Incentive Based Games Design

Sandy Pug Games
7 min readMar 8, 2020

At their root, systems are simply methods of encouraging certain behaviors, and thinking about your game, or even your artwork in general, in these terms can be a helpful way to analyze the work.

Think about your favourite game. Think about what kind of experiences you have in that game most often — do you end up fighting monsters, looting caves, having cool conversations, solving mysteries? You can expand this to any interactive medium too, and even non-interactive ones if you’re feeling froggy. In Video Games, think about what kind of actions you take as a character most often, for example.

Chances are the thing you’re thinking about is an Incentivized Behavior. Which is to say that at some point, the person who made the thing you’re imagining sat down and said “I want the person interacting with this art to do x, y, and z” and here you are, you big conformist, doing exactly that. Unless your not, but we’ll get to your rebellious ass later, comrade.

So let’s dig in to this just a little bit.

Thinking about systems in these terms involves breaking almost everything in the system down into incentives. It’s likely your game, even if its a very light storytelling experience, has some form of incentives. It can be a really concrete and obvious one, such as XP, or it can be a subtle one, such as giving a player the opportunity to play a card or say something cool. Incentives are commonly understood in dry or mechanical terms — like the aforementioned XP — but incentives work just as well when they’re based on more abstract or unexpected ideas. Think about things like Rolling A Big Die or Touching The Cool Stones. Even if those incentives tend to lead into more systemic or mechanical ones, they still exist as an incentive in and of themselves. You could perhaps break these down into Mechanical Incentives and Aesthetic Incentives, if you find it helpful.

An example; In Blood Rage, the board game designed by Eric Lang, players can acquire powerful units to play such as a Fire Giant or a Kraken. The miniatures for these creatures are beautiful, and are much bigger in scale than all the other minis in the game. Simply possessing one of these minis in your army is, itself, an Aesthetic Incentive. You want the mini, because it looks cool, it’s big, and you can make big growly noises at the table. That these minis also have enormous mechanical powers is a seperate Incentive, but both come together to incentivize the same behaviour — aggression, which is the core behaviour Blood Rage is trying to incentivize.

Similarly, don’t write off your lore or storytelling as lacking in incentives. The way you present your system matters a great deal too — if all your art shows grand heroes on epic quests, but your game is actually about small problems being solved in small ways, your incentives are going to clash. This even extends to layout — what rules or lore does your book highlight most strongly?

Let’s do a small exercise. Take a mechanic you’re familiar with. It can be from your game or another. Look it over, read the rules, and ask yourself what kind of action this encourages from the person reading it. Does this mechanic nudge someone to push their luck, or play it safe? Does it encourage them to ask questions during play? Does it encourage them to seek out treasure, or does it encourage them to micromanage their inventory? If this is your own game, try to take a step back and imagine you’re reading these rules for the first time.

Now, ask yourself if that’s what you really want your game to be doing, and if it’s at odds with any of the other behaviors you want to incentivize. A game that’s trying to make its players both push their luck and play cautiously is going to be a lot harder to make fun and engaging than one that’s constantly asking its players to push their luck and offering opportunities to do so.

Oh right, opportunities. Ok so simply put, an incentive is strong if it’s got a lot of chances to be used, and it becomes stronger the more times it’s used in a given interaction with the system (A session of a game, for example). It’s often ok to have contradictory incentives if those incentives opportunities are balanced against one another — if you want your game to be about Pushing Your Luck, you might include a mechanic that encourages cautious play with a low number of opportunities, for example.

jesus christ this is grim

Generally speaking, have lots of Opportunities for the mechanics you feel Incentivize your core Behaviours, and fewer Opportunities for the mechanics you feel disincentivize your core behaviours.

As a way of examining your work, this exercise is very scalable, and you really ought to be employing it from the ground up — ask what individual mechanics do to encourage certain behaviors, ask how they interact with others to reinforce or detract from certain behaviors, ask how the overall game encourages these and so on.

But Nem, people say D&D encourages dungeon crawling but we never dungeon crawl in my gaaaame

This is sometimes a thing. Lots of games incentivized behaviours are actually at odds with player expectation, or emergent behaviours (a fancy way to say “Stuff you came up with on your own”) uh, emerge, from a system. As a player, this is usually fine, if you’re having fun with a game, it doesn’t really matter if you’re playing it “properly”. Who cares, I’m not your dad.

But as a designer, this is the kind of stuff you have to be very very aware of. If people are interacting with your system in an unexpected way, it’s interesting and exciting but it’s a sign you maybe goosed up a little. It often means people won’t be engaging with what you may have considered the core mechanics, which you obviously spent a lot of time on, which turns out to be a waste when everyone just wants to play with the inventory system you wrote at 2am or something.

ahem

Also, remember that Emergent Behaviour is almost always still Incentivized, it’s just not incentivized intentionally.

Here’s a great example; In Dark Souls, Armour has relatively minimal effects on your character outside of their roll speed, the damage reduction it provides is negligible, and most players will realize very early on that they can wear just about whatever armour they like without worrying about it too much.

Enter: Fashion Souls

https://darksouls3.wiki.fextralife.com/Fashion+Souls

By removing any strong incentive to dress for mechanical benefit, players are left with the aesthetic incentive. They are encouraged, through the mechanics, to get Fresh2Death.

This framework is also easily adapted to the real world, as our world really is a series of systems built to encourage or discourage certain actions and behaviours, and examining these real world systems can be good for a variety of reasons, such as;

  1. Grants a deeper understanding of systems generally
  2. Makes you absolutely furious at the transparent injustice baked into our world at a systemic level

Take, for instance, the prison system in the United States. Prison is unpleasant, which for many is the Incentive to Not Go To Prison. But Prisons are also paid by the cell, they are on commission. And prisoners are exempt from anti-slavery laws, and are used as free labour across the country. These “mechanics” Incentivize prisons being full, and as there are many many many more opportunities for these incentives to trigger than the Not Go To Prison one, it’s fair to say Prisons, as a system, Incentivize keeping as many people as possible in them for as long as possible.

Here’s a small sheet I made that might help you with this framework. Along the top are Behaviors, along the side are Concepts. Go ahead and make a copy of the sheet, and rename the Behaviors to actual things you wish to encourage in your system. Try and be snappy, Behaviors that are very complex require very complex systems which are hard, and I’m very lazy. Rename the Concepts to actual mechanics or lore you’re including, and mark each box on the sheet with “Incentivizes” or “Disincentivizes” or “Neither” depending on what you think it does. You can use the last box at the end to write some thoughts down as to why you feel the way you do. Or not. See above for my feelings vis-a-vi being Your Dad.

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