“There’s No Deodorant Like Success”

Elizabeth Taylor’s aphorism finds use in sports, politics, music, and of course business. I hear the phrase in the halls of development studios, where it gets standard bizspeak usage. “If our game/project/feature succeeds,” the thought goes, “it won’t matter how many failures, conflicts, or tears we produced along the way.” I think it’s intended to improve morale, believe it or not. And the phrase is sort of true: success does help a lot of problems seem insignificant. Not all of them, especially when it comes to relationships you’ve built (or burned) in the months or years along the way. It’s easy to agree with success being the important thing. Consider the reverse corallary: Your customers don’t care about how hard it was for you or your team, how many late nights you spent at the office, and how little time or money you had.

I think there’s another way to apply and deconstuct the phrase. And it might even be more useful for game development. Allow me to mount the little soapbox I left lying around.

Let’s consider what’s cutting edge in game design – reward structures. Rewards are a basis of success for all sorts of games: RPGs. MMOs. Shooters. And of course the latest favorite: social games. Despite the scary talk from Jesse Schell, I don’t have an intrinsic problem with rewards. Games have rewards, even if it’s only “you win.” The evolution revealed in games today that we are happy to offer rewards motivated not out of any principle of game design, but out of financial motives. Hmmm. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having financial motives. The question becomes: what happens when game design motives conflict with financial ones?

For me, the problem comes when we use rewards to hold players hostage to poor gameplay. Now I know you’re probably thinking about Facebook games or the like. And that’s fair. But I think the problem emerged before that. Consider the absurd Achievements out there that reward repetitive play, or how MMOs are filled with hours of grinding content all performed teleologically. Just last week I played 2008’s open-world brawler Viking: Battle for Asgard on the suggestion of friend (don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you). For hours I muddled through its frustrating combat and repetitive content, until I stopped to realize just how weak the core gameplay loop is. And why? For better weapons? Another dragon? Achievements? Yeah, something like that.

Stink: Conquer the Ancient World. Deodorant: Elizabeth Taylor.

We’ve been using rewards to conceal poor gameplay for a while. And really, this is just lazy. Have we become so much worse at making games that we must offer virtual carrots to push players along? Let’s stop using reward systems as a deodorant for bad game design. Yes, your player may be happy about the successes he achieves, but how long can that Pavlovian response last? We should be using rewards to encourage good decision-making and a play experience that is in itself fun.

Until next time. I remain interested in rewards and psychology, and no doubt will have more to say soon.

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