Gold Star for You, Friend!

Why are players playing your game?  What motivations did you inspire in them?  Are they the motivations you wanted?

In just a few short years we’ve seen reward systems in games evolve beyond measure — from what was once a simple quest for points to a whirlpool of reward systems…what’s a designer to do?  Take a deeper look at your game, and look at what rewards you’re giving the player — and more importantly, why you’re giving them.  Adding a reward system to your game can often feel like a wild stab in the dark, which is why so many games have turned to the shotgun approach — throw everything in and hope that one catches the players.  Even worse, you could throw a reward system into your game without even understanding what motivations it gives your players.  We can do better than this.  Let’s take a look the reward systems, reasons behind the rewards then talk about how to use them effectively.

Common Reward Systems:


The ‘old faithful’ of the industry, points were initially added to Arcade games as a way to drive competition.  Points are intentionally, a multiplayer-driven reward system, that exists only to pull on the player’s pride and skill.  Any kind of arbitrary counter in a game can fall into this category.


Another ‘old faithful’ of the industry, but this one is primarily a single-player driven reward system.  For playing well, players are given the illusion that they have become more powerful.  In reality, the game usually has a difficulty curve to match the power growth of the player to make this also arbitrary and meaningless.  Note: multiplayer RPG progression, especially MMORPG progression, is not a reward system.  It is a core mechanic of the game.


Story as a reward system seems to come and go in popularity.  It hinges on the game’s story being good enough to be a reward, and most games unfortunately can’t claim this.  Nowadays this is mostly seen in “lore chunks,” where players are given special, extraneous information about characters and history while the main story remains unaffected.   I can’t honestly think of a game that does this really well, so if you can please leave a comment about it and let me know!


Give them more for getting more.  Greed is a cardinal sin but it’s also an effective reward system.  It’s similar to the concepts behind progression, but the mechanics are different.  The philosophy is, “The rich get richer,” so it’s generally based on some kind of interest or % boost.  It’s a common sight in simulation and Tower Defense games ( this might sound weird, but it’s a good way to get a player to think more efficiently in tower use ), but hasn’t made much of a splash outside of that, mostly because of the difficulty in balancing it.  There’s a threshold where the player has so much of something that it becomes worthless though, so be careful with this one.


Money is like points that can be spent in the game for things to change the nature of the game.  You probably understand what money is, but just recognize that it’s any score system that can be ‘spent’ at some point to get something.   Not greed, not progression, not points, but a little of all three — Money is a point system that can be spent to earn progression and gets better the more you have of it.  Because of this, it has the downfalls of all three reward systems it draws on; players without enough of it will fall behind in the game, it runs the risk of becoming worthless when the player amasses too much, and players won’t want to spend it while it still has value.  Money is probably the most common and the most commonly misused reward system in games today.


Power-ups make the game easier for a brief point in time.  They’re different from progression because they give the player real power, and the difficulty changes while the player is ‘powered up,’ and they are temporary increases in power.  These are becoming less common by the day, which is unfortunate in the grand scheme of things…


Aesthetic rewards are the coolest but also the most involved to create.  A special animation, effect, sound, etc. with or without a real gameplay consequence.  God of War does an excellent job with this reward system, allowing the player to get merciless kill animations on certain enemies by executing specific commands in the game.  These do get old after a while unless you’re going to sink half of your art budget into making different variations, so use them sparingly.  Besides, it’s hard to feel like a bad-ass if you’re a bad-ass 100% of the time, right?


Metarewards reward the player outside of the game for something they did in the game.  Leaderboards, achievements, facebook wall posts, and any kind of real-world return all fall into the concept of metarewards.  The only important thing to know about metarewards right now is that they are completely inconsequential to the gameplay.  No one in their right mind is going to buy your game and play it only to get the achievement points.  They are only motivation for someone who is already motivated to play your game.

Reasons to reward the Player:


Rewards are often (too often) used to ‘keep the player interested.’  In other words, the mechanic of the game isn’t interesting enough, so we need to throw something shiny in front of them to hold their attention.  Fair enough.

Trial by Fire

Rewards can be used to push the player to attempt things in game that normally would be too difficult or dangerous or time consuming to do other ways.  Use this sparingly or your game is going to be a labyrinth of difficult paths and easy paths and players may get confused.


Giving the player power is an important concept; Designers are often reluctant to do so, however.  Giving the player double-damage on their next attack after killing an enemy is an effective way to keep them killing enemies.  Unlocking a level editor after the player beats the game is a good way to get some players to finish the game and other players to come back after they’ve already beaten it.  This is probably the hardest to design into a game and the hardest to balance within the context of the game.

The Inside Scoop

I think this is the best reward system anyone has ever put in a game.  I don’t know which game was the first to do it, but they are champions in their own right.  When the player performs well or finds something in the game, they are rewarded with more information about the game — concept art, production stills, ‘making of’ reels, etc.  It breeds an intimacy and interest within the player about the development of the game, it puts a face on the authors, and it gets the player interested in the tip of the iceberg of gamedev.

A Gold Star

A pointless reward.  This is a pat on the back for finishing a level or doing well.  A gold medal for finishing under 2 minutes.  This reward doesn’t add anything to gameplay, but  the player feels better about it.  Sometimes, a tiered quality system is applied, to shoehorn some extra gameplay into the game, but really it’s unnecessary.  Giving your players a bronze medal for finishing under 3 and telling them to finish it under 2 to get a gold is a little like slapping them in the face and calling them slow.


Rewarding the player with something negative seems contradictory but it’s so prolific I thought I’d speak to it.  Giving the player damage or death for doing something is negative reinforcement, and is akin to slapping your dog with a newspaper.  Players will be wary of doing that action.  If 10% of the chests in your level explode and deal damage to the player, they won’t want to open any chests!  If you still want to implement such a mechanic, make sure you’re rewarding something beyond ‘opening a treasure chest’ — paint trapped chests red so that you’re rewarding the player’s perceptiveness, and not their actions.

How to Use Rewards:


This is a fine line to walk.  Reward the player too much and your rewards lose their meaning.  Having a billion points in a game doesn’t feel any better than having 37 if you’re older than 6.  Rewards are there to reward the journey the player takes to get them.  If the journey isn’t difficult, the reward is meaningless.


As I wrote above, the best rewards should be the most difficult to get.  The value of the reward is proportional to the difficulty of obtaining it — in relative scale to the other rewards in the game!  The best rewards are hard won, and difficult to replace, so that those rewards become reminders of what the player did.

The Journey

Players take a journey through your game.  They start on the main menu and end at the end of the game (hopefully).  They want to be rewarded during the course of your game, so take advantage of that fact.  If you put a reward in a spot that’s visible (but not easily accessible) it will lead them to it.  Use this fact to accompany your level design and lead your player down the paths you want them to see in your game, or put the rewards down the more difficult paths — this makes the overall journey more difficult but more rewarding!


This is by no means an exhaustive list of every reward system ever made or ever to be made.  I just want you to start thinking about the shiny things you put in your game and why they are there.  Does your game need achievements?  If you took out the points in the top-right-corner, would anyone still play it?  Can you think of a good way to reward players with Story (or a game that does this really well? :] )