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Player pleasure: exciting rewards

The reward mechanism of the game is a very important part of game design. However, too few rewards will bring frustration to players, and too many rewards will destroy the balance of the game or the economic system

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

May 28, 2021

15 Min Read

In games, rewards are an important source of refreshment for players. For example, when playing Super Mario, eating a mushroom will add one more life. Accompanied by the familiar "ding" sound, a "+1" symbol floats up, and the feelings are immediately satisfied. This kind of refreshment is that the game will give you certain rewards, and sometimes you know that you will get the rewards, but you are not sure what they are. For example, when you draw a card in "Onmyoji" and finally "SSR" appears after many drawings, the joyful mood is a kind of uncertain refreshment.

                                                                      Onmyoji SSR

This certainty and the indefinite refreshment together constitute the emotional curve of the player's experience map, so the reward mechanism of the game is a very important part of game design. However, too few rewards will bring frustration to players, and too many rewards will destroy the balance of the game or the economic system. How much is appropriate? How to design game rewards? What kind of reward can bring greater satisfaction to players?

01 Types of reward

In psychology, rewards are divided into "external rewards" and "internal rewards" according to their performance.

The external rewards are quite intuitive, including the currencies, items, manuals, etc. It also includes game consumable resources, such as gold coins, experience required for upgrading, materials required for strengthening or construction, etc. Also, there are items that increase player attributes, such as Onmyoji’s soul, other various items of the game, as well as pure visual animation and sound effects, such as the victory voice and close-ups of fighting games, or the animations of elimination in match-three games.

                                                          Coin rewards in UNO 

Internal rewards are more abstract, and more similar to the player's subjective experience, such as sense of value, social satisfaction, etc., which are derived from inner feelings. For example, in Animal Crossing, rewards for personalized design behaviors use more internal rewards: in-game social (inviting friends to play), sharing the designed QR code in the game’s external social channels, and the verbal praise of the islanders NPC in the game (Even if other players wear the clothes you designed to chat with the islanders, these islanders will praise you) and so on.

                                                 Special costume shared by a player in Animal Crossing

02 Why do rewards bring pleasure in game?

Let’s think about such a question: why do players open Animal Crossing to water the flowers diligently every day, but in real life, they always forget to take care of the green plants at home? Because watering the flowers in the game, the player can see the effect immediately: my flowers immediately become shiny, and there is a certain probability that the precious hybrid heterochromatic flower varieties will grow the next day. This is the reward in the game for the player, immediate positive feedback. But in real life, the vegetables planted several days ago have not yet been harvested. It is the feeling that every bit of effort in the game is immediately rewarded, which gives the player enough refreshment. Even knowing that this "+1" or sparkling effect is just a virtual reward, the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of getting more "+1" are real. Because it reminds you that you have the ability to improve yourself at any time, thereby it helps you accumulate a sense of self-efficacy.

                                                       Watering in Animal Crossing

In addition to the short-term satisfaction that may arise every time you get a reward, the reward setting also serves the game process, making the player's upgrade smoother and bringing the player a sense of refreshment. Especially when the reward setting is just right for the player at the time when the needs of the players are connected, it can even drive gratitude from the player (meet the player’s expectation of the reward, or exceed player’s expectations, rather than just providing dispensable resources).


Certainly, in addition to the level of practicality, rewards that seem to have a limited supply, which has been mentioned by many players in the game scene, can also raise this satisfaction to a higher level (such as the rare shikigami SSR in "Onmyoji").

03 Behavioral Psychology behind Reward Design

When it comes to rewarding design in games, it is inevitable to mention the behaviorist psychology behind it, especially the Skinner Box theory.

Skinner (B.F. Skinner, 1904-1990) was an American behaviorist psychologist, a representative of the new behaviorism, and the founder of operant conditioning theory. According to his operant conditioning theory, users can establish the relationship between "Stimulus" and "Reaction", and adjust their behavior based on the cognition of this relationship.

In fact, there are many rules that are widely used in-game mechanic design that can be found in just four of Skinner's experiments:

1. Behavior and rewards

Experiment 1: Put a very hungry lab mouse into a box with buttons. Each time you press the button, food will be dropped. The result of the experiment was that the mouse learned to press the button spontaneously.

This experiment is a step further on the basis of the Paplov experiment "rattle bells for dogs", and builds behavior through learning. Learning refers to the establishment of a dependent relationship between behavior and the needs of the operator. In other words, it makes the actors feel that there is a connection between "behavior" and "reward". As long as the behaviors and rewards are continuously repeated and connected, the operator's behavior pattern can be cultivated.

The most classic application in games: keep leveling up. Set goals with instant reward in games. When a player can get an immediate reward when he performs a certain action, the player's behavior pattern can be gradually cultivated. After the player kills a monster, he gains experience points at once. The upgrade of experience value makes the player stronger, and the player can easily establish contact from this feedback → fight monsters = upgrade = become stronger.

2. Fixed-time rewards

Experiment 2: Put a very hungry lab mouse into the Skinner box, and constantly drop food from the beginning. Gradually, it changes to dropping food by pressing the button every 1 minute. Experimental result: The mouse kept pressing the button at first. After a period of time, the mouse learned to press the button once every minute. When the food dropping stopped, the behavior of the mouse disappeared.

In "World of Warcraft", the world BOSS randomly refreshes in the wild will drop abundant rewards to encourage players to kill the BOSS. Blizzard has set that within a natural week, and after the player has killed a BOSS and picked up the reward, the subsequent kill will no longer drop the reward. This set has avoided the situation that too many players rush to kill the BOSS every time the world refreshes the BOSS.

                                               Getting rewards after defeating BOSS in WoW

3. Probabilistic rewards

Experiment 3: Put a very hungry lab mouse into the Skinner box and press the button many times to drop food. Experimental result: The mouse learned to keep pressing the button. When no more food is dropped, the learning behavior of the mouse disappears very slowly. As the probability decreased, the learning behavior remained unchanged until the mouse pressed the button 40 to 60 times to drop one food item. And the mouse continued to press the button for a long period of time.


This rule is widely used in probabilistic gacha games, such as Onmyoji, Hearthstone, etc. Probabilistic rewards are a routine frequently used in domestic mobile games. It is difficult for the player to intuitively judge when the rare reward will arrive, so a single failure will not give an obvious "punishment" effect and terminate the player's card drawing, so the player's card drawing behavior will continue. Most of the game addiction mechanisms can be traced back to this famous experiment.

4. Superstitious white mice

Experiment 4: Experiment with probabilistic Skinner boxes repeatedly for a long time. In this experiment, the mice developed many unusual behaviors, such as banging against boxes, bowing and dancing in circles. This is because the mice were performing these behaviors just before the food was dropped, so "superstitions" occurred.

Rumors spread in many games, such as "It is easy to get a big prize in the noon gacha", "Onmyoji Gacha SSR symbol skills" or "Bring a backpack full of lucky rabbit feet to get better equipment" and so on. Behind this phenomenon is the player's urgent need to increase the probability of reward. There are two sides to this need: 1. I want an enticing, hard-to-get reward. 2. I need a reward that only I can enjoy, and those other players can admire. Game designers can take advantage of this strong player demand to guide design: for example, the design of certain behaviors of the probabilistic Skinner box gives players new choices—— increase the probability of getting rewards through performing a certain behavior (this is an excellent example of where players would spend money).

04 Game Reward Demand Hierarchy

Rewards should not only be the product of a whim but should be rich in structure and planning. The diagram below shows a reward structure that is tailored to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As can be seen from the figure, each level is the foundation of the upper level, and the upper level is always stronger than the below. If a level is missing, the previous level will no longer exist. Therefore, when designing the reward structure, it is necessary to build it from the bottom up in order to get a stable structure. This is why each level needs to be connected to the other.

                                 Player hierarchy of needs in terms of rewards in-game

1. Reward player experience

The player experience must be improved before any other details can be considered. Excellent gameplay and a sense of immersion should run through the game mechanics, art design and UI (including key player feedback), to keep the player engaged. The "Grand Theft Auto" (GTA) series does a good job in this regard—— in the case of free exploration, there are no goals or rewards in the game (in fact, players will be punished if they lose ammunition or pay for medical expenses). But people still enjoy it because the gameplay itself is fun enough and actually there is inherently rewarding.


2. Core and long-term rewards

Once the player experience is perfected, its core and long-term rewards should be taken into consideration. This includes major plot development, major milestones for opening new content (for example, unlocking a new map in GTA), and acquiring a new game mechanism, such as the mechanism that appears after every boss battle in "Crash Bandicoot 4". Since these are the biggest tangible rewards players get, which will affect their inner experience, the rewards should only appear occasionally to ensure their value while avoiding distracting the player.

                            Unlock new mechanism after defeating BOSS in CrashBandicoot

3. Major and mid-term rewards

This part can be leveling up, completing a mission, getting a lot of XP, and money in-game. These rewards are important to the player in the game, but they are not the rewards that can be saved forever. They are very rewarding in themselves, but it also means that they will eventually be replaced by other items or become redundant.

4. Minor and short-term rewards

These small and frequent rewards by themselves will not bring much pleasure to the player, but they can be integrated into a big reward. Examples of this include collecting a certain item, a small amount of money/XP to defeat an enemy, or completing a section in a certain task. The major reward means a bigger end, and the minor reward means a small end (that is, toward the major/mid-term reward).

5. Decorative rewards

This is the last thing to consider. Decorative rewards can just be used as a visual measure of the player's progress. In some cases, they only have information, such as score data displayed on the screen. On the other hand, visual progress elements such as uncovering the map or filling the progress bar can actively encourage players to do things that they might not have done otherwise. Players may play the game for another 10 minutes when they see that their experience bar is close to the level of upgrade. If they don’t open the map, they will probably not choose to travel across the entire area.

Although we design the reward system from bottom to top, players usually experience this structure from top-down. They will first see decorative elements and secondary rewards, such as getting hands-on a task (which is the original reward they deserve to get), then collecting items and XP, which will lead to a larger reward (obtained by completing the task or leveling up), and finally getting core rewards such as new mechanism or unlocking new levels or chapters.

                                                            Tianyu Mobile Task Reward interface

05 Good rewards and good games

So, what kind of game rewards are regarded as "healthy" rewards? Consider three questions first:

Autonomy: is it the player's decision, not the external influence?

Competency: Are players satisfied because they are competent for a task?

Attribution: Can players get the feelings and attribution from a task?

In the "self-determination theory" of psychology, these three kinds of needs are all born with human and have nothing to do with culture, race, and gender. If completing one thing (playing a game) can satisfy these three points, it will bring the best development and progress to individuals.


A considerable number of games have the feature of "autonomy", emphasizing the control of destiny through the player’s own choice. The director of "Civilization" once said that "games are a combination of a series of interesting decisions", and those similar strategy games are presented just like this. Sandbox games such as Terraria and Minecraft pay more attention to autonomy. You have to summarize methods from exploration and experiment to create what you want. The demand for "competency" is vividly expressed in Sekiro, and players will often feel satisfied when they understand the mechanisms so that they can make better decisions. It is not a tangible reward, and it does not only exist at the moment of defeating the enemy. Dodges from attacks and blocks from swords will make players have the pleasure of being competent gradually.

Although the concept of "Attribution" is rather mysterious, it actually exists in most story-driven works. Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite can make people find their feelings and attributions as a father.

                                                                 Bioshock: Infinite

In contrast, today's mainstream free-to-play games and mobile games rarely meet these three needs. Designs that follow arrows and struggle for predictable rewards obviously lack autonomy. Rewards that have nothing to do with players' abilities can only provide the useless information of "completion or failure", while "rule-driven" games can hardly show a sense of attribution.

Therefore, although Skinner box's principle is very applicable in-game reward design, if game designers rely on its powerful strength and don't think about other methods, it will eventually lead to extreme disaster--there will be no more players in the game world, but only mice. In-game reward design, designers should pay more attention to how to balance fun and value, and whether what they create is a game or just a tool. The most important thing of the game is that it needs to bring fun to players, not behavior control. We should control power, not be corroded by it.

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