Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 May, 2006

The journey vs. the reward
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:05 AM

Raph has a picture of a sign he made up during one of the previous MUD-Dev conferences on his blog. The picture displays Raph’s doodling skills and has the caption: “The journey is the reward” is a fucking lie. (People would rather have the princess).

So, there’s a little discussion in the comments about the truth of this caption. I started to write a long comment, but figured I might as well post some stuff on my blog to keep people interested in coming here.

In the end, it’s not a fucking lie, but it’s not necessarily the whole truth either.

See, the journey is necessary for the reward to have any meaning. If I bought a game and the first thing that happened after I loaded it up is that it said, “Congratulations! You saved the princess!” and then Game Over, I’d feel cheated. Sure, I got the reward, but it wasn’t really that fun. Appetite for the reward is what make it so appealing. The journey is an obstacle, but one that enhances the fun. So, the journey certainly does enhance the reward.

Of course, then the problem arrives: what is the reward in games? Saving the princess? Does that mean I get to marry her and inherit a kingdom? Live the life of spoiled royalty in a magnificent castle catered to by servants? Well, no. Most likely I get a message displayed on the screen to the effect of “Thank you for saving me!” Of course, this line was merely put there by some game developer (probably a young or middle-aged guy like me), and not the heart-felt appreciation of a damsel in distress.

So, we could just as easily say, “The reward is the reward” is a fucking lie when it comes to video games.

If we aren’t playing for a reward, then what are we playing for? Well, Raph’s premise in A Theory of Fun says that fun is learning and mastering patterns. Overcoming obstacles. Or, in other words, the journey along the way. As long as the journey pushes me just enough not to bore me, and not too hard to frustrate me. The reward, the end of the journey, is just a convenient place to say, “Now, go buy the sequel.”

Note that things change when we start talking about multiplayer competitive games. Playing deathmatch in the latest FPS is all about one thing: pwning your opponents. Coming out with the greatest frags:deaths ratio. Accomplishing your goals before the enemy team accomplishes theirs. Whatever. The reward is domination over others. But, again, you can’t just hand the reward to the player. Fighting against bots that don’t move or shoot back is boring, and getting a perfect score in this situation kinda sucks. Making the n00bs cry does it for some people, but many people prefer a bit of challenge to go along with the large amounts of human suffering they dish out.

Things also get funny when we start talking about online games. We’ve built up expectations of the fantasy of online games: you can become the best if you are just dedicated enough. The journey is just a formality to give you a sense of accomplishment. Of course, not everyone is really equal, and some people can dedicate themselves to the game more than others. This is where you get the split between “casuals” and “raiders” that had been a bit topic over the last few months. Some people want the journey to be easier so that they, too, can enjoy the fantasy most games promise. (Any game that intends to violate that fantasy gets criticized pretty heavily.)

There is a major problem with focusing on the journey, however. As I state above, you can’t bore the player with too simplistic of gameplay or frustrate them with too hard of gameplay. You have to give them a journey appropriate to their preferences and ability. The hard-core gamer is going to want a more challenging journey than my mom is. However, my mom might be willing to put up with a challenge that is a bit beneath her ability but that still passes the time enjoyably, where as the hard-core player might get bored with things even a bit below his or her ability. It takes a good game designer to really tweak the challenge to make it appropriate. Things such as variable difficulty settings and little bonuses to help someone who needs it can help this process. If you make the journey too hard, the player will never get the reward, but if you make the journey too easy the reward comes across as meaningless; well, perhaps it is better to say that you don’t get the sense of accomplishment for achieving the meaningless reward.

But, it looks like we’ve finally stumbled upon the real reward: the sense of accomplishment. Saving the princess is a reward not because I get to live a life of decadence after saving her, but rather because I overcame the obstacles set in my way. I have that nice purple epic item in WoW because I put in the time and effort to get the item: I was resourceful enough to get together a raiding party, was lucky enough to have the item drop, and was persistent enough to finally win the item. (Of course, that purple item is really just a step along the way for me to finally get one of those highly desirable orange items….)

So, it’s not really the journey itself or the reward itself that is the reward here. I think the best way to state it is:

“Overcoming the journey is the reward” is the fucking truth.

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  1. I do not know what to say. In my opinion, that entry was well put and I agree with you on how completing obstacles can be the reward itself.

    Comment by Isolocis — 21 May, 2006 @ 3:07 AM

  2. Hear hear.

    Without the journey, there is no game. Without the reward, you get a bad game. But at least it’s still a game.

    Comment by Cael — 21 May, 2006 @ 4:32 AM

  3. In real life: The princess. (Though i’m sure some would argue the value of a life without struggle)
    Well for the best of both worlds. A bit of struggle for context and then the princess…

    In gaming… i’m sort of with you. I think all the points you make are quite valid and mostly relevant to my own feelings when playing. My overall feeling being that the individual gamers are providing their own sense of accomplishment to the games they play. The game is purely a motivator; a provider of possibilities. In playing, each gamer visualises a point of achievement and aims to reach it. Reaching it is their reward. It’s a mix of overcoming the gameplay obstacles, and in some ways, overcoming yourself.

    Comment by Jpoku — 22 May, 2006 @ 1:55 AM

  4. In real life: The princess.

    Well, the “real” world things are different. For example, the journey can be the reward in offline life. I often go walking with my better half, and it gives us an opportunity to talk. I might enjoy a trip to the grocery store, not because I like groceries that much or because I overcame some great obstacle, but rather because the journey was pleasant due to the company.

    In games, the reward (princess) is an illusion and the journey just passes the time. It’s the overcoming of the journey, and the learning (and therefore fun) that entails, that makes the game worthwhile.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 May, 2006 @ 2:50 AM

  5. I often go walking with my better half, and it gives us an opportunity to talk

    Thankfully reality is not something switched on and off. I was thinking about what you said and it made me realise that in some ways, should real life work out for the better, the rewards continue to exist after a journey. I’m not trying to trivialise relationships or careers or materials with that, just trying to give them a scope.

    We get to still be with the princesses after the end of the journey. Strengthening, as you say, the fact that in games the princess is illusionary. Which comes back to why I would want the princess in real life, but value the journey in the game.

    All that being said, it’s interesting when a social behaviour comes back into a game. I.e. while I go for walks in real life with my partner in crime, now and then we have walked in a game too.

    Maybe it would be fun but silly to offer an er ‘after-game’ of sorts. Totally PG rated of course! Where you can do things beyond the reward. It lives a little bit afterwards. I doubt anyone would play it for long though. There are already some examples in RPG’s where you get to go back and visit people and they cheer you, or like all the casual WoW lvl 60′s wandering around Ironforge just messing with emotes. I suppose sandboxes have elements of this too. Fun existing outside of the rewards.

    Comment by Jpoku — 22 May, 2006 @ 4:51 AM

  6. I for one have allways found it bluntly spooky that stories end when the princess is rescued

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 22 May, 2006 @ 5:41 AM

  7. No sex please, we’re American.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 May, 2006 @ 12:02 PM

  8. Hmm, there are parallels when talking about foreplay and climax :)

    I think both the journey, the princess, and whatever afterwards are all valuable. “The End” is so absolute.

    Sometime I even enjoy games in which I keep losing and never get the princess. I just enjoy trying different variations of actions,

    Comment by magicback (frank) — 23 May, 2006 @ 10:51 AM

  9. Ha, in real life, the “challenge” just beings when you get the princess… on bad days you might rather have the dragon =)

    Some people would rather have the journey.

    Comment by Norin — 23 May, 2006 @ 11:58 AM

  10. A manual trackback to a page en español discussing this topic:

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 June, 2006 @ 3:46 AM

  11. Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

    [...] The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is an embodiment of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….) [...]

    Pingback by MMO Gypsy — 6 November, 2013 @ 10:40 AM

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