The Game Design Canvas: Punishment and Reward System
by Brice Morrison
You have many choices in your everyday life. Wake up and jump out of bed, or hit the snooze button? Eat chicken, beef, or veggies? Do some work, or go out with friends? These choices, these actions that you can take are the different colors you use to paint the landscape of your day, your week, and your life. It is through these choices that you experience and express yourself in the world.
If life were a game, these actions that you can take are examples of the Base Mechanics of life. They are actions that you can perform, that you have the ability to perform, and that you may choose or choose not to perform. They are the inputs into the system from yourself. You can freely choose from all the possible abilities you have and perform them to your liking.
…Or can you? Well, there’s more to it than that. Your actions and free will are not as free as one would think. Yes, you have choices you can make, but there are consequences, there are requirements, and there are strings attached. You may have the ability to go into the middle of a library and shout at the top of your lungs.
You may have the ability to insult your best friend or to rob a convenience store. You may have the ability to sit in your apartment and be depressed instead of going out and enjoying the weekend with friends.
You could do these things, but you probably won’t. Even though you have the ability and the means, there is something else that is guiding your decisions. There is more to this so called “choice” business than you might imagine. It is as though some invisible force outside of yourself is governing your actions.
Free Will? Or Not So Free?
As we discussed in our last introductory article to the game design canvas on Base Mechanics, every game has actions that it lets the player perform. The player can run, shoot, paint, throw, eat, duck, swap polarity, teleport, or what have you. But these actions are not isolated; they have higher systems that govern them. These Punishment and Reward Systems nudge the player towards certain behavior. They give meaning and weight to the Base Mechanics, forcing the player to think about their choices.
Thus, understanding the Punishment and Rewards System section of the Game Design Canvas is a lesson in understanding human behavior. It would appear that humans have an incredible range of actions they can make at any given moment, yet the most common behavior is but a small percentage of all of those actions. The reason for this is, as we said, is that games couple their actions with consequences. In life and in games, people learn from their past experiences and then choose from among their desired consequences to choose their actions. These couplings of action and consequences make up the Punishment and Reward Systems that govern player behavior.
Death by henchmen? I’ll pass.
To begin to understand Punishment and Reward Systems, let’s start simple and work our way up. In Super Mario 64, the player’s Base Mechanics allow them to run and jump through each stage (ignoring punching and power-ups for a moment). It’s up to the player to decide how to use those abilities to navigate the world and collect the stars needed to complete the stage.
However, the player’s actions when controlling Mario are constrained by the game’s P&R Systems. If Mario is touched by an enemy, then he falls to the ground and loses of health. This is a simple example of Punishment, and we can analyze this System to see how it affects player behavior, because the effects are more far-reaching than one would imagine. Once the player understands that smacking into a Goomba will result in damaging Mario, their behavior will change. And that is where it gets interesting.
So Mario is running along, and the player sees a Goomba. Technically, the player does have the choice of running headlong into the Goomba. However, the game’s P&R System has taught them that this is something that should be avoided. Thus, the player steers Mario around the Goomba to avoid him.
Do you see what’s happened here? The game made no changes to the Base Mechanics: they were still just running and jumping. But they way that the player used these Mechanics has been changed. After the player learned what the game was encouraging them to do, the decisions they made were altered.
As players interact with a game and its P&R Systems, they begin to make a mental model in their mind of how the System works, and how they can best navigate it.
Whether or not the developer wants the player to fully understand the system is up to them, but the job of the P&R System is to evoke the desired player behavior. A good design will be able to plot out the player’s desired behavior and then build a P&R System around that to encourage that very behavior.
Planting The Seeds of Strategy
Mario and the Goomba was an obvious example, but sometimes the effects of a P&R system will be more latent. Let’s take for example the popular tower-defense genre.
In these games, the player needs to erect offensive towers to keep the enemy army from reaching the other side of the screen. These towers attack the enemies as they walk by, and the enemies attempt to find the shortest path to their goal.
In these games, the Base Mechanics are:
? Deciding which towers to place (usually weaker vs. stronger but more expensive, etc.)
? Deciding where to place the towers (usually on a 2D plane)
Those are the choices that the player has before them, and they can execute these Mechanics however they like, right?
If you’ve been paying attention, hopefully you’ve learned by now that this is not exactly the case. Technically, yes, the player can place whatever towers wherever they like, but they are likely to lose. The game’s P&R Systems will encourage certain behavior. So in actuality, the player can only use the Mechanics in ways designed by the game.
For example, the player can put a tower in the top right corner, far away from everything else, but the P&R Systems discourage this. The enemies will not be fired upon as much, and they will likely make it to their goal, causing the player to lose. Eventually, the player will learn that the best choice is to place the towers in the middle, ideally in a way that blocks the enemies. Of course the player could continue placing the towers in the corner, losing, and doing it over again, but that gets very boring very quickly.
Again, this is an example of the Punishment and Reward Systems shaping the player’s behavior. The game gives the player certain actions to perform, but hidden within the System is an optimal strategy if the player wants to succeed.
Fundamental Rules of P&R Systems
A good way to think about how P&R Systems affect player behavior is with the following diagram:
The developer decides what actions to give to the player via the Base Mechanics. Then, the developer constructs the P&R System to funnel the player’s possible choices into the desired player behavior.
So how does one go about constructing such an interesting funnel? To answer that, we need to visit one of the great influences to game design: behaviorist psychology. Pioneered by researchers such as B.F. Skinner, behaviorism, specifically operant conditioning, was a way of viewing a subject’s behavior in terms of their actions and the system’s responses.
Sound familiar? Operant conditioning is the foundational field of research that ties in very closely with what we’ve discussed so far in games. Similarly to operant condition in behaviorism, Punishment and Reward Systems in the Game Design Canvas have four main ways to affect a player’s behavior:
1. Positive Reward – Rewarding the player’s behavior by giving them something they want or like.
2. Negative Reward – Rewarding the player by taking away something they didn’t like.
3. Positive Punishment – Punishing the player’s behavior by giving them something they don’t want or like.
4. Negative Punishment – Punishing the player by taking away something the wanted or liked.
By tying Rewards and Punishments to the player’s use of the game’s Base Mechanics, the game developer shapes their use. For example, in Super Mario 64, when the player defeats a koopa troopa enemy, then they player often receive a coin, which is something they want. This is an example of a positive reward. Additionally, the Goomba is now gone, which is an example of a negative reward, since there are less enemies on the level who could harm you.
For the Punishment side of the P&R System, if Mario falls into the lava, then he begins to wail and dash around uncontrollably, trying to put out the flames on his overalls. This running around is an example of positive punishment, giving the player some behavior that they don’t want — they want to be able to guide Mario, not have to steer him wildly! Additionally, the Mario loses some life when he falls in the lava, this is an example of negative punishment, since the player wants to have as many life bars as possible.
Guidelines for Sculpting Player Behavior
As a game grows from a few simple mechanics to dozens or more, and the complexity of the game itself spirals upwards into hours and hours of gameplay, then the Punishment and Reward Systems will begin to get rather complicated. Thus, good to have a clear understanding of the basic strategies for constructing one in order to get desired player behavior.
Once again, everything always begins with the Core Experience portion of the Game Design Canvas. Once you have the Core Experience of your game defined, then you can begin plotting out your mechanics, which leads to your desired player behavior. Think about following these general guidelines:
Making a first guess. A good P&R System is designed indirectly. Most developers prefer to focus on the behavior they want, then they set up the system to evoke that system, not the other way around. Focusing on the system itself can be confusing and lead to dead ends. So plot out how you’d like your player to act, describing it in detail. Then set up Punishment and Reward Systems around that to encourage that behavior. Try to put yourself in the player’s shoes and imagine what you’d do.
Slight changes and tweaking. If the system you’ve designed doesn’t result in the player behavior you want, then you can tweak it. Do you imagine (or see, if you’re prototyping) players always bumping into walls when you wanted them to swing swiftly through the stage? Then create a light punishment for bumping into walls.
Small changes can make big results in terms of player behavior. Also, be sure to watch our video on playtesting to learn how you can alter your game to achieve the desired player behavior.
Timing the feedback. Another important aspect to think about is how long it takes for the P&R feedback to reach the player. The amount of time you decide for this is up to you, but it depends on exactly how you want the player to be learning the systems inherent in your game. In most games like Super Mario, the feedback is instantaneous. ”I fell off a cliff and the game told me I died. Ok, got it. That is bad. Next time, don’t fall off a cliff.”
However, in other games, complexity is added by not giving the P&R feedback immediately. In strategy games like Starcraft, it takes much longer for players to master strategies, because the feedback of a won or lost match may not come until long after the dooming action. A player may build a base in a difficult-to-defend spot 5 minutes into the game, and that choice may lead to the player’s downfall an hour later. However, it’s unlikely that the player will make this immediate connection.
The longer the loop between action and feedback, the more focused time it will take for the player to consciously understand.
Reward them with a Great Game
A good Punishment and Reward System will allow players to feel the satisfaction of mastering your game’s Core Experience. Whether it’s to save the princess for a giant turtle or to defeat the incoming onslaught of alien armies, P&R can act as guideposts to help the player learn what to do. On other hand, slopping P&R Systems make for a game that feels like it’s unpolished and has no real destination. Making the commitment to fine tune the game’s rewards and carrots for the player will result in a smoother experience and a harmony between what the player wants to do and what the game was designed to do.（source:thegameprodigy）