Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Problem With Reward Systems in Gaming

This is a long time coming. I have some serious beef with Sony's Trophy system for the PS3 - and the lack of one for the PSP - the lack of one from Nintendo, and Microsoft's fuddling with their own system, which started the craze. The idea of writing about it has been lingering in the back of my head for a while now, and after getting Platinum in Uncharted 2, I can see this would be an opportune moment to do so.

Sony's Trophy system, the answer to Microsoft's Achievements, seems like a bastard child. Sony needed something to get gamers to buy into their side of the Console War. Like myself, many gamers will buy the 360 version simply because it has Achievements. When Uncharted's trophy patch hit, I was waist-deep in GamerScore and didn't really care too much about Sony's trophies, which is botched in many ways than one.

The trophies do seem like a good alternative to a simple point architecture. You have your bronze, silver and gold trophies, as well as the elusive platinum trophy for earning all trophies in a single retail title. There are very few PlayStation Network (PSN) games that offer a platinum trophy (WipEout HD and Trine come to mind) simply because they offer much more gameplay than, say, flOw. That, and they cost just as much as a full retail game. The 360's point system works in a way that retail games come with no more than 1000 GamerScore with a maximum of 50 achievements off the bat, while Arcade games have 200 GS and 12 achievements. They can add an additional 50 points to Arcade games through DLC, and up to 1250 for retail, however, some games go way beyond that (Halo 3 and Fallout 3 have a current standing of 1750 GS).

The problem with the hierarchy is that no developer seems to understand how daunting a feat is in a game.

Take, for example, Infamous, a phenomenal open-world, third person platformer from Sucker Punch, the guys behind Sly Cooper. One trophy that bugged the living piss out of was the "Casey Jones" trophy, which has you killing 25 enemies from atop a moving train. This was the trophy that kept me from getting platinum, as I had "Stunt Master" as another daunting trophy. The "Stunt Master" is appropriately rewarding, as you get a silver trophy for your troubles. The only problem is the "stunt list" is in the pause menu that says you've accomplished X amount of stunts out of 21 and tells you how to do a stunt that you have yet to do. There is no master list of stunts, just a single line that tells you one you have yet to perform. That, and some of the stunts are re-fucking-diculous.

"Casey Jones" may seem easy, but the only place you could possibly attain this is early in the game, when you are first returning power to the trains, and they are moving roughly half their full speed. It is here where enemies are littered amongst the rooftops that you would be able to pull of such a feat. However, there are nowhere near 25 enemies; you can count about 15. Luckily, the game saves your kill count when you die, so you could simply die and redo the section of the level.

Another pair of trophies that seem weird are the boss trophies. You are only awarded two trophies throughout the game for beating bosses, Sasha and Alden. Sasha is a pushover compared to all the enemies Alden spawns, yet she nets you a silver trophy and Alden scores you a bronze.

Let's go multiplatform, shall we? Let's take Dead Space, a game that I own for the 360. I'm using the trophy list from as reference here, as some trophies/achievements are secret. I will be comparing to my 360 Achievements, simply to see how each platform rewards it's gamers. Dead Space could an excellent example of balancing the rewards between systems. One trophy, "Maxed Out," awards you a gold trophy, while you earn 75 GS on the 360. Bravo. The "Legend Teller" achievement is 40 GS and a silver trophy. Good work. So you see, Dead Space can balance.

The problem with Sony's trophy system is they do nothing to let people know - asides from developers - how much each trophy's "point value" is. Devs could be limited trophy values simply because they had to give more "points" to another award, which nets it a higher trophy. "Casey Jones" could have been originally awarded a silver trophy, but due to restrictions from other trophies, they had to bump it's value down. This "restriction" forces devs to, dare I say, falsely award gamers with lower valued trophies simply because of Sony.

The Trophy system is not a mandate across all PS3 games, as the Achievement system is. When the Trophy update hit PS3s, Sony said it is up to developers to update their past games with Trophies. Some games that gamers were anxiously awaiting to hear the announcement, the only 3 on my shelf that do not have Trophies, are Resistance: Fall of Man, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and Heavenly Sword. Insomniac has an excuse, as at the time the Trophy update hit, they were hard at work on Quest for Booty and Resistance 2. However, you can take a handful of people, perhaps three to five, and have them come up with some Trophies, use code they would end up using in Resistance 2 and A Crack in Time, and release the patch. Heavenly Sword's developer, Ninja Theory, is working on a multiplatform game called Enslaved, which is not a Heavenly Sword sequel. It is not up to Ninja Theory for trophies, as the HS IP is owned by Sony, so they could have a small, internal team crank out trophies. At this point in time, however, it will never happen. With a lack of trophies, I will not go back to HS simply because it's too goddamned hard. The second boss? Yea, can't get past him.

Sony will not implement a Trophy system into the PSP, simply because they can't get their shit together and lock-down the PSP from hackers. They believe that if they do update the PSP with Trophies, making it the first handheld gaming system with a system-wide rewards system, hackers will tear it to shreds, and start unlocking Trophies maliciously, just to unlock it to have more without actually doing the work. This isn't me speaking, Sony has come out and said they won't because of this reason. I say this is Sony admitting the PSP's software is terrible when it comes to security.

Microsoft, on the other hand, doesn't limit how much GamerScore can be awarded to a single achievement. King Kong is a prime example, as it only has 9 achievements, all worth 100 points, save for one, worth 200 for beating the game. However, Microsoft does nothing to award gamers by fulling completing a game. In a recent dashboard update, if you head to your GamerCard on the dashboard, you will see a card reserved for completion percentages for number of achievements you have unlocked out of how many you can and your GamerScore over thetotal number of GamerScore. Below that, they show which games you have completed. This is the only area that I believe Sony has won over Microsoft in the whole "reward system," in that they give you a platinum trophy for earning all other trophies; I currently have 3 myself. The only thing 360 gamers can do is look at that quadruple number in their Game breakdown.

As for Nintendo, the lack of a reward system is off-putting to myself, as I don't necessarily complete games simply because there are no rewards in place. Retro Studios saves the day in Metroid Prime 3 and the Metroid Prime Trilogy. They first implemented the Medal system in Corruption, and further brought it to Prime and Echoes in the Trilogy compilation. Retro's Medal system trumps both Microsoft and Sony in that you can actually spend these Medals at an in-game store, unlocking art galleries, developer interviews and much more. However, the Prime series is the only Wii game that I can think of that actually has a rewards system. It doesn't surprise me that Nintendo isn't doing anything about it, as their online structure is complete horseshit compared to Microsoft and Sony.