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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice

Presenting an excerpt from Eufloria co-creator Rudolf Kremers' 'Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice' -- from escapism to simulation, reward systems and structures.

[Gamasutra is presenting an in-depth excerpt from IGF nominated Dyson/Eufloria co-creator Rudolf Kremers' new book Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice, which was recently released by AK Peters. This extract, just part of the book's seventh chapter, looks at wish fulfilment and escapism occasioned by some of the best video game level designs.]

If somebody holding carrots beats you with a stick it would be very satisfying if you were to wrestle the stick away from your tormentor and make him give you all the carrots.

The previous chapter discusses many of the possible ways in which reward systems and structures can work, and, as importantly, what expectations people have from life.

In this chapter we will examine some of them again, but within the context of level design theory. We will derive or construct some game-specific principles, as well.

I would like to make an important initial point before we do this, however, What has to be clear from the outset is that as authors of a level's content, and therefore of much of the player's game experience, we are completely within our rights to manipulate the player's reward expectations in ways that are unexpected, but that are ultimately more rewarding to the player.

Even though it falls squarely within our responsibilities to do so, this is oft en forgotten, or worse, ignored. As long as we don't violate other important principles of level design, we have the power to give the player the opportunity to finally take away the big stick from the universal tormentor and run away with all the carrots, and feel really good about it.

Escapism and Wish Fulfillment

Level designers are lucky that they work in a medium that has an audience that is already willing and able to submit itself to feelings of escapism and wish fulfillment.

It is perfectly acceptable for a gamer to crave these things; it is even (erroneously) at times expected that a gamer will exclusively crave them. This makes us lucky, because it gives us an audience made up of people who are willing to travel with us and gives us a whole range of techniques that we can use to get them there.

We can do this by taking them somewhere that doesn't exist in this world and then delight them with amazing new sight and sounds. Fantabulate! [1]

Or, we can take them into our interpretation of an enjoyable activity based in real world concepts. Simulate!

Both have many areas where they overlap, as covered in many chapters elsewhere in this book. But they also have important differences that need to be examined. (There is also a third option that will be examined later.)


[1] If this is not a real word, it should be; and I am claiming it now.


Fantabulate!

A level is a virtual construct. It may have its own set of rules, logic, physics system, ecology, and other internal systems, but they all take place in a virtual setting. The disadvantage of this virtuality is that somebody needs to design and implement all of these things. The advantage for level designers is that in this need, or put to put it differently, in this license to do so, lies a huge amount of freedom and power. In game levels with a non-realistic setting, the level designer has the license to fantabulate.

New rules

Within a fantastic virtual construct, we are free to create many things or situations that simply would not work in the real world, all with the approval of our audience. Not only may we invent these new rules; we are positively encouraged to do so.

We have already concluded in Chapter 2, "Teaching Mechanisms," that part of our responsibility lies in teaching the player the rules of the available gameplay activities. In a fantastic setting this is especially important, as the rules may be unknown in real life.

For example, we may have to teach players that summoning a fire elemental is an extremely effective way of deterring packs of ice wolves from attacking[2].)

The real fun lies in the fact that players who enjoy these kinds of things, and there are many, many millions of them, also really enjoy learning about this new world they find themselves in. Within an escapist mindset, experiencing new fantastic concepts is an attraction in its own right.

If we go back to our earlier example of Tolkien, we see a work of fantasy that partly excels because of its sheer scope of invention. The book creates a very deep sense of wonder, partly because it consistently and thoroughly showcases a new world with an extremely detailed and well-thought-out set of rules. This applies to almost anything in the world, including its history, its ecology, and its magic system. Reading about all of these things is a large reason for the success of the book.

Level designers have to do the same thing. They need to interpret the new rules of the world and teach them to players in such a way that it creates a great sense of wonder, as well as teaching them how to play the game.

New environments

Hand in hand with new world rules come new environments; and once again, a great amount of work and a great amount of freedom for the level designer. A great amount of work because within this virtual construct somebody has to do the constructing. This does not mean that the level designer has to create all the environments solely by himself or herself, although at times this is feasible or necessary. In most cases, this work must be done in partnership with the art department.

But the level designer does need to design all the gameplay space, and the way it is used. This gives level designers a great amount of freedom because they are the authors of a new gameplay environment, and to a large degree, of a whole new gameplay world. This is one of the reasons why level design is such an enormously fulfilling profession; it literally gives a designer the power to create worlds.[3]

So far, so good. In fact, this is no different from most other forms of level design.

Where level design featuring themes of escapism and wish fulfillment in a fantastic setting differs from more reality-based design is in some of the intrinsic goals. A big reason for the existence of the levels is to present a gameplay environment and a virtual environment that appeals enough in its own right that the player wishes to engage with it and spend time sampling its content.

This means that it is reasonable to include enjoyable areas that don't feature much gameplay (but aid in escapism), or to go further and assert that exploring these areas is part of the gameplay appropriate to the goals of such a level.

A big mistake that many people in game development make is to assume that all gameplay spaces must feature active challenges and encounters. It is actually important to also include gameplay space that celebrates escapism through the medium of exploration, or other ways that the player can just enjoy the world. These are some of the reasons that so many games feature a fantasy, sci-fi, surreal, or otherwise fantastic setting. For many reasons, these genres are especially suited for this kind of design.

Providing the player with many level design scenarios to achieve these goals is an important way to allow for deep and interesting elements of wish fulfillment and escapism. Level designers should always ask fundamental questions about the scenarios they create. In the case of a fantastic setting, these questions can include:

  • Can I reach that strange but beautiful area?
  • How do I study that new dangerous creature?
  • What else can I use this artifact for?
  • Who built this structure?
  • How do I reach that floating fortress?

These are just a few random examples, but each one shows that interesting level design scenarios are just around the corner. And answering questions like these goes very far in providing the player with what he or she wishes for, and constitutes an effective use of a powerful reward mechanism.


[2] Yes, I picked this cliché on purpose, for illustrative clarity.

[3] If you are interested in level design and that doesn't appeal at a very basic level, you may ask yourself some questions.


Simulate!

A completely different approach to escapism and wish fulfillment is found in simulations, and before we discuss level design theory and simulations, we should actually look at what is meant by the word.

Simulation and imitation

Normally, when we speak of simulation, we are talking about modeling a realworld system or situation in order to learn something new.

This could be for scientific reasons; for example, a simulation and study of hunter predator cycles could be used to warn when a particular species becomes overhunted and may become endangered.

It could also be for financial reasons; a simulation of a particular economic system may predict which factors contribute to inflation. In any of the examples we can find of simulations, it is generally the case that there is a need for accuracy in order to correctly extrapolate from the data that the simulation produces:


[A] simulation results when the equations of the underlying dynamic model are solved. This model is designed to imitate the time-evolution of a real system.[4] (Emphasis mine.)

Most games are not like that at all. (The exceptions will be noted shortly.) Games are all about enjoyment. When we play games, we play them for all kinds of enjoyable reasons: to have fun, to exercise our brains, to have a meaningful artistic experience, and so forth.

Simulation games are no different and exist to provide an enjoyable experience, in most cases by providing players with a chance to engage in a real-life activity they normally would not be able to enjoy. A game can offer a player a chance to be a soccer manager or a train conductor or a theme park operator.

These are great examples of games based upon wish fulfillment as a reward system. If we look closer, we find that they aren't games of simulation at all, but games of illusion and imitation. The game imitates real-world activities only to the degree that their fun aspects are replicated for the enjoyment of the player.

This kind of imitation is, unlike practical simulations, not concerned with accuracy at all, but with the appearance of accuracy. The games would quickly become extremely tedious if they tried to accurately simulate all aspects of the activity in question.

Accuracy only needs to be observed as long as it supports enjoyable gameplay. An actual racing game simulator (SIM) would be far too difficult for most gamers to enjoy. And what is the point of playing a grand prix SIM if the player cannot win? It would be accurate and realistic, but not much fun, especially because it fails at the first hurdle and doesn't provide the wish fulfillment element of the game's reward system.

Strangely, although the use of the word simulation is suspect, I still advise that we adhere to its usage in games. It is simply too confusing to do otherwise, because as a description of genre, it is too widespread to change. It is essential, however, that level designers know what simulation games are really about: enjoyable imitation.

This is not semantic nitpicking, but a fundamentally profound difference that causes much debate and conflict. Almost every level designer, on a regular basis, will have to argue this point against somebody who insists on making gameplay decisions that fail this test of enjoyable imitation, solely based on the argument that the game needs to correctly simulate a real world event.

There are times when simulation and imitation go hand in hand, perhaps when a particular sport's league is implemented, or when the correct dimensions of a vehicle need to be followed. But even in those circumstances, it needs to be clear that these implementations still serve an enjoyable imitation of a real world activity.

This has tremendous impact for the level design of these games. Instead of being at the mercy of real-life rules and physics, the level designer now has the role of illusionist. The tracks in a realistic racing SIM now only have to feel like they are correct; as long as they are fun, the job is well done. The lack of accuracy in a wildlife photography game's terrain means nothing as long as it produces expected results that don't break immersion. It is all smoke and mirrors.

"Serious games"

There are only few exceptions to this rule, mainly in the area of so-called serious games and educational games. They are noteworthy because although they can display many of the characteristics of other video games, they are fundamentally different. There is no formal definition of what exactly constitutes "serious games", but it is fair to say that their main focus is that of teaching some real world application or education.

This can be a commercial focus, for example a driving game for a driving school, or a scientific one, for example a game that lets students identify certain plants as part of a biology lesson.[5]

As already noted in Chapter 2, games are extremely suitable as a teaching tool, since we are already trained at a very young age to engage in gameplay in to learn all kinds of diverse skills. This and the ever-improving technological sophistication of commercial video games have led to a proliferation of serious and educational games that recognize this principle.

For example, see the Serious Games Initiative, which has done much work in this arena:


The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.[6]

Because the defining aspect of these games is that of real-world application, they are always expected to produce tangible results, or they will have failed in their basic function. And this result has to be realistic or accurate at all times, or its real-world application will be ruined.

Because of this, the player has to be able to trust the game to produce teaching material that is trustworthy and cannot just be an imitation or an illusion. A serious game teaching somebody how to fly an airplane in real life has some serious responsibilities in real life to live up to.


[4] Stephan Hartmann, "The World as a Process: Simulations in the Natural and Social Sciences," http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00002412/ , 2005.

[5] Serious games are nearly always educational games.

[6] The Serious Games Initiative," The Serious Games Initiative, www.seriousgames.org/newswire/.


Fantastic Simulation

On rare occasions, a hybrid game form appears that tries to provide fun gameplay through "realistically" simulating an activity in a fantastic setting, or even a fantastic activity in any setting. [7]

This is a strange beast indeed and initially is no easy to quantify, but some clear examples exist. Take for instance Startopia,[8] a game that expects the player to successfully run a spaceship colony, balancing the needs of all the diverse onboard species. Another example can be found in the famous Tamagotchi brand, where the player is expected to take care of a fantastical creature in a realistic manner.

These games still contain the key elements of a rewards system based on escapism and wish fulfillment, but it is up to the level designer to decide where to fantabulate and where to simulate. However, the question can be asked: how can a game simultaneously be both fantastic and realistic?

Staying "in character"

The answer to this question lies in the assumption that a level should stay in character. Like an actor, the game cannot acknowledge the world outside of its own fiction. If this happened, it might not be strange for a player to take slow incremental lessons in hover board control to perfectly learn the nuances needed to enter the Martian Circular Race.[9]

The level designer needs to be aware that although there is room for imitation and illusion, the levels cannot cheat the in-game rules at any time. I will leave this topic for now, before it all becomes too metaphysical, but I would like to advise any level designer working on such a game to treat the fake rules of the game as if they were real.

Some Further Notes on Wish Fulfillment

In most of the examples and cases discussed so far, wish fulfillment has been linked to giving players the freedom to engage in activities they probably can't in real life. This can be to shine in a career as a formula one racing driver or to captain a star ship. The activity itself is the wish being fulfilled.

The principle goes much further, however, sometimes in unexpected ways. The player may be confronted with a fast vehicle, leading to a wish to drive it, or the player may spot a castle on the horizon, leading to a wish to reach it. Many of these kinds of scenarios are actually in the hands of the level designer. In wish fulfillment, we have an immensely powerful tool to entertain the player through our level designs.

In this context, wish fulfillment means adding gameplay scenarios that create a desire and eventually give the player the means to satisfy it.

Avoiding clichés

A well-known criticism of wish fulfillment is that it panders to simplistic desires and that is "too easy," leading to cheap entertainment that doesn't challenge or engage the audience enough. This danger certainly exists, but it is no more a result of wish fulfillment than elevator music is a result of making music accessible.

If used well, wish fulfillment is a powerful technique that can be used to reward gameplay, deepen immersion, and to challenge the player's conception of what a desired outcome is. It is up to the level designer to decide how to implement these principles, and what clichés to avoid. There are no hard and fast rules and what constitutes a cliché can be entirely dependent on the game's genre or expected audience.


[7] Typically a fantastic setting, however.

[8] Mucky Foot Productions, 2001; published by Eidos.

[9] I made that up.

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