• kentona
  • 01/30/2008 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part V - Rewards

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing


A game requires players to make choices. It is this freedom to be a part of what happens that sets a game apart of other traditional mediums such as watching television or reading novels. Games are filled with choices (and I mean more than the typical "Can you save the Kingdom? Y/N"). Choices vary from whether or not to explore the environment, talk to NPCs, buy new equipment, grind through battles, or gamble at the casino. Rewards (and their evil twin Punishments) can be an effective way of directing your player though the choices the game presents to help them reach a successful conclusion and satisfying experience.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behavior - in particular, voluntary behavior. Basically, if you reward a person for a behavior, he will continue to engage in that behavior until you stop rewarding them. On the flip side, if you punish certain behavior, the person will stop engaging in that behavior. How does this tie in with game design? All gameplay actions in your game can be considered behaviors on the part of the player. By rewarding or penalizing certain behaviors, you can direct the player down a behavioral path you desire.

Positive reinforcement. Reward for engaging in desired behavior, thereby increasing the behavior's frequency.

Negative reinforcement. Removal of adverse condition or element when desired behavior is engaged, thereby increasing the behavior's frequency in the presence of said adverse condition.

Positive punishment. Punishment for engaging in an undesired behavior, thereby decreasing the behavior's frequency.

Negative punishment. Removal of a favorable condition or element when the undesired behavior is engaged, thereby decreasing the behavior's frequency in the presence of said favorable element.

Behavior modification is proportional to the reward or punishment (in both the positive and negative sense). By enacting reinforcement or punishment, thereby encouraging a certain behavior, you are directing the player to produce satisfying consequences. And satisfaction is a great tool in your toolbox for getting people to have fun playing your game, which ties into my next point.

Using the theory of operant conditioning is a great way to tailor your game to the type of player you are targeting (see FUNdamentals, Part I). For example, hiding loot throughout the realm rewards exploration and encourages further exploration. Or, if you want the player to enter shops in new towns to purchase gear, reward that behavior by making the equipment or items noticeably more effective than anything they could buy in an earlier town.

The effectiveness of the conditioning varies based on the player's appetite for the reward (or benefit removed in the case of punishment), the immediacy of the conditioning, the consistency of the conditioning, and the size of the reward. The size is measured as the cost-benefit of the behavior-reward - if the reward is worth the effort, the effectiveness of the conditioning increases. A reward or punishment consistently applied is more effective than one used sparingly or arbitrarily. The more immediate the reward or punishment, the more effective it is. And finally, the stronger the desire or need for the reward (or avoid the punishment) the more effective the conditioning will be. Since such things are game dependent, I will leave it to you to decide how best to implement effective conditioning strategies.

Types of Rewards

Typically, rewards fall into one of the following four categories:

Rewards of Glory

Glory awards are all the things you're going to give to the player that have absolutely no impact on the gameplay itself. Story (as in revealing more of it) is a great example of a Reward of Glory. Players do take away something from the experience of playing a game, and it's nice to make what they take a positive. Recognize victories, even the small ones. Give eloquent and congratulatory dialogue at the successful completion of a quest. Show an animation when they receive an item. Play an upbeat ditty after winning a battle. All contribute towards Rewards of Glory.

Rewards of Sustenance

An avatar's got to live, doesn't it? Rewards of Sustenance are given so that the player can maintain their avatar's status quo. First Aid Kits and Mana Potions and Vorpal Swords and Force Field Armor all fall into the realm of sustenance - basically equipment and items (or gold to buy equipment and items). These are things that make it possible for the player to keep playing. It is not a bad idea to be generous with this type of reward. Sure survival in a game is a legitimate risk (with it's own rewards of glory), but frequent deaths and reloads are a great deterrent for players, especially for free amateur games in which the player has little invested into acquiring the game (save for a few minutes of download time). The player has to live long enough to get the other rewards.

Rewards of Access

Just like the name suggests, rewards of this nature open up new areas of the game world to the player. Rewards of Access are generally used once, because typically when an area is unlocked, it remains unlocked for the rest of the game. A key that unlocks jail doors is an example of this type of reward. The idea behind Rewards of Access is that there must be bottlenecks which the player must pass in order to get to the next area, and that the player must reach a certain minimum threshold to do so. Killing the Tower Demon before the King will allow you to leave the country is another example of this type of reward. Employing Rewards of Access also help provide structure to your game or story - if killing the Tower Demon is a requirement to get to Country Two, then you can assume that the Tower Demon is dead if the player is in Country Two (for whatever that would entail for the story).

Rewards of Facility

Rewards of Facility enable a player's avatar to do things they couldn't do before or enhance abilities they already possess. The tried and true and oft-used Level Up is a great example of this type of reward. When well crafted, these rewards should increase the number of strategies and options the player will have for playing the game. These rewards have one of three duration characteristics: temporary, transitory and permanent. Although players are typically happiest with receiving facility rewards, they are the most difficult to steadily introduce into the game. They are notorious for upsetting the balance of a game and require significant thought and testing before being safely introduced.

Hierarchy of Gaming Needs

Investiture: Players need to feel that their interaction counts. They want to be important to the gaming experience and have their actions create a discernable effect on the world, story or other element of the game.

Reward: Players need to be rewarded when they do things well. It keeps them motivated and moving forward through the game.

Endowment: Players need to know the game will provide whatever is required to win. They need to know that any challenge the game presents can be overcome.

Validation: Players need to believe that the game reality operates in a fair, consistent and comprehensible manner. They need to be confident in their ability to make informed, reasonable decisions.

Mastery: Players need to be able to achieve mastery over the experience. Goals and opportunities need to be clearly demonstrated so that the player understands what they are working towards. Typically, this achieved by winning the game.

Before a player can achieve mastery of a game, they must validate the game's reality and be confident in their actions. To do that, they must be assured that they have what they need to complete their task. To get what they need, they need to be rewarded for their efforts. Lastly (or maybe firstly), the player must feel that their efforts count.

Conclusion of Part V

So long as your continue to appropriately reward the player for making an effort, they will continue to brave the floods, famines, and fire-breathing dragons in order to finish your game. It seems like common sense, but it's surprising how often designers forget that it is the victories - not the obstacles - that make people interested in a game. If you stop giving out carrots (I bet you were wondering when I was going to make the Carrot analogy!) that will keep players excited, or worse, if you start punishing them for their curiosity, you're only going to drive the players away. And we don't want that.

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing