Notes on a game design philosophy – player motivation

There’s been some discussion of my previous post at Storygames and on reddit. One request was for a  “200 word elevator pitch” version. So, after some thinking and revision, here is such:

Players judge RPGs (rulesets, sessions, campaigns) based on the pattern of rewards they experience or anticipate. To design good games, you need to design for these rewards. The whole picture is incredibly complex, so you need to focus mostly on individual rewards and only a little on their interactions. The two most powerful types of reward are social (e.g. approval of your resourcefulness, creativity, or just fun-causing) and game-experiential (e.g. feeling fear, power fantasy, wonder at the imagined environment). Other rewards include the technical (e.g. rules mastery and enjoyment of applying procedures), and the game-external (e.g. learning to lead a small group, learning to converse better).

All of these rewards can be immediate (they are just enjoyable right now) or meaningful (they are rewarding because they have value for some larger aim beyond the game), or both. Meaning rewards are powerful, because of that link to larger aims and thus to the goal of “living a good life” as the player defines it. Meaning rewards are harder to arrange than immediate ones, but if you can tap into meaning, you can piggyback on the power of all our evolved drives. This is maybe where the most powerful games come from.


  1. As the title says, this is part of my “Notes on a game design philosophy”. It’s not meant as a comprehensive theory of all players; it’s meant a model I can use to think better about design.
  2. My main motive for writing about design is to expose my internal model so that it can be criticised. One corollary of this is that I’m only going to talk about stuff I understand — I’m not even going to mention things that don’t (yet) fit.
  3. I’m pretty sure that the above is right, as far as it goes. I may, however, have missed something important. Exception — note the “maybe” in the last sentence. That is something I conjecture, but am not convinced of.
  4. Edit, about 10 hours after first posted: added “beyond the game” to first sentence of second para. Adds clarity, and brings it to exactly 200 words.

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