The Essential Vitamins of Games Part 2
Vitamin B – Reward
The first stage in creating a game is creating objectives. Without objectives a game is just a technology demo.
Most people would think of a typical reward system as being a cut sequence at the end of a level, but that can be misleading. You need to think on a much smaller scale. What is the aim of the game? Defeating the final guardian or finishing the last race maybe? What about beating enemies earlier on in the game? What about defeating the very first enemy? If there were no ‘reward’ to the player for that, they would never want to continue through the game! It’s no good to tell the player “If you play through 10 levels just like this, you will get a pre-rendered movie”, there has to be something earlier on. Maybe there’s even more trivial reward even earlier in the game for just firing or acquiring a weapon, or pressing the accelerator button.
The entire game is driven by objectives and rewards. They can be small graphical effects for small achievements, or perhaps sound effects, and increasingly large graphical and sonic rewards for bigger achievements. Of course, giving away rewards too easily may or may not make the player feel they have achieved anything – the value of the reward changes depending on the player. For some, knowledge of the achievement itself, along with a hi-score table may be enough. (This is why score-attack games appeal to some people but don’t necessarily appeal to everyone.)
This creates an interesting relationship between programmers and artists. The artists create a set of potential rewards, and the programmers give them to the player at certain points in time. Giving them all away too soon reduces the perceived value of the artwork. But the quality of the artwork increases the perceived value of the reward. It’s a bizarre co-dependent relationship that if used correctly can work extremely well.
In general if a player is left with the feeling of “but I didn’t actually get anything for doing that!” the reward didn’t satisfy. After all, rewards in a computer game are all completely virtual anyway… unless you could program the console to eject five-pound notes!
For players who truly only care about score, Vitamin A and Vitamin B are all that is needed, however most modern full price games need a final ingredient – Vitamin C.
Vitamin C – Progression
Killing wave after wave of enemies may be rewarding to some, but after a while people tend to get bored and need a bit of variety. Simply playing other levels that are all unlocked from the start somehow seems like cheating, and players need a sense of progression. Hence Vitamin C… some games do it well, and some games don’t.
Vitamin C is basically Vitamin B but on a larger scale, and the simplest way to do it is with plot, but it’s not the only way. Any mechanism that unlocks something or gives the player feel a sense of earning something can be classified as Vitamin C. A hiscore table is vitamin C, but only a very simple form.
Tangible Vitamin C
Vitamin C is most powerful when it’s tangible, and least powerful when it’s arbitrary. Tangible Vitamin C is progression that makes sense in the context of the game, for example “complete Mission 1 to access Mission 2”.
Clever game design can create tangible vitamin C out of nowhere, for example there might be a set of racing tracks that are open from the start and set of racing tracks that are unlocked afterwards. This would seem arbitrary… unless there was dialogue in the game that indicated that completing the first set of tracks earned a licence to race in the second set. It seems trivial, but a small change like this can make a difference. It also creates ‘anticipatory’ Vitamin C.
Anticipatory Vitamin C
The simplest example of anticipatory Vitamin C would be in the old arcade game “Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins”, which shows a panning view of the levels to come. This creates anticipatory Vitamin C, which pushes the player to achieve the goal of reaching the end of level 1 in order to compete in level 2.
Without an instruction manual, a potential player might think that the first graveyard level was all there was to the game, not knowing what they were actually playing for.
The attract sequence, intro sequence and panning view after each spent life (complete with cute ‘you are here’ icon) all create a real sense of progression.
Third and final part coming soon!