As you might now the Game Developer’s Conference ran at the start of the month. I didn’t catch a lot of it other than a few Cryptic and PWE employers attending, but stumbled upon an excellent write-up of user experience researcher Ben Lewis-Evans’ speech about Player Psychology and Rewards. It’s a very interesting article as a whole and although the original topic was more meant to take a shot at the current neuromyths around dopamine, it offers a lot of general advise how rewards should be structured in a successful game. So I was curious to see if Neverwinter matches the claims of Ben Lewis-Evans, and subsequently whether some systems are built to motivate players.
RNG is conditioning
Sorry guys, but randomness works as motivational reward system. The classic case of operant conditioning would be performing a set number of “responses” (quests) and get a reward. But players do actually come back and perform tasks, even if they do not know the numbers of needed repetitions.
The devs also set up the game well in other very basic areas of motivation. Consistent feedback splits progression in tiny blocks. The XP bar, dailies, weeklies are some examples.
More Guidance is Needed
Players want to know where to get stuff and what to expect when they get it. Neverwinter struggles in both areas. Tooltips are inaccurate and more than once real-money promotions didn’t return what was advertised. Not great according to Lewis-Evans, because it’s necessary that “the value of things you can purchase with real money is clear before you make the purchase”. Additionally guidance is important to give players a feel of being in control. The Sword Coast Chronicle campaign hub presents some clarity in example, but most players still describe a certain level of confusion by the amount of content available once they reach 70.
Another problematic field of control in my opinion have been Heroic Encounters. In Icewind Dale the randomness is still mightily annoying, especially the Black Ice Domination. Cryptic luckily realized it was a bad design and made HEs more predictable. In Tyranny of Dragons they would spawn at a fixed time, in Elemental Evil they at least had a fixed cooldown. In Strongholds, Underdark and Storm Kings Thunder they introduced a new “controller” that would spawn more HEs as soon as others were completed. And now in the Cloaked Ascendancy you can specifically work towards or against HEs.
The Paingiver chart is Anti-Social
The article does not deem social data like the Paingiver evil, but it comes with the drawback “that comparing players against their peers opens them up to abuse or ostracization.” Games like Overwatch compare each player against their own performance to avoid these issues. Another way to get around the negative aspects of social data are cooperation elements. Couldn’t the Paingiver chart compare the damage and healing of groups versus the average damage and healing of server runs? This would shift the focus of being the best DPS in the group to being the best DPS group. The community has often questioned the usefulness of the Paingiver chart and this adds fuel to the fire.
The article closes by addressing a minefield of cognitive biases and this is where it really gets interesting for Neverwinter. According to Evans-Lewis, players assume that putting more time and effort into a game results in comparable rewards. This game does quite the opposite. As mentioned multiple times around here the return of investment in multiple areas heavily diminishes over the course of a session. You only get Astral Diamonds for so many runs, and have only so many keys to spent. Utility Enchantments are capped and stop proccing after some time. In Destiny on the contrary, running more strikes (dungeons) enhances the chance of getting something good. That almost sounds too good to be true for Neverwinter regulars.
You can get around these caps by playing multiple characters, but the issue still remains. This is connected to the “control” desire mentioned above. If the developer instead of the player decides how much playtime is actually rewarded, it’s a frustrating experience. Players feel these walls every day, and it’s one of the major demotivational factors this game has to offer. Maybe the devs think it’s a necessary trade-off with progressing too fast, but the negative impact can’t be understated.
It might not sound like it, but the quote above partially explains why players were so passionately rooting against the key changes. They would rather hold onto their keys unless they knew what they would get would be worth it.
As Lewis-Evans noted, it’s even worse that the amount (“base drop rate”) of keys is limited. Since players can only get so many on any given day, they want to have something to show for it. You either need to make rewards better, or significantly change the way keys are obtained. Otherwise people will continue to be uncomfortable with being forced parting with them, at least for the offered loot.
I learned a lot reading the article and hope I could connect some of the things said with the systems in place in Neverwinter. I think we can agree that rewards and feedback are not where they need to be, but the devs actually made strides in some areas like Heroic Encounters. What’s your opinion on the reward systems? Do they motivate or drive off players? Share your thoughts in the comments below or visit the corresponding thread on our message board.