Sunday, 7 October 2012

Rewarding your users: why, what, and how

A new piece of equipment, finishing the game, a new ability, a new piece of furniture for your virtual house, or being one of the top ten players in the world. All of these can be something that you receive, or achieve, when you’re playing a video game. Can you imagine a game that does not have any form of rewards?

That’s difficult to imagine, isn't it? Rewards are such an intrinsic part of games, that without them, it would be hard to even call it a game at all. Rewards don’t always take the same shape though. They can be something material, such as an item that changes the gameplay, but they can also be something immaterial, such as defeating the final boss and seeing the conclusion to the story.

The Legend of Zelda - Rewards have the power to create memorable moments and events in video games.

From the perspective of the designer, a reward is something that is given to the player to change their way of interacting with the game and/or to motivate the player to continue playing the game. Things start getting difficult when you start asking people about the ideal reward. This is something that’s not easy to define; not everybody enjoys the same rewards. A clear example can be seen in those videos of teenage girls throwing a tantrum because their parents bought them the wrong car for their sweet sixteenth birthday.

How do you ensure that you give your users right award? First off, rewards should be linked to the amount of effort that the player has invested. The higher the level of investment that you ask of the player, the higher the rarity of the reward that he should receive; giving a player an item that is marginally better than what he has, for doing a quest that took him hours to complete is not very motivational. Secondly, it should be something that is useful and relevant for the user; giving the user a weapon that he cannot use can be extremely frustrating.

Torchlight 2 - Different colours denote different levels of rarity. The more difficult the boss, the higher the chance of getting a better item.
Now that we know what to give the player, how do we ensure that we give them that reward at the right time? Generally speaking the best moment to reward a player is when they've just become tired of waiting for the next reward. By doing this you create a psychological hook for players to keep playing the game. Do note that there is an upper limit to this: giving the user too many rewards will oversaturate them, and rewards will lose their value in this way.

PICROSS e - A puzzle may take a long time, and users may feel unrewarded because there are little opportunities for rewards before they finish the puzzle.
Finding the right time is incredibly tricky, as not all the users have the same expectations. What do you do if your users leave before you can start the ‘gift giving’ to keep them engaged in your game? What can help is showing the users the signs that tell them that they are going to be rewarded. There are certain markers that a designer can use to tell users when and how they can get certain rewards. Action games may have boss fights; puzzle games might use a progress bar; role-playing games may use narrative structures to make the user understand that there's an important plot point coming up.

Borderlands 2 - A quest log not only helps to give users a reminder about their overall progress, but it also helps players to identify when and how they get rewarded. 
Once you know the right gift, the right time to give it to them, and you've made it clear to the user when he is going to be rewarded, you will end up with a player who will feel motivated and in control. 

Do you have any additional ideas for increasing motivation through rewards? Or do you know games that have unusual types of rewards? If so, do let us know by posting a comment below.