Agata Waszkiewicz

Agata Waszkiewicz is a game scholar at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Their research interests include experimental digital games, queer representation in video games, and the ways in which games allow for exploration of one’s identity. Agata is currently working on a book “Delicious Pixels: Food in Video Games” (forthcoming 2022).

Contact information:
agata.anna.waszkiewicz at gmail.com

Mateusz Kominiarczuk

Mateusz Kominiarczuk, MA is game scholar with literary background and particular interest in composite ludic artifacts, including game modes and nested games. Currently unaffiliated.

Contact information:
mateusz at kominiarczuk.com

Towards a Model of Objective-Based Reward Systems

by Agata Waszkiewicz, Mateusz Kominiarczuk

Abstract

In this paper, two commonly contrasted categories of game objectives are juxtaposed: achievements (otherwise known as trophies, medals or badges) and quests (or missions). Recognizing that previous research perceived them as separate and rather broadly understood concepts, the paper follows Mikael Jakobsson (2011) in acknowledging the similarities and overlaps between quests and achievements, which are redefined as umbrella terms describing a range of tasks sharing an objective and a reward. These “objective-based reward systems,” understood additionally as frames for the play experiences, are discussed in relation to their associated level of meaning (Fine, 1983) and attainability (Juul, 2013). Finally, the results are presented in a generalized theoretical model for further study of various objective-based reward systems, going beyond just quests and achievements proper.

Keywords: Achievements, quests, objective-based reward systems, frame analysis, goals, rewards

 

Introduction

Among the substantial body of work on game reward systems, the majority seems to focus on two types: quests (Tosca, 2003; Aarseth, 2003, 2005; Walker et al., 2007, Rettberg, 2008; Howard, 2008; Karslen 2008) and achievements (Montola et al., 2009; Wang and Sun, 2011, Huotari and Hamari, 2017). The common practice in both scholarly work and in the popular nomenclature is to perceive them as structurally different by emphasizing their functional and aesthetic dissimilarities. However, these tend to vary between game systems and terminologies preferred by individual scholars, leading to the blurring of the lines between the two concepts.

It can be argued that the confusion caused by the overlapping meanings of both categories come from the fact that both terms were established by industry professionals, and that they then shift through their use in game studies’ analyses. Recognizing the need for more precise definitions in the academic research, we propose to categorize various types of reward-based goals not in regard to their position vis-à-vis the game’s narrative, but according to their in-game structure and meaning. In order to do so, we map the types of objectives often denoted by the concepts of “quests” and “achievements” according to two main theoretical frameworks: Alan Fine’s frame analysis (1983) and Jesper Juul’s typology of attainability and goal types (2013). Furthermore, we argue that this new way of conceptualizing the “objective-based reward systems,” as we refer to them here, might draw research attention to the different ways in which players use various reward systems in the process of meaning-making. Secondly, the proposed model can be considered a more precise tool of discussing ways in which the players use these systems as framing devices for their experiences.

Quests and achievements: differences and similarities

Due to the prevalence and popularity of videogame genres that rely on quests and the common use of the term, it seems that “quests” rarely need to be defined -- players quickly learn to differentiate between side and main quests, and transfer that knowledge between titles when understanding what type of task is associated with a type of reward. However, this generalization can lead to misconceptions about the homogeneity of the term, creating in turn a false assumption that all quests are ontologically similar while, in fact, they can differ rather substantially in their structure and the type of rewards they offer. While the majority of videogame definitions conceptualize them as goal systems (Stenros 2017, Zagal et al. 2019), this leads to an idea that the term “quests” denotes a homogenous group, a claim that seems problematic even if one takes into consideration the most basic distinction between main quests and side quests.

The majority of existing literature maintains a firm separation between “internal” quests and other objective-based reward systems, such as broadly understood “achievements” (as they are known on Xbox Live, Steam, Origin and Google Play), “trophies” (PlayStation Network), otherwise known as “medals” (Newgrounds), “badges” (Steam, Kongregate), as well as “triumphs” or “challenges” (other game titles or platforms). Regardless of the name, such systems are commonly understood in terms of glory rewards bound to player accounts (Wang and Sun, 2011) and thus “external” to the gameworld without direct effect on character’s in-game actions. The 2010s saw the rise in popularity of games based on this type of reward systems, which in turn encouraged their implementation on various platforms and the appearance of games with gameplay strictly focused on collecting achievements (e.g. My Name is Mayo [Green Lava Studios, 2016], a clicker game with 51 trophies on PlayStation). Different ways in which they are introduced, however, challenge the notion of achievement’s “externality.”

For Mikael Jakobsson “an achievement actually consists of a task, a task description and a reward, just like a quest in World of Warcraft.” (2011), while for others it is a goal the fulfillment of which "is stored outside the scope of individual game sessions” (Björk, 2010 [Hamari and Eranti, 2011]). Although the latter definition conceptualizes achievements, unlike quests, as extrinsic systems, Juho Hamari and Veikko Eranti caution against perceiving them as optional or secondary (Montola et al., 2009), as it diminishes the efforts of those players whose primary play style focuses on collecting them. Thus, by saying that they “should be viewed as games of their own” (Hamari and Eranti, 2011, p. 3), the researchers agree with Jakobsson who notices the similarity between the achievements and the in-game quests, comparing the achievements to “an invisible MMO that all Xbox Live members participate in, whether they like it or not” (2011). That similarity between achievements and quests is an important, albeit not obvious, realisation which allows Jakobsson to move the reference point from the singular title to the entire system, further revealing the external-internal division to be superficial and inaccurate.

The new model of objective-based reward systems

We consider frame analysis (Goffman, 1974) a useful tool of bridging this gap in understanding, especially since it was not yet exhaustively utilized in the context of rewards systems. Although it has proven a popular theory among game scholars, as noted by Sebastian Deterding (2013), games studies mostly know this model through a different, secondary source, that is Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy (1983) (cf. Deterding, 2013, p. 13 and p. 25-26) -- perhaps due to its clarity and simplicity (especially relative to Goffman’s notoriously complex writing). For his ethnographic study of nascent role-playing games and the subculture of people who played them, Fine proposed a simplified model consisting of “three levels of meaning”:

  1. the “primary framework” of “real world” and “people”;
  2. The “game context” of “rules” enacted by the “players”;
  3. the “gaming world” in which “characters” operate (p. 186).

Fine’s framework has been adopted for the conceptualization of not just tabletop fantasy role plays of Dungeons & Dragons’ type, but also larps and videogames (cf. e.g. Mackay, 2001; Waskul and Lust, 2004; Linderoth, 2012). In such works it is common to denote the level of the “gaming world” as “diegetic.” However, following Kristine Jørgensen’s (2013) criticism of the use of the latter term in game studies, as well as her own reinterpretation of Fine’s model, we instead recognize this last “level of meaning” simply as “fictional.”

It could be argued that basing the argumentation on Fine's interpretation of frame analysis one risks facing criticism, such as the one already levied by Deterding (2013, p. 32, i.a.) against prior misreading and oversimplification of this theory. Even so, this specific theory of "three levels of meaning" with its well-known rendering is the best suited for the general, synthetic model presented in the paper, allowing for the discussion of various objective-based reward systems and their influence on the players. In doing so, in order not to misrepresent Fine's “levels” as definite “frames”, we reference Deterding’s insight on the motivational relevance of frames proper (p. 60-61), considering it as the most important theme to the original work presented in the paper.

To better understand the nuances of what we refer to as objective-based reward systems, we combine Fine’s framework with Jesper Juul’s study of game objectives, in which he recognizes three main types of goals:

  1. completable (one-time goals);
  2. transient (repeatable);
  3. based on improvement (each success also raises the bar for the next attempt) (2013, p. 85-86).

Juul notes that some aims are set by the players themselves and elsewhere briefs on the importance of the context in which they are realized, devoting particular attention to the case of fiction. These remarks may be further refined in combination with Jørgensen’s revisions of Fine’s model in order to consider goals in terms of their relation to the game (whether they are social, ludic or perhaps even belong within the gameworld itself), how are they are attained (whether they are supposed to be achieved once or repeatedly) and, finally, the rewards they carry (Wang and Sun, 2011).

In the end, individual game reward systems are considered -- quests and achievements among them -- as a basis for specific frames in the Goffmanian sense, either exo- or autotelic (Deterding, 2013, following Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) in terms of their motivational relevance.

Typology of objective-based reward systems

In the following section, we discuss each of the nine types of objectives created by intersecting Fine's three levels of meaning (fictional, game, and social) with Juul's three types of goals (completable, transient, and improvement-based). The nine categories that are created as a result include three types of completable tasks (completable-fictional, completable-game, completable-social), three types of transient tasks (transient-fictional, transient-game, transient-social), and three types of improvement-based tasks (improvement-fictional, improvement-game, and improvement-social).

It is crucial to acknowledge that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Many objective-based reward systems include components that could fall into more than one category. Others may coexist closely and influence each other, which complicates the formal distinctions between categories. Even so, we believe that by mapping out various in-game reward-based tasks in such a way, we facilitate the further discussion on the ludic structures of game systems. By creating more precise definitions, we aim to show the complexity of in-game structures used for player motivation; which allows for further distinction between the ways individual types of tasks influence various players. In the future, such research could be useful both for development of games and gamified applications as well as further research on player styles and motivations.

1. Completable tasks

For Juul, completable goals “can be completed once and for all. Once we begin playing, we become someone who has-not-completed-the-game-yet. Once we complete the game, we will always be someone who has completed [the game]” (2013, p. 85). Due to this quality, they are most often encountered in single-player games and campaigns allowing the binary understanding of a goal/task as finished or unfinished.

1.1. Completable-Fictional

Many examples of completable-fictional goals are found among main and side quests of RPG, massive multiplayer or action-adventure genres. Thus, they can be often found in those games that both rely heavily on narrative and have a quest-based gameplay, referred to by Tomasz Majkowski as “novel-games” (2019). Their embedding in narrative justifies the completable character of goals as, for example, finishing one of the narrative main quests pushes the plot forward and opens further narrative paths. Often, the reward for such a goal is greater than in the case of the repeatable goals (cf. transient-fictional goals) and is either meaningful in the course of the narration (e.g. item required in the next quest lines) or is unattainable by other means.

An example of this can be found in the PlayStation 4 game Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, 2018) in the side quest which introduces Black Cat -- a character who, after initially being featured as an NPC, was later given her own DLC. In order to locate her hideout, the player, as Spider-Man, needs to first locate all the stakeout positions, which are marked on the map with the quest-specific marker, and then find her main base. Although Black Cat is not shown in the main campaign, as Spider-Man finds an already abandoned hideout, he is rewarded for the effort with a unique black suit, which is not only wearable during the game (i.e. has an aesthetic value), but is required in order to obtain a trophy titled “A Suit for All Seasons” given after completing the suit collection (a completable-game goal).

1.2. Completable-Game

The completable-game goals, while sharing the condition of being available to the player only once, are located at the structural level of the game. That means that their reason does not stem from the narrative, but are arbitrary goals set by developers, most often in the form of achievement-type goals. The fact that they are bound to a player or avatar account on a platform means that they are also necessarily completable -- obtaining an achievement is possible once for each game on a specific player account.

Furthermore, their external placement can set them as parallel to the goals from the completable-fictional category, like the aforementioned Black Cat quest. By completing it, the player unlocks a corresponding trophy named “Cat Prints.” Like all the PlayStation Network trophies, it lacks in-game awards and can only be viewed outside the game (making it a “glory” reward), through a PlayStation menu. Especially the latter is an indicator that it belongs to the game dimension -- although it accompanies an event embedded in the narrative, it is a part of an external reward system. This means that its aesthetic and function are dictated by the system rules rather than the individual rules of the specific game title.

This category is particularly interesting because of its meaning-making potential -- on the one hand, players are known to adjust their play strategies to the personal meta-goals (e.g. playing according to online walkthroughs in order to collect all achievements), while on the other, by setting contradictory achievements, developers can encourage multiple playthroughs or even dark or transgressive play. The latter could be achieved by rewarding disruptive or morally ambiguous behaviour. An example of this can be found in Assassin's Creed: Syndicate (Ubisoft Quebec, 2015) where the players unlock an achievement "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU" for derailing five vehicles by shooting and killing their horses, an act that players otherwise might not do intentionally.

This type of achievement shows the lack of clear boundaries between the categories and their mutual influences on each other. It seems important to highlight that the achievement’s name itself calls out the player's “bad” behaviour. Paradoxically so, considering that it is the presence of the achievement that potentially encourages that behaviour; especially in players who strive for full completion of games and who use the achievement lists as guidelines for play. The meta game humour of the achievement’s name acts as an additional incentive to complete it, or can come as an amusing surprise to an unsuspecting player, and thus serves as a specific reward. However, it could also deter players who tend to choose “good” or “pacifist” (as much as the game allows it) behaviours. With this particular achievement, the game developers are judging the player for their in-game actions, as are all their friends who see the achievement.

Although this example may not constitute an active engagement with real people, it is undertaken in public and in a multi-layered, psycho-social context. However, in the proposed terminology, it is still better described through the “game” dimension due to its placement in the game’s structure by the developers and the way it can potentially influence the player’s activity.

1.3. Completable-Social

All social objectives relate to the level of real world and real people, thus they tend to require an activity reaching beyond the single-player and fictional experience. Thus, they mostly can be found in multiplayer and online games, as well as some gamified applications. This group includes one-time tasks which require social interaction such as inviting a friend to the game or engaging with them in the way specified by the game rules.

Duolingo (Luis von Ahn, 2011), a gamified app for learning languages, includes a leaderboard and offers seven achievements, each with three levels. These are placed inside the application rather than any extrinsic profile, and they do not offer any additional rewards. The three tiers of achievement titled “Friendly” are as follows: “follow three friends,” “be followed by 3 friends” and “invite a friend to Duolingo.” Due to the differences and lack of linearity, each of them can be treated as a completable goal rather than one that is improvement-based.

A similar goal, “Recruiting friends,” can be found in World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004). It seems to be structured in a way that resembles a quest rather than an achievement, since its completion rewards the player with a glory prize in the form of a title that can appear in front of the avatar’s name, serving solely an aesthetic function. However, after a certain amount of time befriending another person, the player gains additional in-game items, including a rare mount, which impacts the gameplay in a meaningful way. Both these cases seem to imply a strong association between completable-social goals and glory rewards.

2. Transient

As opposed to the previous category, transient tasks allow players to complete the specific goal more than once, each time gaining a new and sometimes different or randomized reward. For example, many online multiplayer games require their players to repeatedly perform a number of similar actions in order to gain a sufficient amount of experience points needed to level up and, thus, progress in the game -- a practice commonly referred to as “grinding” (King et al., 2011).

2.1. Transient-Fictional

In its most straightforward meaning, for the transient goals to be considered fictional, they need to be given a meaning that embeds them in the game’s story. For example, both World of Warcraft and Diablo franchises introduce the mechanic of daily world quests or “bounties” in the case of Diablo III (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012). Every day a set of narrative quests is randomly generated -- the player can trigger a new distribution by logging out of the game (Diablo III) or simply has to wait for them to change (World of Warcraft). In WoW each world quest is introduced and concluded by an appearance of a character from the gameworld. In Diablo III they are instead embedded through the character of single quest-giver, Tyrael, interaction with whom is required to obtain a game reward for the completion of a full set of bounties.

Transient-fictional tasks are not only repeatable in the sense that they can be played through daily, but since they belong to a limited number of types, players tend to encounter identical situations and rewards on different days or maps. Their completion is not obligatory and the rewards can be used to gain advantage or progress in the game, including: items, resources, experience and reputation points.

2.2. Transient-Game

Similar to the completable-game category, the transient-game goals require players to choose a specific game strategy and put in time in order to obtain a reward. Though they differ drastically in genre, both Hearthstone (Blizzard Entertainment, 2014), an online card game, and Heroes of the Storm (Blizzard Entertainment, 2015), a multiplayer online battle arena, each include daily quests. The way these daily quests structure goals differs substantially from previously discussed examples.

Whereas on the structural level they appear similar to the transient-fictional daily quests, they are not embedded in fiction and influence solely the strategy of play by encouraging specific player choices, e.g. pertaining to the use of specific card types. (“Mrgrgrglrr: Play 20 Murlocs”, “Spell Master: Cast 25 spells”) or heroes (“Play 2 games as a Starcraft Hero”), awarding players with virtual currency, experience boosts (further encouraging repeated play), or cosmetic rewards.

2.3. Transient-Social

Another type of repetitive tasks also involves interaction with other players. Rather than adding other players to the friend list -- which, logically, would position it as a completable goal -- the player might be required to spectate a friend’s game (e.g. Hearthstone -- “Watch and Learn!: Watch a friend win in spectator mode”) or interact with another human player instead of a computer opponent (e.g. Pokémon Go-- missions: “Trade a Pokémon” or “Battle Another Trainer”).

An interesting comparison between the game and the social categories can be noticed among Hearthstone daily quests. Despite sharing the same in-game position and structure, all “social” quests provide different, more valuable rewards than the rest (e.g. higher amount of gold or a full card pack as opposed to a single card).

3. Improvement

Juul described improvement goals as being “about our personal and continuous quest for improvement” (2011, p. 31), which “can by definition never be reached” (p. 86). He emphasized the individual involvement in setting these goals as well as the motivational character of the in-game incentives to continue beating one’s own score, for example in arcade games. As such, the majority of improvement-based goals are either embedded in the ludic aspects of play or involve the social participation.

3.1. Improvement-Fictional

The improvement-fictional goals provide an in-world reasoning for improvement, offering the players story-based motivation for their actions. Such close relationship between the story and the improvement-based goals can be found for example in racing videogames with story campaigns, such as Star Wars Episode I: Racer (Lucasarts, 1999), or -- to a lesser degree -- in certain nested games, e.g. in the Rapids Race minigame found in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Grezzo/Nintendo, 2019)

3.2. Improvement-Game

As a crucial part of many role-playing and multiplayer genres, the levelling systems allow one to monitor their in-game progression, offering the conceptualization of the passage of time. Embedded securely in the game's structure, players do not have influence over the thresholds between separate levels, but can, to a degree, control the speed of the process by choosing specific tasks and structuring the game experience in such a way as to maximize their point gain.

The importance of levelling systems for player motivation was recognized by Blizzard Entertainment, who in Diablo III introduced an additional, account-wide Paragon System offering a possibility of seemingly infinite level progression for ever-increasing attributes after exhausting the initial limit of character levels.

Diablo III and World of Warcraft both also include other endless (or at least semi-endless) improvement-game type systems in the form of, accordingly, Greater Rifts and Mythic+ Dungeons -- both serving as important end-game features. A similar function is performed by the “Battle Towers,” a fixture of the Game Freak’s Pokémon game series ever since Pokémon Crystal for Game Boy Color (2000).

3.3. Improvement-Social

The last category encompasses social scoring systems, usually labelled as scoreboards or leaderboards, which are common in online and mobile games like FarmVille 2 (2014), Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012) or Fruit Ninja (Halfbrick, 2010). These are characterized by short levels and immediate score-based feedback. This category’s motivational function involves enhancing and regulating the player’s engagement with game tasks. As such, they have become one of the most popular gamification methods employed in other game-based systems, particularly those tied to education or physical activity and fitness.

Conclusions

The common use of terms “achievements” and “quests” creates an impression that both are homogenous, specific concepts that substantially differ from each other, for example due to their placement “inside” or “outside” the “game proper,” and the type of awards they provide (glory vs. functional). However, closer scrutiny shows that such a distinction is over-simplified and inaccurate as both groups include hybrid examples that tend to coexist, occupy the same spaces, or provide rewards that are associated with the other type. Therefore, the paper identified three main dimensions which best describe these objective-based reward systems -- associated with the level of meaning (Fine, 1983) and attainability (Juul, 2013) -- in order to propose a new taxonomy, recognizing the existence of more than just two types and their specific characteristics. There, frame analysis was considered as one dimension, placing the objectives under fictional, game or social modes, while their level of attainability as goals are described as completable, transient, or improvement-based.

By deconstructing two well-known and commonly used concepts of inherent in-game structures, we hoped to reveal that the language used to discuss videogames is constantly changing and evolving. Although both discussed terms are easily recognizable, their meaning varies between genres and individual titles, pointing to the complex relationships between players and the design in-game patterns. Creating a more nuanced understanding between game mechanics and procedural rhetoric can have significant benefits at various stages of research, both in understanding exactly what types of reward systems players find the most stimulating and finding the differences between their in-game strategies.

Furthermore, although the differences in the type of provided rewards were acknowledged, for the sake of maintaining the model’s clarity their analysis was limited. Since the existing research concentrated on the rewards in the most detail, further research should consider them as the third dimension of the proposed model and how they change the player’s interpretation of goals.

 

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