Videogames are designed around a core element: the player. The player’s role is to carry out actions aimed to get a reward, within the limits set by rules of the game. John Hopson has coined it “contingencies“: a set of rules under which the player acts, getting rewards and reinforcements. Experiencing different ways of rewards, different patterns of player’s response can be found.Therefore, it is necessary to keep in mind what are the most appropriate contingencies that force the player to follow a specific behavioral activity at stake.
Contingencies, according to Hopson, are divided in “ratios” and “intervals“. Ratios, implie that rewards are handed out after a certain number of completed actions, and are divided into fixed ratios (eg: to kill a specific number of enemies to get a reward) and variable ratios (the number of actions needed to be performed changes every time). The presence of the ratios in-game also includes the presence of temporal lapses that tie the game moments together; those temporal lapses are actually slowdowns during the game-action that tend to occur after the player obtains the reward. It ‘important to note that the gameplay tends to increase proportionally in intensity, as we approach the completion of actions. The length of the pause is then directly proportional to the number of required actions, and by this, there will be a proportional decrease in terms of intensity, as the player receive his reward. It becomes imperative, for Game Designers, care about those pauses, in which there is a reduction in motivation, and expose user experience to new dynamics and new aspects in game.
Variables ratios, however, obey different rules: the rewards are obtained after a number of actions that changes every time. This feature subjects the player on a strong game intensity, that will inevitably cause a significant reduction of pauses, making entertainment and motivation more constant and persevering.
To complete the contingencies’ profile, we find the “intervals”, which provide reinforcements after a precise period of time, established by the Game Designer. A good example would be a power-up coming out 10 minutes after the last power-up gained by the player. Intervals can be described as: fixed intervals, when a regular amount of time divides the reward apparition; variable intervals, when the time lapse is always different after each reward. The patterns are very similar to ratios: over fixed intervals, the player, after a reward and a subsequent moment of pause, respond faster and faster until he receives another bonus, but in variable intervals, comes a constant attention from the user, as bonuses might reappear in a short time. In variable intervals, however, there is a milder pace in terms of game-action compared to a fixed interval, since the motivation to play is not complied from work needed to be done.
What rules take the player to continue his activities with high intensity and a continued stubbornness?
To this question, Hopson proposes the use of variable ratios, as each answer, or action, is able to generate chances of getting a reward. The more participants perceive the proximity of reinforcements, even randomly generated, the more they will be motivated to play long and hard. Nevertheless, player’s motivation will be sustained by a certain factor of uncertainty or randomness, which can stir up the action and player’s expectations (there’s always a reason to play for). It will be up to game designers to prevent and avoid possible unexpectations to the players.