Crafting Rewarding Moments with Elden Ring
A game designer's analysis of Elden Ring's approach to player rewards
Since its launch, Elden Ring's massive size and extreme polish have been a feast for critics and designers alike.
As game designers, there are a number of lessons we can take from the experience.
There’s the constant tension and mystery that makes you feel you’re playing a game from the '90s (in the best possible way). Elden Ring’s intricate level design elevates the custom of taking the side path versus walking straight to your goal. The lack of a HUD forces you to take in the world around you instead of following lists and markers. The craftsmanship behind the game makes every area new and interesting, a trait seen in the best journeys of literature and cinema. It could be argued that this game isn't especially welcoming from an accessibility perspective, and like other Souls games, it has its gatekeepers.
These are all points worth their own analyses. In this feature, I’d like to focus specifically on the sense of reward and accomplishment that Elden Ring offers from a game design perspective, without spoiling those who have yet to try the game or are playing.
Are the rewards worth the effort?
In a traditional game loop, players expect their actions to be properly compensated. That's not something that occurs naturally when developing a game.
A reward is only as meaningful as the movement it causes in you as a player. A new weapon can be a grand prize if you feel empowered by it. Or it can leave you feeling worse for wear if it’s hardly up to snuff compared to what you’re already carrying. An audio log can be memorable if it reveals something intriguing about the story or a waste of time (content is too little, too soon, too late, too obvious). Earning money and not having anywhere to spend it can be terrible. I dropped Horizon Zero Dawn, a game I was in love with, because I emptied the shops halfway through and the quests suddenly lost their meaning.
A suitable reward should be actionable, but action can come in many shapes and sizes.
A question game designers face is, “what does the player gain from this?” Creating a great sense of reward is tough, and making sure the game has a good framework for that is tougher. And yet, Elden Ring hasn’t ceased to amaze me with each new location and the things I find in them.
Below is a breakdown of the kinds of rewards the game uses in order to foster exploration and maintain the sense of discovery for hours on end.
Power scaling is the mainstay of RPGs. As much as the soulsborne series draws from console classics such as Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins and Castlevania, numbers in these old games were chunky: you kill a creature in a few hits while movement and attack patterns were the factors that you needed to be mindful of.
In the tradition of computer RPGs, numbers and mathematical relations are central to combat. The difference between a rat and a lich is several digits plus a pesky status effect that deals extra damage to your entire party each round. And those extra digits force you to level up to tackle harder enemies.
Souls games are the modern standard for mixing these styles up: large figure number-crunching in real-time, choreographed fights. And yet compared to similar games, Elden Ring is kind of stingy in offering raw power. Other than by levelling up the stats and upgrading equipment at the blacksmith, it’s uncommon to find a weapon or armor that’s just better than another. Equipment scales with power, but not nearly as much as they scale in variety.
Strategic options are where Elden Ring gets impressive. Every weapon feels unique in how it looks and plays from the weapon’s model, description, animations, combos, skills, stats, and affinities. Even when they’re part of the same family, each weapon can stand on its own. Each weapon can spawn a whole build around it, depending on how you choose to play.
The advantage of choice-based rewards is to expand the play space, while keeping the player from scaling power every time they open a chest. The downside is that not all players will juggle an endless stream of options with ease. Especially so in Elden Ring, in which changing builds requires a great deal of investment in base stats, weapon reinforcements, etc... Power is inclusive, options are exclusive — finding equipment you’re not interested in or capable of using can be quite frustrating.
Still, being free to mix and match armor, weapons, talismans and ashes opens up each reward’s viability a bit. It helps makes sure no two players will play the same.
Consumables are the ever reliable filler, the bread and butter of cramping an open world with small prizes. Why? Because they are temporary. In Elden Ring, they act as ammunition, timed buffs, resources required to craft more consumables, and rare materials that feed into permanent progress (Smithstones, Gloveworts). In games like Far Cry, it’s more common for these components to feed into progress - a smart way to dilute power scaling within palpable open-world collectibles.
Consumables are very granular and optional, which lends them fame for gathering mold in nine out of ten players’ inventories. Yet I feel like Elden Ring’s high difficulty made me craft and use consumables more than in most games I play - and sometimes even crave for a resource I’m missing.
Part of the genius in games like Breath of the Wild was posing weapons as consumables. It’s almost mandatory to hate on its breakable weapons, but that system made sure I used everything I stumbled upon in Hyrule, from giant alien swords to a stick and a leaf. All of those were actionable rewards that didn’t turn me into a power creep and also made sure I was playing with all options — asking only for a bit of detachment in exchange. In Elden Ring, I’m still using the handy katana I got at the start, despite having an inventory full of diverse weapons 70 hours later. Sometimes, a good reward system works better than it looks.
Maintenance is recovering health, mana, ammo, repairing a broken weapon, cleansing a status effect — you name it. It’s so pervasive that it almost passes as a non-reward, but anyone who’s reached an Inn, Pokémon Center or Bonfire/Grace on the brink of death, after one hour in a cave full of Hellspawn, knows its value.
Elden Ring also introduces instant flask refills by killing red and blue dung beetles, and finishing groups of enemies — a cool fresh addition that helps nudge players towards combat when exploring the open world.
There's also the tried and true social reward of having a message appraised and gaining some HP back, a practical way of pushing the community to work together.
There’s a precept in game design that states: given the option, the player will min-max the fun out of the game. Is there a boring way of guaranteeing a victory or extra cash? Players will take it. A lame-looking stick has the best stats because of a glitch? Players will play with the stick from start to end…then complain.
This isn’t true for the longstanding tradition of fashion souls, which remains strong in Elden Ring. “Don’t mind the stats”, a friend said to me over Twitter, “wear whatever looks more fun." Roleplaying and self-expression are powerful drives for a good portion of players — especially so when the game has a solid culture of multiplayer, streaming, sharing and showing off. Think about this the next time you find a headpiece that has terrible stats but makes your scrawny Tarnished look flashy.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Sometimes the reward is getting to advance the main story, a side quest, or your knowledge of the game's lore. Narrative development is one of the primary drives for modern games and interactive fiction, and it’s listed by Greg Costikyan as one of the types of uncertainty that makes players curious and eager to keep playing.
The story in soulsborne games is notoriously cryptic, and Elden Ring is no exception. You may have agreed to a side quest and not even know it, or be 100 hours into the game without knowing what an Albinauric is. Uncovering the many layers to the characters’ motivations and the world’s history is a game in itself, and a big prize for invested players to look after - be it through dialogue, item descriptions, environmental storytelling or even the occasional cutscene.
Not all narrative moments are exposition, though. Sometimes, it’s all about eye candy: playing through a carefully crafted set piece, getting caught in an electric storm, being awestruck by the sight of the country ahead in Hyrule or Liurnia.
It is certainly a kind of narrative, but this type of reward is all about moments, relevant to the larger story being told or not. I can’t remember the plot of any Uncharted game, but I vividly remember each building that crumbled while I was inside and the times I had to run away from a tank amidst the city streets.
Elden Ring is full of these moments. I don’t know which talisman I got from the portal I took to Crumbling Farum Azula, but I won’t forget the location’s look and feel. Similarly, bosses are among the chief attractions, they and their fights being far more memorable than the trinkets they leave behind.
Elden Ring has the power to make things look big and impressive, as they do in real life. You know when you try to take a picture of the full moon and all you get is a bright dot on the screen? Elden Ring is the photographer that makes it look right.
Access is mostly about hard progress. In metroidvanias, Zelda-likes, and in the tradition of survival horrors, most rewards are key items that allow access to previously inaccessible areas. For example, the double jump lets the player reach high places, the bomb lets you break cracked walls, the dog medallion opens the lock for the main door, a boss opens an alternative path when defeated. Mark Brown has an excellent video series all about that.
Elden Ring is not a metroidvania by any means, but it has its share of locks-and-keys, mainly as gates between extensive areas and legacy dungeons. Access rewards are powerful in that they increase the play space significantly, tempting the player with the promise of more power, strategic options, and narrative development.
Shortcuts and teleports are access rewards in the form of making progress in the map. Few moments in gaming beat the feeling of taking an elevator after a long trek just to realize you’re back in cozy Firelink Shrine.
Elden Ring has its share of shortcuts and secret paths for speedrunners, but it also has a surprising amount of portals that zap the player around the map. Sometimes it is to increase the odds of finding a key area, a sign that early players might have had trouble reaching it. The game also has Sites of Grace as the ultimate moment of respite, a guarantee that you’ll be able to come back to that checkpoint whenever you want.
Miyazaki has explicitly said he wants death to be “more than a mark of failure” in his games, which begs the question: can death act as a reward?
In Elden Ring, players have new options to progress beside beating the head against the wall for hours on end (my run of Demon’s Souls was cut short at the Tower Knight, in Dark Souls I cowered in fear before even meeting Ornstein & Smough, and I gave up on Dark Souls 3 after being mauled by raven-men in the Road of Sacrifices a couple hours too many). Despite it all, death remains the best tutorial: you’ll be surprised the first time, enraged the second or third, and feel you’ve learned something when you finally use your information to win.
In Elden Ring, information can also come as maps and telescopes, as well as tips from NPCs and guides sold by merchants, pointing out useful strategies and locations of interest.
I admit several dungeons left me with all but nothing. No narrative development or set piece, no new information, no power - only a handful of runes and an item I can’t use. And I think it’s here, at its lowest, that Elden Ring truly shows its colors.
After struggling through a horde of blood-thirsty imps, beefy trolls, respawning skeletons and fire-spewing traps, and after beating a difficult boss that takes a part of my soul away every time it kills me, I can’t help but feel great for conquering the dungeon (regardless of having earned an item that requires Int 40 and my character being dumb as a door). The feeling of overcoming a tough challenge is an intrinsic reward, something fuelled by my will, and that’s the most valuable loot a game designer can hope to drop.
Missing rewards (but that's okay)
This is not a comprehensive list, but for the sake of justice I’ll reference two common types of rewards that appear throughout the whole of gaming, but not in Elden Ring in their usual forms.
Collectibles are usually access rewards (think Power Stars in Super Mario 64 or Power Moons in Super Mario Odyssey), but sometimes they're central enough to be considered their own reward — looking at you, Koroks. There’s a sticker album feel to catching ‘em all which caters to the portion of our brains that enjoys organization and ”serious fun”, as outlined by Nicole Lazzaro.
Elden Ring doesn’t have in-game completion items in, but one can always try to find all weapons, armor sets and talismans.
Power-ups were everywhere in the days before RPG systems took over gaming, slipping through the cracks of first-person shooters, racing, mobile golfing and whatnot. They act much as instant consumables: touch one and you get a change of state, permanent or temporary. It can be the invincibility from a Super Star, double and triple shots in a shoot-'em-up, or a quick boost in a futuristic racing game. Elden Ring doesn’t seem to have anything with this specific behavior, and yet, “we need power-ups” is one of the most common phrases you’ll hear when building a game for someone who hasn’t played any in some time — a sign of their pervasiveness in the '80s and '90s.
One last word: for almost any type of reward, we can place them along a separate axis of generic versus specific.
Generic rewards like XP and gold offer more possibilities, but have less personality. These are Runes in Elden Ring: you can spend them as you like, but it’s all about numbers. You’ll never get too excited unless it’s a big number — a bit like getting money as a gift on your birthday. Crafting resources are also generic, as we can transform them into a myriad of things.
Specific rewards like a weapon, an armor or a talisman have more charisma, but are more restrictive. They can be a hit or a miss. For example, a new talisman may boast a cool insignia and have a fascinating bit of lore in the description, but if it boosts sorcery and you’re playing an axe warrior the size of an SUV, there’s not much to do besides exchanging it for some Runes. Not too exciting.
Ultimately, the game mixes and matches different rewards all the time to keep things fresh. Stonesword Keys are a consumable that gives access to new strategic options. Mausoleums are spectacle moments that give a choice of consumable, which usually involves more power. Sites of Grace offer mainly maintenance and access, information through its guiding light, but also the means for increasing power and reviewing your strategic options.
As a whole, Elden Ring has a great framework for making the player feel rewarded in their many escapades throughout the Lands Between. It may introduce nothing too risky in terms of system design (consumable weapons, looking at you), but it excels at every part of the craft and delivers a genuine sense of adventure that we don’t see so often.
That's enough Elden Ring for now — I’ll get back to stumbling through Caelid in search of Radahn.
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