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Tangible and expected rewards loosely linked to performance were, among other kinds of extrinsic gratifications, found to decrease intrinsic motivation. Interestingly, these are exactly the types of rewards that games like to be especially generous with.

Fabian Fischer, Blogger

February 18, 2020

6 Min Read

Minion Masters is a fantastic game. But coming back to it after a few months or sometimes even just a few weeks is quite the challenge for me. Not because I forgot how to play or something, but simply because it won’t even let me play in the first place.

As you can see in the above video, I am basically drowned in rewards for minutes. Some gold here, a few crystals there, and a ruby shower cause why not. What I like about the game however is… well, the game. The tight 1-on-1 matches with their high density of interesting decisions. The core gameplay.

But after this arduous journey to the main menu, I feel paralyzed. Not only did I just have to click away dozens of more or less meaningless rewards, but when I finally arrive, I’m hit by even more meta-game. There are “gifts of the month”, a “tri-team” tournament, fresh offers in the shop, daily quests, a new battle pass, limited-time expeditions, special modes with one-time rewards, please help ! At this point I often prefer ALT+F4 over actually hitting “play”.

Motivation in Danger

Now this may be an extreme example. Nevertheless, it exemplifies the standard meta-game of a modern free-to-play game. Just try and pull every imaginable psychological lever. One of them is bound to work.

The problem with this: If I actually enjoy the game in and of itself (i.e. I am intrinsically motivated to play, improve and continue playing), the excessive use of extrinsic motivators can actually hurt that motivation. The so-called overjustification effect decreases intrinsic motivation after the activity has been linked to extrinsic rewards.

Artifact's "Weekly Bonus" system.

I observed this effect on myself time and again in the past, especially with games that I really like. For example, Auto Chess: Origin also features a Minion-Masters-like cascade of all sorts of fatiguing daily bonuses, boosts, offers and other notifications.

Artifact, after offering commendably few rewards initially, introduced a “weekly bonus”, which rewarded players with a high amount of experience points for the first three victories per week. This obviously makes it easy to ask the question: Why continue playing afterwards? Why invest the same effort for less income? Where there was joy and self-interest before, there’s now this latent feeling of wastefulness.

What about science?

There’s not just anecdotal evidence though. As early as 1971, Edward L. Deci conducted a study that found monetary rewards to suppress intrinsic motivation. Further experiments supported this thesis and, together with Richard M. Ryan, he subsequently developed self-determination theory in the 1980s. However, in 1994 a meta-analysis on the topic by Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce questioned the existence of the effect or at least its relevance.

Edward L. Deci is one of the co-founders of self-determination theory.

In 1999, Deci and Co. responded again with a resounding “Yes!” (which they reaffirmed a couple years later), whereupon Cameron and Pierce called the effect a “myth” in 2001. In their constant skepticism, however, they made some important concessions.

Tangible and expected rewards

After all, there was a consensus about a certain type of reward. Given a high level of self-interest in a task, tangible and expected rewards loosely linked to the participant’s performance decreased intrinsic motivation throughout pretty much all setups.

Overwatch grants players "progress" for all kinds of things.

So, if the reward is something of concrete value (and not e.g. just verbal praise), its existence is known to the participants in advance and there is no strong connection to the demonstrated ability, the overjustification effect is particularly evident. Interestingly, these are the types of rewards that games like to be especially generous with.

It makes sense psychologically. You don’t only want to engage the very best players but everyone, so rewards can’t be tied to a player’s performance too much. Also, they have to be tangible in order to feel valuable and meaningful. A simple “Well done!” is only taken seriously in connection with XP, gold or the likes. Finally, players should also be able to expect rewards, because once the whole “reward culture” has been established, they want to know why they're doing this whole game-playing thing in the first place.

They are everywhere!

Artifacts “Weekly Bonus”? Tangible, expected, only very loosely tied to player performance (since three wins a week say nothing about whether you lost 0 or 30 times in between). Lootboxes in Overwatch? Tangible, expected, loosely tied player performance (since XP progress towards the next box is earned for many things, even after losing a match). Battle pass levels in Fortnite? Same. Loot drops in World of Warcraft? Same.

Destiny 2 comes with a battle pass, a variety of currencies and bonuses.

Daily quests? Login bonuses? Seasonal events? On-click resource collection? XP-levels? Grinding of any kind? Almost all of the “best practices” of modern progression design belong into this category and thus endanger the intrinsic motivation of players. Playing for its own sake has become the exception.

What’s even worse, the ubiquity of extrinsic rewards reinforces itself across all games. All those extensive and elaborate reward systems are now part of the general expectation for every new game. And daring to ignore that will easily get you into trouble with your player base - see Artifact.

Gameplay? Whatever!

Now, another observation by Cameron and Pierce almost feels cynical: If there was no high interest in a task to begin with, extrinsic rewards were found to, if anything, have a positive effect on intrinsic motivation. One could argue that some free-to-play games, especially within the constantly growing mobile segment, are designed to exploit this. They present players with gameplay that’s not intrinsically interesting, but offer sophisticated reward structures.

When reward systems take over… (FarmVille 2)

That’s when the gameplay takes a back seat. The act of play itself becomes about something else, such as the illusion of a “fair and just” world where, in contrast to real-world experiences, the work you put in and what you earn fit together. Experiments, exploration, cooperation, creative problem-solving, active learning and human interaction give way to a spectacle that is no less manipulative than it is grotesque.

A Call for Introspection

As long as players expect and even actively demand these reward systems, developers will have a hard time breaking away. Especially if you’re making a multiplayer game, it seems almost impossible to exist long-term without going free-to-play and offering myriads of levels, unlocks etc.

So here’s a suggestion: Question yourself regularly! Why do you play what you’re playing, honestly? Is it interesting in and of itself? Or is it just a hunt for the next reward? And if that’s the case, do you want to be like this and do you want to support a culture where games are like that? I don’t.

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