Rewards in PvEIn PvE games especially, progression is strongly related to what is sometimes called the “reward schedule” or “risk/reward cycle.” The idea is that you don’t just want the player to progress, you want them to feel like they are being rewarded for playing well. In a sense, you can think of progression as a reward itself: as the player continues in the game and demonstrates mastery, the ability to progress through the game shows the player they are doing well and reinforces that they’re a good player.
One corollary here is that you do need to make sure the player notices you’re rewarding them. Another corollary is that timing is important when handing out rewards:
- Giving too few rewards, or spacing them out for too long so that the player goes for long stretches without feeling any sense of progression, is usually a bad thing. The player is demoralized and may start to feel like if they aren’t making progress, they’re playing the game wrong (even if they’re really doing fine).
- Ironically, giving too many rewards can also be hazardous. One of the things we’ve learned from psychology is that happiness comes from experiencing some kind of gain or improvement, so many little gains produce a lot more happiness than one big gain, even if they add up to the same thing. Giving too many big rewards in a small space of time diminishes their impact.
- Another thing we know from psychology is that a random reward schedule is more powerful than a fixed schedule. This does not mean that the rewards themselves should be arbitrary; they should be linked to the player’s progress through the game, and they should happen as a direct result of what the player did, so that the player feels a sense of accomplishment. It is far more powerful to reward the player because of their deliberate action in the game, than to reward them for something they didn’t know about and weren’t even trying for.
Rewarding the player with increased power
Progression through getting a new toy/object/capability that actually increases player options is another special milestone. Like we said before, you want these spaced out, though a lot of times I see the player get all the cool toys in the first third or half of the game and then spend the rest of the game finding new and interesting ways to use them.
Still, if you give the player access to everything early on, you need to use other kinds of rewards to keep them engaged through the longer final parts of the game where they don’t find any new toys. How can you do this?
Here’s a few ways:
- If your mechanics have a lot of depth, you can just present unique combinations of things to the player to keep them challenged and engaged. (This is really hard to do in practice.)
- Use other rewards more liberally after you shut off the new toys: more story, more stat increases, more frequent boss fights or level transitions. You can also offer upgrades to their toys, although it’s debatable whether you can think of an “upgrade” as just another way of saying “new toy.”
- Or you can, you know, make your game shorter. In this day and age, thankfully, there’s no shame in this. Portal and Braid are both well-known for two things: being really great games, and being short.
Progression through level transitions – that is, progression to a new area – is a special kind of reward, because it makes the player feel like they’re moving ahead (and they are!). You want these spaced out a bit so the player isn’t so overwhelmed by changes that they feel like the whole game is always moving ahead without them; a rule of thumb is to offer new levels or areas on a slightly increasing curve, where each level takes a little bit longer than the last. This makes the player feel like they are moving ahead more rapidly at the start of the game when they haven’t become as emotionally invested in the outcome. A player can tolerate slightly longer stretches between transitions near the end of the game, especially if they are being led up to a huge plot point.
Rewarding the player with story progression
Progression through plot advancement is interesting to analyze, because in so many ways the story is separate from the gameplay: in most games, knowing the characters’ motivations or their feelings towards each other has absolutely no meaning when you’re dealing with things like combat mechanics. And yet, in many games, story progression is one of the rewards built into the reward cycle.
Additionally, the story itself has a “difficulty” of sorts (we call it “dramatic tension”), so another thing to consider in story-based games is whether the dramatic tension of the story overlaps well with the overall difficulty of the game. Many games do not: the story climax is at the end, but the hardest part of the game is in the middle somewhere, before you find an uber-powerful weapon that makes the rest of the game easy. In general, you want rising tension in your story while the difficulty curve is increasing, dramatic climaxes at the hardest part, and so on; this makes the story feel more integrated with the mechanics, all thanks to game balance and math.
Combining the types of rewards into a single reward schedule
Note that a reward is a reward, so you don’t just want to space each category of rewards out individually, but also interweave them. In other words, you don’t need to have too many overlaps, where you have a level transition, plot advancement, and a power level increase all at once.
Level transitions are fixed, so you tend to see the power rewards sprinkled throughout the levels as rewards between transitions. Strangely, in practice, a lot of plot advancement tends to happen at the same time as level transitions, which might be a missed opportunity. Some games take the chance to add some back story in the middle of levels, in areas that are otherwise uninteresting… although then the danger is that the player is getting a reward arbitrarily when they feel like they weren’t doing anything except walking around and exploring. A common design pattern I see in this case is to split the difference by scripting the plot advancement so it immediately follows a fight of some kind. Even if it’s a relatively easy fight, if it’s one that’s scripted, the reward of revealing some additional story immediately after can make the player feel like they earned it.
[This article was adapted from Ian Schreiber's course, Game Balance Concepts.]
Ian Schreiber has been in the game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. Also an educator since 2006, Ian has taught game design and development courses at a variety of schools, and on his own without a school. He has co-authored two books, Challenges for Game Designers and Breaking Into the Game Industry.