Monday, June 4, 2012

Action, Reaction: Rewards

In my last post, I discussed the benefit of rewarding the player for specific actions. This is the means to train a player how to play a game "successfully" and gives them something to aim for apart from mere completion. However, rewarding specific behaviour can be a problem if a game allows multiple solutions to the problems it presents to its players. 

One of the best cases in point here is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game which I should say that I mostly enjoyed. Everyone knows the boss fights were awful, though I also found the entire plot to be woefully predictable, Adam Jensen utterly idiotic whenever I didn't have control of him, and the final phase of the game was nothing short of rushed and a little bit tedious to boot. Those issues aside, the game failed to deliver on its idea of allowing a player to take any approach they wished. Why? Because they provided inequitable rewards for those solutions.

The "best" Adam Jensen was a stealthy, elite hacker, explorer, pacifist. He skulked around the shadows, meticulously exploring every nook and cranny, hunting down every hidden corner or passage way. No computer system was left untouched, and even if he had the password to a computer account or code for a keypad, he hacked the thing anyway, just for fun. He didn't kill anyone, but prided himself on artful takedowns, preferably incapacitating two people simulataneously with his superhuman reflexes. Why was this the "best" Adam Jensen? Because the game told you so.

Ideal Adam Jensen visits the Inaugural Belltower Slumber Party

Non-lethal takedowns gave more experience than kills, particularly when you took down two people at once. Every secret hiding hole gave you experience, but blasting through a level quickly rewarded you with nothing. Every hacked device gave you experience, but entering a passcode or password gave you nothing. The "best" Adam Jensen was a super-augmented super-human, able to solve almost any problem. An Adam Jensen who went in guns blazing, solved problems in half the time and left a horde of corpses in his wake instead of incapacitated foes, was far inferior, ending up with far fewer skills and abilities.

Now, as someone who happily jumped into the role of the "best" Adam Jensen by choice without knowing about his inherent superiority, I was surprised when discussing the game with some of my friends about their different experience with the game. Their challenge of scrimping and saving praxis points to spend on only the essential skills didn't match at all with the game I was playing. Simply put, the game wasn't rewarding them equally for their behaviour. The game was mandating a "best" option, despite telling the player through narrative and other gameplay elements that "any approach works". This was also part of the reason why the boss fights were so heavily criticised - because the "best" option that had been mandated throughout the rest of the game suddenly turned into the worst option for the boss fights.

You picked stealth? Oh dear.

Counter to this, one of my flawed game darlings of the past few years, Alpha Protocol, didn't fall into the same trap. Alpha Protocol gave numerous rewards to players as a result of their actions and choices, but these were distributed evenly, and furthermore even helped augment your chosen skills. If you engaged heavily in stealth and non-lethal takedowns, cooldowns for related skills could decrease. If you went in guns blazing and killed lots of foes, you'd get damage and/or accuracy bonuses to your weaponry. Even your relationships with NPCs worked in this manner of providing different benefits; if someone liked you, you'd receive a bonus. If you didn't get along with them, you'd get a different bonus. Both options represented a different kind of relationship with your "handler" providing different advantages to your character.

For me, this was a superb example of how to reward player decisions differently, but equitably. Alpha Protocol wasn't without a bunch of other flaws, but ultimately I found that the concept of choice and the ability to choose how you wanted to play was more meaningful than compared to DE:HR, because those choices ended up with the player being given different options rather than fewer options.

If you're going to reward a player for taking successful actions, but offer different approaches, then unless you're specifically looking to promote a particular course of action, all rewards should be equitable. The rewards can be different, and I would contend this is the ideal situation, but a player should never feel penalised because they made a specific choice that was offered to them by the game.


  1. With the "all rewards should be equitable" approach, what do you reckon about the problems people had with Bioshock, where killing or saving the Little Sisters made very little difference in the long run?

  2. Excellent question, and I almost contemplated raising this one too.

    Firstly, I think a part of the problem here is the misrepresentation of the rewards. The game "tells" the player via in-game knowledge that harvesting will provide a larger reward. Yet metagame knowledge actually disproves this. Tanenbaum's rewards end up giving the "good" player rescuing the little sisters MORE Adam than the player harvesting. I'd assume this was because someone went "you can't reward people for being EVIL!" in a design meeting and this thinking stuck. Combined with the fact that a big drawcard of BioShock was the mutations to give it its unique flavour, and not wanting to alienate the player taking what they thought was the palatable choice by giving them fewer mutations, this design choice actually weakened the game design from this perspective.

    Simply put, I'd argue that Tanenbaum's rewards should not have been Adam. They could have been very generous - ammunition for the more powerful weapons in the game, heck, even giving the player certain weapons earlier, even unique rewards, but not Adam. Adam was the precious resource the player was supposed to scrimp and save and potentially kill for (heck, that's a big part of what led to Rapture's destruction), so to chicken out on this for me was disappointing. I liked getting the big pile of Adam in the gifts from Tanenbaum, but part of me felt like I was being handed a bit of charity: "Here, we felt sorry for you - go play with cool gadgets." Personally, I think the game would have been better without that.