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Extrinsic Motivation: First, Do No Harm?

This post was originally titled “Beating Zero Sum”, and I had planned to enumerate the various ways PvP game designers combat the zero-sum nature of their games. In other words, given that players are going to lose about half the time, how do you make them feel like they’re doing better than that?

What I realized, though, is that almost all early arcade games were built around you losing every single time. Sure, many folks defined a win as a new high score, but those high scores were vanishingly rare, by their nature. Furthermore, that motivator only worked for a subset of the players: I played lots of arcade games, but didn’t care at all about high scores.

The primary motivator in most games, PvP or PvE, is simply the fun of playing them. So what is the purpose of these extrinsic motivators– levels, achievements, score, gear, ranking, showiness (“X is on a kill streak!”), and so on? The purposes are tough to cleanly delineate, but on initial brainstorming I came up with:

  • Strengthen the appeal of the game: you already like the gameplay, but given a choice between two gameplay clones, you might choose the one with better extrinsic motivators.
  • Broaden the appeal of the game: maybe you don’t even find the gameplay interesting, but the social reinforcement of your WoW guild keeps you playing.
  • Enhance core gameplay: some systems actually integrate back into the gameplay, offering new skills and weapons, adding more complexity to the game on a dole-out schedule. Here’s where the line gets especially blurry.
  • Alleviate boredom: every game has lulls in its gameplay– there’s no way to ensure every player is in the zone all the time. But maybe they’ll keep playing for the story.  Or the progress bar that keeps filling up.
  • Encouragement: here’s that PvP motivation I was talking about. Yes, you just got crushed. But you’re still making progress, or are still good at some subset of gameplay.

I’ll still get around to a discussion of specific extrinsic motivators, but what I realized is that I accidentally ended up at the same place Chris Hecker did in his GDC 2010 rant: don’t break your game! External reinforcements have become easy and expected, to the point that you need to force yourself to step back and ask what each additional reward is contributing to your game. Some sample questions:

  • Does this achievement encourage an exciting twist on gameplay? Or does it promote tedium?
  • Does this leveling mechanic smooth the learning curve? Or does it artificially slow the learning process, thereby boring players?
  • Do these additional, loss-mitigation rewards detract from the feeling of accomplishment when a player wins?
  • Will this external scoring system feel meaningful to a sufficient percentage of players, and will it diminish the intrinsic satisfaction they get simply from playing, and performing well?

None of these questions or answers are simple. MMO leveling systems clearly stretch the learning curve past the breaking point, but it’s a trade-off that often works. As an RPG addict myself, though, my goal is simply to be aware of the trade-offs– without adding yet another leveling and loot system simply because I can.