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GDC: Hecker's Nightmare Scenario - A Future Of Rewarding Players For Dull Tasks
GDC: Hecker's Nightmare Scenario - A Future Of Rewarding Players For Dull Tasks Exclusive
March 11, 2010 | By Chris Remo

March 11, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, GDC, Exclusive

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."

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Joel Martinez
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Glad to see more awareness is starting to spread on this topic:

Luis Guimaraes
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Sadly, it's the present already.

Erwin Coumans
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You just won 100 points towards a life-time achievements award for giving this talk.


Steve Jaccaud
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To play devils advocate, if your two cousins for example are having a ball battling each other for achievements and people are actually buying these games, what exactly *IS* the problem? Fun is fun right and it sounds like they're having fun. Are we trying to say here that the aggregate state of games is in a tail spin because achievements detract from the purposefully crafted design intent of a game?

I don't play games for their achievements personally (unlocks ala COD MW:2, sure). But is this really a widescale, "nighmtare scenario"? I mean shitty games will be shitty games with or without extrinsic motivation. If people get sick of extrinsic motivation, they'll stop buying those games and the uber trendy devs will be there with their Flow's and AAAAaaaAAAaaaAAA's to pick up some business.

Oh, and when I played SW Bounty Hunter, I skipped at least 75% of the bounties and actually enjoyed the game MUCH more. :)

Tim Carter
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While I applaud the insights Hecker is making, he then often reinforces the very things he finds destructive. Research is just another means to extrinsic game design rewards. The whole attitude that we should be doing research is part of the problem. It leads to formula. And formula is the kiss of death in any art form.

Jeremy Alessi
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What Tim said is too true. Chris, I like how you attempt to get us all thinking outside the box but in this case you're just ruining the fun for everyone. People have a good time with achievements plain and simple.

It could be argued that all rewards are extrinsic and based on the release of serotonin when you're having fun. In truth it doesn't matter how the reaction occurs. You can get that feeling by comprehending jokes delivered by a standup comedian, making a dangerous jump in Super Mario Bros, or by unlocking a surprising achievement in a game. Heck, you can get that same rise by making an interesting connection while doing research. At the end of the day it all comes down to the extrinsic reward of our minds being stimulated in a surprising yet comprehensible way.

The delivery isn't important so long as the execution is good. The best thing about achievements is making the connection between the achievement title and your in game actions. In many ways it is like "getting" a good joke and it is fun. If it's executed poorly then it will be a bad game but that doesn't have anything to do with intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards.

People grinding to get achievement points is a little different than the achievements themselves. The truth is that grinding is a part of life. If you took away the daily grind then the contrast between the mundane and the extraordinary would be decreased. Grinding for each achievement only sweetens the deal.

The bottom line of this whole thing in my mind is that relativity is a bitch. If you take the best game out there, which has 100 fantastic levels and you play through them all you're going to pick out a few levels that stand head and shoulders above the rest. In fact many of those levels will feel like the equivalent of grinding for some people. You have to play through the levels you don't like (as much) to get to the really really high points (which are all very personal). Gameplay whether through achievements or any other content structure like levels has and ebb and flow. No matter how you slice it the rewards are extrinsic and even worse they are relative to each individual player.

Chris Remo
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Are you claiming that the idea of research inherently leads to soulless games, or what? If you're making a game set in a particular time period, and you research that time period to try and understand it, are you claiming that's somehow a problem? I don't understand your assertion at all.

Jay Simmons
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If the achievement process is fun and adds to the game I'm all for it. If its grinding and dull and keeps you from accessing game content then I agree with the speaker. Achievement points for only using your pistol or for getting 100 headshots, for example, make the game more challenging. Getting points for scowering the level for dog tags that ruins the pacing of the game needs to go.

Tim Carter
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Chris, he's not talking about supplemental research into, say, weapons of the 16th century, if you were making an historical wargame.

He's talking about taking an aesthetic element - something like art, culture or entertainment - into a laboratory, taking it apart, figuring out its formula, and trying to "put it in a can". Trying to figure out the math equation of what makes it compelling. That's formula.

I always find that kind of talk, shall we say, disturbing...

Matthew Mouras
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Interesting post. I also want to thank Joel Martinez for the video link. That presentation was fascinating and horrifying. Jesse Shell's conclusion that "maybe we will be better people because of the digital legacy we leave for all to see" is chilling. Maybe I'm getting old, but I don't want to live in that world. If game developers are going to join hands with the consumer products industry and lead us to the gates of no-privacy-hell, I'm trading in my Xbox360 tomorrow... right after I get a few more achievement points...

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Glasser vs. Pavlov. The Physiological effects of motivation have been argued for a long time in the business / education worlds. It good to see the Gaming industry is now starting to take a look at it.

Chris Remo
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That is explicitly what Chris is NOT doing. Chris is saying that's what many developers are ALREADY doing. He already doesn't engage in that kind of design, but he is calling for research to determine if it is not only personally uninteresting to him, but actually harmful. That's very different to actually researching how to employ those techniques in his own games. He is trying to KEEP that kind of metrics-driven design from harming games in the long term.

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I understand Mr. Heckler's point. And for the most part, I agree with it.

But it's more of a case by case study I believe. If I can represent to the rest of the userbase that I completed Fallout 3, or beat an amazing game on the hardest difficulty, then yeah I want to be able to do it.

I see what he is saying for mundane tasks though. To me, he's not talking about only Achievements, but also the XP gains in games such as Modern Warfare 2. Now, this opens a whole new can of worms, but many players in the game will hop into a XP rich gametype (i.e. 3rd Person Cage Deathmatch) and simply boost for that "Title" or "Emblem", or to simply rank up to Prestige.

Just my two cents. Feel free to rip it up lol.

Christopher Floyd
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This discussion reminds me of the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (for all I know, maybe Mr. Hecker, et al. are familiar with him). He talks about our activities in life (he calls them "practices") having both internal and external goods. If I'm a musician, there are goods internal to the practice of music (composition, etc.) that advance, eleborate, or affirm the practice of music itself. There are also goods external to the practice that come from engaging in it (money and fame are the obvious ones).

Nothing wrong with money and fame, he says, but these things have no engagement with the practice and if you're only pursuing them, then you will not be advancing the practice. In MacIntyre's terms, you aren't engaging in the "virtues" of music.

Chess is an example MacIntyre himself uses of a practice. Good sportsmanship and integrity (following the rules) are internal virtues of playing chess. If you ignore these, you aren't participating in the practical tradition that is chess-playing and you aren't helping it to thrive. You also aren't becoming a better chess player.

What I think Mr. Hecker is on to is that extrinsic rewards (i.e., external goods) do not invite the player to engage with a game in the same way that internal ones, do.

I recently worked on a downloadable PSN title and we got a lot of criticism for how our PSN trophies stacked up against other games'. The trophy whores among our development team thought we were making a big mistake in making our trophies fairly difficult--making them real challenges of varying degree--when other games had trophies that were as simple as "Turn on the game... Congratulations!" Someone chasing after external rewards is going to go for the more prodigal game. Now, there is an art to getting the difficulty on such trophies right, and I'm not saying hard is necessarily right. But I think it's evident how the incentive of easy "achievements" can actually hurt the player's game experience without him really realizing it.

Bryson Whiteman
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But as far as the meat of an achievements system -- gaining rewards for accomplishing extra tasks -- Miyamoto says it's something he's always done. "The idea of playing the game in a particular way and having it unlock a special prize that rewards you... it feels like something we've been doing for the last 15-20 years," he said.

Chris Esko
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During Schell's talk he jokingly suggests that Zynga should combine Farmville with a slot machine. It might make them rich; but that would have pretty much no intrinsic value as a game. I think this is what Hecker is reacting against. I'm personally hoping that we'll see more social games that are akin to email Diplomacy or Apples to Apples than Farmville.

Steve Jaccaud
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I know games like MW2 have their issues, but one of the things it did really well was allowed me to feel a sense of progress while doing well AND doing badly. Not many games reward you with increasingly better weapons or a buff if you get killed over and over by the same 12 year old l33tster who has nothing better to do than perfect his face melting technique. Everytime I get into a 30 minute MW2 match regardless of how well I do, I get some kind of rewarding experience. I'm looking forward to the day when I can tactical Nuke someone and I feel like eventually (or if I work hard enough), I'll eventually get there.

I've never really been into XBL acheivements or PS3 trophies though because they've always felt empty or arbitrary. But that's not to say the detracted from an otherwise well made game. If Gamerscore could net you some kind of in game loot or points towards a DLC for example, I'd care more. Sadly, that's less realistic due to business models and balancing logistics But as a gamer that'd be sweet.

Robert Green
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"Not many games reward you with increasingly better weapons or a buff if you get killed over and over by the same 12 year old l33tster who has nothing better to do than perfect his face melting technique."

And nor should they have to. That's exactly the point that Hecker seems to be making, that progression isn't a substitute for gameplay, or that gameplay should be a reward unto itself. People don't play starcraft and counter-strike to this day because they were always winning or levelling up.

So not only do I agree with Hecker, I think his point applies on a much larger scale. I can't be the only gamer who has played a game for hours, made a lot of progress, then left it for the day and found I lacked any motivation to go back and finish it. That's what happens when a game is all about being rewarded and making progress, but ultimately not that much fun. And that's probably why so many games these days are unwilling to let the player die: as soon as they do, they evaluate whether or not they want to keep playing, and if the game isn't fun, they might not. That's the danger of focussing on progression too much - for a while it feels like you're enjoying the game, where actually you're just enjoying getting somewhere.

In my experience, the best kind of achievements are the one that encourage you to try something fun that's ancillary to the game. A couple of examples that come to mind are climbing the tallest building in Crackdown or doing a really long wheelie in GTA4. Both of these are enjoyable to do, and having an achievement for them encourages the player to try them when they otherwise might not have thought about it. Either that or achievements that reward you for doing something the game asks you to do really well (rather than just accomplishing what you were asked to do).

Really bad ones are just pointless fetch quests. An easy example would be the 360/PS3 Prince of Persia, which required that you collect around 500 'light seeds' to finish the game, but then offered achievements for collecting all 1001 of them. If you enjoyed the game enough that you wanted to collect these for no other reason than the fun of it, then you don't need an achievement. And if you didn't think collecting 500 more would be enjoyable, an achievement isn't going to make it worth your time.

Altug Isigan
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What about calling it the banality of evil design :P

John Petersen
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Do y'all remember why they started giving out achievements for playing Xbox games? Because players were complaining that there wasn't enough to do in games, and were burning through them without satisfaction like cheddar fries.

Developers were telling players, "well, it's not our fault you sit there and play the games for 18 hours straight, they're not designed to be played like that, maybe a couple of hours a day, in my normal day I take care of my children blah blah blah"

So they implemented achievements and it was an accidental smash hit. Now players expect them and will literally chew their own arm off to get them.

Personally I could care less about achievements that do nothing. I want a solid, fun, long lasting game to play, not a mind frack.

Jason Bakker
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A good example in Hecker's favor is just people working for the love of the work, as opposed to the paycheck that comes at the end of the week. People who care more about the paycheck are more likely to grow to hate the work, and to do the bare minimum to keep their job (or attempt to advance to a higher paycheck through whatever means possible), while people who actually enjoy their job are better at it and produce better results.

Marshall Robin
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'"Not many games reward you with increasingly better weapons or a buff if you get killed over and over by the same 12 year old l33tster who has nothing better to do than perfect his face melting technique."

And nor should they have to. That's exactly the point that Hecker seems to be making, that progression isn't a substitute for gameplay, or that gameplay should be a reward unto itself. People don't play starcraft and counter-strike to this day because they were always winning or levelling up.'

And only the hardcore play Starcraft and Counterstrike online to this day. This type of game is the perfect example of a game that can benefit from leveling/achievement mechanics. It gives people some incentive to continue practicing even when the games mostly consist of them getting decimated over and over, match after match. Eventually they will reach a level of competence where the leveling reward isn't necessary for motivation. Due to all the practice, they will be able to have game experiences that are intrinsically rewarding, now that they have the necessary skill to do so.

Don't be so quick to dismiss the leveling mechanic, many people find it inherently enjoyable. I think the real danger here is that it is used in inherently uncreative or unproductive ways, like collection tasks for instance. Giving some incentive to the player to explore parts of the game that they normally wouldn't is a good thing.

king flux
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perhaps the player's desire of menial type "achievement driven" game play will prepare / train the player for the many menial type career choices in wait… i have no problem tipping well when my sandwich is made right.

Daniel Carvalho
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Chris Hecker is a good man, a comrade if you will. I said this last year, in my article, "What Have We Achieved?"

Jon Schubbe
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The problem with achievements is game appreciation. If they continue, no one will have more appreciation for an in-game moment than a little box that comes up in the corner saying 'Achievement Unlocked'.

This hurts single-player games because your attention goes from the experience - the art/storyline/mechanics to the 'oh man I can't wait to tell my friends my live arcade score is higher than theirs' rather than 'oh man i just caught mewtwo without a masterball'.

Daniel McCarthy
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Wow, this is gettin into some real deep debate :)

I may be a bit late on the scene her but this subject applies directly to me XD. Im not one for "achievements" or as they are on PS3 Trophies, i mean i can play a game and not focus solely on what kind of trophy i'll get out of it but after i finish the game it can give me more game-play hours to go back and finish off these trophies. Although my brother seems to have a real problem, not only will he NOT even play a game if it has no trophies he then buys a game, plays it for about 3 days until he cant be bothered to get any really hard trophies then sells the game to get another one BUT the fault here is that he's too stupid to realise he's looking about 30% of what he spent of the game EVERYTIME he sells it to get a new one and it does piss me off watching him waste his money on total bollox (excuse the language). So yeah "Achievements" aren't exactly an amazing thing to me : though im sure the developers and whoever else makes profit on these are basking in the glory of this idea sitting on a big pile of my brothers money...

Brian Bartram
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Hecker seems to imply that the two are mutually exclusive. Couldn't you have intrinsically motivating mechanics that also have extrinsic rewards to reinforce them?