It's possible that an over-reliance on metrics-driven design and extrinsic rewards for in-game actions could lead to a future of "designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play," warns independent developer Chris Hecker.
Hecker, who is currently working on the espionage-themed multiplayer game SpyParty, presented his hypothetical "nightmare self-fulfilling scenario" as part of a talk inquisitively titled "Achievements Considered Harmful?" during Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Hecker based his talk on a large volume of often-conflicting psychological studies about the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, but he was quick to preface his hypothesis by noting that "there are no direct studies" about the topic as it specifically relates to video games, and he called for more research into the effects of reward structures in design.
Fundamentally, he explained, his concern is based around a growing body of research suggesting that giving people extrinsic rewards for completing tasks -- for example, rewarding kids for reading by giving them pizza -- decreases the subject's genuine interest in the actual task.
Similarly, he said, that research suggests commissions and bonuses don't actually encourage better work, "because of the idea that, if you do this, you'll get that, you end up hating the 'this' and focusing on the 'that.'"
"Intrinsic motivation" -- that is, the motivation to complete the tasks based on the person's inherent desire to complete the task itself -- "appears to be superior," he said. "You do things better when you want to do them, rather than when you're paid to do them."
In recent years, however, data-based metrics and extrinsic rewards like Xbox Live achievements have become increasingly prevalent in game design. "I think we've overcorrected on the metrics side," Hecker observed.
"You want to make an intrinsically interesting game," he said of game designers at large. "[When] you add extrinsic motivators to make your game better, if these studies do apply to games, you're destroying intrinsic motivation to play your game."
"The game industry used to use no metrics whatsoever," he continued. "Everything was gut and by the seat of our pants. Then metrics came around, and [now] we're addicted to metrics. If I change a value of my purple hat, fourteen more people buy it, and we think we're totally in the zone."
"But that's totally missing the point," he said. "That can lead you down a bad path. Extrinsic motivators will lead you towards dull tasks, and you're totally [cornering] yourself into designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play" with reward structures.
The reason this "nightmare scenario" is a genuine concern is because people are clearly perfectly willing to engage in repetitive dull tasks if they are extrinsically rewarded, even if their appreciation for the play itself is diminished.
And the extreme potential path is already evident in the gambling industry, suggesting it's not just an unlikely sky-is-falling concern: "Slot machines show one direction, where it's completely extrinsically motivated -- and people will do that," Hecker pointed out.
Of course, the designer acknowledged that he can simply "just ignore" achievements -- but "if this research applies," he countered, "then players who aren't ignoring [achievements] are unwittingly being affected by this intrinsic motivation reduction, which changes everything about the play environment for everybody."
In the end, he concluded, "The beauty part [of gameplay] is the intrinsic part, whether you're a social game or you're Gears of War or Counter-Strike. We want to be making games, like other artists try to make books or music, that make people better."