Penalties Over Rewards

A wonderfully lively discussion has arisen around the “Rewards, Not Penalties” column.  It’s been particularly difficult to remain quiet while knowing that today’s column was coming.

You see, Luther read my last article before I posted it.  Two days later, he sent a rebuttal.  The italicized paragraphs which follow are entirely in his words.  This rebuttal is a testimonial to the nuances of in game design.  The post was written to share his “rewards over penalties” philosophy with the world. Luther stepped in to remind me that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Penalties Over Rewards

I wanted to expand some on the idea of “bonuses are better than penalties.” Reading your writing about it had it back on my mind, and I was reevaluating my thoughts about it. I still agree with the general idea that bonuses are more emotionally pleasing than penalties, but I wanted to think about “okay, when are appropriate times to use penalties?” I came up with three major categories.

1) Clarity

Sometimes it’s way easier to express a mechanic as a penalty than as a bonus. If you have a game where you move slower for each wound you’ve taken, it’s much easier to express that as a penalty than trying to say you get a speed bonus for every wound you haven’t taken. Other times it’s more about frequency; if you need an attack that does less damage to blue monsters, it’s awkward to say “bonus to non-blue monsters”.

2) Using bonuses with penalties

Using a bonus along with a penalty takes a lot of the sting out of the penalty. If your sword is +2 against fire but -2 against water, or your shotgun is minus accuracy but plus damage, that can use penalties to massage a mechanic without just “feeling bad”, because hey, check out that upside right there.

3) Evoking emotion

This is the big one, I think. The major issue with using a penalty instead of a bonus is that it evokes negative emotions instead of positive. If you’re a mighty superhero, you want that player to feel powerful and strong. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to try and evoke a different feeling in the game mechanics. In a gritty zombie survival game, where you’re accruing penalties left and right, it’s going to feel tough. You’re going to feel like it’s harsh. And that’s the way the game wants you to feel.

So yeah. Generally I still feel like if a penalty can be rewritten as a bonus, that bonus should be the default. But there’s certainly appropriate times to use penalties too. They’re all tools in the toolbox, and there’s no shame in being an Allen wrench instead of a screwdriver.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Rewards, Not Penalties

Luther Hendricks has a design philosophy he regularly invokes: rewards, not penalties.

Give players a choice.  Ask them “would you prefer to earn a reward for jumping through a hoop or would you prefer to receive a penalty for doing nothing?” Luther contends that players will choose the reward every time.  He believes that players will generally make this choice even if the structure of the penalty is smaller than the reward.  Luther believes in rewards, not penalties.  People play games to enjoy a sense of success. Avoiding failure is dreary. They want accomplishments. They want the sense of harvesting the fruits of their labors.  They want rewards, not penalties.

And he’s right.

The analytical side of my brain is often numb to this point.  As far as the mathematics is concerned, these two options are the same:

(a) This 6 die attack loses 3 dice when the range is greater than 1.

(b) This 3 die attack gains 3 dice at range 1.

Luther sat me down and explained it to me in small words my addled brain could understand. Setting aside that (b) is a shorter rule, Luther explained that it is also the better rule.  It is better because it empowers the player.  If she chooses to move his character in closer, she will earn a reward.  Rule (a) by contrast penalizes her for failing to move in closer.  Rewards, not penalties.

Contemplating his theory revealed the importance of this design decision throughout the world of game design.

Attacking starfighters in the X-Wing Miniatures Game roll an extra die when the target is at range 1.  Defending starfighters roll an extra die when the attacker is at range 3.  No one loses dice in either case.  Rewards, not penalties.

Every missing animal type incurs a penalty at the end of Agricola.  This was not clear to me the first time I played and it soured me to the game.  How might my experience have been different if players earned bonuses for each animal type rather than a penalty for their absence?  Rewards, not penalties.

What makes gambling games so addictive to so many people?  Small losses coupled with big rewards.  Humans will endure setback after setback so long as a reward is within sight.  This trait gave us the perseverance to cross continents, fly into space and cure polio.  For good or bad, we have a drive to gamble because we’re hungry for that payout.  Rewards, not penalties.

What is it about a CRPG that makes us grind through the same monsters again and again? it’s because those little piles experience points pile up to make us powerful and those little piles of treasure accrue to buy the shiny prestige items.   Rewards, not penalties.

Traditional classrooms give students the feeling that they begin the year with a perfect score.  Every quiz, assignment and test is an opportunity to fail.  Should a student be ill, their strongest hope is to be excused from all missed assignments.  Classrooms that use a gamification model start students off with a score of zero.  Every quiz, assignment and test adds to that score.  Missing an assignment is equivalent to earning a zero because no points have been earned.  Which of these classroom models best reinforces positive academic behavior?  That’s right.  Rewards, not penalties.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Can you think of a game that benefits more from penalties than rewards?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.