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Incentives in Gaming

I recently wrote about Dishonored’s first major DLC, The Knife of Dunwall. My main gripe with it, and with the main campaign, was the lack of incentive to use most of the abilities or gadgets. The game was easy enough to finish just relying on Blink and the sleep darts, which represent less than 10% of all the abilities and gadgets the game offers. This is clearly a balance issue, but also a symptom of a larger problem. The game doesn’t have enough variety or challenge for you to need to change tactics. Using the same tactics with no change is generally boring, and if the game doesn’t give you a reason to change your strategy, then it’s a bad game.

To use a recent example, let’s talk about Mark of the Ninja. The polar opposite of Dishonored. It’s a 2D stealth game by Klei entertainment, and a fantastic example of how to properly incentivize a game. There are numerous gadgets and abilities, and each has its own specific functionality. Unlike Dishonored, it’s impossible to rely on just your favorite abilities; Mark of the Ninja will present many different situations for you to deal with. A tactic that works in one area likely won’t work somewhere else. With each encounter you face, you’ll need to survey the area, look at what items you still have left, and come up with a plan of attack.

For a short while, I was able to get through the game just by using the regular stealth kill. It wasn’t long until enemies were more closely grouped together, however. I might have been able to stealth kill one, but the others would quickly see me and kill me. I had to use a distraction item, or perhaps the environment. If there were three enemies grouped together, I could try to distract them with a sound cracker, try to blind them with the light distraction item, throw a dead body in front of them and have them accidentally shoot each other out of fear, etc. There are numerous options available, and all of them will be required at some point.

mark of the ninja

The game also presents new enemies later on that are invulnerable to your most basic attacks, requiring you to be more creative if you want to kill them. The stealth kill doesn’t work on the heavy guards unless they’re stunned, so you’ll need to use special items on them, find out how to avoid them, or even attempt to fight them in combat. By presenting new scenarios, along with regularly introducing new enemies, the game is able to be both challenging and fresh.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is also able to incentivize different gameplay styles through difficulty and challenge. Some enemies are quick and fast while others are slow and strong, so you’ll regularly switch between heavy and light attacks, not to mention that some attacks can be parried and countered easily while sometimes it’s better to just dodge roll out of the way. There are numerous traps, magic spells and range weapons you can use as well, with each having a specific functionality and use. The game is difficult enough that you’ll need to use everything at your disposal to be effective.

trolls

The game also has an alchemy system where you can mix potions and craft items before a major battle. The effects range from being able to see in the dark to extra health regen, to extra damage. These potions can make or break a battle, so regular alchemy and herb gathering is important. The leveling system allows for you to upgrade Geralt through three distinct paths, and each upgrade has a clear use (based on your gameplay style, of course). Upgrades aren’t minor like adding a 2% chance on hit to do 3% poison damage, but big like doubling the length of your Quen sign (shield magic), or being able to parry arrows in midair. By regularly pushing the player and having a high difficulty level, The Witcher 2 is able to incentivize all of its systems; you can try to ignore alchemy and traps, but it’ll always end in failure.

Moving on from good examples of incentivization, Valkyria Chronicles is another title that shows a lack of it. It has problems similar to Dishonored, in that there’s no need to use most of the content. It’s an SRPG with a fantastic plot, but easy gameplay, following the story of Welkin Gunther, leader of Squad 7, during the Second Europan War (it’s a very thin metaphor for World War 2). Despite being an SRPG, the game regularly falls victim to not properly incentivizing different options. How?

In the game, you have a squad of 50 unique soldiers to choose from, but you can only take 8 per battle. Furthermore, there are 3 story characters that give you extra BP per turn. This lets you make more moves per turn, and as a result they are practically mandatory for each battle. It’s also an unwritten rule that you always have an engineer with you; they are the only class that can repair tanks, particularly Welkin’s tank, since the game is over if it blows up. If there are a lot of tanks to be faced in battle, you should take lancers, the anti-tank class; if there are a lot of far away enemies, you should pick snipers, etc. You can also switch soldiers during battle, so you can fill your rank with scouts and shocktroopers, which will make up the backbone of your squad, and then add others if needed.

Just pick your favorites. It really doesn't matter which.

Just pick your favorites. It really doesn’t matter which.

Class selection in itself isn’t the big problem; some classes are simply more situational than others. The real problem is with the specific characters; you’ll generally pick a few soldiers you really like, and then use them for the rest of the game as they’re pretty interchangeable. Each character has their own backstory and gameplay attributes that tie into them, but they’re fairly unimportant. Lynn has lowered defense on paved roads, Kevin has lowered attack while in a trench, etc., but the game really isn’t challenging enough for you to worry about minor details like these. Why? In the later levels, it’s extremely easy to just pick a shocktrooper and rush to the exit, or set a defensive line of scouts and watch as all your enemies run into their fire and get slaughtered.

The upgrade system is also a bit of a mess. Upgrades are usually given on a linear path, but about two-thirds of the way into the game, you’ll be provided three ways to further level up each unit’s guns. One choice will have more damage per bullet, but less bullets per gun; another has less damage per bullet, but more bullets; and then the last one eschews extra damage and bullets for a special effect, such as making the enemy unable to fire during their next turn.

This would be a great choice to have to make, but one choice is clearly overpowered versus the other two. Otherwise, whenever you tell a unit to attack someone, they use up all the bullets in their magazine, and they’re generally pretty accurate. As such, the amount of bullets and damage per bullet doesn’t matter; only the overall damage per magazine. The third choice is often useless as by that point in the game as well. Enemies can easily die after one attack, and if not it barely takes a second round of fire to drop them. There’s no point in letting them live for very long so long-term effects like “cannot shoot during the next round” are useless.

The game also has numerous orders and battle potentials, but I never found the need to use any of them. Enemies will generally stay in one place until you engage them, so it’s easy enough to just move your men forward and kill any enemies you encounter without worrying about an ambush or counter-attack. By the time you’ve gained the really useful orders and potentials, your squad is extremely overpowered; I once beat a level by having a single shocktrooper run to the end of the map and capture the base, without engaging enemies. The level was basically one long corridor with dozens of enemies in the way and thanks to the armor upgrades I had by then, each bullet did less than one point of damage, (My shocktrooper had 350 health points.) and to top it off, your units regenerate health each round.

As a final example of this, the largest battle in the game has 6 enemies bases, over one hundred units, and a super tank that takes 12 tank rounds to kill instead of the usual 2, on top of its regenerating health.  The way I beat it was to wait a turn so I’d have a full set of BP, and then use them all the next round to attack the tank with mine, repeating the tactic on the next turn. No enemies engaged my troops, and the only one that tried to destroy my tank missed every time.

This is the seventh level, out of 22. It is also the hardest.

This is the seventh level, out of 22. It is also the hardest.

The one thing the game incentivizes is beating each level as quickly as possible, and with as few friendly casualties as possible, and these “tactics” are usually the best way to do that. You should never have to outright ignore a large part of the game, but Valkyria Chronicles puts you in that situation.

Going back to positive kinds of incentives in games, scoring systems can be used to achieve this. Devil May Cry from instance has a combo system where your combo only goes up if you mix a variety of moves, and play well by not getting hit. Spamming the same move over and over again will actually cause your combo meter to decrease. Higher combos mean you get more items (including healing items) from fallen enemies, and more money to spend on upgrades.

Bulletstorm is even better in this respect. While in DMC you’re encouraged to use different attacks,  you can use the same weapons and styles with no penalty. In Bulletstorm you’re regularly encouraged to switch weapons and to use them in extremely creative ways. Getting headshot after headshot will yield few points, but kicking someone in the air, juggling them with the shotgun and then causing them to explode in midair with the flare gun will yield much more points. These points are needed for upgrades, but also to buy ammo. While spamming the same attack could still work in DMC, doing so in Bulletstorm means you’ll quickly run out of ammo as there’s no other way to get it.

bulletstorm skillshots

Incentivization is important. If there’s no incentive to play creatively, or use all the weapons and abilities at your disposal, then the game is unbalanced and boring. No one wants to play an unbalanced multiplayer game, and unbalanced singleplayer games can be just as bad. If the game has no incentive to use all the systems at your disposal, it means that the developers have wasted their time on content that no one used, not to mention that the game is just very repetitive.

Is there a game you think that has a unique way to incentivize the gameplay, or is horribly, horribly unbalanced? If so, feel free to post it in the comments!

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