LOGIN 2010: Rewards that Retain
Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 12, 2010
Scott Rigby of Immersyve, Inc gave an extremely interesting lecture at today’s LOGIN conference entitled “Rewards that Retain: Understanding how rewards can either motivate or deflate sustained engagement with online games“. This one lecture has entirely justified my trip up here (which has been great btw, nice group of folks up in Seattle), and I picked up a bunch of super useful design ideas based on real psychological research (more research is summarized in a Gamasutra article from a few years ago). The talk was an overview of the concept of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation and how it affects long term engagement in a game. As a developer of MMOs who live on long-term engagement, this is obviously relevant to my interests. Here’s the notes I’ve got, and Scott promised to put up slides on his site in a week or two:
Rewards vs Rewarding
- The never-ending challenge of an online game is to get players and your game together with the hope of a nice long relationship. But how can you know ahead of time if it’s going to end in painful divorce? Figuring that out lets you maximize the lifetime value you can get from your players, either via subscription or microtransactions.
- We talk about fun, but it isn’t enough. There’s basically no correlation between a perception of “fun” and long-term engagement.
- Rewards (extrinsic motivation) are about reinforcement learning and short term motivation, but Rewarding (intrinsic motivation) behavior is about long term satisfaction. Counter intuitively these can often be directly in conflict. Specifically, reinforcement learning can prevent long-term engagement from occurring
- Extrinsic motivation is enticements added to encourage behavior. But, by encouraging behavior externally you increase churn, abandonment of your product, and a lack of community. It also highly incentivizes cheating and exploits, because players are taught that only the reward matters and not the experience. Basically, pressure of any kind, including internal and social pressure, is also an extrinsic motivator. “I need to raid tonight because I’ll feel guilty otherwise” is an extrinsic motivator that doesn’t drive long term engagement. Also, all punishments are extrinsic motivators.
- Intrinsic motivation is when performing an activity is in itself rewarding. Luckily, games and sports are the king of this kind of motivation. If a player enjoys it enough, they’ll even play through the punishments (eg. the social pressure of being a nerd gamer). These motivations tap into deep parts of our human nature that satisfy us, and aren’t “addicting”.
- Extrinsic motivation is correlated very strongly with rather a player will come back tomorrow, but is not at all correlated with rather they will come back next week, rather they wil buy future games from the same developer, or rather they will evaluate your game positively for reviews and word of mouth. Intrinsic motivation is correlated very strongly to all 4 (although extrinsic still wins for day-to-day engagement).
Types of Intrinsic Motivation
- There are 3 basic needs that are satsified by intrinsic motivation. The first is Competence. This is the ability to gain in skill and ability within a certain domain. For instance, FPSs and other high-skill games primarily push this motivation. It’s very rewarding to learn and become good at something
- The second is Autonomy. This is basically when the player feels like they are in control of and agree with an experience. Complete freedom can provide this, but the actually important thing is volition. If a player feels like the choice the game goes with is one they agree with, then this need is satisfied. Another way to put this is how much the player matters to the world and the events of the game. Turn-based strategy games such as Civilization push this heavily.
- The third is Relatedness. Basically, this is the inherent need to relate to other human beings, so is obviously increased in an MMO setting. However, this can also be faked as relating to NPCs as if they are real people drives this need in the same way. Anything you can do to make the NPCs feel more alive and integrated with the player helps this. This is about how much the player matters to other people, real or virtual. Actually social games, like your good ol board games, push this heavily.
- RPGs have a unique property as a genre, becuase they satisfy each of these 3 needs. Levelling, as long as it involves an improvement in the kinds of things you can do as opposed to a pure number change, drives Competence. Choices, such as an opewn world and non-linear quest structure help autonomy, as does character customization. Guilds, teams, and npc factions help drive relatedness.
Harnessing Intrinsic Motivation
- Intrinsic motivation only works if the player has a perception of volition. They must feel like they are in control of the activity and aren’t being guided too heavily. The danger is that extrinsic rewards can lower tihs perception of volition and autonomy, because a player starts to feel controlled by the game/designer.
- Intangible rewards such as verbal cues or animations are a great way to reward players withour hurting intrinsic motivation at all. If a player does something specific, and is then rewarded with a specific non-gameplay reward (such as “Thanks for saving me from Bob the Pirate!”) it’s cheap and effective. You should avoid controlling language such as “must” and “should” as even mentioning them will cue players to think of being controlled. Also, intangible rewards are LESS effective on children as they are more skeptical in general of verbal rewards for doing a good job, very possibly due to over-exposure in the educational system.
- Unexpected rewards are another safe way to reward a player. Random drops are cool because the player doesn’t feel controlled by the process. You have to give relevant items, though, and any false choices between useful and non useful items brings the feeling of being controlled back. Also, farming for random drops is very bad for intrinsic motivation, because the feeling of being “controlled by the random number generator” is an insidious way of taking volition from the player.
- Contingent rewards can be used but are more dangerous. Engagement rewards given for participation feel less controlling than rewards for explicitly completing a task. When giving a reward completion it should drive competence directly, as they helps offset the loss of control.
- Performance-contingent rewards are the riskiest. If you reward players directly for how well they perform in a specific instance it can feel extremely controlling. All they care about is the end result and not the experience, and you get “learning the test”, exploits, and cheating. In fact it can directly de-emphasize the original task becuase players realize that if they have to be rewarded for how well they do, it can’t actually be important how well they were doing.
- Giving useful and neutral informational feedback is a key way to offset the volition-hurting effects of rewards. If you tell a player exactly why they are or are getting a reward it helps alleviate that feeling of loss of control. For instance, end of round scoreboards are perfect for this. This is why need/greed rolls are visible. Basically if you can give the players information you should.
Improving RPG Intrinsic Motivation
- Quests are a great mechanic in certain ways, because they provide clear goals (which helps improve autonomy) and provides competence-improving rewards. But, once the rewards are completely expected they lose effectiveness, and quest rewards are automatically of the more dangerous contingent type. To help this, you should do anything you can to stop quest givers from feeling like vending machines.
- A key element for drops in RPGs is how logical they are. If you kill a rat and he drops a robot it feels arbitrary and out of place. And anything that is arbitrary and inconsistent decreases volition. Also, every drop must increase one of the intrinsic motivations. It should increase efficiency or tactical opportunity for competence, add choices for autonomy, or increase opportunities for socialization or team interaction for relatedness.
- Different activities in an RPG can help different motivations, and it can help a lot to vet the factors ahead of time. For instance, exploration is big on competence and autonomy. New weapons add autonomy by adding choice. Rare items increase autonomy and relatedness. Epic items do not increase autonomy but are great for competence and relatedness. Soloing is good for autonomy while grouping is great for relatedness.
- The epic example is interesting, because in WoW the aquisition of epic items is tied directly to raiding. Raidins is an activity that highly values competence (very hard to execute a complicated plan) and relatedness (requires social structures), but does absolutely nothing for autonomy. In order to be part of a tight raiding guild, individual choice necessarily suffers. So, as a major failing for World of Warcraft there is no part of the end-game gameplay that drives autonomy (other than grinding for visible luxuries).
Q & A
- Abstract but useless “points” are an extrinsic motivator but can be very effective in providing an informational loop. If points increase when you do intrinsically motivated things it lets you know you’re on the right track. No specific research on achivement points, but they want to start on it soon. Giving out achievements specifically for failing can help mitigate the loss felt at failure.
- Outdoor environments automatically increase the perceived autonomy, with the exception of specifically maze-like environments. This is because you have more opportunities to choose where to go and don’t feel as funneled. This is why jumping feels intrinsically good to most players: jumping allows you to express your will on the environment in a cheap and easy fashion. If you want to jump and can’t jump it feels very limiting.
- Overall, any inconsistencies of any sort in the degree of autonomy automatically decrease intrinsic motivation. For instance, if there are hundreds of doors and you can only open one, this feels very controlling. Giving super obvious clues such as glowy objects and beacons of light go a long way to alleviate this loss of control, despite being technically “immersion breaking”. Remember the goal is autonomy, not specifically immersion.