Rewards for consuming entertainment is a novel invention that is unique to the medium of games. By investing time into them and achieving certain goals players are given various gifts within the games to encourage further investment.
In more narrative games, the rewards are the experience the player gains in itself. Like in movies or books, we are rewarded with sentimental attachments to characters, resolving plot arcs and witnessing great events. Where games differ though is in the rewards tied to mechanics and gameplay.
The actions players perform are reflected in the game with certain actions being rewarded. Beat an enemy or a quest and you are given experience or items that strengthen your character and effect future encounters. Getting stronger becomes the reward. Everyone remembers getting the BFG in DOOM or a star in Mario.
This has evolved to the shoot ‘n’ loot type games like Borderlands, Destiny and the Division where players are constantly drip-fed a steady supply of gear to give them little dopamine hits throughout a gameplay session and keep players coming back for more.
What I want to focus on today though is how games can reward players without cheapening the experience with a constant deluge of weapons and skills.
Last week I finally completed Divinity Original Sin 2. It’s a great game that offers the player plenty of loot, just like one would expect from an RPG. As mentioned above, these are rewards to players, but they also devalue gear to the point of disinterest. You don’t grew attached to that cool set of armour you have and the beast of a blade you fought an optional boss to obtain because you know that in five minutes you’ll have something better. Levelling up your character doesn’t reward you by dominating your opponents but by keeping your head above the water as enemies constantly scale in strength.
But then a single quest changed this template. One of my companions had a little trouble with a demon in her head. Over the course of the game I had worked with her to find out about how to get rid of this demon until we were in the last section of the game and could finally confront the demon itself. This was a culmination of every interaction I’d had with this character, a character that my player character had formed a close relationship with.
Killing the demon and freeing my friend of her torment was a narrative reward. Looting the demon’s corpse and everything in its lair that wasn’t nailed down was the gear reward. What I hadn’t expected was the third reward that this game-spanning quest had planned for me.
You see, my NPC friend was a famous bard. This is mentioned throughout the game but I’d not really thought of it much beyond being a cool little background story for her. But here, stood in this room with the demon’s corpse at our feet and her mind finally free, she asks if we want her to perform. And that’s what she does. Lohse pulls out her lute and sings for us. A real song with a real score. It was strangely magical.
Divinity has a no thrills way of dealing with dialogue and conversation presentation yet I was taken by surprise and was completely absorbed by this scene of two characters standing still with a text overlay. magical flowers bloomed around us that became birds and so on, while this very well performed song, so unlike anything else in the game, continued on. The 2+ minutes of this enthralled me with its novelty and quiet beauty. Suffice it to say that out of everything in the game, this was the moment that stuck with me.
It got me thinking about what it is we take away from games. In the real world, rewards are there to mark achievements. They have meaning because of the hard work that goes into them. We get them because we go above any beyond what is expected of us. In games though we are always expected to be the best. The only reality in games is that which we are destined to win in. This means that rewards in games don’t make our drive forward but stand as inevitable markers that we are destined to achieve. Then the game ends and none of the legendary weapons or piles of gold matter.
I don’t remember that time I got that one legendary weapon in that one game. Even when it is optional and hard to achieve. It might drive me through the game to get it but I never really dwell on it once its mine. What I do remember though is when games go out of their way to reward me with an experience.
Nier Automata has a lot of cool weapons that take work to get and fully upgrade but it is the simplistic beauty of Ending E that hit my soul like a hammer. It turned a simple credits sequence into a bullet-hell shoot, which was cool, but the messages from other players encouraging you on, the slide from chiptune music to a powerful rendition of Weight of the World belting out as you battle on, then the aid of random strangers and the final choice of sacrifice at the end of it all.
Even looking back at games like Halo, fighting through the campaign as a first person shooter. The last level brings us back to The Pillar of Autumn, the place where the game started, and as the game draws to its climax we are forced into a warthog to barrel through tight corridors as the ship explodes around us. You are panicking as the clock ticks down, the only timed mission in the game, and both Flood and Covenant battle around even as the flames consume them. Again, the game rewards you with something different to provide an experience that you don’t forget.
In the Witcher 3, your primary mission is to find your adoptive daughter Ciri. In a technical sense, Ciri is the reward you are seeking and the game delivers on this. It isn’t just a narrative tickbox that progresses the game but a touching moment when father and daughter are reunited after years apart. You as a player and Geralt as a character have worked long and hard to find her so it’s important that the scene feels worth it, and it bloody does. CD Projekt Red are masters at using their narratives to reward players, the well developed plot and characters encouraging player investment just as efficiently as the tiny dopamine hits of loot economies.
In business there is a Fredrick Herzberg quote that states “A reward once given becomes a right”. This basically means that people begin to feel entitled to rewards if they are given regularly, the reward simply becoming the norm and thus losing its effect. This is where traditional loot prizes fail in games. They are given out so freely that they don’t reward players for playing the game but rather have become the game themselves.
99% of rewards in games get sold instantly without attachment to add to the ever growing pile of gold that never gets used. Games need to work on ensuring that players leave the game with a heartfelt experience rather than a digital rucksack filled with clutter. Let’s hope that more developers focus on these little experiences in the future.