Reward Systems in Video Games

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Have you ever watched a TV show that you didn’t plan on binging but completed it in a matter of days? What about listening to a new album all the way through without a break? Or how about a video game that was so enjoyable that you couldn’t quit?

For me, it’s a definite YES to all three!

Now, here’s the real question. When it comes to video games, what keeps us motivated to continue playing?

In my opinion, it’s gameplay and story, but also the reward.

Our favourite video games of-all-time are, more than likely, the most rewarding memories we experience from gaming. This, in turn, can be allocated to an increase in dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) within our brains.

Over the last few years, I’ve been very curious about the different reward systems that developers implement in their video games. Some are simple, while others are more complex.

In this blog post, I’ll be sharing with you the types of reward systems present in modern-day video games. I will also give MY OPINION on systems that I think are good, bad, and have a good balance.

Is there a reward system that I missed? What is your favourite type? Let me know in the comment section down below!

Types of Rewards Systems

Rewards from playing video games (like most things in life) are valued differently from one individual to another. But most importantly, there is something for everyone!

While the majority of rewards are intangible (or virtual), they come in many forms. Some of these include gear (items to benefit your character), cosmetics, virtual currencies, collectible/rare items, and much more.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the most popular reward systems found in today’s video games!

A leaderboard for the top North American players in League of Legends

Competitive/Ranked Rewards:

These are rewards given to those who play competitively in multiplayer games—especially at the highest skill level. Grinding out the competitive ladder is tough (and sometimes mentally draining), which gives these rewards a sense of prestige amongst the other. Competitive/ranked rewards are found in nearly every multiplayer game.

Examples:

  • Rank borders (bronze, silver, gold, platinum, diamond)
  • Exclusive items (titles, mounts, skins, profile pictures)
  • Leaderboard standing (ranked within the top 5/10/100/1,000 players)
A selection of lootboxes for purchase in Overwatch

Randomly Generated Rewards:

RNG rewards can be exciting but also frustrating at the same time. When the rewards are consistently bad, you feel like the game is against you. But when you win something good, everything is fine!

These types of rewards can be acquired via in-game content, or with real money as a microtransaction.

Examples:

  • Loot boxes
  • Boss loot (Ex. MMORPGs)
  • In-game gambling systems
An Xbox achievement from the game Halo:Reach

Achievements:

Ever since they were introduced on the Xbox 360 (from what I remember), achievements have become the standard reward system for every gaming platform. They provide an extra incentive for players to keep playing their favourite games when they run out of things to do!

One of my fondest memories with achievements was in Halo 3. I unlocked a total of 1,000 gamerscore from collecting every achievement in the game. Which, in turn, granted me the Katana armour permutation for my multiplayer avatar. I was so happy when that final achievement appeared on my screen (damn you, Two for One!).

More recently, League of Legends has also added a (semi-free) achievement system known as Eternals.

No matter what game you play, there will always be some sort of achievement system.

Examples:

  • Regular achievements (single-step completion)
  • Meta-achievements (multi-step completion)
  • Secret achievements (unknown information for completion)
  • Time/event specific achievements (ex. Third Time’s A Charm)
A list of items that N'Zoth the Corruptor drops on Mythic difficulty in World of Warcraft

Difficulty-Related Rewards:

Similar to competitive/ranked rewards, difficult content in video games can reward players with a wide variety of loot. In single-player games, this would involve completing the story mode on the highest possible difficulty—with the potential chance of unlocking some cool items.

A recent experience for me was completing all of the Hitman (2016) and Hitman 2 levels on master difficulty, with a silent assassin rating. This unlocks a special suit and coin for Agent 47. Pretty difficult stuff!

In multiplayer, this type of content is common in MMOs as well as action RPGs. As an example, World of Warcraft offers Mythic raiding and dungeon content. Defeating bosses and completing dungeons within a limited time provides players with valuable gear and items.

Examples:

  • Better loot/items
  • Story content (ex. secret cutscenes)
  • Cosmetic rewards (ex. mounts, titles, companions)
  • Achievements
A list of daily login rewards from Fortnite

Daily Login Rewards:

You can receive rewards for just logging into a game? Yup!

Many multiplayer games, usually the free-to-play ones, award players specific items for logging in every 24 hours. The first few days/weeks of login rewards are nothing special. But after a few months, they can provide players with some decent goodies.

Examples:

  • In-game currency
  • XP boosts
  • Crafting materials
  • Cosmetics
  • Achievements
A post-game screen in League of Legends that enables you to honor a teamate

Sportsmanship Rewards:

Finding respectful players online is (unfortunately) not very common these days. Sometimes these multiplayer communities can seem like a cesspool of toxic and negative people.

On the bright side, we always remember those who treat us with respect, encourage good behaviour, and play like a god.

This is why some games implement an honour system to keep matches fun and enjoyable for everyone. Although you don’t receive anything of value, being commended as the best player of the match is an amazing feeling!

Examples:

  • Post-game commendations (ex. League of Legends, Overwatch)
  • Post-game MVP (Heroes of the Storm, Dota 2, CSGO)
  • Performance rewards (ex. getting an S+ in League of Legends)
  • Receiving a GG, GGWP, or well played at the end of a match
A variety of items that can be earned from the Apex Legends Season 4 battle pass

Seasons Passes:

Over the past few years, season passes have been used quite frequently in multiplayer video games. They provide players with a ton of rewards for progressing in multiplayer matches during a season (about 3 months).

I believe Fortnite, due to its massive player base, has greatly influenced other games to use their implementation of the season pass system. Season passes are usually purchased with real-world money or in-game credits. Apart from loot box mechanics, you know exactly what you’re getting from a season pass.

Examples:

  • Character/weapon skins
  • In-game currency
  • Crafting materials
  • XP boosts
  • Loot boxes

Good Systems

Achievements: I’ve always liked achievements. They create a good medium for feeling successful and rewarding when you get them.

Yeah, some are more difficult to get than others. Regardless, the time and effort that the player invests in a game should justify the reward. Achievements are a great system and I’m open to seeing how developers innovate with it!

Sportsmanship Rewards: I believe sportsmanship will play a bigger role in the future of multiplayer gaming. The problem with playing games online is that players are anonymous—which makes them feel less accountable for their actions. I still remember the time when the game director of Overwatch had to discuss the in-game toxicity present in multiplayer.

A little banter is fine, but cyberbullying and death threats online has no place in any environment. Will rewarding good behaviour (in a balanced way) impact the gaming community for the better? Only time will tell.

If nothing happens, actions such as muting and reporting players will see more use than ever before.

Difficulty-Related Rewards: You know what they say…high-risk high-reward! Rewards that are associated with high difficulty have been in games for decades. Why? Because they’re satisfying to earn! Plus, it’s fun to share with your friends how many times you’ve died doing something annoying and difficult.

However, when it comes to online games, the balance has to be right. Take a look at how Blizzard Entertainment handled their reward structure in this GDC 2017 video.

Competitive/Ranked Rewards: Rewards that are influenced by rank (or ELO/MMR) are determined by a player’s win rate and their skill. I believe, just like difficult PvE content, that this system of rewarding players is almost perfect.

The only cons I see with this system is if a competitive season is filled with unbalanced characters or items. Additionally, smurfs (alternative accounts), hackers, and intentional feeders can create a lack of trust with the system.

Fair Systems

Daily Login Rewards: Consistency is a great way to motivate people; even if its just logging into a game every night.

I don’t dislike this way of rewarding players, but I also think it could be better. Logging into a game and receiving a reward feels like receiving a participation trophy. It doesn’t feel earned compared to other reward systems.

But hey, if systems like these are increasing a games player base, I can see developers sticking with it for the long run.

Season Pass Rewards: Back in October, I had an itch to play some Destiny 2. The new expansion, known as Shadowkeep, was released alongside their season pass called Season of the Undying. This was my first time purchasing a season pass for a game.

After grinding my way to level 100, I felt mostly satisfied with my experience. Sure, some of the rewards can get repetitive. But at least I felt more engaged with the content compared to the base game.

I’m certain games like Fortnite and Apex Legends have similar, if not slightly better, season pass content compared to Destiny 2. All I can say is that it’s a fairly balanced reward system. I will keep my eyes peeled for how this system changes going forward.

Bad Systems

Randomly Generated Rewards: You probably knew this was going to be here, and you likely know my answer too. Lootboxes are a dull excuse for rewarding players. As someone who studied business, I get it; developers need to make money at the end of the day.

BUT…when you’re forced to pay for a skin/item from a random pool of items (with a potentially low drop chance, mind you)…it really sucks.

In most situations, you don’t get what you want; and as a result, your $10-$20 feels wasted. Remember the Battlefront 2 lootbox fiasco back in 2017? I was so riled up by its reward system that I wrote an essay about EA’s predatory practices for a public relations class (in case you’re wondering, I received an A for the report!).

I’ll say it as it is…IT’S GAMBLING FOR MINORS! It should not be in video games, period.

Conclusion

Motivation is an essential part of playing video games. Without motivation, games wouldn’t feel fun. In addition to gameplay and story, a well-crafted reward system can make the journey much more desirable for players.

Whether you’re an achievement hunter, a competitive player, or someone who’s seeking some fat loot, rewards keep us coming back for more!

Words to live by:

“If it’s not fun, why bother?” -Reggie Fils-Aimé

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