I sit on the couch, watching my husband return to one of his favorite games: Dragon’s Dogma. Sure, it has story problems, but the combat system is really cinematic, and you have two characters to completely customize, not just one. He sees a random pawn wandering around the open road as wolves attack. She’s a sidekick that another player character online created, and together we like to roll our eyes and critique how stupid some of the female pawn armor choices are. She’s not wearing pants. He says, “I can pick her up,” and with the press of a button, his badass female warrior scoops up the hardly-clothed character and throws the pawn over her shoulder. The Arisen, his player character, runs up to an angry wolf and hurls the pawn. The pawn strikes the wolf, and the beast dies. The pawn gets up, completely unscathed. We laugh.
There was no real benefit to throwing an NPC at the wolf. It wasn’t more accurate or deadly than an arrow. It didn’t save any more resources than just stabbing the thing with a sword. He did it because he could, because it was something to try. Because it was fun. Because it was hilarious.
There is no points system or financial payoff when a child stacks blocks. We don’t give them a cookie every time they kick a ball or smear paint on paper. Yet they do it and enjoy it because play is a reward in and of itself. Play is an intrinsic reward. It comes from within. There is satisfaction in acting on the world and seeing the result. Just like a child draws on the walls or pets the kitty the wrong way to see what happens, a gamer acts on their world for the sheer benefit of seeing what happens. Even some penalties are worth it if the action is interesting enough.
This is something to consider when designing games. Often times when I hear criticism of open world games, players jump into the comments section to counter that with, “There’s no reward for ABC. In fact, it’s more efficient to XYZ.” What we need to remember as we criticize games, is that XP and currency are extrinsic rewards. They come from without. And sometimes too many extrinsic rewards can make something that was previously fun start to feel like work. Sometimes throwing a pawn at a wolf is just fun and interesting, even if you don’t gain anything quantifiable from it. If you can do it, and if the penalty for doing it is just a slap on the wrist, the game does encourage you to perform an action simply by allowing it.
Food for Thought
And so, when designing open world games, we need to remember that play is a reward. If we want players to choose a certain path, our game balance and incentives need to take that into account. It needs to be far more appealing to sneak around and do non-lethal takedowns than to just let Dishonored’s Corvo stab everything. It needs to be prohibitively expensive to get arrested by the police in Grand Theft Auto. If we want players to engage in mechanics beyond, “SHOOT HIM IN THE HEAD! SHOOT HIM IN THE HEAD!” we need to make sure that experimenting with those options is not only rewarded with strategic bonuses, but fun.