An analysis of Flight Rising and Prince’s reward principles

The browser game Flight Rising is an excellent example of Caspian Prince (of developer Puppygames)’s 4 reward principles, given in his game design talk at 2013’s Bit of Alright. These 4 principles, which generally are all needed to keep a game engaging, are: drip feed, unexpected/random, long-term and regular.

Flight Rising can be loosely categorised as a ‘pet site’, and is often described by its players as ‘Neopets for adults’. In Flight Rising, players choose to align with one of 11 elemental factions and then collect and breed dragons as they please. The elemental factions are known as Flights, and a player’s collection of dragons is called their clan. Dragons can be bred for specific colours and pattern genes, and can be dressed up in apparel (ranging from steampunk wankerypop to cowboy outfits).

One of the main features of the game is the Coliseum, in which players send teams of dragons to fight monsters that drop loot. There is also PvP fighting, which has no tangible rewards (presumably to prevent players taking turns to throw matches and share loot) other than a place in a rankings table.

The site also has a few html5 games to play – currently it has a Bejeweled-ish game, a tile-matching memory game, a simple guessing game, and jigsaw puzzles. These mini-games pay out game currency (called treasure), which can be exchanged with other players or the site shops for apparel, familiars (essentially pets for dragons, used for roleplay/flavour and for some in-game benefits that are detailed below), and special scrolls that alter a dragon’s colours, patterning or breed. The game also has a premium currency called gems, used for buying speciality apparel, familiars and appearance-altering scrolls. Gems can be bought with real money or slowly acquired within the game. Players are also free to buy and sell gems among themselves for treasure. It is also possible for players to buy and sell dragons to each other for treasure, gems or dragon swaps.

Drip feed

Drip feed rewards are small, very frequent rewards. A classic example of this is the small amount of loot or currency dropped by slain enemies in many games.

Within Flight Rising, the drip feed reward is partially represented by the daily item gathering (you get 10-16 gathering turns per day depending on clan health and Flight dominance), and by the small loot drops from the Coliseum. Item gathering has 6 types, to which players may allocate their daily turns as they see fit: hunting, fishing, bug catching, foraging (all 4 of which drop dragon food items), digging (drops mostly stone and metal-themed building materials that are currently useless until the crafting system is implemented) and scavenging (drops mostly wood and bone-themed building materials). Coliseum battle loot is usually food items or vendor trash. Sometimes battles drop no loot, further stimulating the player’s participation because of the Skinner box effect and the gambler’s fallacy. Of course, this kind of mechanic must be done carefully – players sometimes express dissatisfaction in the forums with too-frequent lootless battles.

The mini-games are another example. The games have a relatively low payout and require a huge time investment to be a feasible method of grinding for treasure. The mini-game Higher or Lower is an example of drip feed mixed with regular. It is a chance-based game, aimed at players who do not have much time to spend on the site, in which the player has to guess whether a face-down card has a higher or lower value than a given face-up card. Given that the player knows (or quickly finds out once they start playing) that the cards run from 1-14 and there are no duplicates, it is possible to make more intelligent guesses than simply choosing randomly, but it is not possible to be truly skilled at this game. The player is permitted 25 turns of Higher or Lower per clock hour (making this a regular-type reward), with each correct guess earning the tiny sum of 50T (the ease and small amount making it a drip feed).

Unexpected/random

This kind of reward comprises items that can’t feasibly be grinded for because they drop too infrequently, but are a very nice surprise when they do happen, and the potential of which keeps players returning.

Some pet sites have these in the form of random events (while carrying out normal site activity, an alert message will inform you that you ‘found’ a bonus item, or even that you lost/had an item stolen from you). Flight Rising does not have these per se, but does have unpredictable rare drops. Dragon eggs (which award achievements for obtaining, and which can be hatched into lineage-less dragons that can be bred with any other dragon with no possibility of inbreeding) are very rare drops found in the Coliseum, and slightly more frequently when the ‘scavenging’ gathering skill is high level. Other examples of these drops are rare familiars and apparel pieces found in the Coliseum and by item gathering.

Chest loot is a mix of unexpected and regular. Chests come in 4 types: rusted, iron, gilded, and limited-edition elemental-themed chests that are obtainable during monthly events. Each type of chest has random loot within a fixed tier. Rusted chests contain a small amount of treasure and some vendor trash, and occasionally a cheap apparel piece. Iron and gilded chests drop larger amounts of currency and always drop either a familiar or a piece of apparel, as well as more valuable vendor junk. Limited chests always contain a ‘skin’ – a cosmetic item that will change the appearance of your dragon without affecting its genes, and which can be removed at any time like apparel. Chests, therefore, contain semi-predictable loot that still provides a surprise for the player.

Furthermore, the acquisition of chests themselves is a mix of random and regular. Chests can be obtained randomly as infrequent drops from the Coliseum and from the ‘digging’ type of item-gathering. Chests also drop predictably from your dragons’ familiars (an example of regular rewards). Familiars can be ‘bonded’ with once per day, which provides a small amount of treasure (an example of drip feed) that gradually increases with the familiar’s happiness level. The familiar will drop a chest (of increasing rarity) at each bonding level-up. By the time a familiar and dragon are fully bonded, the familiar will have dropped 3 rusted, 2 iron and 1 gilded chest.

Long-term

In most games, the long-term reward/goal is the end of the game. The player resolves the story, and feels a sense of accomplishment for having overcome all challenges.

In Flight Rising, the long-term goal is the player’s choice. Some players may choose to treat the lair size cap (currently 125 slots) as an endgame state, or the max-levelling of their Coliseum team. Flight Rising players can decide what goals they want to set for themselves. As the game is based around acquiring and showcasing dragons, many players choose to try to breed or buy dragons based on characters in media, or on their own original characters. Another popular goal is to acquire all possible familiars. Some set themselves the arduous task of acquiring enough game currency to persuade a Kickstarter backer to part with one of their KS-exclusive items, which can go for the equivalent of hundreds of dollars’ worth of currency.

In the shorter term, a medium to long-term goal common to all players is the expansion of lair space. Players begin the game with 10 dragon slots, and pay progressively more treasure to unlock another 5 at a time. To reach the cap of 125 lair spaces, if the player wishes to do so, requires hundreds of thousands of treasure.

A ‘short-term long-term’ goal, which overlaps slightly with regular-type rewards, is the weekly dominance rankings. The Flight with the highest dominance ranking at midnight on Sunday is said to be ‘dominating’ for the rest of the week, until the tally is counted anew. Dominance is increased by ‘exalting’ dragons. Exalting is a mechanic that removes a dragon from the game forever in exchange for a sum of treasure – effectively selling a dragon to the game. Players push for Flight dominance by mass exaltation of dragons (which may be trained in the Coliseum to increase their level and result in a profit from exaltation, or bought and exalted at a loss, depending on how determined/desperate the Flight’s players are), in an attempt to be the Flight that exalts the proportionately highest number of dragons.

The monthly festivals are a slightly unorthodox example of long-term goals, because they are more tied to the game’s community rather than its mechanics. A special shop with limited-edition items opens for the week-long duration of the festival, but the shop requires special currency that is only obtainable (as random drops) during the festival, making it impossible for players to plan ahead and stock up on shop currency. One of the big draws of the festivals is the monthly contest to design ‘skins’ (cosmetic items for dragons), the winning designs from which will be added to the game. Designing a skin is done with an external art program rather than anything in the game engine, so this is not really an example of a long-term in-game goal.

Regular

These are predictable rewards that the players knows in advance will happen, and can be used as progress markers (that ‘just one more level’ effect). An obvious example is any game in which characters or their equipment level up.

Flight Rising’s Coliseum is probably the best example of this. Levelling up a dragon brings in more combat skill points to distribute, and unlocks slots for buff stones. In itself, there is no immediate physical reward (such as celebratory loot) for levelling up, but a higher-level dragon can fight in tougher Coliseum stages and earn drop more valuable loot, and can be exalted for a bigger payout than an unlevelled dragon.

The Trading Post provides a blend of reward types. The shop called Swipp’s Swap Stand provides valuable items in exchange for large quantities of vendor trash. Only one trade type is available at any given time, and remains available for 2 hours. Which trade is active is random, and the same one can occur twice in a row. This is a mix of regular and unexpected: players know the swap shop will change every two hours, but it is impossible to predict what the next offer will be and if it will be useful to them. This could even be said to overlap with long-term rewards: if a player decides they want a runic bat familiar, they know (or find out) that they need to bring 200 brown bats (food items) to Swipp. They can then set themselves the goal of acquiring enough bats before waiting for the bat swap to become available.

The shop Crim’s Collection Cart is a mix of regular and drip feed. Every hour, the dragon Crim puts out a wishlist of 5 single items that she is willing to pay treasure for. These are usually food or vendor trash items that she will pay 500T each for (the lowest amount she offers). This is a drip-feed reward because it is frequent and has a small payout, and can count as regular because it is tied to real time. It also encourages the player to plan ahead and keep at least a few of each type of trash item in their inventory. The 500T payout is small but much better than the 15-50T payout that most items yield when being sold back to the site. The item list is randomised every hour, but it probably cannot be said to be an unexpected-type reward because Crim will never, say, give the player a nice surprise by offering to pay a large sum of treasure for an otherwise useless item. In fact, Crim can be a source of the frustration to the player, when she offers to buy valuable items for low payouts. This effectively ‘wastes’ a turn for the player, as no player will ever sell an unhatched dragon egg to Crim for her 500T offer when eggs sell on the player auction house for 20,000-40,000T. This might be said to be linked to the Skinner box effect: a player might reason that since they only managed to sell 2 items to Crim last time, and it’s currently 10 minutes to the hour, in 10 minutes they will have an opportunity to try again, so they might as well stay on the site.

Flight Rising is only 6 months old as of the end of 2013, and has at least 2 forthcoming mechanics known to the playerbase. One of these is Adventure mode, the description of which is ‘Explore the world and complete quests’. What this actually means is still unknown to the playerbase. There is also a forthcoming Trading Post shop called Baldwin’s Brew, in which players will be able to exchange vendor trash items for useful ones on an hourly basis. Further details have not been revealed (except to the players who discovered the development version by guessing the url, before it was pulled off the site), so it is not clear which of the four reward principles it will use. There is also a forthcoming minigame called Tidal Trouble. Presumably this will slot in with the other mini-games’ drip-feed status, but how this game works has still not been revealed.

Thanks to the author of the blog Flight Rising Tips, Tricks, and other Things for correcting a factual inaccuracy. (Coliseum pvp contributes only to clan standings, not the clan’s entire Flight’s.)