What do we, as game developers, give the player as a reward for playing our game? How can we leave our players satisfied? The rise of the casual and social revolutions in games have focused even more on this issue, and have left many of us wondering "Why do people play Farmville?"
I am not here to discuss what makes Farmville compelling, if you are interested you should check out Fear and Loathing in Farmville or Cultivated Play: Farmville.
I want to talk about satisfaction, and how to leverage all aspects of your game towards satisfying your player.
Games are built on a cycle, without going into too much detail, it breaks down into three main steps: challenge, work, and reward. The game presents a challenge, the player does work to complete the challenge and the game gives the player a reward. By looking into how the player interacts with these elements we can hopefully find ways to make them more satisfying. I will try to give a few examples.
How can I make the challenge of the game more satisfying?
Make understanding, discovering, or completing the challenge of the game more satisfying.
Whenever I think of something challenge focused, I think of the Rubik's Cube. It is not really fun to actually finish the puzzle, but it is fun to understand it. Once you know how to solve it, doing the actual work to finish it becomes trivial. The challenge itself is not the only important factor to consider. It is also important to think about how the challenge is communicated to the player, how deep the challenge is and how the player will feel when they complete it.
How can I make the work of the game more satisfying?
Make doing, planning, or mastering the work of the game more satisfying.
I always consider the work as being the moment-to-moment gameplay of a game. The perfect example of satisfying work is Guitar Hero or Rock Band: the song you play is always the same notes, but it is fun to do over and over. The more you play, the better you become. There is a sense of mastery that is satisfying, think about the moment you get 5-Stars on Free Bird. Doing the actual "work" can be satisfying in a game, but there is also the opportunity to add in a sense of mastery.
In other games, especially strategy games, the moment-to-moment gameplay is much different. The act of placing your pieces during each move in Chess is not inherently fun. Most of the fun in Chess comes from considering and planning out your next three, seven or 200,000 moves. This level of thought and prediction produces surprises, which make the game exciting and fun.
How can I make the reward of the game more satisfying?
Make receiving, having, wanting the reward of the game more satisfying.
The reward in your game should be inherently satisfying, but this is often not the case. Many games struggle with giving meaning and context to the reward, especially incremental rewards. In the Legend of Zelda games Link must go and find dozens of items to help him throughout his quest. Usually when Link receives an item, the player has no idea what it will be used for, and the entire time he was searching for it he had no idea what it would be. These games do an amazing job of showing the player that this reward is valuable by making the act of receiving the reward satisfying. The iconic sound effect and reaction from Link (jump to 3:30) makes even the slightest reward feel amazing.
With any luck, this will help make your game better. This list of ways to consider each aspect of a game is not exhaustive, and I am sure there any many others (email me: sjsivak at gmail do com). The goal of this idea is to look deeper into these aspects and try to understand the various components of each one. I think the more we can understand what satisfies the player, the stronger our game experiences will become.