Reward Card

Reward Card

The internet is broken. An earthquake near Taiwan has dragged internet access across Asia to an interminable 56K crawl, and with it my plans to revisit Gunstar Heroes and Zelda: Link to the Past through the magic of Nintendo's Virtual Console.

As it became clear that I was not going to access the Wii Shopping Channel anytime this month, the dilemma was clear: What exactly was I going to play? In theory, the answer is simple - I have a drawer full of half-finished DS and PSP titles begging to have their secrets discovered. But at the time when games seem to offer the most, I find myself playing them to completion the least.

imageThis fascinating report on Gamasutra by Immersyve takes an academic's look at this problem, examining the methods that games use to keep players playing and arguing that gaming fulfils some basic psychological needs.

However, looking through my library of games from the last couple of years, there isn't a single one I've played to death. But it's not lack of quality that's making me stop, but lack of incentive.

As the Immersyve report notes, there are two primary ways of motivating someone: reward (the carrot) and punishment (the stick). Gaming's sticks are few - only the sense of failure can spur the player on to succeed. The basic psychological needs that the report refers to can be as easily fulfilled by the next title from a different company. What can games do to keep us playing the same titles?

Gaming needs some new recipes for carrots.

A game like Animal Crossing is a rarity, with some players still checking up on their towns every day, two years after its release. I have seen people lose their lives to it, although it wasn't for me (I played the Japanese version but had to give up after the tenth letter which read, 'Dear Gearoid, I have no idea what the bloody hell are you raving on about, idiot.' I'm used to having my Japanese criticized but, by God, I draw the line at being mocked by programmed non-sentient animals).

Animal Crossing's beauty is the promise of the new. Things constantly change - neighbors come and go, new tunes can be found, and what miserable soul doesn't enjoy getting letters? In the Gamecube version, gamers kept playing to get the NES games hidden within (the same games which now cost you money on the Virtual Console), while in the DS version, new items and downloads for special occasions keep the player interested.

Of course, these decorations only work in Animal Crossing because collection and decoration is the very basis of the game. Collectibles must be worth collecting. Yet too few developers take the time to think about what the gamer wants and include the standard new difficulty levels, artwork or costumes which, despite good intentions, appeal only to perfectionists.

A perfect example of this is Resident Evil's costumes. Resident Evil 4 was one of the best games in years, but since I don't even like the afternoon it takes shopping for clothes I can actually wear in the real world, I'm not likely to spend the weeks required going through it again for a mere cosmetic change.

And although extra difficulty modes are a welcome inclusion for the cash-strapped gamer, since I regularly fail to make it to the end of the standard difficulty level, it's unlikely I'll resist the pull of this week's shiny new game just for a hardened challenge. The Xbox Live Arcade and Virtual Console have only exacerbated this problem, offering instant blasts of distracting nostalgia for the gamer lacking in attention span.

The traditional gaming carrots don't satisfy me anymore. But what more can a game give? There are some intriguing ideas out there. WarioWare: Touched! on the DS gave you fun little stylus toys to play with - no use whatsoever, but fun nonetheless. Capcom's forthcoming Wii game No More Heroes ups the usual costume stakes by having you collect T-shirts designed by a well-known manga designer. While Nintendo are masters of exploiting their back catalogue, few other companies outside of the Japanese giants have really exploited the power of their archives for rewards.

Really, the best thing a good game can give you is simply more game. The trickiest balancing act of all is that between our desire to get to the end and to never stop playing. Many times in a good game I have deliberately held back from plunging into the final level, because I didn't want my time in that world to end just yet.

With the hard drives and internet connectivity of the 360 and PS3, that time never has to end. Extra multiplayer levels for download are now almost standard for FPSs, but why stop there? Side-stories, mini-games, essentially more of the same: If it's a good game, with good rewards, we won't tire of playing it. While the Wii lacks the hard drive, Nintendo could offer branded Miis, Wii points or Virtual Console games for good performance.

Score tables are a classic carrot, but must take account of today's gaming world. In the arcades of old, a little dedication would get you on the high score table, but with several million players, you are unlikely to ever see your name in lights - and unless a game requires a college education or can only be won while drunk, a 13-year-old is always favorite to take me through sheer force of hours played. Games like Geometry Wars recognize this and make up the high score table from your friends lists.

Even real-world rewards, like those in Nintendo of Japan's fabulous Club Nintendo program, are a possibility. While I'm not convinced the promise of Nintendo calendars and merchandise compel me to buy new games, I keep putting in the points like a cigarette smoker with a lot of Camel Bucks to spend.

Replayability is one of the trickiest ingredients in the game recipe. On the one hand, playing one game to death is bad for business - buying the shiny new title is really what games companies want gamers to do. But by the same logic, although Toyota would really like customers to buy a new car every two years, reliability is one thing that helps a company stand out in a crowded marketplace.

So, too, can replayability; value for money and reward become watchwords in a gaming market where it's increasingly difficult to stand out.

It's time to write a new recipe book.

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It doesn't appeal to everyone, but Gamerscore is one of the 360's neat little "carrots" to drive you to play a game more - or even buy games you wouldn't have thought of buying before.

When it's implemented well it's a blast, giving left of field challenges that you would never have otherwise tried. For example, one of the achievements in Geometry Wars it to survive one minute without firing. Resisting every natural urge you have to blow up threatening purple cubes and blue squares, just so that you get a 10 Gamerpoint medal you can brag to your friends online about.

Of course it's not always implemented well, with games like King Kong handing out 1,000 just for finishing the game. When it's done well though, it does add an extra drive to go back to a game and try it in a new way.

I think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that game designers rarely try to stray from tried and true design dogma. As a fan of first-person shooters, I have seen no major innovation since the original Doom. The graphics and physics have gotten better, but little has substantively changed. Thus, after playing the latest and greatest shooter for a few hours, it begins to lose its shine a bit, because you realize that you have done this before. While the controls are bit different and the environment has changed, the gameplay has not. Maybe if developers focused on just one major innovation instead of trying to improve on every aspect of the existing canon, we would get gameplay that would keep you glued to the screen for months on end and push the genre forward at a faster pace.

Gameplay should be its own reward. I hate carrots!

rjwtaylor:
It doesn't appeal to everyone, but Gamerscore is one of the 360's neat little "carrots" to drive you to play a game more...

I will say it again. I hate carrots! In my experience game achievements have only detracted from the fun I have playing a game on the 360. Unfortunately, people love them, which just baffles my mind. The joy of leveling up has passed me by for some reason, as well. Probably why I do not play a lot of RPGs.

I do not want to be tasked when I play a game. I already have chores to do around the house. I want to be challenged and rewarded with great gameplay, beautiful animations, and mind blowing physics.

You can keep your carrots. I want a juicy steak.

I enjoy the competitive side of Gamerscore amongst friends. Where a few of us have all downloaded Contra, for example, we are all trying to get an achievement that none of the others have for bragging rights. If I log on and see that one of them has just one-credited the first level, for example, competitive nature kicks in and I have to equal them.

Also, I'm going on about them a bit but all Live arcade games give a high score table by your friends list (as well as overall).

With regards to carrots/steaks - I'll take them both. Can't have a good meat feast without a bit of veg to stop you arteries clogging. Am I stretching this anaolgy too far?

rjwtaylor:
I enjoy the competitive side of Gamerscore amongst friends.

Absolutely, competition in games is crucial to having fun. But, I want the games we play to be fun, competitive, and to be played as intended. And there is the rub: "as intended."

I have found that the achievements that designers implement, mainly for multiplayer components, actually cause the game to be played in a way that was not intended or advertised. Making them, technically, "bugs." If I was running QA at one of these publishers/designers I would passionately argue for their removal. Achievements that guide people to play as intended and advertised, should be left in, of course.

You mentioned near the beginning about the games you gave up halfway through. Why no examination of this? To me, it seems trickier to figure out why people don't want to slog through a game the first time, than to figure out why they won't do it a second time.

I can offer one reason why I don't play a lot of games all the way through: at some level, they're all the same. I stopped playing Oblivion because, after I got past the cool graphics and amazing world, it was just another finish-the-quest RPG. I could list other similar games that I stopped playing when I could no longer ignore the fact it was just another stock game, dressed up in cool graphics, storyline, game quirks, or whatever else it had.

To say it differently, my issue is not that there are not enough carrots, but that many of the carrots are as old as D&D: save the world, rescue the princess, live happily ever after, or whatever. Real carrots that are 25 years old are impossible to find: they've decomposed. Somehow, however, some people in the gaming industry believe that 25 year-old virtual carrots are still fresh. Those people, as far as I am concernded, are dead wrong. I don't want to save the world, or destroy it: I want to change it in small ways I can feel. I don't want to rescue the princess: I want to see what she does to the kingdom after I save her. And sorry, but true heroes don't live happily ever after: name any great hero that does, real or fictional. I can't. All the ones I can name either die when they're done, or they go on to do something else heroic.

I agree with you, but I'm not sure Oblivion is the best supporting example for your point. One of the major selling points of Oblivion is that much of the game's content has nothing to do with the main quest line, which you as a player are free to ignore completely. Try that with just about any other RPG, and you'll rapidly find yourself with no game left to play.

On the other hand, way too many of the myriad ancillary quests you can do in Oblivion fit into the mold you criticize. There are fetch quests, kill-the-evil-bandit/monster quests, clear-the-dungeon quests, and oh, did I mention fetch quests? However, because of the sheer number of quests, ones that don't fit this mold are more common in Oblivion than any other RPG I can think of offhand, with the possible exception of Planescape: Torment -- and Torment had the "advantage" of being pretty much linear. One of my favourite things about Torment was that the story had nothing to do with saving the world, or a princess, or anyone, really.

Further, if you complete the main quest line in Oblivion, the game doesn't end. As far as I can tell (at level 32 and 83 hours of raw playtime), it never ends. I recently put the game back in my 360 after about six months to play a steath-focused character for the Thieves' Guild and Dark Brotherhood quest lines, which I hadn't done before. It feels like a completely different game. Instead of running around in heavy armour frying everything that moves, I'm staking out houses to learn the owners' schedules, then, in the dead of night, breaking in unobserved and cleaning them out. I even launder the stolen goods through a fence, and I've also got plans to become a vampire. This time around, I haven't set foot in a dungeon, and have no plans to do so. It's a rare game that gives you both options.

I just used Oblivion as the most recent RPG I've played, I could name several others that have the same problem. The main issue with oblivion, is when you've played for a year game time without bringing the Amulet of Kings to Jauffre, let alone closed a gate, and the Mythinc Dawn are no closer to bringing the world into Oblivion, I have a problem believing that what I do really matters: any halfway decent hero-type charecter could pull it off, probably in less time too. I don't mean that the game should be a race against time, but if there isn't some sence of urgency, you can do what one of my brothers does, and hide in the corner of a room, slowly training Stealth, just because there's no cost to doing it overnight and while he's at school.

What I want to see is an RPG that, at least to some degree, reacts to what you do beyond giving you titles and rewards. Keeping to Oblivion: I want to see Kvatch rebuilt. I want to see Leyawiin fall to Oblivion if you go too slow, and get rebuilt if you catch up. I want to see people get older and die: even you eventually (Heroes always get longer though), I want new people born (Heck, I want to see children period; are there anyone younger than say 15 in the game?). The game looks real, until you realize that it never rains or snows, the crops are never out of season, and time never really passes: just a series of linked days that follow each other in an unchanging eternity.

Actually, it's that last part I want to see most: seasons and human life. I want to see seasons pass in RPGs (name an RPG where seasons pass, and actually make a difference), and with them, new people born and old people die (or young people die in combat). Everything else follows.

And if no-one will give me what I want, I'll just do it myself.

You seem to be describing Harvest Moon, ZacQuickSilver. Err, yes, I consider it an RPG, although I can imagine that many would not. If you want another game with meaningful time progression, there's the Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. I personally don't consider that an RPG, but I know some people do.

The problem of making an RPG of such large scale that you describe is precisely that it is such a large scale. The development costs will be enourmous on such a game.

Although to be truthful, I do want to make such a game. What I have planned only goes for a few months at a time, to avoid implications of a game that is too long.

ZacQuickSilver:
I just used Oblivion as the most recent RPG I've played, I could name several others that have the same problem. The main issue with oblivion, is when you've played for a year game time without bringing the Amulet of Kings to Jauffre, let alone closed a gate, and the Mythinc Dawn are no closer to bringing the world into Oblivion, I have a problem believing that what I do really matters: any halfway decent hero-type charecter could pull it off, probably in less time too. I don't mean that the game should be a race against time, but if there isn't some sence of urgency, you can do what one of my brothers does, and hide in the corner of a room, slowly training Stealth, just because there's no cost to doing it overnight and while he's at school.

If the world were truly in peril, you would be forced to do the main quest, and the game would be incredibly restrictive. Bethseda's choice to refrain from time constraints in almost all of the quests allows the player vastly greater freedom. I agree with you that it breaks realism to a degree, but I strongly believe that the tradeoff is absolutely worth it in this case. I didn't find the main story terribly interesting, and if I had to play through it every time I played the game, I would never have started a second character. The game wouldn't be the sandbox that it is.

Having said that, I do share your frustration in the case of many other more plot-focused RPGs, where you're railroaded through the story and have a fraction of the side quest options that Oblivion offers. When I hear that something is urgent and then I find that actually I'm not just free to go off and level grind, I'm required to do so in order to be powerful enough to complete the game, something's wrong. Obvious examples are Final Fantasy VI and VII, and I didn't finish either game for precisely that reason.

ZacQuickSilver:
What I want to see is an RPG that, at least to some degree, reacts to what you do beyond giving you titles and rewards. Keeping to Oblivion: I want to see Kvatch rebuilt. I want to see Leyawiin fall to Oblivion if you go too slow, and get rebuilt if you catch up. I want to see people get older and die: even you eventually (Heroes always get longer though), I want new people born (Heck, I want to see children period; are there anyone younger than say 15 in the game?). The game looks real, until you realize that it never rains or snows, the crops are never out of season, and time never really passes: just a series of linked days that follow each other in an unchanging eternity.

It does rain and snow, actually. The weather is quite changeable, and the frequency of various weather events changes depending on where in the world you are. I haven't paid attention to the calendar in the game, though, so I have no idea if there are any time-based frequency variations.

Again, I'm not particularly disagreeing with your main point. I'd like to see Kvatch rebuilt too. However, I do think that the kind of time-based quest constraints you're advocating would have irrevocably broken a game like Oblivion. Before you get too ambitious with your plan for time to affect everything in an RPG, consider that such effects shouldn't negatively affect the player. That is, they should make the game more immersive and more fun, not more frustrating -- "oh crap, I got carried away exploring this cave and forgot to save Kvatch, now I have to redo the last 5 hours of my game!"

You know, I think a setup where you had three separate story pieces based on your actions would be kind of neat, one for if you were able to save Kvatch quickly, one for if you saved it during "normal" time-frame, and one for not saving it quickly enough, still caters to all players, but offers different possibilities as opposed to endings throughout the game. Say if you don't save kvatch in a normal time-frame a shortcut path to something later might not be available (in a logical method, not just arbitrarily), and if you did it early, you might receive some special commendation / faction thing. So long as your time additions don't take away from the freedom to play as you want, you don't have a problem. little touches here and there similar to the way Deus Ex's story changes ever so slightly depending on when certain things happen would be kind of nice I feel.

It does rain and snow, actually. The weather is quite changeable, and the frequency of various weather events changes depending on where in the world you are. I haven't paid attention to the calendar in the game, though, so I have no idea if there are any time-based frequency variations.

No it doesn't. It may look like it's raining or snowing, but no snow builds up on the ground, the water level's don't change, and there are no other effects related to the weather. So yes: the art for rain and snow are there. But the weather isn't.

As for urgency, I'm not looking for a game in which you get caught up in "Oh crap, I forgot to save Kvatch, I have to start over" but more like "I forgot to save Kvatch, now Martin is on the run, and I need to find him". I don't want the game to progress out of control, but I do want the game to progress. So, with the "Forgot to save Kvatch" example:

After 2 months of game time, Kvatch is abandoned as Martin and the remaining guards rally the refugees, and find a back way out. The guards regroup, and continue to hold the Daedra in Kvatch.

After 6 months, Marting has found a new home, and the Daedra begin an attack there. It takes them a month to prepair to attack, opening 1 gate in the area of the city (within an hour quick-travel) every 3rd day, and the attack happens as soon as 10 gates are open, at which point this cycle repeats.

Every Oblivion Gate destroyed while Martin is in hiding pushes back the start of the attack 1 week, and every Oblivion Gate destroyed in the area of the city during the prepairation means they are that much farther from the 10 needed.

If you manage to arrive at the town on the day of the attack, gates are opened every other hour starting at 6:00 am: small gates at first, and a large gate once 3 small gates are open. If no gates are open at a time, the attack fails, and they try again every day until Martin is out (brought to Jauffre), the city falls, or one of the necisarry gates in the area of the city is closed. Destroying a large gate ends the attack immidiately, and gives you a Great Sigil Stone, which means you can skip Allies for Bruma later.

A destroyed city is recaptured by imperial guards 3 months after it is initially destroyed, and rebuilt 1 year later. Recaptuing cities early speeds that up, as does buying and selling stuff at the local merchants.

Again, this is just a thought, put together as I wrote it. I'm sure some professional game designers (I'm only an amateur yet) could put something together that was far better.

Then again, I'm not sure they can. I think someone would have by now, if they could.

ZacQuickSilver:

It does rain and snow, actually. The weather is quite changeable, and the frequency of various weather events changes depending on where in the world you are. I haven't paid attention to the calendar in the game, though, so I have no idea if there are any time-based frequency variations.

No it doesn't. It may look like it's raining or snowing, but no snow builds up on the ground, the water level's don't change, and there are no other effects related to the weather. So yes: the art for rain and snow are there. But the weather isn't.

Your reason for wanting it seems to be immersiveness. I'm not convinced that the immersion added by "real" weather (e.g. reduced movement but easier tracking in deeper snow) is worth the difficulty of implementing it. For example, if there are certain things that can only be done in certain seasons, all you've done is force the player to wait before doing whatever it is they wanted to do.

ZacQuickSilver:
As for urgency, I'm not looking for a game in which you get caught up in "Oh crap, I forgot to save Kvatch, I have to start over" but more like "I forgot to save Kvatch, now Martin is on the run, and I need to find him". I don't want the game to progress out of control, but I do want the game to progress. So, with the "Forgot to save Kvatch" example: [...]

But again in this example, you're forcing the player to play the game on your terms. If they don't do what you want (save Kvatch within the time allotted), you then restrict their options in other ways -- for example, other towns are destroyed, closing off any quest lines that run through the town until the town is rebuilt. That could easily prevent a player from completing any or all of the guild quest lines, for instance. It runs counter to Oblivion's sandbox premise.

You could conceivably avoid these kinds of problems if you accounted for the time-interdependency of every single quest in the game, but I think that would be prohibitive in a game of Oblivion's scope. I think Meophist made a good point -- quests that change with time would have increased the game's complexity significantly, solely in the name of realism. I'm not convinced that's worth it simply for the sake of player immersion, though I do think immersion is a worthy goal. I thought about some of the sorts of things you're advocating when I initially started playing Oblivion, because I too found the time-independence of most quests somewhat jarring. Ultimately, though, I decided that the freedom it afforded me to pursue quests whenever I was so inclined was worth it. I think Bethseda made the choice deliberately.

All of this isn't to criticize your goals, which I think are admirable; I just think that to some extent you're trivializing the difficulty of implementing them. There's a lot to consider.

I'm just saying what I want. I realize that it wouldn't work in Oblivion withous some serious retooling, but I want to see some game that has that level of immersiveness. I don't care if snow has no effect: I just want it on the ground. Rain doesn't need to cause mud: just change water levels a litte. Of course, as soon as that happens, I'l want more, but there needs to be people always wanting more, otherwise things go nowhere.

As for the continued Oblivion assault, yes, it would cause problems. But, it was just a suggestion. The point is that game bad guys have a tendancy to wait around until the player ruins one part of thier plan before they continue to the next part: a tendancy that ruins the believability, and fun, for me.

Sorry for being so pedantic.

ZacQuickSilver:
The point is that game bad guys have a tendancy to wait around until the player ruins one part of thier plan before they continue to the next part: a tendancy that ruins the believability, and fun, for me.

It's their fatal flaw! Gets them every time. :D

I really like Zac's idea about weather and time being a factor in a game's world, but I respect Ajar's skepticism too. The game Zac is talking about doesn't really exist yet, thus trying to add time and seasonal changes to an existing game (Oblivion) doesn't do the idea much justice.

Personally, I'd create a time/weather sensitive game with no storyline. It'd be a sandbox game with tons of mini-plots and branching plotlines that only make themselves available under certain configurations of circumstances (between character and environment). You wouldn't be trying to do anything a "certain" way because everyone's game plays a little differently... and that's the beauty of it. The game would be about freedom of choice without the pressure of an objective (they're usually restrictive) set by the game.

Seasonal factors can give a lot of mileage to the same piece of land and keep the world feeling less static than it really is. I think that's Zac's gripe with Oblivion... it's supposed to be the most immersive and believable fantasy world yet, but it's painfully static. I played Oblivion for about 10 hours before I realized that I already played it over a decade ago when it was called Arena. It's the same game and hasn't really changed in its core design at all.

So... here's to hoping that some developer makes a fantasy world sandbox game that focuses on creating a living, breathing world that matters because you can see the effects of your actions and inactions. Also, a note to anyone thinking of designing a game like this... 2000 procedurally generated citizens is not as impressive as 100 thoughtfully crafted ones that react differently (with reason) to the same situations. Quality, not quantity... please! ;-)

Back on topic, I'd like to see more carrots that create a new gaming experience. A new choice of garments does not want make me want to jump through any hoops. If someone told me that collecting 100 Gold Skulltulas would result in an earthquake that exposed an ancient labyrinth that spanned across all of Hyrule Field and a new dungeon, I'd be collecting all of those devilish spiders in a heartbeat. ;-)

Amen Echo.

I think you just said what I've been trying to for the most part. You missed some, but not much, and you added some ideas that I hadn't thought of yet.

 

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