The Carrot On A Stick Approach To Game Design

By Ishaan . February 21, 2010 . 6:10pm

At E3 last year, Shigeru Miyamoto made a comment about not being keen on Xbox achievements because he wasn’t a fan of the "carrot on a stick" approach to game design. He followed up by saying that he felt playing the game should be a rewarding enough experience for the player by itself.


Recently, I had the honour of having a lengthy discussion with Daniel of Daniel Primed, on just that particular topic and how it relates to the games that Nintendo and many other companies develop.



It began with us drawing comparisons — just like everyone else — between Twilight Princess and Ōkami, and how the former was, ironically, the perfect example of the carrot-on-stick design that Miyamoto appeared not to be a fan of. It culminated with us realizing that, really, the two games are only similar on a superficial level. There’s a wolf in both, you adventure in the third-person perspective alongside a talkative partner in both games, there are puzzles, and…well, really, the similarities end there.


Something that’s obvious right away to someone that’s played both games is that Zelda is traditionally very "structured" in its presentation. While in Ōkami, you aren’t necessarily aware when you’re in "the overworld" and when you’re in "a dungeon," Zelda goes out of its way to present itself like a game. The classic Zelda chime, the style of the animation and camera movement, the manner in which you’re herded along the entire way and told specifically what to do next. There’s always some sort of a goal in sight, and the entire Zelda formula is based around taking you from point A to B to C, and eventually all the way to Z. Along the way, at every destination, you’re given your metaphorical "carrot" in the form of a new item, which every puzzle at your next destination will conveniently be based around, thus encouraging you to delve further into the game.


There’s no sense of subtlety, and no effort at all to mask the fact that the Zelda design is very "gamey." On the one hand, this classic game-like structure allows the games to be immensely fun and replayable, but on the other, you, as the player, are often left feeling disconnected from the narrative. Not only is Link mute, he seems incapable of really expressing any human emotions like fear and love altogether. He’s going to to methodically save Hyrule, and you’re just along for the ride whether you like it or not.



Ōkami is the exact opposite. The game absolutely follows the same carrot-on-stick formula that Zelda does, but it masks its underlying design so well, you’d never notice it was there at all. Ōkami’s "carrot" for players isn’t something as materialistic as new items; rather, it’s the ability to influence the world and the people around you. It genuinely felt like you were bringing the world back to life through your actions, one step at a time. Every single tree you revived or animal that you fed was a "carrot," but that aspect of the game was blended so well into the narrative and felt so satisfying — to me as a player holding the controller — that I had no trouble understanding why Ammy and Issun did what they did. Helping people felt good. There was no disconnect.


Metroid is another interesting case study of the carrot-on-stick approach. Hunting for new items, backtracking, searching for hidden secrets — Metroid is perhaps more game-like than even Zelda. The difference is, Metroid’s materialistic metaphorical carrot — the items — are required for survival first and foremost. They aren’t there because your character needs them, they’re there because you, the player, need and want them to ensure the game doesn’t shred you to pieces. Your fight for survival is Samus’s fight for survival. This helps break the disconnect between you and her, and relentless hunt for new upgrades. Your motives are linked to hers.


In October of last year, Miyamoto did an about-turn and admitted that the carrot-on-stick approach is, in fact, very much an element of Nintendo design. "The idea of playing the game in a particular way and having it unlock a special prize that rewards you… it feels like something we’ve been doing for the last 15-20 years," he said at a roundtable with members of the games press.



Perhaps he understood — especially after having enough time to evaluate feedback on Wii Music — that a game without a goal can often be confusing to a lot of people. As much as a lot of enthusiast gamers ask for "more freedom" and "open-endedness," the fact remains that too much of those is probably worse than neither of those. The question, then, is how do you maintain the carrot-on-stick approach while not making the player feel like they’re being herded around.


As I mentioned with regard to Metroid earlier, perhaps the solution is to make a greater effort toward speaking directly to the player on a deeper, more instinctive level. Loot-collecting games do a fantastic job of this, as do point-and-click adventure games. The former speaks to your greed, and the latter to your curiosity. Both speak to the person holding the controller, and the person’s actions and desires become one with those of their in-game avatar.



Burnout Paradise is another example of design that speaks out to the player. The presence of DJ Atomica in the game is what makes the difference between ordering the player to participate in events and explore the city, and creating a desire in the player to participate in events and explore the city. It’s about establishing a culture and making the player want to revel in it, rather than forcing it onto him.


The same goes for Persona 4, where a lot of us rushed through a certain heavenly dungeon when a certain someone we cared immensely about got kidnapped. Reaching out to player can be done in many forms, including characters, items, and the environment. The problem is, most games are so keen to lead the player through an "experience," they end up feeling too forced. It’s a question of marrying player incentive to the context of the narrative in a less obvious manner.


The carrot-on-stick + speak-to-player approach is something I feel more developers should experiment with, going forward, not so that their products can be more game-like, but so developers can better understand how to blur the line separating player from game, and thus, make games where we actually care about backtracking and rescuing princesses and growing our in-game characters through experience.


If you think about it, it’s the reason games were considered fun back in the ’80s in the first place — they connected the player’s sense of discovery to the characters’ motives within the game. The difference is, we’ve all been so desensitized to marketing phrases like "epic" and "sense of discovery" by now, developers need to try and poke through our thick hides in more subtle ways.

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  • Jirin

    “Gamerscore” points don’t really do much for me. I like to set my own goals to achieve within a game rather than having the game tell me how many points my efforts were worth. That’s different from the Nintendo approach of just having a lot of collectibles in the game.

    • [The Hunter] Doomrider

      Yeah, I think I understand what Miyamoto meant, I mean, can we consider Achievements/Trophies part of game design? If we are to consider them so, then I don’t like that approach either, from a gamer point of view.

      Some of the stuff is just there for the sake of “rep”, a notion that seems to have gained a lot of attention nowadays. “You beat the game.” Wow, nice achievement, I was going to, even if there was no achievement at all. Who cares about that stuff? All right, when I check my trophies, it kinda bothers me to see “34%” or “22%”, don’t really know why though =P

      Anyway, in general terms, game design NEEDS to depend on carrots… Some are the story, others the gameplay. If these carrots didn’t exist, why would we be playing games at all? =P

      • Pichi

        Whatever happened to just exploring or seeing how a story is explored? Do you really need an achievement to tell you to do these things? It stumps me why people buy games for the trophies and not really caring about anything else the game has to offer.

        I like the nice old idea of doing your own goals and having fun in what you’re doing. No one is forcing you to do collectibles and the likes, yet some people somehow feel like they need to. Which makes turning fun to work in ways they can put off someone or can lead to OCD like behavior.

      • I agree with that last point. Even in games like Sim City or The Sims, you start off from scratch, but you eventually reach your “goal” whatever it may be. Even in the few “sandbox” games I play, there actually isn’t too much depth than your average traditional game.

        The GTA games and No More Heroes have similar concepts, but for me NMH works out so well in the long run because the design flowed so well. The GTA games are known to have vast areas to explore and all that, but like how certain areas are blocked off till you reach a part of the game that unlocks it and when you’re done seeing what’s there, you move on. NMH heroes cuts most of that out and in the meantime, till you progress in the story, you have easily accessible side jobs.
        It’s funny, in GTA: Vice City there was a point where I was delivering pizzas and making ice cream stops more than playing in the main game.

  • Ishaan, I’m not anyone important, but thank you for the kind words, I’m glad that you took my advice and channeled your ideas into a post.

    • Code

      You sir, sound like a character form Earthbound *points*

    • Don’t be so modest. Anyone that visited your site would know right away you’re a fantastic writer.

  • MrMee

    I am a failure at multi-tasking. As a result, games like Fable, Fallout, Elder Scrolls, etc. really give me a hard time as I like to do everything possible. The “carrot on a stick” formula actually works well for me. Moreover, I enjoy the achievement system when it is done well though I could care less about using gamerscore as a reputation score. I really hate achievements for stupid things like online multiplayer or just by talking to someone.

    I guess this is part of the reason I’m a Zelda Fanboy as I enjoy “carrot on a stick” gameplay mechanics. Okami was also an all time fave. I can truthfully say that Majora’s Mask was the hardest Zelda for me as there was so much more involvement between characters and events over the 3 days. Moreover, I just started Darksiders and despite a few very slight letdowns, I think that it is a wonderful game that has potential to become a premium IP to sit amongst the best (sorry not relevant to discussion). The Metroid series were actually kind of difficult for me at first but they have become second nature to me. If the next Zelda is too open ended (I will love it anyways though I doubt it will be) I will probably have a good bit of difficulty completing it satisfactorily. I honestly think that games do need to mask the carrot better, like Okami, by rewarding you every step of the way and making you more synonymous with the character that you are playing.

    Bioshock, from what I played (about half), I really began to feel like the main character and I felt like his will was my will. I felt his sense of wtf at first as it turned into a struggle for surviver and a stronger resolve while solving the mysteries of Rapture. But yeah, great article Ishaan, I’m looking forward to reading more articles like this.

    • Mjora’s Mask is a great point! Yea, I can totally see how that game would be overwhelming for people in more ways than one. You had so many things you could do, and so little time. A little like the social links from Persona, I guess.

      Bioshock is another interesting example. I haven’t played more than a couple hours of it, but I see where you’re coming from. The little sisters were pretty grabbing, too. I hear that they’ve taken that aspect a step further in Bioshock 2.

      • MrMee

        I didn’t mention this, but It’s harder for me to enjoy such engrossing games like bioshock and okami as I have very little free time to play games. I say this because my attention span isn’t the best. When I become engrossed in something with an amazing atmosphere and narrative it pains me to have to quit after a half hour or an hour of playtime. I crave these type of games more so I find myself thinking about them when I have more pressing matters at hand. It’s just easier for me to play something a little less engrossing and/or open ended like Darksiders or most Zelda games because I don’t feel as attached to fine details of the deep narratives. It’s quite annoying to say the least. Also, Majora’s Mask is the only Zelda game that I used a strategy guide on for most of the game, but then again that was ages ago. I’m much better at multitasking nowadays

    • Aoshi00

      I haven’t played too much Okami, but it made me think of FFX, like Yuna overcoming the cloister of Trials one by one, each step of the way bringing her closer to the end of her journey, w/ plot twists gradually being revealed. Bioshock had a great narrative too w/ Atlus being your guide in the unknown retro underwater utopia, of course the first person perspective makes you feel even more immersive. But some people felt those games were linear, I only the other hand did not feel that at all because I enjoy the narratives of those stories tremendously.

      FFXIII on the other hand felt very linear to me (because for one thing it is, much more than X too), I guess one reason is the narrative is not the strongest, the way the story is told is quite hard to grasp, so I do feel that “disconnect”. One way to help though is to read the dictionary/encyclopedia every time a new summary/term is updated.

  • Aoshi00

    As much as people say they don’t care about gamerscores/achievement/trophies, games have always been about that, Pac-man’s highscores in arcade cabinets, Mario getting to the flag at the end of a stage (1000, 2000, 5000, 1up), yes, the fun is how long you can survive in Pac-man, or see how high you can make Mario grab onto the pole, but the scores are what manifest those action. If there’s no point or 1-up no matter where Mario grab onto the pole, you’d just run to the end. It’s just an indicator of how well you do is all. Games are meant to be fun, but the competitive nature can also make it more fun, why do people compete in sports, and you have “win or lose” in games, mabye volleyball matches should just be set for “play for 15 mins and let’s have fun”, instead of an outcome settled by points? Or leaderboard for shmups to see how you rank if you’re playing it right by performing combos. Or racing games, the time is the counter, people like to beat that 1 sec 2 sec threshold, if there’s an achievement/trophy that pats you on the back on a good job well done, why not.

    Yeah, some might like to gloat or whatever, but achievement/trophy is nothing more than an index for quick reference, and could also make games even more fun.

    As for how “carrot” is masked in games, most games are linear one way or another, it all depends if the narrative grabs you, if you don’t like the story, you would just feel like from point A to B. On the other hand, if you feel immersed in the story and can relate to the characters, then you won’t feel like you’re just playing a game. I didn’t feel Twilight Princess was linear or felt I was being led from one point to the next because I enjoyed the story, but then I’m not a fan of the series and don’t have old games to compare to.

    Personally, I would like Nintendo to have some kind of ID to keep track of one’s game progress like PS3/360 games do.

    • That’s true. When it comes to gameplay and narrative, one can compensate for the other and still please someone, but when both aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to, that’s when you know you have a poorly designed game.
      Actually, thinking about it, what comes to mind as memorable games are the ones that rely heavily on one or the other.

  • I actually was looking at games on Amazon and saw one whose advertisement included the words “epic story!” My reaction? I actually went and scoffed at it. Poor game…

    Anyways, I think that these are two different directions the people were working off of. I know several people (the more common population?) who play games not for story or characters, but for the fact that it’s a game, and they know it’s a game. I guess Zelda is like the type of adventuring game for those people — one that is about exploration and has a story, but that is also pretty rigid. And then there are the people who say Okami’s too not-traditional-game-like.

    I don’t mind the Zelda style, personally, although I do have to rack my imagination for Link’s reactions. What his emotions would be at a certain point in time, etc. Like … what Hyrule Town would’ve been like to Link when he first stepped out of Temple of Time (not TP, but still). The only part I’m stuck at explaining is how magic pots magically pop out of weeds you cut in Hyrule Field… (Wait, did I answer my own question right there?) I mean, Deku sticks and nuts I can see, but … magic pots?

  • malek86

    Sometimes, the advancement in itself can be enough. I can play games with no story at all and still enjoy them, sometimes more than games with a story (so I don’t have to put up with bad cutscenes). I don’t think anybody ever said “I want to know what happens at the end of Arkanoid!”. They probably said “let’s see if I can beat my previous record”.

    It’s also worth saying that often there’s no reason to have too many objectives at once. So for example, you have the points counter in Pac-Man, and that’s cool. Then you have the points counter in Serious Sam, but nobody really cares about that, because you are already trying hard enough to survive as is.

    Anyway, the problem with achievements is that they aren’t really needed. It’s good to have them around, but one can know by themselves if they are awesome or not. I remember when I was playing JSRF, and after doing some runs in Kibogaoka Hill, I thought to myself “maybe there’s a way to complete a lap without touching the ground”. After some practice, I made it. I bet if it were a 360 game, there would have been an achievement for that. But even then, it’s not needed, because having played the game a lot, I know what’s supposed to be difficult and what is not. Now, like I said, this is a good way to give you more reason to play… but, achievements are often given for the pettiest things – like, “complete the first level on any difficulty”. Uh, ok? Should I feel good about it?

    So, I don’t mind difficult achievements. But it kinda bothers me to see people that specifically play a lot of easy games to increase their gamerscore, and then gloat about it.

  • Hraesvelgr

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the achievement/trophy systems, but I do agree that some people have lowered themselves to the point of playing really god awful games to get easy “points”, often playing games that they would’ve refused to even think of playing in the past. Even worse are the people who pay other people to play games for them so they can build up their score. Sad, really.

  • I like the feeling of “What’s next!”, in games.
    As for the “carrot” being structure in games:
    I like knowing where I’m going, not wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out my way.
    I don’t like when a game doesn’t make my path clear. It’s odd sometimes, that once I know the path, I can see what the developer was hoping I would see. Some times though, I’m like, “They could have made it a little more clear for me.” Perhaps that’s where a carrot would benefit me.

    A carrot may not encourage me to continue, but it may improve my eyesight, so I can see where to go in games!

  • LoftyTheMetroid

    Copy/pasting a comment from another website. Sorry for sounding like a douche, wrote it while in a bad mood, but I’m too lazy to clean it up now. (This was coming off the news that Super Meat Boy Wii was getting the shaft, and Valve’s Wii comments once again demonstrating mainstream industry ignorance, so I was getting pretty tired of articles that seemed like they were trying to purposefully put Nintendo/Wii in a bad light):

    This is such a ridiculously s*** article.

    Does the author thinks he’s so smart that he can identify anything he wants as a “carrot” in a futile attempt to make Miyamoto (and, by extension, Nintendo) hypocritical?

    Durr hurr, listen to this everyone! All games are crappy because “beating” them is a carrot that you’re constantly chasing! i’m so sma rt, i canz making ilogicle conclooshuns 2!!1!

    And it’s not just Nintendo games. In GTA, you go from one mission to the next, each mission a “carrot”. In BioShock, you search out Little Sisters to harvest — those must be “carrots” too, amirite!?

    The metaphor just goes right over his head. It’s not about identifying elements of progression – those are not “carrots”. It’s about extraneous objectives or conditions that have NOTHING to do with the game, have NO intrinsic value, and involve an often exhausting chase with no reward beyond the chase itself (i.e. chasing after a carrot on a stick).

    Getting, say, bombs in Zelda is not a carrot, because obtaining the bombs was not meaningless. The bombs are rewarding, have value, and are relevant within the context of the game.

    Achievements, on the other hand, exemplify the “carrot-on-a-stick” metaphor. I can’t spend achievement points like ADAM to purchase plasmids (can you tell what game I’ve been playing recently… >.>). In fact, achievements (in the Xbox Live variation) have not even referenced in-game, they have no meaning. There’s nothing rewarding about earning more meaningless points. They exist solely for the purpose of being chased, to get consumers to play more Xbox games and purchase more Xbox titles. This is the proverbial “carrot-on-a-stick”.

    (Do not confuse this with in-game “achievement-esque” systems. Brawl incorporates an “achievement” system, but it is in-game and provides meaningful rewards and has contextual purpose. Even without explicit in-game rewards, an in-game achievement system can exist as a reward in itself, usually as a means of guiding the player through its gameplay systems and depth. It’s only when “achievements” are unified through an overarching console-based system that I have problems, which I won’t get into at this time…)

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