Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reward Schedules

One of the fundamental things I expect from a game is that it rewards me in proportion to the amount of time I spend playing it. This is why I can't stand games that are too long, because the rewards tend to come too far apart. But there are other ways that game designers miss the point and fail to reward in proportion with play time.

Wipeout Pulse is a pretty standard racing game. You do events, collect medals (ideally gold); collect enough medals and unlock more events. One of these events is a Tournament, which is a set of several races back to back. The problem is, you only get one medal for the tournament. There isn't any more or less or different skill than a single race, but I'm only rewarded 1/3 or 1/4 as much per unit of time played. This is really annoying, and I've now cleared the first nine (out of 12 and 4 bonus) race grids having played exactly one tournament. I understand the need for tournaments in an online game, to test player performance on a variety of tracks - but in the single player game, you've already done that by making me play all of them against the same AI controlled cars I'll play against in the tournament. [I wrote this paragraph before Wipeout HD came out. It has the same problem.]

There's a fine line between rewarding players for time invested and for skilled play, and I also get no satisfaction from rewards simply for time invested. David Sirlin has already written everything I want to say on this subject:
Here is what World of Warcraft teaches:

1. Investing a lot of time in something is worth more than actual skill.

If you invest more time than someone else, you "deserve" rewards. People who invest less time "do not deserve" rewards. This is an absurd lesson that has no connection to anything I do in the real world.
The problem isn't specific to WoW, though. Too many games, MMO and not, reward time investment over skill improvement. Skill improvement is often the result of time investment, so it's hard to distinguish sometimes. Still, there are clear cases of games that have unmotivating rewards, not because the rewards aren't interesting, but because they're handed out in the wrong ways.

My desire, which I don't think I've seen a designer formulate explicitly before, is that I want to be rewarded a number of times proportional to how long I play, but with a quality of reward proportional to how well I play; additionally I want my reward magnitude to diminish as I play things far below my demonstrated skill level. This is an oversimplification in some ways - varying the reward frequency randomly is much more effective than a reward every hour, for example - but is what I basically want. If I play a level for an hour and get 100 points, playing for two hours should get me about 200 points. If I play a level further in the game, I should get at least as many points, and also a special hat; if I play that level twice, I should get two hats.

To bring this back to Wipeout: Tournaments should reward me proportional to the number of races in them. A gold medal in a tournament should be worth 12 points instead of 3. The game already does a good job of doling out rewards with magnitude proportional to my skill level, by unlocking new harder, faster tracks when I beat the old ones. To balance that, playing levels from grids before my current one cannot unlock future ones, only raise my raw score.

Although the application for Wipeout and other arcade-style games is obvious, the general principle works when analyzing other games. In Sim/Tycoon games for example, it's easy to get a stable supply of money and rake in profits slowly forever. But you can keep building more and more complex parks, taking on more risk to prove your skill at the game and get a bigger reward - manifesting as more money faster, and a chance at an even more complex environment. Design elements like tech trees also make sure that to get the coolest things in the game, you need to task those risks and not just amass money.

In RPGs, I can grind for XP and level up my characters. But superlinear level progression means this stops being effective unless I push myself, and I'll never see new content - plot, environments, items, and so on - unless I move past the area I'm in.

Poor reward handling has hurt a lot of games for me recently - Assassin's Creed was enjoyable except the game's main reward mechanism is making you better in combat, when a key element of the game is avoiding combat. Fallout 3 stopped handing out primary character advancement 20 hours into an 80 hour game (by contrast, my Oblivion character has a dozen stats I could increase after 120 hours, but it stopped giving me exciting equipment, which Fallout managed up to hour 50).

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