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Blow: Over-Using Reward Systems Can Make Games Less Fun
Blow: Over-Using Reward Systems Can Make Games Less Fun
December 6, 2010 | By Staff

December 6, 2010 | By Staff

The rewards and social incentives that make achievement-oriented titles, from Call of Duty: Black Ops to FarmVille, may actually be ruining the pleasure in games over the long-term, says Braid creator Jon Blow.

"There's a lot of psychological research that actually shows that this kind of thing, if we use it a lot in game design and we are, that in long term may de-motivate people and make people feel like games are less fun," he says.

Talking in a new Gamasutra feature about The Witness, his ambitious upcoming project, Blow also shares his thoughts on working indie and on game design in general. The use of little rewards and bonuses to motivate players "only works for very boring tasks," he suggests. "It makes boring tasks more variable and more interesting."

And by association, overuse of reward systems can make actually-interesting tasks and behaviors seem less so, Blow suggests. "There's a lot of reasons for it, but one of them that's kind of intuitive is like -- especially if you're a kid in school or something -- 'Oh, they have to bribe me in order to do this. That means it must not be worth doing on its own.' Right?"

Blow cautions designers that it's important to think of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators -- that is, when a player actually wants to do something versus when they are doing it for an external reward. He says research has shown that the more people feel strung-along by a crumb trail of rewards, the less motivated and engaged they become.

"That could have two effects. One could be people enjoy games less and end up only doing them for these rewards, which is kind of what's happening in game design, actually," he says. Another negative impact could be that because larger games are developed through intensive focus testing, than an attempt to hone the rewards that work best could actually result in designers prioritizing and prizing the most boring gameplay systems, since those will be the ones where rewards work best.

"I don't want to give the impression that I'm putting out a doomsday scenario and like that this is for certain going to happen, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that we should be very careful when we're going about designing these kind of systems, and we're not being very careful right now," he says, considering it's not that reward systems themselves are inherently bad, it's an undisciplined use of them. "We're just pumping them out as fast as we can and that is not necessarily a good thing."

He hopes designers consider not just practical gameplay concerns, but the ethics of design as well. Game design is becoming less about cool experiences "and more about this explicit manipulation where, you know, I've got a carrot attached to a stick and I'm just pulling you along. And I don't feel that that respects players, and I don't feel that it treats them as human beings, really."

The full interview with Blow on The Witness, thoughts on game design and lessons from Braid is now live at Gamasutra.

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Alan Youngblood
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Wow, I couldn't agree more. I've been saying this for a while now, but it helps to have someone say it that people will listen to.

Jon, way to stand up for what was once good in the game industry. I've been either bored with games or playing old ones again because they are better. Hopefully these ideas can help people get back to fun games like we used to have.

Wylie Garvin
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Jonathan Blow has been saying it for a while too, since 2007 or probably earlier.

Russell Carroll
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Chris Hecker gave some interesting thoughts on this topic at GDC in March:

He put a ? in his title which was good b/c I felt some of the presentation was under-reaching and other parts were over-reaching, but regardless it was probably the session that got me thinking more than any other. I've been reading the book by Alfie Kohn he mentions and it is also thought-provoking (like I wish more video games were!).

I think the moral question of all of it is very interesting, though mixing money with morals usually ends up with a money rich mixture ;).

Eric Kwan
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Enter: the "hidden" trophies, which don't really string players along but still offer them rewards for accomplishing tasks (when used correctly).

Eric Geer
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Anyone know if you can turn off achievements on PS3?

I hate when they pop up on screen mid cutscene or even mid ruins the flow/ the moment/ feeling of the game at hand--i wish they showed up as list at the end of a gaming session rather than mid-game---and for the most part I don't even pay attention to them--again--revert to initial question.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I don't know if you can turn off achievements and I'm not sure players should be able to turn them off globally. I see achievements and the timing of them as the responsibility of game designers.

Eric Geer
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I see them as a poor game design because I can't turn them off--some people enjoy them--i find them worthless and obnoxious.

Do I really need an achievement for inputting my name? or finishing the first cutscene? or the first chapter? its like writing my name correctly on the SATs--200pts...and I didn't really achieve anything..I was playing the game--its not like I went out of my way to do anything.

Nick Green
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I loathe reward systems in games almost as much as I loathe "loyalty" ones.

"It makes boring tasks more variable and more interesting."

It doesn't make them more variable or interesting. It's a basic token reward system - like "earning" points when spending with a credit card.

"Blow cautions designers that it's important to think of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators -- that is, when a player actually wants to do something versus when they are doing it for an external reward."

I couldn't agree more and wish game developers would embrace this.

I'll play a game if the game itself is fun. Trying to smother a less than great game in psycho-trickery sauce won't hide the bad taste for me.

Eric Geer
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"psycho-trickery sauce"---NICE.

This sauce on good games just adds a bad taste for me.

Nathan Verbois
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Well, when designed properly, they can encourage you to play a game in a different way. Look at Dead Rising or Crackdown for examples of interesting and well implemented achievements that do add enjoyment to a game, not take away. So long as the game is designed first and is fun, this shouldn't be a problem.