Ever played the text-based Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game? You’re thrown, in medias res, into a textual adventure, with a couple of minutes to get your stuff together and get the heck out of a room before a bulldozer breaks through the wall and you lose the game. And then the game really gets difficult.
Punishing the player for making mistakes has become something of a taboo in game development – except for somewhat niche games and franchises such as Demon Souls and Ninja Gaiden – since the main objective of the publisher is to pull people in and make people want to play more, by for example rewarding the player for opening the inventory (I’m looking sternly in your direction, Minecraft).
So instead of punishing the player for making mistakes and then rewarding the player, once the mistakes have been corrected and the difficulties overcome, the games of today rewards the player at every step and turn with achievements, in-game rewards such as power-ups, weapons and experience points, without any reasonable effort put in by the player.
Allow me to digress for a moment, as I reminisce the days of playing Project Entropia back in 2000 (or so). Me and a bunch of friends played this free-to-play MMO happily, paying not a single dime and instead collecting items in the game-world, namely oil barrels, in a “freebie” area, where the oil barrels (serving as the currency of the game, which could also be converted and transferred into a bank account as real money) popped out of a spawner. This freebie area was not entirely safe, with an enormous T-Rex (or alien equivalent, I can’t quite remember) roaming around the area and occasionally getting a free lunch by devouring a waiting player.
We were quite happy with our sub-par equipment and weapons, donning sunglasses and roleplaying a rather hipster group of mercenaries, scrounging oil barrels when we could and buying upgrades whenever our resources allowed.
Then, one day, the server temporarily went down. Upon server boot, we were among the first to log on and we rushed to the oil field, where there were several barrels available, in the range of $50 worth of in-game currency. With this currency, we could buy some of the best guns and equipment; we donned our new-found riches and … well, then we had sped ahead so far in our achievement-race that we felt no drive whatsoever to keep playing. The fun died, because we had been rewarded for doing nothing.
On the other hand, in a game such as Legend of Grimrock, which is a refreshing recent throwback to old-school dungeon crawlers, if you mess up, you get beaten into a bloody pulp. Playing Grimrock in the way I used to play my dungeon crawlers, which is to say I only save the game when there are save-points in the game, not using the game’s save-function in the pause-menu, the game can be quite punishing at the hard difficulty level, leaving little room for error and if you do mess up, you may lose several hours of hard-fought progress.
But I keep coming back to Grimrock, even though I’ve ragequitted when my mage died for the fourth time and I had to replay another two hours’ worth of puzzle solving (and worse), because I know that when I reach the next save point, when I solve the next puzzle, I will be rewarded with some small piece of loot, some experience points and, most importantly, some peace of mind that I have overcome the challenge and am now “safe” again.
This is what a game should do: reward the player for overcoming a challenge. A game that rewards the player for doing the most mundane of tasks either inflates the value of achievements to the point where they are, in fact, pointless. And, I would argue, such a game is not a game at all, but an eight-ball of artificial rewards, serving no purpose whatsoever. Achievements and similar rewards should have worth, signify that the player has achieved something that not every player has achieved. In Everquest and Anarchy Online, such an achievement was reaching the maximum level (something far from everyone managed), in vanilla World of Warcraft, such an achievement was collecting all the set-gear from the Molten Core dungeon.
When a player has overcome a difficult challenge and is rewarded for it, the player will form a much stronger emotional bond to the player character, than if the player has been rewarded amply for doing nothing much at all.
So the trick to keeping the players happy and coming back for more is not about rewarding them. It’s about punishing them and then rewarding them. Stick, then carrot. Wipefest, then loot.
Just some food for thought.