Sunday, September 26, 2010

Risk Vs. Reward: TACOs, Achievements, and YOU

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt discusses how to make collecting totally arbitrary collectible objects (or TACOs) a meaningful and fulfilling activity for players.

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve been somewhat of a completist when it comes to video games. I will admit that as I’ve grown older, my definition of “complete” has changed due to the amount of time I have for any particular game, but I still feel like I should try to get as much out of any game I play. For this reason, I find that the concept of collectibles to strike a very close chord with me.

I have collected many things in my life, Sonic’s Rings and Mario’s Coins, items that let me survive longer, making game completion more achievable; Sonic’s Emeralds which changed endings; the many arbitrary icons and photo points in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that gave me access to tools in-game; Battle Trophies in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time that gave me costumes and difficulty levels; Legendary weapons in countless RPGs; Bestiary entries; and more modernly, PS3 Trophies and Xbox Achievements.

And what have I learned from years of collecting items with little-to-no real world value? Collecting things makes you feel good… as long as:
            A) you feel you earned them.
            B) you feel that what you got was worth the effort put into it.

So what does this mean from a design standpoint?

As designers, it’s our job to make whatever collectibles we put into a game as lucrative to get as possible. A collectible with no meaning is a waste of time to collect and will only be a source of frustration to our players. At the same time, if we make them lucrative to collect, the challenge to get them should reflect that. A large reward without any risk is just a gift, which may be nice, but really is equally meaningless.

Effort vs. Reward vs. Meaning
It’s easy to see examples of games that can fit all over the above chart. MMOs and RPGs and any other game that relies on percentage chances for rewards often force players to put in a lot of effort for variable value rewards. “Get me 5 rat tails for this Health Potion”. In itself, it’s a low-effort task – rats are easy to kill. But when a rat doesn’t always drop a tail, suddenly the task has become tedious as you have to kill 50 rats for the 1/10 drop. Some developers may feel that this increases gameplay time, but I’m of the school of thought that if something needs to be earned, then it is better to make the challenge harder, not longer. As such, Tedium can be considered to reduce the value of a reward. If a reward is high effort and high reward, but extremely tedious, then it should be treated as though the reward is actually lowered.

On the other side of the graph, we look at achievements that are “earned” without having to do anything. Without naming any titles, there has been numerous mentions of games that give the entire set of Achievements by just completing each stage – and the stages aren’t particularly difficult either. Sure, people who care all about their score will pick up these titles to abuse the system, but really what do those points mean if they are getting them without actually achieving anything? Isn’t the act of achieving something the meaning of Achievements?

Finally, there is the top of the graph, the area at the top of the Meaning axis. This area is the hardest to give examples for because Meaning means different things to different people. In its purest sense it is the sense of accomplishment – getting the high score, getting the 100% completion, getting the uber weapon - whatever it may be, it is different for each game and for each player. Not every game has a collectible in this area, though the games that are considered the most satisfying by fans and critics alike always do. Having an abundance of high-meaning collectibles for a game can prolong its life – even the classics from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras have fans constantly coming back for those 100% completion runs because they feel good to achieve.

So in conclusion, collectibles are definitely an important part of the design process and one that should take a lot of thought by the design team. Collectibles need to have meaning for them to be worth getting and to give them meaning, the effort to get the collectible and the reward from getting the collectable have to be balanced. If games have meaningful collectibles, then they will enjoy longevity by people who have earned the sense of satisfaction.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for TECMO KOEI CANADA, with about 3 years of credited design experience.  Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.


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