Part 3: Reward Reduces Enthusiasm
In its simplest form, any player investment reward is simply a commendation. You did well, you get a pat on the back. Weather this takes the form of a new suit of armor, new gun, new ability, some aesthetic option, or simply a smiley face on a menu screen, they are all simply ways of telling the player "good job."
The problem here is that such commendations are not, in fact, a good thing. Picture a young child who gets good grades in math. His parents and teachers encourage him, giving him gold stars and plenty of positive reinforcement. Years go by, and the child continues to get good grades, make honor role, etc. The child graduates college with a wonderful GPA. The child is now an adult, in the real world, where there are no more gold stars. Many studies suggest that this individuals success will likely stop there. The kid has probably long since tired of math and academics, and now has no desire to put these things into actual use. He was originally good at math because the liked math. As the rewards came, however, math became a means to receive rewards. This individual, over time, came to see the thing he once enjoyed as work, an annoying task to be completed in exchange for reward. His motivation has fundamentally changed. Sound illogical? Well, how much do you like your job? How much does it pay? How much does that matter?
Actual market value may vary.
Possibly the most prominent and ubiquitous examples of the player investment reward systems in place today are Microsoft/Sony's Achievement/Trophy systems. Despite some backlash amongst games, the hard fact is that the two companies have made these systems mandatory for all titles because these systems make money. Consider a game that exists on all 3 of today's prominent consoles, the PS3, XBox 360, and Wii, all of which you own. Each version of the game has exactly the same features, capabilities, and graphical fidelity. Which system do you buy the game for? Theoretically, it should be a toss up. However, a huge number of players would prefer one of the systems that tracks achievements. After all, if you could add a pat on the back to everything, why wouldn't you? You woke up this morning, Congratulations! Took a shower? Good show!
Which brings us to the problem. Have you ever played a game, not having any fun, just trying for an achievement? Did you enjoy finally getting it? Was this experience preferable to having spent that time simply playing the game as you would have otherwise done? Or, worse, have you ever noticed yourself not play a game you know you enjoy simply because that system doesn't feature achievements? "Hey, I could actually finish the rest of Mario Galaxy, but I've already "beaten it" and it's not like I'm gonna get any achievements." I don't know about you, but I've been there - and it's scary. It seems that with there short term earnings strategies, Microsoft and Sony might accidentally be training their consumers to hate their products.
Of course, this is an article about how to properly integrate player investment rewards into games and, as I've already established, these aren't inherently bad things. The problem here is that these particular reward systems serve as goals in and of themselves. A large portion of those players that dislike achievements, for example, focus entirely on the existence of online achievements. Some players hate online achievements because they encourage players to prioritize these individual meta-goals before the actual cooperative game. One can not both focus on being the best player possible and getting a double kill with a spartan laser.
This problem extends beyond achievements and trophies and into some of the player investment strategies implemented as features within some prominent games. It is very easy, for example for a player to get so caught up in Modern Warfare's challenge/prestige system - getting in weeks of game time before they ever max out their stats - never have actually focused on winning the games in which they have competed. They were online with other players in what was ostensibly a death-match, but their goals had little to do with the actual game at hand. This is detrimental to the game's online environment in that it creates scenarios in which the minority of a game lobby might actually be attempting to fulfill the game's stated agenda. For the members of that minority, extreme frustration is likely to occur. (see: Modern Warfare's "Sabotage" playlist) This both undermines the design of your game mode and the quality of the online experience your players receive.
And this was the issue with our honor role student. The gold stars and blue ribbons became more important to him than the subject for which he had originally been so passionate. There, then, is our solution. Yes, do reward you players, but reward them for actually playing the game. In this way, a reward system could recognize achievement, rather than set up new, largely artificial, hurdles for players. As a rule of thumb, any time focus is taken off of the actual game, the reward system is imperfect. Any time the player is growing frustrated, wrestling for a reward not due to their skill level within the game but rather due to the design of the reward system, they are becoming disillusioned with the game. This should be avoided at all costs in order to ensure a positive long term relationship with both the individual title and gaming as a whole.
As gamers, however, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you simply should not allow yourself to become disenchanted with your hobby. If you're getting fed up with reaching level X or with attaining some achievement - stop. Take a break from that goal and go do something in the game purely for fun. The teachers can give you as many gold stars as they want, but it's up to you to retain perspective.
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