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Reward What You Tax
Let's talk about what you should actually reward in a game. I like to refer to this as rewarding what you tax.
On occasion I've been asked what this means. It means if your game is about making friends then reward making friends. If it is about shooting enemies then reward shooting enemies. Don't make a shooting game that rewards completing quests more than it rewards shooting.
That may seem to be obvious but far too many games reward things they are not actually asking players to do.
I’m not saying to only have a single reward. It's great to have multiple levels of rewards.
There should be a hierarchy of rewards that aligns with the desired experience. This hierarchy will drive where you would like player’s to focus or split their focus depending on the experience of the game you would like to have.
At a basic level we're looking at a few different paradigms. Two sets of research are often referenced to help construct earning and reward systems.
They are Maslow's hierarchy of needs and B.F. Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement. They're both very well documented and we can discuss them in greater detail if there is a desire. For now, I’d like to focus on how to understand what rewards actually are.
How to ruin a movie
Oh, yeah I’ve seen that movie! Han swoops in, shoots Vader off course which saves Luke. Then Luke makes the shot and the death star explodes!
You’re going to go see what? I can't believe the main character was actually dead the entire movie…
Would you be less willing to watch a film if someone told you the ending ahead of time?
What about with sports? Are sports less enjoyable to watch if you know the final score ahead of time? Many people won't bother to watch an entire game if they already know the outcome. I’ve seen people leave live games part of the way through because they were convinced they already knew how it was going to end. As they left I heard them say, “This sucks, this games over.”
Slot machines over the years have changed how they payout. Originally there were much bigger payouts and much drier spells.
More recently, machines payout more often with smaller amounts. The reason why is interesting to me. It has very little to do with players being excited about winning.
It has a lot to do with the number of times people get to play. Players will gamble more if they are able to see more spins for the money. The dopamine payoff was shown to be when the reels of the machine were spinning and not when the reels stopped to show a win or a loss. People like the possibility of a win.
Have you ever bought a lottery ticket and won more than it cost? For many, dreaming about finding out how many people you would have to pay to turn wearing crocs with socks the hottest fashion trend is more fun than actually winning twice the ticket cost.
Equally, a kiss can be seen to have multiple rewards. There have been times where the buildup to a kiss was better then the sad slobbery excuse of a kiss you got.
In many cases, things that might be considered the obvious reward are actually the secondary reward or not a reward at all. Be careful to reward players with the part of the experience they are looking for.
Figure out the true reward
So you’re working on a game and might be wondering what is the part that needs to be rewarded. If you are a tad rusty on hard accurate analysis you can try a rougher simpler approach. The most basic way to figure out which parts are the actual reward is to disable parts of the design to find it. We will simplify the slot machine example to show how some of it could be broken down and what types of questions we could ask about each item.
A partial list could be:
Choosing a machine
Is there an indication of a difference between this machine and other machines. Recently paid out for example?
Familiar or nostalgic genres?
Does the machine placement add to a reward? For instance is it in a private or highly visible location? If this is electronic, is it behind a paywall, featured, only can be played on reward, etc.
Adding credits to the machine
Are debit or credit cards allowed?
Is a casino card allowed?
Are hybrid payments allowed?
Starting the actual gamble
Can you pull a handle?
Push a button?
Is it automatic on payment?
Are multiple options allowed?
Spin the reels
What is the duration for the reel spin?
Are there lights when the reels spin?
Are there special animations for the reels spinning?
Do sounds play when the reels spin?
Is there a win or lose animation?
Is sound part of the win?
How long does a win sequence take?
How long does a lose sequence take?
Is there a possibility of a mini game?
How is the Payout handled? Is it immediate? Is it credits? Hard coins?
Once you’ve broken down the elements you can try what the experience would be like if you disabled each one.
What would it be like if there was only one machine, no win animation, skip spinning reels, etc. This will help you find what the most important core elements to your game are. From there you can prioritize and reward each section as appropriate.
When figuring out rewards, ensure you are being cognizant of the meta game as well. For example take Among Us.
A large portion of that game is strategy on how to act during the task phase and the vote phase. It is a meta game about what psychological signals are you trying to send. Can you influence the other players to perceive you as a crew member, or an imposter? Can you get them to vote a certain way? There are no real rules around this element of the game. There are tasks you can do, an ability to attack, a meeting you can call, and chat.
Same could be said for Texas Hold’em. What can you derive from the other players around the table and what signals are you giving off? How will that influence other people’s play?
If the most interesting part of the game is the meta game, should you make it part of the actual game?
Should you keep it out?
Can you reward the meta game without creating rules for it?
For instance, in Texas Hold’em you could add a bonus pot if someone catches someone else bluffing with a non-hand.
Is the reward good as-is?
All of these parts are important to keep in mind and decide based on the experience you want to give.
Several open world style video games suffer from poor rewards. Players can pick from or create a variety of characters. They are encouraged to enter the world and solve problems with an open mind. Players can choose to peacefully resolve situations with dialog. However, the game’s reward structure gives the most benefit from psychotically killing every creature you see. If you choose the peaceful dialog path you will usually fall behind and be a lower level then you should. Even if enough exp is rewarded from talking, the game neglects to give out as much treasure or no treasure at all for taking that route. The player then falls behind economically. To make up for the deficits you usually need to change your playstyle and act like a psycho for a little while in an attempt to catch up. The game is asking people to make a choice of how they want to play and then neglecting to reward those possible paths.
Playstyle is only a stylistic choice if all choices are apparently equal.
In this case, there are several ways we can address it. The simple approach is to notify the player that an attempted peaceful playthrough will be a more difficult path. If that is your true intent for the game then this solution is ok. If it isn’t your intent, you can create game mechanic systems to ensure the dialog and fighting exp award are equal. You can also set up systems to ensure economically the player receives an equal share of treasure as they would have looted. You can track that loot under the hood and pay it back with additional environmental chests, town gifts, faction gifts, merchant gifts, additional merchant discounts, and similar. Special one off weapons should have counter parts that are for the varied playstyles. All of these paybacks need to be within a reasonable timeframe from when the fight would have occurred. There are many more ways the differences could be made up.
Reward What You Tax
As you are building a game be sure to identify what you would like players to do in a game. Then give rewards for doing that.
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