Neverwinter and Psychology: Does the Reward Model Work?

As you might now the Game Developer’s Conference ran at the start of the month. I didn’t catch a lot of it other than a few Cryptic and PWE employers attending, but stumbled upon an excellent write-up of user experience researcher Ben Lewis-Evans’ speech about Player Psychology and Rewards. It’s a very interesting article as a whole and although the original topic was more meant to take a shot at the current neuromyths around dopamine, it offers a lot of general advise how rewards should be structured in a successful game. So I was curious to see if Neverwinter matches the claims of Ben Lewis-Evans, and subsequently whether some systems are built to motivate players.

[su_quote cite=”Ben Lewis-Evans”]If we’re making games, we care that what we do rewards people on a variable schedule and what the behavioral outcome is: strongly motivated players.[/su_quote]

RNG is conditioning

[su_quote]Perhaps the most notorious form of conditioning, variable ratios derived from gambling. “You have a variable number of responses until a reward shows up. So it’s not always 10; it might be 10 to 50, something within that range. Loot drops like the loot-crate system in Paragon, and critical hits are examples, where you hit a certain number of times and then do more damage.”[/su_quote]

Sorry guys, but randomness works as motivational reward system. The classic case of operant conditioning would be performing a set number of “responses” (quests) and get a reward.  But players do actually come back and perform tasks, even if they do not know the numbers of needed repetitions.

The devs also set up the game well in other very basic areas of motivation. Consistent feedback splits progression in tiny blocks. The XP bar, dailies, weeklies are some examples.

[su_quote]”Progression bars or experience bars are classic examples: little bursts of feedback and rewards let you know you’re making progress toward a bigger [goal],” Lewis-Evans said.[/su_quote]

More Guidance is Needed

[su_quote]Players want to be in control at all times. If they’re not, they tend to act out. Players forced to grind in order to progress may stop playing.[/su_quote]

Players want to know where to get stuff and what to expect when they get it. Neverwinter struggles in both areas. Tooltips are inaccurate and more than once real-money promotions didn’t return what was advertised. Not great according to Lewis-Evans, because it’s necessary that “the value of things you can purchase with real money is clear before you make the purchase”. Additionally guidance is important to give players a feel of being in control. The Sword Coast Chronicle campaign hub presents some clarity for example, but most players still describe a certain level of confusion by the amount of content available once they reach 70.

Another problematic field of control in my opinion have been Heroic Encounters. In Icewind Dale the randomness is still mightily annoying, especially the Black Ice Domination. Cryptic luckily realized it was a bad design and made HEs more predictable. In Tyranny of Dragons they would spawn at a fixed time, in Elemental Evil they at least had a fixed cooldown. In Strongholds, Underdark and Storm Kings Thunder they introduced a new “controller” that would spawn more HEs as soon as others were completed. And now in the Cloaked Ascendancy you can specifically work towards or against HEs.

The Paingiver chart is Anti-Social

The article does not deem social data like the Paingiver evil, but it comes with the drawback “that comparing players against their peers opens them up to abuse or ostracization.” Games like Overwatch compare each player against their own performance to avoid these issues. Another way to get around the negative aspects of social data are cooperation elements. Couldn’t the Paingiver chart compare the damage and healing of groups versus the average damage and healing of server runs? This would shift the focus of being the best DPS in the group to being the best DPS group. The community has often questioned the usefulness of the Paingiver chart and this adds fuel to the fire.


The article closes by addressing a minefield of cognitive biases and this is where it really gets interesting for Neverwinter. According to Evans-Lewis, players assume that putting more time and effort into a game results in comparable rewards. This game does quite the opposite. As mentioned multiple times around here the return of investment in multiple areas heavily diminishes over the course of a session. You only get Astral Diamonds for so many runs, and have only so many keys to spent. Utility Enchantments are capped and stop proccing after some time. In Destiny on the contrary, running more strikes (dungeons) enhances the chance of getting something good. That almost sounds too good to be true for Neverwinter regulars.

You can get around these caps by playing multiple characters, but the issue still remains. This is connected to the “control” desire mentioned above. If the developer instead of the player decides how much playtime is actually rewarded, it’s a frustrating experience. Players feel these walls every day, and it’s one of the major demotivational factors this game has to offer. Maybe the devs think it’s a necessary trade-off with progressing too fast, but the negative impact can’t be understated.

Loss aversion

[su_quote]Loss aversion is one of the trickiest cognitive biases to reconcile. In effect, this bias states that players will work harder to hold on to what they have than they will to earn something they might get. This leads to players abstaining from using consumable items like potions even if it means their character dies and they have to start over from a checkpoint.[/su_quote]

It might not sound like it, but the quote above partially explains why players were so passionately rooting against the key changes. They would rather hold onto their keys unless they knew what they would get would be worth it.

[su_quote]”You need to make sure the base drop rate is good enough that maybe people will use it, or you demonstrate the value of doing so,” Lewis-Evans urged.[/su_quote]

As Lewis-Evans noted, it’s even worse that the amount (“base drop rate”) of keys is limited. Since players can only get so many on any given day, they want to have something to show for it. You either need to make rewards better, or significantly change the way keys are obtained. Otherwise people will continue to be uncomfortable with being forced parting with them, at least for the offered loot.

I learned a lot reading the article and hope I could connect some of the things said with the systems in place in Neverwinter. I think we can agree that rewards and feedback are not where they need to be, but the devs actually made strides in some areas like Heroic Encounters. What’s your opinion on the reward systems? Do they motivate or drive off players? Share your thoughts in the comments below or visit the corresponding thread on our message board.


j0Shi plays the Neverwinter MMORPG since the open BETA in 2013 and is a regular contributor to the blog and the whole UN:Project. Originally a Guardian Fighter, he has built up ALTs of all classes and plays on BIS/near-BIS level.

8 thoughts on “Neverwinter and Psychology: Does the Reward Model Work?

  • March 7, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Gotta admit the loot system in Neverwinter sucks. I very rarely feel well rewarded for killing a tough boss/monster or completing a quest. The only decent rewards are the ones that come from completing the campaigns. As you so rightly say the caps on keys/ad’s etc all go to limit the time you can usefully spend playing. I’ve always had a problem with the level cap as well. Wish it was a bit more like “Tibia”, a game i have played for the last 12 years.

  • March 7, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Getting gold in the skirmishes doesn’t feel much more rewarding than getting bronze. That makes me feel a little dead inside.

  • March 7, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Miss past days when we could farm epics for sell. It was better motivation than endless farming bound shit in few dungeons/skrimishes.

  • March 8, 2017 at 12:56 am

    Me personally I definitely think the rewards system sucks. Not only are there useless items like the fortress ring, it’s even worse when u actually buy dragon keys and after 120 runs of prophecy you still don’t get anything except of bound shit that I don’t need or +5 fortress rings that r absolutely useless no matter what class u play.

    If I recall it correctly they once said never winter is the game where u either spend money or time. None of that is true anymore. Money can’t buy u anything that is bis, u need to grind the game for it and timewise if u actually grind the game u still don’t get anything of the stuff u want.

    Good article that u wrote up there and I hope the devs or someone in charge will see it.

  • March 9, 2017 at 8:00 am

    Hi. I got several useful items bound account of course in different events: epic dungeons, skirmishes..I got a hunting hawk companion for my hunter ranger, a companion that only you can get it in hunter ranger bosster pack so I’m not totally aggree with all the comments I’m reading. Personally I liked the old castle never loot where you could get your weapon set drop, now I think is harder to get last weapons but it’s only a feeling. Also I’m getting different artifacts that matches with tematic, for instance valindra amulet or valindra belt in valindra tower which makes realistic the game and I’m also glad to terror enchantment improvement, it has no sense a low damage of a enchantment of one of old last bosses.

  • March 11, 2017 at 6:41 am

    The problem with the change to the looting system isn’t the problem at all. It’s the lockboxes and the devs policy of recycling that is the problem. The drop chance has definitely increased, it’s perfectly viable to buy keys and farm artifacts, just because the same artifacts are now freely available from a lockbox their value isn’t actually worth the farm anymore. It’d be a welcome change to use keys for better drop rate if a shard of orcus wand hadn’t dropped to just over 1m AD, it’d be great if a Shard of Valindra or Seldarine artifact would still raise a few million, but because so few drops are worth anything anymore it is hard to actually make money on the new drop system.

  • March 11, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    These are the reasons I am quitting neverwinter when my vip is done. Never in my life have I had my time wasted so badly trying to obtain items that I need. Perfect Fail is a garbage company and so is ARC. Greedy money grubbers.Such high cost, including time, for an insanely small chance at something good. I’ll never come back to this garbage.

  • March 11, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Also the binding is a huge rip off. I won’t be part of a game that does not reward you for finishing challenging bosses. Let me sell the stuff I get if I don’t need it.

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