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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