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Designing for Motivation
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Designing for Motivation

June 7, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next


III. Motivating Systems

Once the learning phase is achieved, the player is in expectation. He has new skills, a lot of good will and a basic set of equipment to begin his career as a hero. From now on, the role of the designer is to open up his universe and to guide in it the player step by step. He does this by offering progressive challenges rewarded by new tools to help him to take up new challenges and so on. The game designer creates the needs for the player; he organizes his wishes and provides the challenges and rewards to satisfy him.

The game design must build the loop of player’s needs, and then answer them by a succession of challenges/rewards. This structure inherent in a game is built around the principles of progression, growth and accomplishment.

To create a challenge/reward cycle is relatively easy. The one most used is the D&D method commonly known as “door, monster, treasure.” This system is functional but restrictive and repetitive. It allows building solid bases but it remains tedious and wearisome in a short run. This tool is raw but functional and if it does not allow subtle tuning, it is a motivating system.

Motivation on the Reward

The “reward system” is the fundamental base for all motivation management. The rule is that every player’s effort must be rewarded. Even though the reward could take many forms, its role is mainly to motivate.

In action-RPG titles such as Diablo or Guild Wars, the gameplay is built on the growth of the character's strength. This is carried out by a system of experience and levels associated with a system of equipment. To reach the next level the player has to cumulate enough points of experience. By passing through a succession of challenges, he will obtain this experience as well as the equipment needed for the next challenge.

Diablo's inventory system at work

The motivation loop is closed and the player runs from monster to monster to satisfy his thirst for power. The needs N are big (equipment and levels) and expectations on reward R are big (experience and treasures). Expectations on challenge C are proportional to the strength P of the player. Since P continues to grow, N, R, and C follow the same evolution during the game.

Even though this system looks ideal and scalable, it has its weaknesses. When the limit of progression is reached, the game looses its interest and the motivation disappears. If there is no limit, the system does not offer any objectives or references and thus the motivation is very weak.

In the case of Everquest, the scarcity of rewards that gave birth to a "camp system" exhausts the players’ motivation until they are completely de-motivated. The rule that every effort merits a reward is no longer valid.

In the case of Diablo, the randomness of categories and reward characteristics increases the motivation of players to replay in order to achieve the perfect item. The disadvantage is that the player has no real reference of the ratio challenge / reward since one “unique” item can be the reward for next to no challenge.

Motivation on the Needs

The core of the game play in RTS is generally the source of the motivation. In StarCraft, the entire game mechanic is based on resource acquisition and control. The player starts the game close to sites with just enough minerals and gas to be able to begin the development of his base and his troops.

In this case P is at its minimum (the player is weak) and N is big (need for development). Challenge expectation C is small but greater than his power P (defend his development). Reward expectation R is big (to obtain a complete base and an army to fight) hence the motivation M is significant at the beginning of the game.

Thereafter, once his resources are exhausted, the player will have to find some new ones to exploit. N is still big, C depends on the strength achieved by the player P (battle for the control of new sites), and R remains big (possibility to upgrade units and to construct new ones).

In general, RTS games are based on construction mechanics that require resources. This mechanic is constantly motivating because troops and buildings will be destroyed during battles, and as a result new resources will be needed. The needs N are still significant, P changes with battles, C depends on P, and R is linked to needs N. The motivation loop is well established and exists until there are no resources left.

However, the strong point of this system is also its weak point. The game is decided once a player does not have access to resources any more; however, waiting for the game to be over can take a long time. The motivation loop is broken since it is impossible to access resources. Thus, there is no reason for the player to continue; he quits the game leaving the winner frustrated to have won by the retirement of his opponent.

Blizzard's popular sci-fi themed RTS Starcraft


Some RTS titles like Age of Empires tried to propose solutions to keep the motivation going by either creating other resources that would be easier to access (food and farms) or by creating a possibility to obtain resources by other means (trade, reinforcements). In other RTS title, such as Total Annihilation, M.A.X, and Company of Heroes, resources cannot be exhausted and both the motivation and the gameplay are based on the number of sites to control and on time optimization.

Motivation on the Challenge

In fighting games and sports games, the motivation is related to the challenge. The player state P follows the learning curve which represents the level of player’s skills. The induced need N is then a need for knowledge and excellence. It is the need to dominate all aspects of the game and to master all controls in order to face successive challenges C (beat the adversary). The reward R is the victory in each challenge which proofs the skills and which brings the player closer to the final victory.

The motivation loop is an ascending spiral that results in the player’s progress and in his skill affirmation. Yet, a simple victory is not a sufficient reward to keep in a long run the motivation.

Namco's PlayStation 2 3D fighter Soul Calibur III

Games like Soul Calibur or Need for Speed suggest unlocking the options according to the performance or to the accumulation of points (new characters, new arenas, looks, etc.). It is a parallel system of motivation that is linked to the game mechanics while preparing the multi player.

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