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Video Game Rewards: Given vs. Earned

August has become a painfully slow month for fans of videos games, but we have a way of enduring while waiting for the next influx of video game new releases: we look back.

Sometimes, it’s about playing catch-up with the backlog of games that you missed out throughout the year. Sometimes, it’s about heading back to old favorites and re-running them to remind yourself that your favorites of yester-year can be more than just rose-tinted nostalgia. Some of them actually can stand the test of time.

For me personally, though, it serves as an opportunity to try something different.

While the majority of the year is a flood of “Triple A” console release titles, droughts like August give me a chance to try something “completely different.” This year, that meant checking out a few MMO titles that I’ve been putting off because I couldn’t commit to anything that time consuming.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that this weekend I spent about 50 hours (over the course of three days) playing a beta of what could be the “next big thing” in MMO gaming: ArcheAge.

For those not familiar, let me try and Cole’s Notes the sales pitch for you:

ArcheAge is an open-world sand-box style MMORPG that focuses on giving the player unprecedented levels of freedom.

But that’s not what I want to talk about (though I could go on for days about the interesting things ArcheAge is bringing to the genre, and may in fact do so at a later date). I bring up the deviation down a different path of gaming, and ArcheAge in specific, because it brought up an interesting thought for me this weekend: rewards in video games, and how few have us actually work for them these days.

You see, at the end of the beta weekend my main character had reached level 28 and, reading online, it seemed like that was about the time I could afford to get my first boat. So, I headed out to the island where boat plans are purchased, eager to set sail on my first water mount, and quickly found out that there was NO WAY IN HELL that I was getting to play with that boat before the beta closed down on Monday.

ArcheAge has you build your boat instead of outright buying one. Okay, seems simple enough. “What, so I just gather some materials, build me a ship, and get to sailing and pirating, yeah?”

Nope. Building a boat requires two parts: the building of a dry dock and then the actual parts to craft the boat itself.

A dry dock requires 10 lumber and 10 iron. Easy enough, right?

Well, not exactly… because you can’t just get lumber anywhere. Not every tree can be chopped down. In fact, only grown trees (planted by players) can be harvested for lumber, and those trees can take several DAYS to grow to a size where they can be harvested for lumber.

Not only that, but one tree (on average) produces about 14-16 lumber (depending on the type, and how long it matured).

And now I hear you thinking “Well, one day out, that’s not so bad, right?”

Wrong. That’s just for the dry dock. The place where you can start building your boat. You still don’t have the materials required for the boat itself, materials that include: 100 lumber, 100 iron, 100 fabric.

OH! And I forgot to mention that a basic farm plot (which prevents other people from swooping in and cutting down your trees, you know, in case you’re not going to sit and watch them grow for the next two days straight) is generally big enough to grow about 4 trees at a time. 4 trees, approximately 2 days, netting somewhere around 60 lumber. So, at minimum, you’re looking at four days of just growing trees and harvesting to get your lumber, never mind the time it takes to wander the world and mine for ore, smelt iron, or nurture animals to a state where they can be shorn for their wool to make fabric.

AND I haven’t gone into the materials required to harvest lumber, sheer sheep, or smelt iron. Each of those requires items (though these crafting materials can just be purchased from an appropriate vendor).

But we’re still not done with our boat building, oh no!

Because once you have all the raw materials, they must be crafted into what are known as “trade packs” – basically, a mass bundle of the raw materials that is now in back-pack form and can be walked (at a reduced speed) from location to location for trading purposes (the core of the games economic system) – which is why you better have built that dry dock somewhere close to a smelting station, fabric loom, AND lumber mill.

Whew, that’s a lot of work!

BUT GUESS WHAT!? We’re not done yet.

Because after all that you still need to manage your time and “Labour Points,” which is a system in the game that restricts how much physical work your character can do in the game. Basically, every action (mining ore, smelting, crafting, etc.) has a point total that it costs, and you have a maximum amount of points that you can use at a time (around 2000 points per character) which you can earn at a rate of 5 points every 5 minutes AS LONG AS YOUR CHARACTER REMAINS ONLINE.

That’s right, logging out invalidates you earning these Labour Points, which will be used in every single part of the process, and then a massive amount of them on top to actually craft the boat itself when everything is said and done.

WHEW! We’re finally there guys, I’ve described ship-building in ArcheAge. Exhausted? I know I am just talking about it, and you know what? It’s not even the most in-depth system for earning an item or a skill in an MMO that I’ve ever seen.

Anyone remember when Star Wars Galaxies came out originally, how hard it was to become a Jedi?

Re-reading all of that myself, it might sound like I’m upset by this mechanic, frustrated even, that I wasn’t able to get my boat.

 

So I want to be clear: this process gives me a big ol’ nerd-boner.

Why?

Going back and playing MMOs during this drought in the “Triple A” console release schedule has reminded me of something super important about video games that we’ve lost: rewards.

Sure, it might seem like we’re in a more reward-driven gaming utopia than ever before thanks to achievements and trophies, but the fact of the matter is that none of those feel like they’re real successes to me anymore.

When I discovered how in-depth the system for crafting a goddamned boat in ArcheAge was, I didn’t get upset. I didn’t think “fuck this, too long,” I thought about how excited I was about the prospect of owning something (in game) that took that much work and dedication.

Compared to even other games in the genre (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft (which I played for MANY years, and still check back in with on occasion), it’s a lot more rewarding to have worked so hard for so long to own something entirely your own and built by you.

I remember saving up for mounts in World of Warcraft, but that wasn’t any more involved than just running out and doing quests you were already working on and saving money along the way. Eventually, you could build your own mounts with the Engineering skill, but it still wasn’t anything nearly as involved as the system that I’ve (hopefully) hammered home to you guys in ArcheAge.

This, in turn, sparked a conversation with some of my friends about rewards in games in general, and how we’ve all kind grown both soft and entitled.

Back in the day, I spent days in Myst figuring out puzzles on my own, because the internet wasn’t really a thing back then. The reward for beating one of those puzzles could be something as simple as a shitty FMV, but it felt GOOD. It was earned, and you felt really good about watching that cut-scene because it was EARNED. ArcheAge is bringing back that feeling for me, and I guess the question I have for readers and game devs alike is: why don’t more games do this?

Plenty of games are eating hundreds of hours of our lives, but our experiences aren’t our own; they don’t have the unique reward of having some THING that you’ve accomplished at the end of your play-time that was YOURS.

I played about 120 hours of Skyrim on a single character, but I can’t really say anything about that character is uniquely MINE.

ArcheAge challenges players to work towards a goal and gives them a suitable reward. After all that time gathering materials, crafting the components, and then putting them together into the final product, you can then embark on the high seas and craft a whole new adventure (as a trader, pirate, or explorer).

So let’s bring back the ridiculously high bars, shall we? Let’s see video game companies make video games (and their completion) a point of pride, like when we used to brag about beating Battletoads or Myst.

Or is that thinking old-school and out-dated? Is this where someone tells the old man to sit down and shut up because he’s lost touch with modern gaming?

I MUST KNOW!

(Share your opinion with me?)

8 Responses to Video Game Rewards: Given vs. Earned

  1. I think there is already a way to balance difficulty and approachability and it’s been around for like, ever. Post game content with a high difficulty curve.

    I won’t bemoan a contemporary game for allowing the average player to make it through the bulk of the main campaign without too much frustration. But what I want in just about every title I play is a rich post-game that pushes every skill you’ve acquired to the nth degree or straight up subverts established mechanics. Forcing a high level play or a completely different approach is one of the most exciting prospects I can think of if I’ve just enjoyed a game’s core experience. A sign of good design and mechanics is when the reward for completing a main story is the chance to play more of the game.

    One example off the top of my head is the Battle Frontier in the Pokemon games. Anyone can get through the Elite Four given enough time and Full Restores, but the Battle Frontier is where you really earn your Pokemon Trainer cred. It requires a deep understanding of every mechanic available to you and you’re only reward outside of a few new items is satisfaction.

    Megaman Battle Network and the subsequent Starforce games follow this same philosophy but also reward you by drip-feeding you tiny bits of story elements that expand on the main game while alluding to events of the imminent sequels. Tying together a mechanically difficult quest with a narrative payoff long after the credits rolled and most people have retired the game to a shelf or the trade-in pile can be one of the most exciting moments for someone invested in a title. All of a sudden you’re privy to information that, while not crucial to enjoying the main game, a small percentage of people will get to see.

    On the platformer front, Igarashi’s Castlevanias are bursting with post game challenges, often giving you different characters in the new game+ with wildly different styles of play or forcing a lvl 1 run of the game. Even New Super Mario Bros. follows the Super Mario World tradition of the Star World and it’s difficult novelty stages.

    So essentially, let’s maintain a relatively low barrier of entry, let’s get get people playing these games and let’s make them feel like they’re getting a fulfilling experience. Then let’s give the people who want to bust their balls getting the vacation house in Harvest Moon or the alternate title screen in Mario Kart or the Ultima Weapon in Final Fantasy CXXVII the chance to bust their balls.

    I won’t even touch the topic of difficulty vs time-wasting in RPGs though… I’ma write a dissertation on that shit.

    • Casey White says:

      Thanks for the reply. Actually, that’s a fantastic way of looking at things that I hadn’t thought about (specifically the idea of the game itself being a low hurdle, and end-game content being something to strive for).

      It kind of makes me think back to things like Metal Gear Solid, or your own example of the alternate title screen in Mario Kart.

      There were plenty of games that offered that small reward outside of the staple of completion of the game’s story itself… and maybe I should of focused a little more on titles like those that did it right.

      I would absolutely love to see more games take a page from that playbook and give me some kind of reward, gimmicky, aesthetic, whatever. Just something that is uniquely mine for having completed some series of additional work.

      Like I said, ArcheAge is kind of the benchmark now for me in modern gaming, because not only do you have something that is entirely yours (a boat you built, and is only yours, and that you can customize to make stand out from anyone else in the game that spent those hours doing the boat-building as well) but it splits the game into a whole new world (sea-faring adventures and ship-to-ship combat).

      I guess at the end of the day, my rant comes down to two key points, and a sub-plot:

      1) Showcasing games that have done rewards properly.
      2) Setting the bar higher for future game development, based on what I have seen so far and appreciate.

      A) I just love talking about nostalgia in video games, and it’s a blast to hear people (like yourself and Kerry) share stories about their own accomplishments in games that we’ve all loved and spent, arguably, way too much time in).

      Thanks again! 😀

  2. Kerry says:

    Now, I haven’t played Skyrim. But, what I can tell you about Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Oblivion are my characters journeys and ways of life. The characters themselves? Yeah, I never saw them nor paid them no mind.

    I find that rhythm games are good for that feeling of reward and accomplishment. You’re the one who beat the tough songs on Expert. You are the one who can do it again. You’re the one who will probably excel in the next game and can be the life of the party … however many years ago when Rock band was cool.

    …maybe you just need to turn up the difficulty, eh?

    • Casey White says:

      What I was trying to get at, and maybe didn’t state clearly enough, was that games don’t offer appropriate rewards or goals to strive towards. ArcheAge gives you your own ship, that you built yourself. You see the direct correlation between your hard work/time input into the game as a thing you then own. It’s a little more compelling to me to spend that time in-game than to just get an achievement (even though I did, admittedly, go through an achievement whore phase).

      It’s not that games aren’t difficult (though I do feel a vast majority are being dumbed-down for the masses).

      There are plenty of games that are hard, some harder than the others that I mentioned (Battletoads in example). Like “I Want To Be the Guy”. But what I’m saying is there isn’t that feeling of accomplishment that there used to be. — We still brag to this day about how far we made it through those old NES classics, but how often do you talk about beating a game these days, even on its highest difficulty?

  3. idlemotion says:

    Earned rewards in games do exist, it’s called the leaderboard.

    I think there’s a difference between someone rising their way up through star craft ranked matches against other hungry players to become top tier that constantly has to defend their title than using real world time as in-game ammunition in a war of attition against trees and sheep. :p

    • Casey White says:

      And theoretically you could be a MLG gamer, or in LoL eSports… Those are physical/real-world rewards that we’re talking about at that point, and that goes well beyond the development of the game (though I guess you could argue that they have to develop an iron-clad platform for a game to be truly competitive/tournament-worthy).

      What I was (trying) to talk about was less about the external rewards that the fans put on the games themselves (creations of leagues and such) and what games offer to players of the game directly: In specific, an MMO offering a personalized ship as opposed to the achievement/trophy trend from a couple of years back (yes it’s still around, but no one seems to go out of their way for them as much anymore).

      Or are you just fanboying and wanted to talk Starcraft? ‘Cause that’s fine too. 😀

  4. thatoreoguy says:

    Diablo 2! omg I played the hell out of that game and was so ampt because of the announcement of Diablo 3. To which I was so disappointed. They managed to change the end game and all of the fun and make it so individual. Whats the point of an mmporg the plays like a co-op game and no trade rooms! no pvp ! well not the same pvp.

    sighhhh

    • Casey White says:

      I know a LOT of people that were upset about the “end game” of Diablo III, which admittedly I didn’t think was that much of an issue, and I acknowledge that they’ve definitely come a long way since the game originally launched… I guess that’s another topic though, the idea that games used to ship as an entire package that would be something you could play all the way through over and over, and was all right there from the jump… versus the modern gaming trend of “launch the game now and we’ll fix it later”

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