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.

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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.

Be Ye Friend Or Be Ye Foe? Part 3

The Story So Far…
Two players are presented with an opportunity.  Each may remain loyal to the other player and betray her. Neither player will interact with the other in any way ever again. There be no out-of-game way to be rewarded and punished.

What could happen?

(1) If both remain loyal, each of them gets the “Cooperation” reward.

(2) If both betray the other, each of them gets the “Betrayal” reward.

(3) If one betrays the other while the other remains loyal, the betrayer gets the “Traitor” reward while the loyal one gets the “Sucker” reward.

This is the prisoner’s dilemma.

In a strict prisoner’s dilemma, the rewards are staggered with the “Traitor” reward best, followed by the “Cooperation” reward, then “Betrayal,” and finally “Sucker” the worst.  In mathematical terms, T > C > B > S.

Further, cooperation is much more likely if this decision point occurs repeatedly but obscures the exact number of times it will occur.

 

Correctly Staggering Rewards

In a strict prisoner’s dilemma, the rewards are staggered with the “Traitor” reward best, followed by the “Cooperation” reward, then “Betrayal,” and finally “Sucker” the worst.  In mathematical terms, T > C > B > S.

We discussed the Friend or Foe game show in detail in our last column.  Notice that this game deviated from this structure a bit–the “Betrayal” reward and the “Sucker” reward were identical; going home with no money.  Returning to mathematical terms, T > C > B = S.  If you opt to have two identical outcomes, this is the place to do it–at the bottom.  Notice also that in their scheme, T + S = C + C = total prize money.  Considering the demands of a of a game show–the need for clear rules that are easily parsed by the audience viewing at home–I can certainly see why they made this decision.

Personally, I would go a bit further than the standard T > C > B > S. I would also aim for 2C > T + S > 2B.  This was the reward structure of the peace war game and it suits my general design style.  Let’s go back to our Friend or Foe game show for an illustration.

Two players are going into the final showdown.  They have amassed $1000 in prize money.  Here are the possible outcomes under the standard game rules:

A) If both vote friend, they each get $500.

B) If both vote foe, they each get $0.

C) If one votes friend and the other votes foe, the foe gets $1000 and the friend gets $0.

Now imagine that we make a small tweak to the rules.  If both players choose “Friend,” we’ll throw in an extra 10%.  Now the decisions are:

A) If both choose friend, they each get $550.

B) If both choose foe, they each get $0.

C) If one chooses friend and the other chooses foe, the foe gets $1000 and the friend gets $0.

This is a small change but it has broad implications for the players.  If the players consistently choose friend, they end up collectively further ahead on repeated plays–$550 + $550 = $1100–than any other case–$1000 + $0 = $1000 in case (B) and $0 + $0 = $0 in case (C).  Of course, this game show doesn’t have repeated plays.  This decision is the last one of the game. But these players are conscientious, not amoral.  And that makes it all the more challenging for our players.

To Be Continued…

Our next column addresses ways to put Friend or Foe mechanisms into our own designs. See you Tuesday!

Have you played a game with a Friend and Foe mechanism? What did you think of it? Have you written one? How did your players respond to it?  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.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.