Mochi Game Development Fund #3: Extrinsic Awards: Are They What Social Games Are About?

(This is part #3 in our continuing series on topics related to the Mochi Game Development Fund).

Almost every game portal, MMO, online console platform, and viral game service offers some kind of “award/reward” systems for game players.  The idea is to give players a reason to play the game beyond the intrinsic value of the game-play itself.   These rewards/awards are usually referred to as extrinsic rewards, because they are not necessarily related to the game, but how player plays the game.  

Here are some examples. 

An intrinsic reward for a space shooter, would be to give the player a bolt-on extra weapon for maneuvering successfully around some asteroids to pick-up the floating bonus icon.  This is still an “award”, but it is used in game-play to help the player get further in the game.  The value on the award in inclusive to the game itself.

An extrinsic award for the same game would be to award the player a “badge” that they display on their portal profile for reaching level 5 of the game.  The “badge” has no intrinsic value in the game, it is simply an achievement for bragging rights to other players. Furthermore, this extrinsic reward might have it’s own value (such as Microsoft Gamer Points) that transcends the single game, and turn a system of games into a meta-game.

Extrinsic awards, when coupled with a meta-game that transcends the single game itself can have immense value…for the portal or system the game sits upon.  This is because it breeds loyalty in players so they will continue to play games on that portal (or other game system). It can also have value for the single game, as it will bring players back to play again if they can achieve a prize that is leading to something outside the game.

However, there are dangers to these types of extrinsic awards.  In his recent GDC  Panel, Chris Hecker (Ex-Maxis) warned of the problems with extrinsic rewards:

“Extrinsic motivators will lead you towards dull tasks, and you’re
totally [cornering] yourself into designing shitty games that you have
to pay people to play”

This is certainly something to consider when you start down that path of designing “social” Flash games for the viral market, especially those that the Mochi Game Development Fund is calling for.  We have been given tool-sets now that open up this extrinsic world like never before, They will allow us to connect Facebook and Twitter users, awards badges and achievements, and even allow extrinsic factors (micro-transactions) to affect  in-game (intrinsic) awards. 

When you think about is,  the current crop of  “social” games are all about extrinsic awards.  A game like Roller Coaster Kingdom downplays nearly all the traditional intrinsic awards for a game, and instead opens it up to the extrinsic world  based on  Facebook functionality.

In a recent interview Chris Hecker has some interesting things to say about Facebook games, as he thinks they will ultimately be the future:

“I think Facebook will crush them both (consoles and the Wii), assuming the Facebook game
developers can figure out how to make their games matter a bit more, as
opposed to just designing machines to separate people from their
wallets and friends lists.”

So what are we to do?  The market forces are moving in this direction, but at the same time, game design appears to be a casualty in the process.  The irony here, is that that the viral Flash game world THRIVES on innovation in game design.  Games are rewarded for being both new ideas, and addictive to play.   When we start to add these
social” features like extrinsic rewards, we are bound to lose a lot of that innovation in the process.

To me, the most successful “social” games of the future will balance extrinsic rewards (30%), with intrinsic game-play (70%).  You will need to tap into the “meta-game” (Facebook, portal, whatever) universe to attract players, but you also need to give them a reason to stick around.   That can only be achieved with intrinsic awards and rewarding play inside your game. 

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