Series Info...Storms on Cloud 9 #24:

Challenge and Reward

by Scott Holliday

In the previous column, I concluded that the reason for unnecessary complexity was directly related to the reward system of the game. As a player, you suffer through the math in order to receive the reward for your effort. Although I despise the basis, as a developer, you don't have many choices. A game without obstacles presents no challenge to the player. A good example of this is the MMO spoof Progress Quest. You turn the game on, then walk away (or stare hypnotized at the monitor) while your character levels. Continuous rewards, no challenge. I must admit I've never played it. Without a challenge, I never saw the point. Without the challenge, the rewards are pretty much meaningless.

Are there games with no obstacles? Right now, probably some of you are thinking of social MMOs. By this, I mean games in which there are no obstacles to be overcome. Conversation, story-telling, and/or playing your character are the main goals. Though some gamers would claim that there are no rewards, this can be a very rewarding environment for certain players. However, for these same players, the game presents a very real challenge that they find exciting… communication.

Some sort of challenge is necessary. I would propose that a game without challenges isn't really a game. But why do so many MMOs choose mathematical duress as their challenge? Considering most MMOs are fantasy games, it doesn't seem to fit the genre at all... unless you look at these games as an extension of the tabletop environment. If the player really wanted to be immersed in a fantasy world, wouldn't spreadsheets and formulas be somewhat distracting? On the other hand, what kind of challenge would be most fitting?

Here are some quick options I can think of:

Reflexes: Although "twitch" style games will turn off certain players, it would instead bring in another different (and perhaps larger) audience. Unfortunately, this presents a different set of problems - mostly technical. First off, there is no perfect solution for network latency. As a developer, the imperfect goal can only be to minimize or disguise its effects. Second, "twitch" games are much more vulnerable to modification of the client program. Just a quick look over at the FPS genre will reveal bunches of hacks, bots, and other cheats designed purely to give one player an advantage over another. Unfortunately, without proper handling of hidden information, client mods can be very difficult to detect and stop.

Skill: Some players will have a natural affinity for conversation, organization, or artistic endeavors. Although this can be difficult to directly reward, if the tools are available, this sort of behavior rewards itself. Those who make friends and acquaintances will never be alone. Those who build guilds get to enjoy the benefits of many allies and supporters. Those who produce artistic works that have inherent quality will gain the respect and admiration of those around them. As a developer, the key is to provide the player with the tools needed to more easily explore these pursuits: solid communication interfaces, systems to organize and interact with groups, and methods to produce or publish your own work.

Experience: What does it take to be a master smith? In most games, you've chosen to put all your skill points (or some equivalent) into that field. Imagine if it also required some personal experience using the skill? Many MMOs approach this by requiring special recipes to use your skill most effectively. However, this isn't always a good method since it entails knowledge (i.e. searching the web) rather than actual experience. Let me describe an idea. A smith is making a sword. He chooses a nicely shaped and colored iron bar. Which one? What color? He heats it to a nice cherry glow. How red? He takes it out and lets it sit for a moment. How long? He hammers it. Where? How hard? How long? In real life, these are things that you can get the idea of from a book, but they are hard to quantify. You need personal experience to find a good combination. As a smith in a game, you would need to learn what color (and heat) of metal is best for hammering so that you shape the metal without weakening the overall structure. In fact, to make sure you learn for yourself for each character, the developer can put in a random seed (as discussed in SoC9#7) for each new character so that no combination will be exactly the same.

Immersion: Somewhat related to experience, immersion itself can be an obstacle. One of my favorite RPGs when I was younger encouraged you to learn the language of one of the fantasy races. That must have been 15 years ago, but I bet I can still speak a few words and phrases in lizardman. Personally, I thought that was really cool. For single player game's, with today's technology, it would be pretty easy to synthesize speech (or get good actors) for another culture. Hmm… I wonder if there have been games where most of the speech is in Klingon? Imagine flying your spaceship along and your helmsman says some alien garble. Only immersion will let you know you're about to run into an asteroid. Or considering the fantasy genre, imagine if you actually had to learn a new character set to be able to read magic? Perhaps you could get by with just a few letters for basic concepts, but then you need something as wide and varied as Egyptian hieroglyphics to achieve greater feats. And once again, if you used a random seed idea, the experience could be customized for each player.

Well… there's a couple of ideas. If you think of some other good ones, make sure to say something. In intended to next discuss the reward system using the same approach, but since this is getting long, I think I'll save that for next time.

[ <— #23: Case for Simplicity? | #25: Apt Rewards —> ]