Principles of Good Game Design - Part 6 -Rewarding the Player

Principle 6: Rewarding the Player

“Reward the player with more than just score increases. Include rewards that expand gameplay itself”

Positive reinforcement is well known for being a great motivator. Getting praise makes us happy, boosts our confidence, and pushes our efforts further. This is already briefly mentioned in the third principle regarding the importance of giving out positive feedback. This sixth principle is a more in-depth account on how the player should be rewarded.

Giving out scores is one of the oldest and most widely used techniques. When the game is over we get a score, summarizing our efforts with a single number, typically reaching into the thousands. This encourages several play-throughs, as we try to beat our high-score – a motivation that is increased when the high-score list is integrated in an online system with friends and other people competing. Bragging rights can be big motivation factor, making score systems – including achievements – a valuable asset to your game.

As game designers, we can motivate players even more by making some rewards useful in the game design itself. Just getting a score is not a tangible, useful reward within the game. It’s just a number. Just like in real-life getting a useful present is much nicer than a simple pad on the back.

So what should this present be like? Fortunately, there are countless answers. Unlocking new areas is one of them. Some games have special, advanced levels unlocked only when a specific, difficult requirement is met. Getting new weapons or tools – also known as loot - is an option too, and in role-playing games, you’re often rewarded with extra abilities and skills as well. Apart from empowering the player, these approaches provide an extra layer of complexity to the gameplay thus supporting an increased difficulty curve as a bonus feature. A reward can also be audio-visual or be related to the story – for example, a beautiful cut-scene explaining tidbits in the story – like in the Final Fantasy games.

In extreme cases, the rewards can also be more integrated in reality, as in World of Warcraft where you can earn real money by selling your virtual character and goods on auction sites, or Little Big Planet where you can use your level design retorically or as part of a viral marketing campaign. Of course, these actions are not a direct component of the game design of these games, but they still represent a considerable motivation factor for many people. On a side note, we see more and more games expanding into the realm of reality when it comes to rewarding the player (look up ubiquitous gaming, pervasive gaming, or see my thesis The Expansion of Computer Games Beyond Ludology for more details)

Principle found in: Super Metroid
All the Metroid games have extensive reward mechanisms that go way beyond scores. You control Samus, a lonely bounty hunter, out to destroy the evil Mother Brain. In the beginning, your arsenal and abilities are extremely limited. You’re weak – both defensively and offensively. You often gain tempting glimpses of areas and items unaccessible until you get a specific weapon or tool later on. For example, getting the grappling hook - upon destroying a boss - is an immensely satisfying reward, not only empowering you, but also giving you access to so many new areas. Weapon and ammo upgrades, health increases, and abilities such as wall-jumping also make up your rewards. They are a lot more interesting than scores because they are useful, fun to use, complicates gameplay, open up new areas, and empower you in your overall objective. Scores can never achieve these effects.

As a side note: upon completing the game, you don’t get a score per se. However, depending on your completion time, you see Samus take off an increasing amount of her clothes – another interesting way of rewarding the (male) player☺

I hope this all makes sense. If it does, please like it on Facebook☺ Look in the blog archive to the left for more game design principles.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.