Keep Your Players Engaged: Why Rewards and Medals Play a Key Factor in Your Game

We as humans like to be rewarded for what we do, whether it's a pat on the back for a job well done, or an employee of the month plaque on the wall of the break room. It's in our nature, we are wired to enjoy such rewards, we like to have a proclamation of our successes and skills, this in turn motivates us to continue to do good work. This motivation comes from a little thing called Dopamine that is released by nerve cells in our brain to other important nerve cells. The main symptom of Dopamine is that when it's released it signals our reward-satisfaction feelings. This obviously is a good feeling to have, and is why humans love to be rewarded in some way, because being rewarded releases Dopamine. No, this is not an article on the inner-workings of the human brain, but actually about game design, and why dopamine, and even adrenaline play a key role in many AAA video games being released. Many popular video games take advantage of the human brain, and ensure that what we as gamers are experiencing is satisfying. At their core, video games are a risk/reward system. We spend time in the game world, in the hopes of unlocking something, leveling up our character, etc. When this happens, we get that satisfaction that comes from the reward, and are motivated to continue. Let's take a closer look at this method of rewarding the player in today's video games, so you can learn why it's important for your game, and the negative affects it can have on the player experience if you incorporate too many rewards. [caption id="attachment_38486" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Battlefield 4 screenshot © 2015 Electronic Arts Inc.[/caption] As video games have advanced, so to has the reward system in them. Things like gamer score points have been introduced letting you accomplish tasks within the game and earn achievement points. These achievement points obviously don't really have any affect on the game at all, and are actually completely surface level things. Of course, the more achievements you do the more gamer score points you earn, the more gamer score points you have the more powerful you feel among your friends in the gaming world. Having 15,000 gamer points versus 5,000 suddenly makes you a more "powerful" player. Even though in reality, these points are typically just a number next to your name. However, things like discounts on various items have recently started to be given to players with a high enough gamer score. Which has started to put more importance on this once arbitrary number. This type of reward system isn't actually new though. Score systems have been around since the birth of video games, and was one of the first ways to give rewards to the player. Going to an arcade machine you could see the list of the top scores in the game, urging you to try and take that top spot, or at least make the list. Often times, players use the rewards as their motivation for playing, it keeps them going. Trying to earn the number one spot on the leader board is something to strive for, but what happens once you finally get it? You typically stop playing, because you have accomplished what you set out for, and it's time to move onto the next game. Can you imagine if video games didn't give any rewards to the player? They wouldn't be very engaging, and the motivation to continue would be far less, because there would be nothing to work toward. medals First-person shooters use rewards and medals in a much more prominent way, with flashy icons appearing on screen when you accomplish a certain task within the game. These rewards however, are strictly surface level, but can still have a huge affect on the player's satisfaction level. Tossing a grenade across the map and getting a kill with it will earn you a medal. These little medals or rewards are enough to set off the dopamine signals in your brain giving you that satisfaction, and even boosting your adrenaline. When you're playing Halo online, and you come across two enemies, and some how you manage to kill both of them, and you hear the announcer's loud and authoritative voice "Double Kill!" and a shiny medal pops up on screen. This is enough to release even the slightest dopamine, making you feel satisfied, motivated and you even get a slight adrenaline rush. Not only that, but hearing his voice yell, "Double Kill!" motivates you to try a little harder to kill one more player in time so you can get that triple kill medal. Achieving that, and hearing "Triple Kill" pushes you even harder for the "Overkill." The more you earn, the more rewarded you feel. On the surface, these medals mean nothing, but to you, it's a proclamation of your skill in the game. It's easy to get an adrenaline rush because the announcer is yelling at you, praising your prowess in the game. In any game that you create, it's important to feature some type of reward system, even to a very small extent. Finishing a race in first place unlocks a new vehicle. Successfully completing a level without dying gives the player a reward. However, there is a fine line you must find, because you want the rewards to be rare enough that they are still meaningful. Having too many medals and achievements reduces the chance of releasing dopamine, and the satisfaction that is felt is significantly less. [caption id="attachment_38523" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Halo 5 medals Halo 5: Guardians Beta - © 2015 Microsoft[/caption] Many popular first-person shooters are creating more achievements and more medals to earn, even if the action that the player has to do to earn it isn't difficult. Because, we as humans love to be rewarded in some way. Take a game like Halo 4, or even the Halo 5 Beta. If an enemy player shoots you, and your teammate kills him, you hear the announcer yell "Distraction!" and a medal pops up. In reality, you're being rewarded for essentially getting shot in the game. You also earn medals for getting headshots, and even just getting a kill. There are so many medals that you're basically numb to them at this point, they lost their value and meaning. At some point in time, we may even see a "Participation!" medal in a game. There are many different types of rewards that can be implemented into a game that go far beyond the surface level things. There are things like mechanical rewards, like increasing a player's stats, which will have an affect on the overall gameplay. These are the type of rewards that can have a big impact on the player and bring the most meaning. Often times, it depends on the type of game that you're creating, but some rewards may make more sense than others. For instance, in an online FPS you can't really have rewards or unlockables that alter a players stats, letting them run faster, jump higher, etc. Because this can make the gameplay very unbalanced. Instead, you have rewards like you see in Halo or Call of Duty where they are very flashy, and give you some great bragging rights. While they don't actually affect your character, it's just as satisfying to earn the "Perfection" medal in Halo making the fact that you didn't die once in the multiplayer match official. Taking advantage of the fact that humans enjoy being rewarded isn't something new in the gaming industry, but sometimes it can be overlooked. Of course, the most important thing in any video game is going to be the gameplay and chore mechanics, if a game is fun; it's going to be fun regardless. However, implementing a risk/reward system can keep players engaged, and wanting to continue playing to try to unlock that new item, or earn that medal. Take a close look at your favorite games, and study how they use medals, rewards and achievements to keep you engaged, and to keep you wanting more.