Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rewards: the art of incentive

Jesse Schell gave a lecture at DICE that is apparently still resonating throughout the games blogosphere, and for good reason.  Schell described a jarring vision of the future where games not only become woven into our daily lives at the most intimate level, but one in which these games will be brought to us by commercial interests using them as a form of advertising.  To me, it's especially jarring because it's so plausible, but there's also an exciting amount of potential in that future that I want to discuss throughout a new series: "Creating Schell-games." 

But before I can do that, I feel like I need to investigate the idea of rewards in games.  The idea of "reward" in games has been casually mentioned in previous posts, most explicitly in Home arcades and the death of a game, but I have yet to define "reward" in a way that fits into the framework I've proposed in The definition of a game.  That's what I aim to do now.

A reward is something that the player gets as a result of completing a goal.  That's it.  It's a simple definition and one that you probably thought you already knew (and you did), but there's a deep complexity hiding under the surface.

The first complication arises when we think about a reward that is given as result of completing an ultimate goal, or a goal that ends the game.  If a reward is given after the game is over, can we rightly call that reward part of the game?  This becomes even clearer when we think of examples of reward given when an ultimate goal is completed: in carnival games, the prize for knocking down the milk bottles is usually something like a giant stuffed bear, but the prize could easily be anything from a tie-dye T-shirt to straight cash-money.  In this case, we could say the prize is arbitrary in relation to the game, suggesting it doesn't have much to do with the game itself.  I'll go out on a limb right now and say it doesn't.  The reward for winning the game does not affect the game itself in any way.

So a reward that is given after the ultimate goal isn't part of a game, but what about rewards that are given for goals that are accomplished during gameplay?  In this case, we see a similar pattern in that we see no necessary correlation between the reward and the goal that unlocks it, but we often see that the reward does correlate in context to the larger game.

Now we are seeing two types of game emerging: one that unlocks a reward at its successful completion, and one that doesn't.  Let's call the first kind (which unlocks a reward) promotional games and ones that don't complete games.  I use "complete" to indicate that the experience of the game is entirely contained in the game itself.  (I'm also concentrating on more or less physical rewards in this demarcation and ignoring such rewards as "entertainment" or "increased spatial awareness."  This is because, while a game can guarantee you a teddy bear if you win, no game can guarantee "increased spatial awareness.")

Promotional games turn out to be less about the goals aspect of a game and more about the strategy, as the promotional game will most likely not directly factor into the ultimate goal, but provide the player who gets rewards with more strategic options.  The best example is from the game that inspired the name: in chess, no amount of promoted pawns will win the game, but they will allow the player to execute strategies that would be otherwise impossible. 

Notice the insulation between the promotional game and the complete game of chess: the ultimate goal of chess: pawn promotion requires a pawn to get to the other side of the board, a goal that in no way affects the goal of capturing the king.  You can see the two games form around the two goals.  We already know the "complete game" of chess, so let's focus on the promotional game.  In the promotional game, the progression is much simpler, as the pawn has three movement choices, two of which are only available at a particular piece configuration (the one that enables the pawn to attack, moving diagonally).  The obstacles are subtly different as well.  The pawn can be captured very easily and that ends the game for that pawn.  In contrast, losing the "complete game" is much more difficult even for the absolute novice against the absolute expert.  Finally, the strategies of the promotional game are much simpler when examined in isolation: compare a strategy that involves using other pieces to escort a pawn in a straight line to a strategy that involves two opponents moving sixteen pieces that follow any one of six movement rules.  The promotional game is definitively simpler than the complete game (which doesn't have to be the case), but its reward adds a powerful dynamic to the rest of the game that cannot be ignored.

So there it is: two separate games going on at the same time, but each of them eventually ending in the ultimate goal.  Once the pawns are promoted, they become part of the "complete game," and are now much more of a factor than their former selves. 

Keep in mind that a game's status as "complete" or "promotional" is largely determined by circumstances outside of the game.  While chess by default does not offer any reward, it can be easily made into a promotional game by putting it in the context of a chess tournament.  Now that "complete game" is part of a larger game, the ultimate goal of which could either bring prize money, a trophy, or no reward at all.

It's important that we examine the concept and nuances of rewards because they are powerful forces in determining strategy.  Put a reward in the wrong place and you will completely undermine the game as a whole; put it in the right place and you just might wind up with a game that will capture the imagination of the world for centuries to come.

No comments: