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Skill, Luck, Wonder, Puzzle, Story -- What Neurochemical Rewards Attract What Audience?

Does homo ludens require skill based game achievements? What market do we capture or lose with skill, luck, puzzles, gifting, stories, false/illusory choices,... in games? Should we describe these as achievements or neurochemical rewards?

The folks over at the Dubit Platform flash game platform site posted a blog distinguishing between skill based achievements (e.g. Halo) and what they called false achievements (e.g. Zynga's Treasure Isle dig-until-you-score treasure hunting game).

Their basic point (and it's a good article, I encourage you to click through) is that there are two kinds of achievements, skill and false.  In analyzing casual games, I have to say that this is too simple.  There are at least five kinds we can usefully distinguish.

Although these mechanics are traditionally called achievements, I question if we shouldn't categorize them more as psychological/neurochemical rewards.

Got Skillz?:

I think we can all agree with Dubit's point that a game like Halo is skill based.  You have to get better at the game mechanics to have a hope of competing.  This is a strong psychological reward to the competitive player.  Whether the skill set has any *relevance* to real life is a separate question.

There is no question that mastering a skill gives a reward, psychologically, neurologically.  There is no question that pwning an opponent gives a lot of people a great psychological reward -- but not all, probably not most people.

There is a strong value judgement in the pre-casual-game industry that this is what a game is.  My advice is not to "get over it," so much as to see your scope as a definition (and limit) of your market.

False (but possibly useful) Achievements:

False achievements, as Dubit's folks define them, are the rest of the set -- any achievement that doesn't involve developing skills.  I'd like to refine that considerably.

For example, a true false achievement could be a RPG scenario where at what seems like a critical point in the story, all dialogue choices lead to the same ending (Dragon Age origin stories come to mind).  It's a false path, morphologically, but can still be engaging and real gameplay.  But not only is there no choice, there is not even any luck involved.  Note, that doesn't invalidate the quality of the storytelling experience.


That sort of false achievement is very different from a luck-based achievement, which means that I roll a die and it comes out well (i.e. the loot table favors me). 

Anthropologically and psychologically and culturally, we treat luck-based achievements as a sign of "the favor of the gods," fortuna, something to be celebrated and shared, and if we share our news of good luck, it gives hope to our companions that they may be up next.

Much as this violates the science of statistics, it's basic to most cultures.  And it's *that* aspect of luck-based achievement that games like Zynga's hook into at a very very basic level.  For many people, competition is not the point of play.

Not only is it basic to most cultures -- but it's basic to most cultures because it's wired into our neurochemistry.  Good outcomes can be ascribed to luck, but a learning creature gets a reward for a good outcome, and then analyzes it later to see if it can be reproduced by skill.  To foster this the brain gives a reward to "luck" in the hope of reinforcing a possible good innovation.  Good luck makes you feel terrific, deserved or not.

Thus, slot machines.

Puzzle Solving:

Related to, but not mapping to skill based achievements, is puzzle solving.  Puzzle solving uses skills you already have -- they don't have to be twitch-based.  A great example are the classic Infocom text-based games, or any interactive fiction.  Detective games.  Plot deduction in RPGs.

These appeal to reward circuits in the brain of puzzle-solvers -- and frustration and anger in people who don't enjoy the idiom.

Pure Cooperation:

Many people don't enjoy competition, either because they are by nature cooperative, or lacking in confidence(rightly or wrongly) in their ability to compete successfully.  Or, for some, perhaps their real life is overly-competitive, and a cooperative or luck-based environment is an escape.

Cooperation can also be scoped -- your side vs my side.

Examples of cooperative games are Farmville, and raiding-culture MMOs.


Which brings me to the possible subcategory or (easy/cheap) manifestation, which is purely cooperative/social gifting.  Some people want a game to be *only* an excuse to socialize, without having to have a reason to interact above or beyond the game.  An excuse for contact with friends without an agenda beyond an otherwise essentially meaningless activity.

There is as much of a sense of achievement -- probably for the majority of people -- in feeling that they are doing a cheap kindness for a friend than in pwning them.

Plus, such games only require patience on the part of skilled players, and can include anyone.  Examples are Farmville and playing War (the card game) or Tic-Tac-Toe with your youngest relatives.  In some cases, the only gift involved, really, is your time and attention.

The Hero's Journey and other stories:

Last (and unfortunately, often hardest and least implemented) there is the achievement related to story progression.  What is the difference between an RPG and a novel?  The sense of achievement gained from being the center of a story that is a classic adventure.  Some mechanisms along the way may include combat or puzzle solving, but ultimately, the story is central.  

My previous example of the Dragon Age origin story scenarios illustrates this well.  Regardless of your actions in the origin scenario, you will inevitably end up with the Wardens.  There is no luck involved.  But how you frame your character in the story may be very different by the end of the scenario.  The origins serve as the player's version of the drama coach question: "What's my motivation in this scene?"


A small genre, but worth noting, is the sense of wonder/awe, which I had generally mapped into storytelling until I started my own game design process -- and of course, there are recent games like Flower.  Many games incorporate wonder into the reward system by designing anything from the perfect Tolkien landscapes of LOTRO which many find like their own imaginations come to life, or the viscerally creepy (another sort of wonder/awe) environments of Demon's Soul and various horror games.

These aren't achievements, in the strict sense, but serve as strong neurochemical rewards in the same sort of way, so I'll include them here.

What kind of wonder you evoke, of course, will nuance your demographic.


Most games engage in multiple incarnations of all of these kinds of achievements.  

For example, a FPS may appeal primarily to skill centered players, but embrace elements of luck (who does the random map favor?), which will cause celebrations and groans from various parties -- an important part of the game.

A game like Dragon Age may nuance parts of their skill game (stop-action in combat, and ever try playing on easy mode?) for people who prefer story to combat, while facilitating the highly channelled story line with a series of false or non-critical choices (origin story, which scenario comes next,...).

A casual social game can involve only gifting and patience (Farmville) or luck (Treasure Isle).

A puzzle game will attract some and alienate others (personally, I love killing time on the subway with Bejeweled, but I don't play it on timed mode to relax -- adding time pressure to performance is a whole 'nother blog article).

We think of these things as aspects of game design, but how many of us think of them, up front, as marketing demographics?  How many of us can empathize, across games styles, to create a game for a demographic not our own -- and have it come off as respectful to those players?

Again, the Dragon Age example.  One of the greatest complaints on the Dragon Age forums early on was that the game was too linear.  Almost always, these complaints came from gamers, when asked further, who thought there was a "right answer" to all the dialogues.  Although Dragon Age is a channeled map, as it were, the reactions of the world around you and your companions change in reaction to the character you create -- but for a gamer who isn't into character development and plays him/herself in every game, there is no replay value.

On the other hand, for a player (such as myself) who values replay (can you say "altitis?"  I thought you could), the false achievement path of the origin stories seemed like a cheap trick, and something I had to forgive Bioware for.

Who you attract with various styles of achievements, and who you alienate by the same token, mean that there is no perfect game that will attract every player.  But consciously analyzing these rewards and their associated demographics will give you a better idea of whom to test your game against, and what your ultimate market reach may be.

This is a brainstorm -- I may have missed some segments of neurochemical reward/achievement styles.  Give me your ideas?

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