Reward Structure in Gaming: A Help or a Hinderance?

We’ve always loved playing games – but now they love it when we play them too and they reward us.

Many titles nowadays feature in-game reward structures offering players access to new abilities or items.

The concept is simple enough, players who put the time in and complete sections of the game are rewarded. The best players are privy to best items and power-ups within games, making latter sections simpler or more fun. Serving as an incentive for a player to complete or even revisit a particular section.

Greed is a common enemy in today’s competitive gaming market, producing poor structure. Whilst it can be an enjoyable experience, a reward structure can also serve to hinder a game. So what consists of good or bad structure? And is it a good thing for the players or just the developers?

Types of Reward Structure

There are three main kinds of reward structure. The positives and negatives of which are really defined by the individual player. The first of these is level system commonly seen in RPG games and fantasy genres like Skyrim. Player levels determine things like characters health and attack power. Players start at the lowest level and have to improve their stats to take on more powerful opponents.

A common addition to this is the second kind of reward structure in the form of a skill tree. A skill tree allows the players to have some semblance of control over the development of their characters. Players earn points by playing, which can be used to upgrade certain aspects of a character e.g. stealth or combat. A lot of games feature this system with it breaching into more action orientated genres in games like Deus-Ex.

Finally, probably the oldest and simplest of the three involves unlockables. In the past, these have been hidden behind cheat codes but today they are part and parcel to many games. Players play to unlock new outfits, weapons or playable characters for their favorite games.

What a Good Reward Structure Is

When done well it’s a great way to add replayability to a game and enhance the experience. This depends predominantly on the quality of the reward and how accessible it is to all players. Most rewards that require stringent criteria will be un-achievable for less skilled players so developers have to offer something great.

For example, players who 100% completed Red Dead Redemption were rewarded with a Bureau Uniform that made them untouchable to the law. There were hours of fun to be had running around wreaking havoc on NPC’s without police interference.

The latest Hitman game is a great example of good reward structure with the use of unlockables. Any player who completed the hit would be rewarded with new weapons and starting locations. Players who scored higher or followed specific criteria received faster access to any unlockables.

Everything was available to every player though with enough playthroughs. The new weapons provided new ways to complete your hit that players were encouraged to try. And new starting locations meant the player began undercover in a certain part of the level, saving a lot of backtracking.

An in-game store is another reward feature that works very well in platformers and shooters. Donkey Kong features an ally character named Funky Kong who runs a shop selling power-ups. Games like Bioshock and Borderlands also feature kiosks and stores where players can purchase upgrades.

Having a player earn in-game money to spend is a great way to put the power into the player’s hands. In game stores allow players to choose their own reward. Different stores can stock different items allowing more powerful options to be hidden later in the game.

When Reward Structures Go Bad

When reward structure goes bad it can be a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. This occurs when rewards are either too expensive or progression occurs too slowly and stunts the player progress. Many games also offer additional purchases to speed up progression so these slow features can be all too deliberate.

Freemium games in particular often aim to make it very difficult to progress naturally, encouraging a player to spend money. Some games even feature sections that require a particular power-up or unlockable to advance. This item will then be intentionally difficult to ascertain, meaning players either need to be talented or pay to continue.

Loot crates are very popular in games these days and consist of a random assortment of items. Players often find themselves receiving doubles of items or useless items they don’t need. This creates an illusion of reward without actually giving the player anything useful.

Unlockable items that are only available in online multiplayer can be great for the receiving player. But these only serve to increase the difficulty curve and accessibility to new players. This can make online servers a daunting place for newcomers. If a player has the most powerful Jason in Friday 13th, he’ll be on new players whilst they are still trying to figure out the controls.

Fortnite also features a poor example of a skill tree progression. There are four playable classes within Fortnite each with their own abilities. At the beginning, a player only has access to one class and has to unlock the others.

You’ll find yourself quite far into the game and already adept with one class before you can even play as the last one. In a game that offers so many other progression options, reducing classes is blatantly unnecessary.

Good or Bad?

In truth, it’s a system that’s far too easy to be exploited by greedy developers. The extra funds gained from gold editions or expansion packs often outweighs the player’s experience.

Whilst it always feels great to have a token that you are doing something well, it shouldn’t inhibit gameplay. Any reward system that blocks off routes, characters or progression only really benefits developers. If you’re already paying £60 for a game you expect to have access to all of its features. Players already have Achievements and Trophies to show their mark of progress.

It is a feature that’s here to stay though and be utilized to add replayability without overwhelming a player. Here’s hoping there are many more Hitmans and not so many Fortnites.