Game rewards: how to keep the players in game

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How the game rewards can push away the players and kill your game

Video games are about game rewards and emotions. The player gets satisfied by beating the hard level, by getting a higher score than other players or by getting rare skins. 2 years ago psychologists researchers were sure that every game reward causes our brain to release dopamine — the happiness hormone. But now they’re changed their looks and we, the developers, can use new research to change the game design to earn more.

game reward explained

The problem with game rewards explained on rats

In 1930 psychologist Burrhus Skinner made a famous experiment with rats. He placed a rat in a box with a lever connected to the food dispenser. After some time the rat accidentally pushed the lever and got food. Few tries later the rat learned that he would get food every time he pushed the lever.

skinner's box explains rewards

When Skinner presented his trained rat to other psychologists they came up with a theory about dopamine release. They thought that the rat gets dopamine from eating the food and feels happy and satisfied. Therefore, the rat must like the food.

But modern research shows us that rats are pushing the button to get the dopamine and not the food. In rough words the rat got addicted with dopamine and does what provides him with it.

dopamine and game rewards

Games work in the same manner: the player does some action, gets rewarded and feels the dopamine rush. This experience will be addictive but won’t give the satisfying feel. We automatically open Facebook or Instagram apps just to look at random photos. We won’t be satisfied with it, rather, we will get our dopamine dose.

Many games are using this effect to make the players addicted. For example, they give the player resources or loot boxes for simple actions like login. Basically, the player just pushes the lever just like a lab rat.

How to make a valuable reward that make the players enjoy the game

The same psychologists divide game rewards into internal and external.

  • Internal reward is the satisfaction the player gets from his own actions. For example, from beating the level in the first try or from finding an easter egg.
  • External rewards are items, resources, experience and other numbers. They give the player some motivation to play further and sometimes expand game mechanics.

Internal reward is all about joy and fun. The game doesn’t force you to play perfectly or to master all the game mechanics. Very few gamers would want to play the same game over and over if it won’t offer something new. The player will eventually get bored and switch to something else.

external and internal rewards

To make a game less boring the developers use external game rewards

And they use them more often than you can thought:

  • Experience. In most action RPGs you gain experience from beating enemies. Even if you don’t want to fight, you’d be still interested in clearing another dungeon to level up;
  • Resources. Turn-based strategies are so addictive because after pressing the “End Turn” button you’ll get money, resources, reinforcements and inventions. It is difficult to exit the game because of knowledge that you guaranteed to get rewards;
  • Customization. Game gives the player new armor and weapons, clothes and cars, new abilities and mechanics. The player wants to unlock and try something new.

Internal game reward is the reason for players to start playing the game. And external rewards are why the player keeps playing, coming back and paying for content. To make a both profitable and enjoyable game you need to balance these game rewards.

effect of game rewards

How to give good game rewards and keep the players

To understand this you need to think about common motivation. In every job the internal reward is a perception of a well-done job and the external is money. Would you like to work if there were no paychecks? You would, because you surely have a hobby which pays you only in good emotions and it’s enough.

What are the differences between hobby and job? The job is an obligation and it’s boring. Same goes with the games.

You need to create a perfect hobby for the player, enjoyable and meditative, where he can relax and forget about everything. And then you must periodically give him rewards to stimulate him to return. The players are more willing to launch the game once more when they know what they’ll get.

Second thing you need to know is that reward must be deserved. For example, imagine the game where you click the button and get 1 million coins. It’s not fun. But there are a whole subgenre of games like this: clickers. These games make clicking fun by rewarding the player with upgrades, achievements and cool art design.

The trick is to make a reward feel valuable and deserved. Clicking the button doesn’t need any skill, so the player doesn’t feel that he deserves that 1 million coins. But just 1 coin is a reasonable number. To boost the value of coins the clicker games offer expensive upgrades, for example, 100 coins for an auto clicking tool. By doing this the game devalues the coins and shows the player that earning 100 coins is a difficult task and only most endurants can click 100 times.

clicker rewards

Recognition is a valuable game reward

Any multiplayer game has a scoreboard where the players can check their skill level described by numbers. But some games go further and appreciate particular players by titles like “MVP”, “Best Play of the Game”, “Best Medic in Round” and so on. These little things boost confidence in players (“Hey, I’m not the worst”) and motivate them to play more to improve their skill.

This trick can be applied to single player games too: the famous 3 stars at the end of Angry Birds levels. Nearly 15% players will try to get 3 stars at every level just because it is a valuable challenge.

The last tip of game rewards is to keep the reward amount at all cost. The study showed that if there are plenty of rewards in the beginning of a game, the player will expect the same amount in the rest of it. And if you’ll stop giving them, the player will be disappointed and offended.

Many games are making mistakes by giving the player a full arsenal at the very start. The player tries all things, realizes that there is nothing more and leaves the game. If you want to surprise a player with rewards for every 5 minutes in game — be sure that you have enough content.

Fifth and last trick: daily quests. Remember that rat in a box? He was pushing the lever to get dopamine and not the food. Daily quests and challenges are the same lever-driven dopamine injector. By using daily challenges you can create an army of zombies who will launch the game only to complete the challenges and exit immediately.


To make the player satisfied with game rewards you need to make them valuable to him:

  • make him feel that he deserved the goods;
  • give rewards in exchange for understandable actions;
  • always keep almost unreachable reward for the best players so they will have something to look for.

Do not use daily tasks thoughtlessly: it may change a game from a hobby to a job. And the players won’t like this change.



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