Using Trophies to Deliver Big Game

Going through the list of the trophies and medals in Uncharted 2, one spots a yak-petting exercise called "Beast Mode." Jacob Minkoff, of the studio Naughty Dog, explained its origin with a laugh.

"There was a tester we had who came in and was constantly describing Drake as going into ‘beast mode,'" said Minkoff, a designer on Uncharted 2. "Like, ‘Man, I went into beast mode and merced those fools!' And I said, ‘We need a beast mode medal.' It had to happen."

But what you do to get the "Beast Mode" medal is the larger part of why Minkoff talked with me earlier this week about designing for trophy support on the PS3. Beast Mode isn't a difficult challenge, you just pet every yak you encounter in the Tibetan Village level, and the instructions for getting it are there in the game. But at this stage of the game, Naughty Dog wanted to encourage players to interact more with those they encounter, outside of doing so to advance the story.

It's part of how developers are using things like trophies - which have been mandatory on all PlayStation 3 games for nearly a year now - and internally built medal systems to condition player behavior, and steer them to aspects of gameplay that they might not seek out, whether from habit or not knowing it's possible.

And, of course, it supports replay value. Which is why I was interested in Uncharted 2 as an example of developing for trophy support. Its strong, linear narrative forms the bulk of its experience, but that doesn't exempt Naughty Dog from the obligation to invite gamers back for more after they finish the last chapter.

Using Trophies to Deliver Big Game

"I think the virtue of making a really good game with a story that really satisfies people, is that it's not something people are going to put down and never pick back up," Minkoff said. "We find that people who complete a normal playthrough, they go back and instantly start on hard. They look at the trophies. They look for more things to do in the game, and trophies help to add that value."

Development for trophy support necessarily comes toward the end of a project, Minkoff said. The team doesn't reinvent the wheel figuring out what to award - Uncharted 2's trophy list mirrors in large part that of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. But they do consider what their players will be looking forward to doing, and want to reward them when they pull it off.

"Being that Uncharted 2 is an action-adventure game, we wanted people to have an incentive to explore these worlds and see them from a different perspective, and use all the skills we've taught them," Minkoff said. "Our combat related trophies are in there to help people learn advanced tactics. People might not know about Steel Fist [finishing off a foe with one punch] or shield takedowns until they go in and read the trophy list."

The treasures and the kills, carried over in large part from Uncharted 1, condition a completionist mindset of seeing every inch of the world Naughty Dog created, and using all of the weapons placed in the game rather than relying solely on a trusted favorite.

Using Trophies to Deliver Big Game

Just as important is how difficult the trophies are to earn. "There were big arguments over here about how to handle that," Minkoff said. "We don't want somebody to come out of a game and feel like they accomplished nothing, and they only got two trophies because the others were so esoteric, weird or difficult to find. It's like a slap in the face, to say, ‘You thought you played Uncharted, but you really haven't.' "

The way Naughty Dog built their trophy structure "people should get about a third to a half of them on their first playthrough," Minkoff said. "It'll be on the lower end if they're just rushing through and killing everyone, on the higher end if they're finding, maybe, half the treasure and doing exploration."

However, the studio has no way of knowing if its expectations are borne out by the statistics. Plenty of minute details and gamer behaviors are measured, but nothing comes back to Naughty Dog regarding trophy collection, Minkoff said.

"We track tons of stuff - where people die, how many weapons are used, what's the most used weapon in a particular area, what's the longest playthrough for a checkpoint," Minkoff said. "But we don't track trophies. [That analysis] is done by gut. We do tons and tons of playtesting, so we get a feeling for what players do, what they don't do, what they like to do and what we should encourage them to do. But we develop that from playtesting."

Using Trophies to Deliver Big Game

Sony Computer Entertainment caps the number of trophies and points a game can award. Increasingly, you're seeing developers turn to internal reward systems to extend the payoffs to gamers; Naughty Dog is no different, engineering a medal system that's familiar to what multiplayer fps gamers have seen elsewhere. Its intent is still the same as the trophies - get players to wring every last drop of value out of the game. Motivating the in-game medal system is the virtual money one earns, which can be redeemed for in-game unlockables.

It also allowed Naughty Dog to offer two types of rewards and make the game more accessible to gamers of varying levels of skill - or time to commit to it. "We didn't want people playing through the game and feeling there was no way to ever get the platinum trophy, that there was no way to get all the trophies because it was so super-complex," Minkoff said. "We decided, if it's core to gameplay, it gets a trophy. If it's a skill-based honor, like a ‘Hey man, look what I can do,' thing, then it's a medal."

Ultimately, it all presents a fuller picture of the gamer - not just for others, but also something he or she can reflect on, and remember the time spent in a rewarding game.

Using Trophies to Deliver Big Game

"One of the wonderful things it does is give you a constant reaffirmation that you're doing the right thing and playing the game the right way," Minkoff said. "There's nothing like sneaking up, and taking down a guy, and getting that notice that you have the Master Ninja trophy. It means you have improved, you are continuing to master the game, and we are recognizing that. It's not just ‘Oh, here's another guy to kill.' It's ‘Here's a guy who matters in a larger context. And when I defeat him, that will be recognized.' It's a solid way of rewarding and reinforcing a game's action."