To the victor goes the… what, exactly?
If you’ve been with my blog since the very beginning (love you, mom) then you’d kind of get the fact that I like talking more about what makes games TICK as opposed to particular games that are good or bad. I have a feeling that at some point I’ll talk a little more specifically, but for now, there’s plenty to talk about as far as general gaming is concerned.
So why do we play games? You know, I really hate rhetorical questions. They delude people into thinking they’re being all philosophical and deep and stuff, when everyone else is like, “Wow, this guy is so boring he even answers his own questions.” Since right now you readers fall into the 2nd category, I’ll answer my own question: we game, basically, because we are compelled to by the mechanics of the game itself. Dang, you thought I was joking about being deep and philosophical (and stuff)! But what I mean is that an essential component of ANY game, whether it be Pacman or Mass Effect 3 (heck yes.), there’s something built into the game that keeps us going. What fruit is going to appear next? You don’t know, but you evade those ghosts and eat those pellets because you want to find out!! (supposedly.)
But there’s a lot more to playing games than fruit! (Those of you who are avid lovers of Fruit Ninja on the iPhone, you may stop reading here). With the development of gaming came the development of incentives for playing games! It’s like economics, where supply is the remaining amount of game, and demand is how much you want to play it. Game developers want a balance between the two (again, supposedly). So they reward you! Rewards come from accomplishing certain tasks in a game, and they can range from new items and powerups, to cutscenes, to new characters, to dialogue, to completely pointless things like new skins and outfits. Pretty much anything that the game gives you as a result for doing something is what we’ll call a “reward.” Some games shower them on like rice at a wedding! “Holy crap, a mushroom! Look, like 17 coins! HEY, another mushroom! Whoaaaa, it’s like… a flower… that lets you shoot fireballs!” And in later Mario games… “Hey look, a giant shoe! Frogsuit! Feathers! Raccoon suit!” The rewards for playing Mario are totally girly stuff, and they say the target audience was MEN? Hah!
You look at the amount of rewarding that goes on in a game like Mario (which is honestly, just a little more than average for most games), and then you look at games like, say, Ninja Gaiden for the XBOX. Occasionally you’re supplied with a cool cutscene in which the main character, Ryu, does something totally insane and awesome (but not really sneaky and ninja-y), and you feel satisfied because the person you’re playing is a badass. Then, in tangible terms, you get the occasional weapon if you’re resourceful, and health/mana-boosting items if you decide to complete maddeningly difficult challenges of buttonmashing/dexterity. Not exactly a reward-heavy game we have here, folks. And, not to show my personal bias, but if you’re going to spread out the upgrades and powerups so frickin’ far away, why make the game so @#*%ING hard??? The perfect example of what not to do. Cue funny video by EgoRaptor (I love this guy!):
Now, a game that really hits the nail on the head was Metroid. (Link below… or should I say, SAMUS below?) It was definitely not easy, especially to the platforming newbies. I mean, if you fell off the wrong ledge, you SUFFERED for it. But the game’s reward system was also its main mechanic for progressing you through the game. I don’t mean “Hey look, you beat a boss, you got a key, yay! Progress to the next level!” I mean that the game was designed as a continuous, enormous level, in which you obtained abilities that allowed you to access new parts of the level. For instance, the first thing you get is called the “Morph Ball.” Hey, you got an item! I bet you feel rad. What can you do with that item? You can curl up into a ball that’s only one block high and roll around to your heart’s content. Gee, I bet you could get into all SORTS of different spaces with THAT! And, naturally, the ability to do that grants you access to the next ability, which grants you access to the next, and so on and so forth till you beat the game!
What a concept! Not only do you get bigger, badder, more shooty-and-explody and generally awesome with every upgrade you get, but your advancement through the game is guided completely on the system of rewards! Boy, if only game developers could do that today. In Halo: “Hey, Master Chief, what’s that reward you got for beating the bad guy?” “A better gun.” “It doesn’t allow you to jump off of walls or jetpack to the ceiling?” “Nope. It shoots.” Not to say modern games are without this! Batman: Arkham Asylum gently (that’s pronounced “awesomely”) guides you through the crazed, maniacal world of Joker’s creation, gradually broadening your arsenal from just Batarangs, to explosives, grappling hooks, hacking tools, and ziplines, to make you more versatile and allow you to traverse previously unexplored (and unseen) areas… Because unlike good old Master Chief, Batman has a weakness to bullets.
But the final touch to these awesome rewards you get is not something that improves your characters. It’s the plot. It’s kind of hard to view the dialogue and character development of a game as a reward for playing it (especially after spending hours upon hours of lonely nights guiding some Final Fantasy character past the 4th time someone has asked: “Would you like to RIDE ze shoopuf?”). But it absolutely is a deal-breaker for most modern games! Take Mass Effect as an example. If you haven’t played it, the developers have created quite a few realistic, three-dimensional characters who think and feel and act and do HUMAN (or alien) stuff. It’s totally remarkable how engaging and fascinating the plot is. And while there are gun upgrades and armor upgrades and cool stuff like that, the main reason we play through this game is because we wanna know what happens. Because experiencing the excellent writing that BioWare creates is a greater reward than seeing the umpteenth bad guy bite the dust.
So those are the rewards that keep us interested in games. I know I’ve felt a compelling urge to play further because of all of the things I’ve mentioned, whether it be a cool new gun, the ability to run incredibly fast, a dramatic scene in which the life of the protagonist is held in the balance, or just an enormous hammer that lets you beat things to a pulp (every game seems to have one). They make us face challenges that we would otherwise balk at, they give us a sense of accomplishment, they allow us to make bigger explosions. And I think all of those satisfy our basic human desires. Especially the explosions one.
To discuss: What reward-vs.-challenge system gets YOU going the most? Is there a certain game that really does it well? Or do you play games just because you want to play them, not for any desire to advance? (Kind of like getting a college education!)
P.S. Sorry for the late post, I was off donating blood and was a little wiped out afterwards.