Acquisition as Reward in Open-World Videogames

In a rather eloquent speech given by in March of this year, Patrick Liszkiewicz attempted to analyse why so many people (26 million daily at the time) played Farmville. Unlike the SimCity’s of this world, Farmville does not reward players with greater services with which to manage their creations, nore does it give the player more challenging scenarios to unlock, nor does it increase the ‘difficulty’ (if it can so be called) of the gameplay itself. As Liszkiewicz notes, the end result isn’t even aesthetically pleasing. So, he muses, why do so many people play Farmville?

Witness the joy of a banal life! In your spare time!

His conclusion: because so many other people are playing it.

Ignoring the logical flaw in that argument, it’s important to note that Farmville, devoid of the social network from whence it came, would be a passing flash game earning little to no kudos as it quickly became buried by me-too Sim-style clones the browsersphere wide. The simple act of having acquired a certain amount of crops, machinery and other peripheral nonsense is bolstered so severely by the social factor that pride can carry the game the rest of the way, from total obscurity into tens of millions of ‘players’ per day.

Worthwhile in a single player game?

This design cannot carry over into full or moderately priced games, neither boxed nor downloadable. Typical games (non-Facebook ones) must come fully featured with many bonuses, challenges, upgrades, play styles and functions to satisfy the savvy and demanding customers who indulge in them. In the single player world, games must deliver satisfaction which (it must be presumed) will never be bandied about by show-offs eager to display their Tropico 3 prowess to friends. These single player games must offer incentives for continued and repeat play beyond the ‘everyone else is doing it’ notion.

How then do different offline videogames meet the challenge? Certainly, some genres rely little on acquisition as reward, and accordingly pay it little mind.

Notice the things missing from Farmville: variety, complexity, challenge etc.

The narrative-driven action game relies on its players pushing through it for the thrills, the story (when a videogame story is actually half-decent) and more often than not, for sheer progress. After all, one level will, with very few exceptions (except perhaps Halo: Combat Evolved), be entirely different from the last. Reason enough to push on.

The role playing game deals very heavily with acquisition, players permitting such titles to force them to endure the same pseudo-action sequences more times over than *any* other genre without tiring. An arbitrary increase in the number of hit points the enemies possess being marshalled carefully alongside the damage points dealt by the players’ latest weapons actually ends up being enough to keep players interested.

The open-world adventure game is probably the most fledgling genre in terms of acquisition. Most games which fit this mould have some token method of giving the player a sense of achievement for exploring their vast and open landscapes. Since they cannot rely on a new level every few minutes (most offering three ‘areas’), the rewards must be stronger. To give a few examples:

Flag hunting: only PART of a well-balanced side-quest diet.

Assassin’s Creed: This game made the horrific mistake of lacking variety in its execution (literally). It then gave the player a series of towers to scale and flags to find (for some reason), but these were simply adding numbers to a stat (unforgivable outside of role playing games). Ever since Grand Theft Auto 2, the series has known that such arbitrary notions of acquisition such as collectibles strewn throughout a game world can only be used as filler, and should never be relied upon to prop up the entire ‘side-quest’ portion of an open-world experience. Crackdown managed what Assassin’s Creed attempted, but pulled it off. They offered similar simple icons to collect, but had them relate directly to upgrades for the player, and since there was actual skill involved in the acrobatics of the game world, trying to reach those teasing few orbs the developers had dropped in hard-to-reach places was a genuinely enjoyable challenge in itself.

That moment when you've finally saved enough dosh for your next business venture in Vice City: priceless! (Except for the price tag)

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: What many have deemed the pinnacle of the series was also the game which had the most unique task/reward system. The purchase of a new property was a proud moment in the virtual life of any Vice City player. When you first buy yourself the cab company, pointless though it may seem next to the grandiosity of the Malibu or the sheer criminality of the printing press, you are left positively beaming with excitement. Why? The tiny interiors? The depleted bank account? No, the game attached several pseudo-missions to each purchasable building which had their own pacing and crescendo, leading to that building having been ‘completed’ and starting to earn the player cash. The purchase signified a genuinely new challenge emerging, each and every time.

Ironic that Vice City Stories should lack narrative-based acquisition, given the title.

This method was beloved by fans. Rockstar North tried again in the Vice City PSP redux some years later. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, the player had a much more hands-on approach to empire building, in a mode North decided to call ’empire building’. They had exchanged the quasi-narrative-focused build up of each business in favour of generic ‘your business is under attack’ or ‘do a drug run for your business’ errands. The finite nature of these missions in the original Vice City, however, was their silver bullet. There was an end to the mini-episode where you had not only produced the requisite cash to purchase the building, but you felt personally attached to it because you’d been through a lot to make the darn thing profitable. There ended up being little in Vice City Stories to differentiate the businesses from one another, so by the time the player had seen what was on offer, they were already raking in enough cash to leave the side missions be. The business acquisitions therefore ended up being quite similar to the gang territory snatching of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Meeting yet another repetitive asshole. To make this area playable.

inFamous: In what almost appeared as a rushed out hack of a side-quest routine, Sucker Punch’s inFamous gave the player a handful of mission types (which each increased in difficulty), which repeated endlessly until the game’s end. Narrative for each was isolated and hamstrung at best. But Sucker Punch realised the weakness of their off-story game, and pulled the oldest trick in the book: vital rewards. Who needs cash in Vice City Stories by the time you’re a third of the way through the game? No one, really. But who needs areas of the notoriously hostile Empire City from inFamous to just give them a freaking break once in a while? Everyone. Just knowing that you have the freedom to skate around the city’s┬átrain tracks and power lines without getting dropped like a stone by dusters and reapers was so valuable an incentive as to make the grind worthwhile. Of course, if the side missions were more varied and unique to begin with, the rewards needn’t have been so necessary for progression or enjoyment to begin with.

These guys mess your whole game up once you've earned that privilege.

Interestingly, Grand Theft Auto III failed to detect this paradigm, making gangs *start* to attack you as a ‘reward’ for having completed each one’s narrative portion of the game.

What the above few examples all have in common is that unlike traditional 90s open world games, which were predominantly RPGs, action games cannot easily lend their reward systems to stats. A more powerful version of the same machine gun doesn’t cut it – an action game requires a completely new gun with new damage effects; something hitherto unseen with which to wreak havoc on the virtual citizens nearby. This has always limited the genre in terms of tangible rewards considering the development costs of each new useful weapon or item. Developers of such games must take as much care as possible to make the player feel like they’ve earned their upgrades, and that they have a real-world effect.

Key lessons according to Leigh:

  • If you’re going to reward a player with cash, have that cash mean something (see 2006’s Bully).
  • If you’re going to put a player through a repetitive grind (of any kind), the reward has to proportionally increase to match the frustration of familiarity. People will tolerate frustration in this manner if the light at the end of the tunnel is bright enough.
  • Masking the construction of an empire as player-controlled when there are no real choices as to how the empire ends up looking does not work (both Assassin’s Creed II and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories are guilty parties here).
  • Imbuing simple gameplay instances with just a little uniqueness from narrative can be enough to keep us interested. (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, we salute you!)
  • When all else fails, make it hair-pullingly difficult to progress if you don’t complete the grind. For some reason, it worked. (inFamous just barely got away with it this time but a wag of my finger is armed and ready.)

Leigh H

Demanding a proper incentive strucutre in his open world games since 1998!

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