which we looked into in some detail in Level Four: Narrativity, and everything that’s attached to it. In the right circumstances, simply recognizing something, remembering something, or putting something to use can be perceived as a satisfying reward. To these ends, you can also play with the Zeigarnik effect that people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks.

None of these models and tools are particularly complicated, but it needs some knowledge of, and engagement with, social science research to get to know them and apply them effectively. If that’s not your cup of tea, and that’s perfectly okay, then you might want to get someone on the team who has a background in social sciences. All these models and tools can not only power your game’s reward system, it should be added. They are also exceptionally useful for level design and the purpose of player guidance. Which, alas, is outside the scope of this treatise.

Above this tool tier, we can plug in the three floors of our motivational building, the one we created in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, at the top of our intrinsic rewards register.

The first layer consists of the four elements of our interactive playing experience model that constitute our motivational building’s excite floor: the just-right amount of challenge (Interactivity), compelling aesthetics (Plurimediality), emotional appeal (Narrativity), and meaningful choices (Architectonics).

But there’s enough space on that floor left that we can add three more tenants: unnecessary obstacles, instant feedback, and epic scale, all three from Jane McGonigal’s tool palette in Reality Is Broken. Let’s go through them one by one.

  • Without unnecessary obstacles, games wouldn’t be very rewarding. If players were allowed to put a number of balls into a number of holes by hand or suspend tetrominoes in mid-air and rotate them until they fit, neither the word “golf” nor the word “tetris” would ring any bells.
  • If players were not informed immediately about their rocket attack’s success or failure but on the next day or in the following week, that would be equally unrewarding.
  • Epic scale is almost always experienced as rewarding. It can be anything from wide vistas to the formation of massive war parties to intense music to the sound of a rock that is dropped into a very deep well. (All four examples, incidentally, are staged in reverse order to great effect in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Pippin manages to alert the orcs of Moria to their presence.)

With respect to rewards attached to epic scale, we can also utilize cutscenes in an enjoyable manner. Epic scale is where cutscenes can shine, and particularly embedded micro-cutscenes. Barry Atkins, in More Than a Game, provides a good range of examples. In the timed, demanding speedboat race through Venice’s narrow canals in Tomb Raider II, for example, success is rewarded on the final stretch of the race by what Atkins calls a “personal mini-movie” and a “cinematic vignette.” This personal mini-movie is an intrinsic reward loaded with “epic” emotions like joy, awe, and wonder from the fear class (the situation players can see themselves in) that is fastened to a plot point from the story development arc and to player success from the player development arc.

The second layer consists of the three resolutions of the story development, character development, and player development arc, all discussed in Beat 1. Goals: plot resolution (visible goal); journey resolution (internal goal); and game resolution (proficiency goal).

The third layer, finally, consists of the third floor of the motivational building, the become floor. It contains our player motivation model: autonomy/agency, mastery/performance, relatedness/community, and purpose/goal. Each of these has a range of intrinsic rewards baked right into it. Having changed something for the better, getting good at something, being trusted, and doing something that makes sense is rewarding in ways that are enormously empowering and memorable. But don’t forget that these experiences can also be successfully symbolized by items from the PBL or SAPS range—think medals, for example, military and otherwise. Don’t ever underestimate the power of symbolic representation.

Fig.4.53 Stratified Reward System
Fig.4.53 Stratified Reward System

Two final aspects: goodies and save points.

As to goodies of value, be that gold coins, weapons, armor, spells, potions, electronic lock picks, a horse, a car, or a spaceship, never make them collateral rewards. “Collateral” in this context means that the player achieves something within the game and then looks around and “finds” some valuable loot. With collateral rewards, the player will switch instantly into extrinsic reward mode—collateral rewards are nothing more than glorified “drop” rewards of the kind discussed previously. Every valuable item the player owns in-game should have been earned by the player in a plausible context as an intrinsic reward from the story development arc or the character development arc. Remember, if you want to reward the player for an extraordinary achievement in the player development arc, which almost always amounts to an extrinsic reward, this should not reside in the game world but outside of it, as an item from the PBL or SAPS range along the examples given above. It doesn’t exclude in-game items, but these should then be purely cosmetic and carefully chosen.

With regard to save points, in Beat 2. Failure we left the question hanging as to why some titles, among them Resident Evil 7: Biohazard or Alien: Isolation, still retain a save point mechanic in the typewriter tradition where certain items have to be found in the game world in order to manually save a game state—cassette tapes in the case of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and wall consoles in Alien: Isolation. The hypothesis was that this isn’t related to player failure and punishment, but to rewards.

Looking closely, it indeed appears to be a reward mechanic, and a clever one to boot. Because it rewards two things at once: exploration and survival. In the original Aliens versus Predator, discussed in the preceding beat, the restrictive game save system actively discouraged exploration. And while it certainly rewarded survival, that reward was nothing more than having arrived at the end of the level. In Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Alien: Isolation, in contrast, it’s exploration that boosts the player’s chances of survival. Finding a save point is an achievement and a reward at the same time.

But Resident Evil 7: Biohazard also has an autosave mechanic, which Alien: Isolation lacks. Predictably, not all players were happy about the latter, for all the good reasons enumerated in Beat 2. Failure. Here, a great opportunity was lost. What if players in Alien: Isolation were allowed to decide for themselves if they want to switch autosave on or off? In the design spirit of games like Legend of Grimrock where the “modern” automap feature can be disabled in favor of using a pen and graph paper, this would have given players the option to play the game in old-school fashion without depriving others of the convenience of autosaves.

It should be conceded that, on the whole, wall consoles are quite numerous in Alien: Isolation. But real world punishment through time loss still remains a problem. There always will be players who are unusually cautious, prone to being killed instantaneously after having spent an inordinate amount of playing time hiding away in a locker.

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Congratulations! If you’ve come that far, you have not only beaten the final level of the Process phase, but the Process phase itself. The Process phase is at the very core of the Ludotronics paradigm and its methodology. It introduced you to a great number of tools and methods that you need to make informed design decisions across the four territories of the Ludotronics map, Interactivity, Plurimediality, Narrativity, and Architectonics, toward a holistic interactive playing experience with a goal system and a reward system based on player motivation and emotion.

What’s lying before you now is the Proposition phase, the last stretch of your journey, that will prepare you for the final boss fight: your pitch presentation!

But wait, there’s one more thing. If you haven’t done so already, go and assemble the conceptual maps for your game as a series of tables or spreadsheets. You will need them to build a prototype or a level concept for your proposal. These tables or spreadsheets will represent all the elements of your game in a nutshell, and also represent them in the right condition with respect to where they will be located in your game.

These conceptual maps are:

All of these elements will eventually contribute to your game’s overall pacing framework. Pacing isn’t just about plot, and it’s a framework because you can’t simply set the pacing of your game as you would for a book or a movie. You can’t fully control the player development arc, and you can’t control how players will approach your game to begin with—as creepers, blazers, or completists from Stevens & Raybould’s range mentioned in Level Four: Narrativity, or with other behaviors from a different attribute range that is applicable to your game. (To learn more about a game’s pacing framework, Jacek Wesołowski’s Gamasutra feature “Beyond Pacing: Games Aren’t Hollywood” is a good place to start.)

Keep your maps ready when you enter the Proposition phase—you will need them soon.