Rewards And Regrets

No matter what site you've built, no matter what you do, no matter what kind of game you've put together for others to enjoy - there is one universal truth. As impossible as it sounds, there is one thing that is ALWAYS in effect, no matter what other variables exist on the game.

As such, it bears special mention, and special consideration:

Whatever Staff Rewards, the Players Will Do.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

Yet, this one statement, this one simple truth, is responsible for the failure of more games and the frustration of more staffers than any single concept I've ever come across. It pervades every aspect of every game - whether graphical or text, whether board or tabletop - and, in fact, is such a fundamental aspect of human interaction that it's ingrained in your daily life to the point of reaching that saturation that has you not noticing it anymore.

From a gaming perspective, the concept is everything about the culture you create and the systems you build, and bears thinking about at every phase of game design.

So - what is it really?

When in any sort of organized structure, an individual always does what gains them the greatest benefit with the least pain. If their goals are aligned with the goals of the event around them - it's seamless. Unnoticeable. Where their own personal goals conflict with design goals, there is a sort of understated conflict.

I know of one game where 'magic' characters and 'mundane' characters share the same basic skill pool, while magic characters have access to additional skills that define their magic abilities. There is a skill cap - skills can only be raised in so much quantity and so high before the players can no longer advance in-depth.

Interestingly, it is a place where mundane skills are cheaper and arguably more effective than the magical. As a fantasy MUSH, swords are reliable, deadly, and very very dangerous on both attack in defense in the hands of the competent… and magic, no matter how it is presented, is never any more deadly, is three times the 'experience' cost and really only a flashy (and arguably more versatile… but that argument has its faults) single skill.

Yet, for one player - the differences between the two (higher expense, only available on alternate characters, cuts into skill cap, social stigmata, repressive IC laws, and so on..) isn't enough. It somehow grates that there is no /balance/ between throwing-fireball and wielding-sword… but the numbers don't lie. The balance is certainly there, both in advancement, ease of use and ultimately effectiveness.

So why does that player so vehimently defend that position?

Because magic is /special/. Because the pyrotechnics and 'cool factor' is seen as a reward to those who have built 'powered' characters over those who are unpowered. Because characters with abilities can be as good at the mundane as she is, but have this other stuff they can do to. Because the site has such a fixation on the skill system that it is very difficult to be 'normal' and have a character sheet that also makes you a 'unique and special snowflake'.

So - it is an error in perception, and in reward. The site rewards magic characters by implicitly making it easy to differentiate themselves from the crowd around them, and this player feels left out of that reward system. So it grates - she does not feel special, and therefore assumes she is somehow less than other folks around her. But where did that error come from?

It came from a staffer that gave magical characters every advantage in in-game situations, without once addressing the mundane means at everyone's disposal for solving a problem. If you were in their storylines, and weren't magic? You didn't have a chance of doing /anything/ cool. The reward of magic was plot.

And that's just it - whatever you reward determines the culture you perpetuate. Reward roleplay, reward players for creating their own storylines and furthering the plot? You get those things, good and bad. Reward players for sitting there, doing nothing, and following the storyline you evolve rather than contributing themselves? You get that instead.

The advice in this case is simple: as you design your systems, your environment, your conflict resolution mechanic, and the world your characters are involved in? Be sure at every stage you reward those things which will promote the culture you're driving toward. Succeed, and the game almost (but not quite) runs itself - fail, and you'll have no end of friction in the oddest places as the systems crash into expectations, or players shape themselves based on different rewards.

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