Game Design: A Story Of Guilt

I used to play this game called Warframe. It was a fun multiplayer shooter where you were a badass space ninja and you jumped off walls and killed hordes of enemies. Cool stuff.

But as a game designer, I was really interested when they began announcing new end-game content for guilds. Warframe obviously had a guild system, but the guilds didn’t actually do anything: at least, not until the developers announced the Solar Rails system. Basically, a bunch of unexplored regions of space were added to the game, and guilds have to create Solar Rails to access those regions. A guild that controls a Solar Rail can impose taxes on it, but other guilds can build their own Solar Rails and challenge a pre-established one. It sounded like a system with tons of dramatic potential, and I was interested.

If two guilds are having a Solar Rail conflict, you can enter a special mission to fight for your guild. The conflict lasts for a certain period of time, and after the period ends, the guild that had the most people fighting for them wins the conflict. You can also set up battle payments for outsiders to come fight for your guild as well, so you generally wanted to make sure you were offering a higher payment than your enemy. But there was nothing stopping any one person from just running the mission a million times by themselves.

Actually, there was: the Solar Rail conflict mission was so blindingly boring that no one ever wanted to do it. Since then, the developers have been reworking the Solar Rail system heavily, and they’ve undoubtedly made Solar Rail conflict missions much more fun. But back when the system came out, back when this story took place, they were extremely boring. And they didn’t offer any meaningful rewards, either. No experience or loot drops or money, no extrinsic rewards. The only reward was that your guild might win the rail conflict thanks to your efforts.

When the whole Solar Rail system launched, I was part of a small community guild. There were already groups of giant alliances who were beginning to dominate the whole solar system. It’s hard for a single guild to go up against an alliance of guilds, because they have that many more people who would fight for them. So when our little guild was invited to an alliance, we were all excited to have a chance at joining the rail conflicts.

But I screwed it all up. I got in an argument with some people from another guild in the alliance, and I got my whole guild kicked out of the alliance. Even though I was never really planning on being one of those hardcore “I’m-gonna-run-this-mission-a-hundred-times” people, I knew that my guildmates wanted to have a stake in the rail wars, and I couldn’t blame them. It was honestly really cool to have your guild make a difference in the game world, and I blew our chance at making it happen.

No one blamed me, except myself. My guild leader sided with me in my argument. Honestly, I could be completely wrong about all of this, and maybe no one else really cared about getting kicked out of the alliance, and maybe I just got the wrong impression about them. But if that’s the case, think of this as a fictional story.

So when our guild leader announced that we were gonna launch an independent solar rail, it was big news. We were a small guild going up against an alliance’s pre-established rail, and while victory was possible, it was practically unprecedented. Our whole guild went into war mode: people stockpiled coffee so they could grind missions through the night, people donated money to the guild funds for battle payment, people reached out to their friends asking them to fight for our side.

I was in the first category. Remember that I never wanted to be deeply involved with the rail conflicts: they were too boring, and from a game design perspective it was more interesting to watch the whole solar system and see the economy fluctuating. But I always nagged at myself over how I got my guild kicked out of our first alliance. In the end, I felt guilty about what I did, and I resolved to atone by doing everything within my power to make sure my guild won this rail.

When the rail conflict started, I grinded and grinded and grinded. I burned every path of that mission into muscle memory. I measured time in terms of how many missions I had completed. I woke up at 2 AM, packed up my laptop, went to the computer labs, and kept grinding. I don’t even know how many hours I poured into that mission.

But despite all of that, my guild leader was putting in even more effort than me. My guild leader was staying up later, running through missions more efficiently, and maintaining the guild’s battle payment at the same time. I knew that he really wanted to win the rail, and it probably wasn’t because he wanted to spite the alliance that rejected us, but at the time I thought that was the reason, and so I thought it was my fault.

We did that for two days. Back then, rail conflicts lasted for two days before resolving. In the end, our guild lost, and our rail was destroyed. A handful of people’s efforts weren’t enough to fight against a whole alliance. There were no hard feelings, and we all shrugged and moved on.

Ever since then, the guild had a few flings with some other alliances, a few other rail conflicts, a couple of pledges to defend other rails. But we didn’t become one of those big giant monolithic rail companies that dominates 50% of the solar system (there were alliances like that).

I started playing Warframe less and less, until I eventually just quit. Every time I logged in and checked out my guild’s business, I felt guilty about that one argument way back in the past when we got kicked out of our first alliance.

So What’s The Point?

I bring up this story because it was interesting for me as a designer. As a game developer, I have always, always advocated for intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones. From psychology to teamwork to gender studies, everything I’ve ever said about extrinsic motivators has been negative. If I believed in absolutes, I would say that we should absolutely never use extrinsic motivators for anything.

But when I was fighting for my guild’s solar rail in Warframe, I realized something. I wasn’t doing it for extrinsic motivation. There was no reason for me to fight. The guild wasn’t paying me to do it. The mission didn’t really have any significant loot drops. Even if we won, the solar rail taxes would never trickle down to me anyway.

I fought for the rail because of guilt. And then I realized: guilt is an intrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic motivation isn’t all happiness and passion and love. It’s not always about doing something because you want to. All along, as a game designer and as a human being, I used the terms “intrinsic motivation” and “passion” as synonyms. But I think it’s really important to understand that there are so many more hues of intrinsic motivation. Guilt is one of them. Defiance is another. Ever did something just to prove to someone else that you could do it? Then there’s anger, desperation, fear, helplessness, pride.

I recently played Spec Ops: The Line. The whole game was driven by negative intrinsic motivators: the guilt of killing innocent people, the confusion of losing sight of my original goals, the hope that maybe I can redeem myself and right my wrongs if I just continue a little bit farther. As game developers, we can open up a whole new array of experiences by tapping into alternative intrinsic motivators.

But as people, what does this mean for us? We’re all familiar with the concept of guilt-tripping. And there’s always the mean sergeant stereotype in every single war movie ever, who motivates recruits through anger. Not to mention all the times we do things out of personal pride, just to show off how good we are.

Are these healthy motivators? Previously, my philosophy was that all intrinsic motivators are healthy, and all extrinsic motivators are unhealthy. By “healthiness”, I referred to whether or not you as a person were taking anything away from the experience that you could learn from and apply to future experiences. But now, I think my classification system was a little too shallow.

I don’t think I was wrong about what I said in the past, though. I still hate achievements and gamification and input-output rewards as much as I did back then. But now, I think I’m starting to understand why. So think of this as an expansion of my philosophy, a deeper understanding of what it means to harness intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

And even with a new spectrum of intrinsic motivators, it doesn’t make my job easier. It’s still hard to get people to do what you want them to do, whether you offer them rewards or guilt-trip them or challenge them. Rather, this makes my job even harder, because now there are so many more possibilities I want to explore. I can design a game specifically to foster a player’s pride, and cause it to all come crashing down when they get too cocky. Or I can design a game about guilt, basically just an indie Spec Ops.

Well, “a desire to burn myself out by shooting for the stars” still counts as an intrinsic motivator.

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