Games don’t need to have external reward systems (kind of)

Casual game designers can show us a big list of game mechanics & systems that “keep player playing the game”. Farmville and others are good at applying these. I have no problem that these games are successful and make money and all that.

But… when I think of games that I’ve enjoyed most, I cannot recall a single game where “achievements” or “external reward systems” would have mattered to me. Well, one. Diablo 1. There the pure joy of creating better character was just awesome. So, there the reward system was in the very core of the gameplay.

By external reward system I mean things like achievements, appointments, “share the game” viral bonuses, and such. All the things that don’t “happen in the game” so to speak. Of course all these games provide rewards that are part of the core gameplay (it’s satisfying to tackle somebody through a glass in NHL ’94, cough). Not sure if I’m able to explain the difference.


Besides Diablo, the games I’ve enjoyed have been like NHL ’94 – NHL ’11, Battle for Middle Earth (multiplayer RTS), Zombie Panic (multiplayer), Battlefield 1942, Monkey Island adventure games and many others. None of these had external rewards that I would have paid attention to. You just went and played the damn game.

A good example is this:

  • NHL ’94 had no external rewards system in the game – we played like hundreds of hours that game just to be able to beat our buddies. We had tons of fun.
  • NHL ’10 featured system where I could gain stuff and ranks and whatnot. At some point I was playing the game for the sake of gaining new level. At that point I stopped for moment and thought “whadda hell am I doing?” The game was fun, until I started concentrating on the reward system. It ruined my fun for a moment.

In a way, if game itself is so good that it’s fun to play, there’s no need for external reward system (achievements, online highscores, whatnot). If the game is played for the sake of earning rewards, then something is wrong.


In NHL ’11 I stopped caring about rewards and just went back to playing it in because I know the game is fun. I forgot every reward there is and just enjoy doing good hip tackles or beating computer/buddies. Now it’s fun once again to play the game.

Diablo was fun as long as it was fun to level up and gaining new boosts. But when playing Diablo turns into playing for the sake of leveling up, then it’s no more fun. (Damn tough to explain. Maybe you get my point.)

If the game is fun – it doesn’t need additional “external” rewards. Playing the game is a reward in itself.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. There are a lot of games that use achievements in their core mechanic. Team Fortress 2 is a very good example: unlock 10 achievements with the medic and unlock a new weapon for the medic. At 20 achievements another weapon. These new weapons really change the strategy and gameplay. And they have these for each of the 9 classes.
    In our next game I’m planning to unlock exclusive content based on achievements. This content won’t be vital but players will want them :P
    Another reason for unlocking achievements is e-penis :) I’ve finished starcraft 2 about 4 times and started 5’th time just to get some achievements that my friends don’t have and brag about that to them :)
    I don’t buy games just for achievements but if I find one with achievements and I like it, I try to unlock as many as possible. It’s just like Pokemon: gotta catch’em all :)

  2. I read a white paper the other day by a digital agency called VerticPortals, which actually makes some interesting points in regards to why social games such as Farmville achieve success through social reward systems – thought that might be interesting?

    You can find it here: http://www.verticportals.com/socialgaming.

  3. IMO these put-on, additional reward systems are meant to be optional extensions. Some people like to share their stats with friends, others don’t (e.g. myself). As long as such features are optional and don’t bother the core game mechanics its OK.

    I agree on the loose coupling of such “features”. The more they are integrated into the core the more important they (may) become for the game flow. Maybe that’s a reason why they are not that deep integrated: to keep ’em disposable.

  4. I don’t believe Achievements are part of the “natural” game. I treat them as reasons to go *back* to the game. Especially games that aren’t endless (like sports, fighting, driving, puzzle), once I play through the game/story once, there is often little reason for me to go back. I can play through the game as I would naturally, then when its over, go back and try to get all the achievements. Particularly for games that have a long first play through, even if it’s fun I don’t want to spend all that time again for no reward. The trophies give me a reason to go back…it doesn’t matter if the game is fun or not.

    I don’t treat achievements as a primary goal for any game, they’re always secondary objectives…and I think that’s their point. I don’t think most gamers chase achievements as their goal. But I think achievements are a great addition to our modern games, casual or otherwise.

    Do games *need* achievements? No, you’re right. Is there no reason not to have them? Absolutely not.

  5. That would be true if all players were the same same. Since this is not the case different game mechanics and reward appeal to different gamers.

    Just yesterday I was reading an article on Gamasutra – Lifting The Designer’s Curse (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6267/lifting_the_designers_curse.php). It’s about a different subject, but here is a quote from it that fits perfectly our discussion.

    “The emergence of casual games was made possible by improving the perception of benefit to a type of player that was not motivated by the benefits of core games.”

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