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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice
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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice

June 24, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Fantastic Simulation

On rare occasions, a hybrid game form appears that tries to provide fun gameplay through "realistically" simulating an activity in a fantastic setting, or even a fantastic activity in any setting. [7]

This is a strange beast indeed and initially is no easy to quantify, but some clear examples exist. Take for instance Startopia,[8] a game that expects the player to successfully run a spaceship colony, balancing the needs of all the diverse onboard species. Another example can be found in the famous Tamagotchi brand, where the player is expected to take care of a fantastical creature in a realistic manner.

These games still contain the key elements of a rewards system based on escapism and wish fulfillment, but it is up to the level designer to decide where to fantabulate and where to simulate. However, the question can be asked: how can a game simultaneously be both fantastic and realistic?

Staying "in character"

The answer to this question lies in the assumption that a level should stay in character. Like an actor, the game cannot acknowledge the world outside of its own fiction. If this happened, it might not be strange for a player to take slow incremental lessons in hover board control to perfectly learn the nuances needed to enter the Martian Circular Race.[9]

The level designer needs to be aware that although there is room for imitation and illusion, the levels cannot cheat the in-game rules at any time. I will leave this topic for now, before it all becomes too metaphysical, but I would like to advise any level designer working on such a game to treat the fake rules of the game as if they were real.

Some Further Notes on Wish Fulfillment

In most of the examples and cases discussed so far, wish fulfillment has been linked to giving players the freedom to engage in activities they probably can't in real life. This can be to shine in a career as a formula one racing driver or to captain a star ship. The activity itself is the wish being fulfilled.

The principle goes much further, however, sometimes in unexpected ways. The player may be confronted with a fast vehicle, leading to a wish to drive it, or the player may spot a castle on the horizon, leading to a wish to reach it. Many of these kinds of scenarios are actually in the hands of the level designer. In wish fulfillment, we have an immensely powerful tool to entertain the player through our level designs.

In this context, wish fulfillment means adding gameplay scenarios that create a desire and eventually give the player the means to satisfy it.

Avoiding clichés

A well-known criticism of wish fulfillment is that it panders to simplistic desires and that is "too easy," leading to cheap entertainment that doesn't challenge or engage the audience enough. This danger certainly exists, but it is no more a result of wish fulfillment than elevator music is a result of making music accessible.

If used well, wish fulfillment is a powerful technique that can be used to reward gameplay, deepen immersion, and to challenge the player's conception of what a desired outcome is. It is up to the level designer to decide how to implement these principles, and what clichés to avoid. There are no hard and fast rules and what constitutes a cliché can be entirely dependent on the game's genre or expected audience.

[7] Typically a fantastic setting, however.

[8] Mucky Foot Productions, 2001; published by Eidos.

[9] I made that up.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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