Fixing A Few Reward / Punishment Paradoxes In Video Games

Why do we play games? “For the challenge!” said early developers. Not for emotion, nor for socializing, not for fun or enjoyment or exploration, or even relaxation. Before sandbox and social games, developers had the idea that the only reason why you would want to play a game is to be challenged by its gameplay, forced to practice to get better, and overcome the challenge. And so we begin our journey into paradoxical gameplay mechanics that have kept casual players (the majority of market) out of games for decades.

1) Rings / Lives Paradox:

The first reward/punishment contradiction I heard of was in Sonic The Hedgehog. You collected rings. If you have rings on you and you get hit by an enemy you loose your rings and must collect the few you can that have fallen off of you or get more. As long as you have 1 ring on you, you can afford to get hit and not die. If you want extra lives you need to collect 100 rings. Collecting 100 rings is not easy to do (if you’re a casual or newbie) and if you aren’t a good player you’ll lose everything trying to get to 100.

The problem with this is that it rewards players who do NOT need extra lives and punishes players who DO need them. This is the equivalent of starting a charity that donates money to rich people to reward them for being rich. If I get 100 rings I get an extra life, why? I’m a good player, the act of being able to collect 100 rings means I can avoid getting hit by enemies and therefor don’t need extra lives. While players like my mom, who could really benefit from extra lives, don’t get them…

You would think this was a good way to reward players who were patient, and took their time to collect rings. But this is negated by the fact that one mistake makes you loose all your rings and takes you down to 10-20.

This is why it’s a paradox. It rewards players who are good with something that they don’t need, and punishes players who are bad by taking away something that they do need.

My Solution:
There should be two counters for Rings. One counter shows how many rings you currently have and the other shows how many total you collected in this level. You should be rewarded with an extra life when your TOTAL for the level hits 100. That way even if you have 90 rings, get hit, and lose them all you can still collect a few more and get your extra life. This rewards players who know they aren’t very good at the game but are still willing to put in the work to collect 100 rings and earn an extra life.

2) Health / Speed Paradox:

There was a time when the less health you had, the slower your character ran. This was a trademark in games like Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, Code Veronica, & Outbreak 1 & 2. If you were only 1 hit away from death you literally crawled at a snail’s pace. It took a good 5 seconds just to turn around. Lower health = slower speed. There are still a few games that still do this subtly.

The problem with this is that it is realistic but illogical for a video game (which is why it isn’t done like this anymore). It accelerates death. It’s basically a trap. The reason why you got hurt is because something got you and you couldn’t get away, so it punishes you by making you go slower, thus making it more likely for you get hurt again. So it creates a downward spiral. It punishes you with a problem that is difficult to fix.

My Solution:
What if we reversed it? What if the lower your health is, the faster your character ran (think adrenaline rush). This would create a whole new strategy to playing. Bad players who needed help getting out of a sticky situation got the help they needed. And good players could use the adrenaline rush as a strategy, they could purposely lower their health so they’re 1 hit away from death, which would make them run at the fastest speed possible. High risk, high reward. The pros get a challenge and the novices aren’t punished so severely for getting injured. 

3) Health /Vision Paradox:

As the years went by, first person shooters became dominant, run and gun mentality set in, and little by little the entire concept of a health bar vanished in the name of creating a fast paced game where you didn’t have to stop to look for health. Instead when you got injured your health would lower and you’d have to wait a moment for your health to go back up. If you got injured you could literally ‘wait it off’ and you’d be fine again in a few seconds. But that wasn’t good enough. Since hud menus went away or were minimized designers decided they would use a different method to let us know we were low and health.

The screen would get bloody or turn black and white, dark, blurry, or red when you got low on health. The closer you got to death the harder it was to see anything.

The Problem: This is the equivalent of hosing burning victims with gasoline as a way to punish them for getting themselves lit. And it really pisses off players. It looks realistic and all but again, accelerates death just like the health / speed paradox.

If I get hit a lot, I need to get away and go to a safe place, the screen is so muddy/blurry/black & white/dark/red that I can’t see where the enemies or safe places to hide are. Thus leading me further to my death. You’re basically saying, “Dying is bad! The closer you get to death, the more I’m going to punish you and help you die quicker!”.

Now I can see how this would encourage a player to cool down and hide for while until they regained their health but in situations where you’re ambushed or need to run through a crowd of enemies this works against you. It forces you to engage all enemies and sit behind walls hiding, having a shoot out, until everyone is dead. Then it’s safe to run through. You’re forcing me to play a game your way just because of a design decision.

My Solution:
Use only the edges (or the corners) of the screen as a health bar. When you get shot at or hit, the top edge of your screen turns red, then the bottom, then left and right. When all 4 are lit red you are one hit away from death. This way you have a clear view yet also an easy reminder that you’re getting low on health.

▼ Paradoxical Game Mechanics That Have Already Been Fixed:

I figured I might as well make this a collection to share with everyone. If you find anymore contradictory game mechanics let me know in the comments, I’ll post them here.

4) Position / Power-ups / Position Paradox:

Powerups, such as turbo, missles to fire that other players, invincibility, mines (banana peals), and mass punishment (slows down all other players except for you), in racing games are featured mainly in social racing games. Basically, boxes containing powerups spawn on the race track and as drivers run over the boxes the game gives them a random powerup which they can use to get ahead in the race.

The problem begins with the respawning of powerup boxes: Once a player drives over a powerup and picks it up it takes a while for it to respawn for other drivers to pick up. So drivers in the front of the line are almost guaranteed to hit a powerup box because there’s no one in front of them to take it, while drivers behind end up with nothing. Because players in front have access to more powerups if they find a powerup they don’t like they can immediately use it and make room for another one, while players in back usually save their powerups because it’s harder to get them. If there’s a line of 6-7 powerups and there’s 8-10 racers, the 5-7 racers in front grab the powerups and with only 1 or 2 remaining players behind are forced to carefully slow down in order to grab the remaining powerup without missing it. If you’re in last place, it’s because you’re slow, and because the whole line of racers beat you to the powerups you have to go even slower in order to be sure you pick the last 1 or 2 remaining powerups and not miss it.

The next problem is the powerups themselves. Racers in first place who are given invincibility, turbo, and mass punishment will increase their chance of staying in first and decrease everyone elses chances. Players in last place won’t get any help from mines (banana peels) or invincibility. If you leave what powerup the drivers get to random chance you’d have a very unbalanced game.

Already Fixed:
Developers have created a handicap system for power-ups that controls who gets what kind of powerup. Players in the back end up getting turbo, missiles, and mass punishment in order to help them get towards the front of the line, while players in first place are prevented from getting mass punishment, turbo, and sometimes mines. 

5) Starting Position / Finishing Position Paradox:

Drivers are randomly put in a 2 tier vertical line at the starting line. One or two cars starts out in front of everyone else, and every else is lined up behind them. After 3 or 4 laps, whoever crosses the finish line first gets first place.

The problem is if every car accelerates equally and has the same exact handling, and max speed, those who are at the front of the line have an unfair advantage and a greater chance at getting first place, while those in back have more odds against them. The driver in front can see the road clearly, doesn’t have any distractions, isn’t getting banged around and doesn’t have to fight to get to the front of the line. 

Those behind however, not only have find ways to cut corners and go faster but need to struggle to fight to the front of the line, and are distracted and bumped around by other drivers. If the driver in first place cuts corners too then he’s impossible to pass.

My brother and I have played endless racing games as kids on Playstation and this was what bothered us the most. It was actually one of the reasons why we stopped playing. We both have the same skill and pretty much knew whichever one of us was towards the front of the line when we starting the race, that person would win. The old Gran Tourismo and Need for Speed games on Playstation were like this. You had to just somehow be good AND get lucky. This was long before developers discovered the casual gamers market.

Already Fixed:
Developers learned quickly, and as the years have gone by more racing games have added handicaps to try to give all players a better chance at winning. Those in first place have slightly decreased stats (max speed, acceleration, handling) and those in last place get a slight speed boost to help them. Players however have responded by gaming exaggerated handicap mechanics. They would stay in second place for the majority of the race while the driver in first place was penalized then in the last lap overtake him and grab first place. To which developers responded by re-balancing their handicaps to be more subtle. Race for fun and social racing games featured these kinds of handicaps.

Racing simulators on the other hand can’t do this so they found ways to balance the race by using the environment and the track. The number of laps increased, to give players in back a chance at catching up, and the tracks themselves grew longer, with more twists and curves, again, to test the skills of the drivers and not let starting position affect the race too much. That’s why real races have more than 3-4 laps, (Nascar races have 300 – 500 laps) it tests factors like endurance, long term strategy, fuel economy, instead of just whom got ahead of whom.

I’d have to say personally I think the track design has seen the biggest changes over the years.

6) Turbo / Finishing Position Paradox:

Racing games with Turbo would only exaggerate the starting position / finishing position paradox. Drivers in first place have a clear view of the road and can use turbo more efficiantly, while those behind bump into each other and waste their precious Turbo.

Already Fixed:
So developers did some re-balancing. The only ways to get Turbo is to (1) closely follow another driver. This fills up your Turbo and allows you to overtake them. Whoever is in first can’t do this so it acts as a natural disadvantage for being in first. Those in last get a boost by being able to suck up turbo from everyone in front of them. (2) Pass dangerously close to NPC drivers or driver on the opposite side of the road. This creates a high risk, high reward mechanic. You could gain lots of turbo this way but also crash and get yourself in last place instantly. This mechanic rewards players who are willing to take risks to make up for their lack of ability to get in first place. And (3) Drifting around corners earns you Turbo. This rewards players will skills regardless of what place they’re in.


These mechanics feel like they where originally introduced to create a challenge to the player or reward good players and punish bad players. And if the purpose of a game is to make its player better at playing, then yes some of these game mechanics are successful. But if the goal of a game is to be enjoyed by the player regardless of their skill, then these mechanics ruin that possibility. 

More developers are discovering that gamers who play for the sake of a challenge are only a small percentage of the overall game market. The real money is in selling games to casual players, emotional players, and social players. People who don’t play nessessarily for the challenge but for relaxation, fun, or emotional reasons. This is why franchises like Mario Kart and the Sims outsell masterpieces like the Gears of War, Mass Effect, Halo, and Metal Gear Solid series. And why more people play Farmville than any of those games combined. It’s not always about a challenge.

Of course, some might argue, that removing some of these mechanics would only benefit the pussy-assed casual players while removing the challenges enjoyed by hard core gamers. To that I say… “Sorry friend, but it’s not about you ‘gamers’ at all, it’s all about the money and if making games more enjoyable to more people means selling more copies… Then, that’s something no one can stop”. 

Bonus: 2 real world economic paradoxes that affect us all.

Paradox of Thrift – During a recession, individual savings attempt to rise in order to cope with the lack of work, but in turn, wide scale savings accelerate economic recession because individuals are not putting money back into the economy but into their savings. People’s reaction to a recession cause it to worsen. This is probably why governments try to downplay recessions.

Resource / Success Paradox – The poor get poorer, the rich get richer. Basically, those who have resources are able to use those resources to get more resources. Those who don’t have resources fall further into a pit of deprivation. Yes there are ‘rags to riches’ stories out there. But for every ‘rags to riches’ story you’ve heard there are millions of ‘riches to riches’ and ‘rags to rags’ stories.