Games have the unique function of being a learning experience that is self-driven; few games can really teach us anything outside of a moral lesson or point entwined with the narrative, but yet people will play a good game even if they must acquire new skills to do so. A major cause for this is the ability of games to reward play, exploration, and participation in a variety of ways, which means that players create an intrinsic value for the game without having to rely on any other system.
A successful game’s rewards for play comes in four sorts- experiential, narrative, affirmative, and mechanical. Some rare games may carry an extrinsic value as well; Steam’s Trading Cards, for instance, represent a chance to recoup some of the money spent on a game in store credit or displays of merit and conquest and are earned by mere participation, but these are not necessarily a part of the design of a game and such extrinsic rewards bear an additional cost and expense to development unless the money for them comes first from an external source (meaning that unless, like with the Steam Wallet, someone pumps in some hard-earned cash, the developers foot the bill for the store credit or other rewards).
Experiential rewards are perhaps the simplest to understand but also the least simple to create. They are a beautiful painting, an adrenaline-packed race, and an explosion brightening the room. This sort of reward relies on the player appreciating the beautiful, sublime, or cool in a situation (including humor), and can be created in a number of ways. A game like Dwarf Fortress can actually create a lot of experiential rewards on-demand with little input; however, this is a relatively small amount of the actual events simulated. Anything you’d see in a movie, book, or good music can be similarly looked for in a game, and when a game causes the player to appreciate the scene presented for them they receive a reward through the experience of the on-screen events, rather than a concept of play or storytelling.
Narrative rewards, however, are more focused. When the setting of the game changes in a meaningful way, the player will usually react with a positive or negative affirmation of events; should, for instance, the player’s favorite squadmate be killed in combat, the player will, if the developers have done their job, feel strongly about this. This is something that’s pretty easy to fail; writers need to take care not to annoy players and disenfranchise them from the storytelling. Games that are very successful at this, like Sleeping Dogs, often follow the development of a central protagonist and watch them change the world, with the effects of desired action being a desirable progression of the narrative, and the effects of a bad or failed action resulting in either non-progress or a less favorable outcome.
Affirmative rewards come from the recognition of skill within a game. Sometimes this is explicit; if a game explicitly congratulates a player on their performance (e.g. Unreal Tournament), or if it provides a competitive system (e.g. a high scores table), or even if it just lets them recognize the effects of their good work it will provide an affirmative reward. Most players look for this; even if success at a game doesn’t provide any real value, the fact that they can do something well is a reward in and of itself, and scoring perfect marks far outweighs scoring “decent” ones.
Finally, mechanical rewards are perhaps the most basic, though the most effective, for many genres of games. When a character levels up, gets another hundred thousand gold, and is finally able to acquire those Grand Master’s Gauntlets, they have been mechanically rewarded. Games have been built solely on the concept of mechanical rewards, and they are inherently satisfying, much as affirmative rewards are, often operating on the idea that achieving excellence is the goal of play.
Each of the types of rewards is crucial to a balanced gaming experience. Experiential and narrative rewards must be varied constantly and allotted with care; if a game becomes predictable the joy of exploration and discovery is lost, and after a certain point a steady stream of awesome events and outcomes just becomes a steady stream of average events and outcomes. Take, for instance, Sniper Elite V2, which had a very gory kill-cam that could be triggered by efficiently eliminating Nazi soldiers and other such targets. After a certain point, the novelty wore off, and the exercise became one of affirmation (“see what a good shot I am”) instead of experience (“look at that shot, I hit both his kidneys”). Likewise, mechanical and affirmative rewards appeal to certain types of gamers, and at a certain point will wear off-these also can be mitigated by the effects of cheating and difficulty modes on games.
As a case study, the original Deus Ex provides a good example of all rewards. As a game that allowed a somewhat unprecedented amount of choice in a fairly flexible environment, it had a good blend of the reward types. Experientially, it has a stellar sound track that still brings back goosebumps and fond memories in the minds of most of its players, but it also offered a lot of adrenaline, good visuals, and action scenes that were absolutely stunning in its day and still offer great value even with the now-dated graphics. On the narrative side, it’s still hailed as having one of the most complex and in-depth, if conspiracy ridden, plots ever, and the actions of JC Denton really matter in the world’s setting, even if they’re not totally free. Affirmatively, there are in-universe repercussions for certain actions; characters will voice their opinions on the player’s failure or success, and even their chosen styles; the stealthy approach is rewarded more than a full frontal assault, and even choosing lethal or nonlethal methods is viewed differently by various NPC’s who will happily chime in and tell the player whether they’ve been a saint or a slaughterer. Finally, mechanically, as both an RPG and a first-person shooter, the ability to upgrade skills and equipment throughout the game is a method that spurs on the player to undertake certain objectives or risks to get additional equipment.
Remember that rewarding can be done for a number of reasons within games, but the end goal is either encouraging certain behavior or encouraging player reflection on their actions. Giving characters more rewards leads to them considering a certain action a success; I often play a righteous avenger, so I’ll take an affirmative or mechanical penalty if it means shutting down the bad guys, solely for the experience and/or narrative reward that awaits. Player vision can likewise be a great boon or detriment to the developer; in Syndicate, the fact that the players’ colleagues were just so darn awful from the very beginning meant that a lot of the narrative rewards failed to click, while in Mass Effect the ability to play a variety of ways based on the player’s discretionary decisions meant that the narrative felt engaging. In the second game in the franchise, a well-prepared player gets all the different types of rewards by preparing prior to the final battle; doing so means that fewer crew members will die than would otherwise.
In addition, rewards can come in a variety of methods. Making a future reward obvious to the player will move their actions in one direction, while making rewards less apparent can allow them to choose, learn, and then have it change their future actions regardless of whether or not another reward follows. Negative rewards, or punishments, can also be used in a variety of situations, but can often cause more harm than good-games sell in part as escapism, and while a perfectionist may be driven to restart a level because they were spotted it can also lead to players just giving up and either quitting or stopping to care about certain types of rewards, usually mechanical or affirmative ones (Hitman: Absolution, for instance, has a couple segments that are much more difficult to use stealth in and become frustrating quickly). Exclusive rewards for certain styles of play can add replay value to a game (more for experiential or narrative rewards), but also mean that a player who cannot compete each of the exclusive conditions misses part of the content, potentially damaging their perception of the game and wasting studio budget on something that potentially only a very small portion of the audience sees or appreciates. Rewards that fall flat, such as the endings to Mass Effect 3 or, to a lesser scale, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, can cause massive outrage, especially if players feel their gaming input was not valued.
In short, carefully weigh rewards to appeal to a broad audience, and be sure to reward the styles of play that your players will approach the game with.