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Rewards vs Immersion

June 4, 2011

So the other night I was in Barcade playing myself a good few lives of the notoriously difficult Ghosts n’ Goblins (Super Ghouls and Ghosts on the SNES) when I overheard the two people next to me. They were playing Rampage, which is a game many people should fondly remember, in which you take on the role of a monster and destroy a city while fending off the army. The game is fairly simple, and it’s delightful because of that simplicity. The two gentlemen next to me were discussing how they were willing to play the game for the next five hours, which was presumably around the time the bar would be closing. They then laughed and spoke of how ridiculous and terrible this willingness to game was.

Now, while I understand that the reason they consider this terrible was not truly some fault of the game’s, but that they didn’t want to believe that they would spend several hours playing a game I still had the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to shout, “That’s not terrible, that’s fantastic!”

I say this because it is fantastic! Getting someone to play a game for a long period of time is based on one of two things: reward or immersion. These two qualities are what generally drive why we continue to play games even when we know we should be doing other things. As I explain these qualities I’ll be able to sketch a picture of the crucible I think the video game industry is currently in.

Reward is a pretty basic concept, it is a feeling of accomplishment based on your actions. This is achieved when you earn points, complete levels, and generally advance through the game. Back in the arcade days, reward was pretty easy to track because your most basic reward was seeing how far you could get on one quarter. On top of this, you had leader boards hardwired into the arcade machine itself, and some arcades would even have a leader board that was maintained outside of the hard drives of the games. The goal of the game was thus to advance through the levels, and to be the best at your arcade. The fun of the game was because you could overcome the obstacles standing in your path to being the best. Then because of such a simple reward system, and the possibility of competition, you would continue playing even after you believed you had mastered the game. If you actually got tired of one platformer (ie Donkey Kong), there were always more in the arcade or you could always switch genres to perhaps a maze game like Pac-Man or a shoot ’em up like Galaga.

The use of reward to drive games however started to become somewhat of a complication when technology started shifting us away from arcades where we would pay to play and instead move to home consoles. This was also complicated because every game in a particular genre (like platformers) started to be too similar to each other (like when we discussed FPS’s), and we eventually reached a point where it didn’t matter if you were playing 1943 or Galaga: you had reached the point of diminishing return. This is when we slowly start to see stories taking the forefront in some games.

I believe that one of the best examples of where we see a series start to change from a simple story that drove a reward-based game into something that tried to make us care about the characters is Final Fantasy VII. FF7 was the first part in the series where Squaresoft intertwined a love story, and character arcs, with the overarching good vs evil plot. Before this it had always been about collecting the crystals, or just stopping the evil because well, you had to. The sixth installment also began to try and make us care about the characters but it wasn’t quite until Final Fantasy VII that this shift became obvious. Now, of course there are still reward patterns in the game; characters still advance in levels, kill monsters, and learn new techniques, but it’s one of the first times we actually see a story take to the foreground in a mainstream hit.

This is what I’m talking about when I say immersion, that while the reward structure is in place, you actually care about the characters and story more. Immersion is when you realize you’ve been playing a game (or reading a book, watching a television series, etc) for so long because your body demands to be nourished with things like food and sleep. You were pulled in by the story, the characters, and the setting. The way to achieve this can be fairly simple, take for example the beginning of Half-Life where you wander through the Black Mesa labs on your way to work, or the tutorials of Fallout 3 where you play selected scenes from the character’s life as they grow up. When the story happens, you’re already invested in what is happening and you’re interested in seeing what comes next. Even games from series that were once the hallmark of a carnal reward system like Grand Theft Auto have started moving towards immersion, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas we want to see Carl Johnson succeed not because he is the player-character but because he is clearly trying to redeem himself and provide a better life for his family, and in Grand Theft Auto 4 we need to know what brought Niko Bellic to Liberty City and what horrible secrets are festering within him. All of these are fantastic games, and not just because they provide fun mechanics and reward us for completing missions, but because they give us a story that we actually want to be a part of.

Of course, while I’d like to sit here and say that the gaming industry is moving further and further toward more immersive games, I’d be lying. With MMORPGs like World of Warcraft which are based around the reward system of getting better in-game stuff so you can keep playing the game, along with new content to keep you playing continuously, we see reward-based game play still holding us by our throats. Even FPS’s keep us playing using the same model that kept us playing Pac-man: new levels, and the chance to be ranked high up on the leader boards. Only now instead of competing against your friends, you compete against anyone with access to the internet and a platform to play the game with. While immersion has gotten better, rewards too have grown larger and more enticing. Be the first guild to complete the new dungeon instance, be the best squad in the match, be nationally ranked, all of these are just another way of getting your three initials on the top of the arcade game’s screen.

All I can really say is that while I enjoy games like Rampage, I must say that I’d rather be playing a game for five hours straight because I’m too busy thinking like the character to realize that my body needs things like food or sleep. I enjoy it when I can’t put a book down, and I like it when I can’t stop playing a game for the same reasons.

The thing about reward games is that when you don’t get your reward, like say when you play a game like Call of Duty and you’re getting beaten by people who are better than you, you stop playing. However, in a game like Dragon Age: Origins, you stop playing when you are forced to by some other commitment. I ask you, which is better?

This is an important question, because it’s the consumers who are going to decide the outcome of this decision for the video game industry. If we keep sinking our money into games that are essentially the same reward mechanics with flashier graphics and bigger leader boards that we’ve been playing since the 80s, rather than say games with immersive settings, and interesting stories complemented by the game mechanics. Well, then a few years down the line the industry won’t even bother trying to sell us games that have a good story. You can wave this off as just another rant into an argument that’s been raging amongst gamers since the 1970s: of whether we play games to hack goblins to bits and get better swords, or because we want a good storytelling experience. Or you can come to face what is the largest problem with video games being taken as a legitimate form of art: us, the consumers. Let’s try and make the right choice here folks, and reward games with good writing rather than just buying Current Season of Football: Give Us Your Money or Brah, I just no-scope head-shotted that dude 8.

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From → Video Games

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