Form in Game Rewards (Or: How to squeeze out every last drop of dopamine from your brain)

There are many ways that a game can reward its player. In modern games we have come to appreciate the ability of concrete achievements and unlockables to cause players to game longer and harder. Congratulations, you’ve killed 1000 men in your manshoot game (as Rock Paper Shotgun so affectionately calls them) so you get a new manshooting gun, go forth and try not to get manshotted, my friend! However, there exists a family of rewards that are far more subtle in nature: “form” based rewards. Put simply, they are aesthetic rewards with little to no gameplay consequence. They exist simply to build an atmosphere that is conducive to enjoyment.

Games generally try to do the following things: induce flow and/or build-up and release tension. Many games are combinations of these, but the games I will describe are pretty squarely in one camp or the other, which will make it easier to link the use of form to each of them. Let’s take a look at some ways form is used in games to promote flow or enhance the build-up and release of tension.

  • Progressive Form – Where the form becomes increasingly immersive to reward the player as they make progress.
  • Release-Centered Form – Where the primary function of form is to enhance the reward of tension release.
  • Tension-Centered Form – Keep every word from the previous description, change “release” to “build-up.” Hurray, we saved about 7 characters! Uh oh, now we’re over by about 30. Moving on…

Progressive Form

A great example of Progressive Form is the 2010 indie game “BIT.TRIP Runner.” In Bit Trip Runner, your level ups have no practical purpose. Their only effect is to change Commander Video’s trail (increasingly colorful sparkles, finally into a rainbow) and the background music. The beginning music is spartan – a single electronic pattern. The first level up introduces melody to the background; the second: a prominent bass-line; the third: driving percussion. The final level up, though, counter-intuitively drops out everything previously added, leaving a soothingly smooth melody line. This makes perfect sense, though – the form of Bit Trip Runner contributes to the development of flow, and the music should be amenable to that. [Side note: In my opinion, the fundamental flaw of BIT.TRIP Runner is that the game mechanics battle against the form, which halts flow.] The way that the form is structured mirrors the structure of the game, there are no distinct tension and release sections of the game (like aiming a shot and taking it in basketball) – the game is essentially flat in terms of tension, but the form gives the player a sense of progress and accomplishment while maintaining flow.

Release-Centered Form

Peggle is one of the undisputed masters of release-centered form, in my humble opinion. A critic at one point described Peggle as a game that will make your eyes bleed rainbows of joy – that description is quite apt, just check out this video. Even if you’ve never played Peggle before, can you sense the level of accomplishment that the game is conveying through its form? The pitch rising as the score increases, the anticipatory drum roll as your ball gets dangerously close to the triggering peg, and the ensuing EXTREME FEVER musical explosion into “Ode To Joy” all contribute to this feeling of glee. (And that’s just looking at the sound design.)

The game developers went to great lengths to pin the form down. From Wikipedia:

Though the game was technically completed within a year, PopCap opted to spend more time to polish it, improving the visuals and background images. The team spent time refining the various sound effects used in the game, in order to provide an appropriate atmosphere … The team found it helped to create a defining moment at the end of each level when the player is moments from clearing the final peg. This initially was programmed as a simple message stating “Extreme Fever” and the music of Ode to Joy as a placeholder. [PopCap’s studio director] wanted to recreate the “wild sounds and visuals” that were present on winning pachinko games. However, the team found that the players reacted well to the simpler placeholder elements, and the team focused on improving the presentation of these, including adding a zoom on the current ball as it neared the last orange peg to be cleared.

Tension-Centered Form

Frozen Synapse is the stark opposite of Peggle. It is stripped bare – there are no fantastical explosions, no music to pump up your ego at the end of the level, only an atmosphere that makes you feel like you are doing something very, very important with real consequences. The dark, pulsing, yet oddly mellow soundtrack is paired with simplified visuals that hark back to Introversion’s DEFCON – fertile ground to grow the tension. In fact, it thrives on tension and release just like Peggle does, but the form contributes to the tension buildup rather than the tension release. However, if you’ve ever had to undergo a high level of tension, you will know that just the act of relieving that tension is extremely gratifying, even if it isn’t paired with massive applause like in Peggle.  Just look at the punch line in the video: “but destruction is the only catharsis!” The form is designed to pump up the player as much as possible, and leaves the release to its own devices without any pomp and circumstance.


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