The Carrot On A Stick Approach To Game Design


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.

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.