When the Surprise > the Prize
This is just an anecdote that I thought was both amusing and insightful. So, occasionally the designers at Insomniac go out to dinner together, for cross-project bonding and whatnot, and one night we went to have burgers at Islands. After dinner, the waitress came to tell us about an exciting promotion they were doing that we would all get to participate, hooray!
Basically, she had a bunch of scratch-off cards, the cheap lotto sort, under which were various exciting prizes like "free entree!" or "free dessert!" and the like. Okay sure, that seems like a pretty cute thing for a restaurant to do, right? But then she explained to us, "the rules."
The rules were that we would each get a scratch-card, but we COULD NOT SCRATCH IT OFF. No, we had to wait until the next time we came to eat at Islands, and then give our scratch-card to the manager, and THEY would scratch it off to see what our prize was. That was how the prizes would be redeemed. We all stared, dumbfounded. Who made this promotion? Did they not know that the very joy of a scratch-card is to scratch it? This went against the fundamental nature of the scratch-card itself! I brought this up, and the waitress thought that maybe when I returned and asked the manager, she would let me scratch it off myself.
Anyway, she handed out all of the scratch-cards and left the table. Immediately, we all started digging for scratch-utensils and scratched away to see what the prizes were that we would not be getting.
"I would have gotten a free appetizer, yay!"
"Ooo, I would have gotten a free drink."
One person noted that one of the potential prizes was $500 and paused, wondering if he scratched off and would have gotten $500, would he be mad at himself for pre-emptively scratching and nullifying the prize? A beat went by, and he scratched away, unable to resist (he didn't not-get $500). When the waitress returned she was legitimately horrified at what we'd done, and we tried helplessly to explain that the act of revealing the surprise was far more enticing than the prize itself. Her exasperated sigh revealed that this was probably the more common reaction of anyone who got the scratch-cards.
The episode did make me think about games, and experiences in games where the act of revealing a surprise is more valuable to the player than the prize itself. It reminded me of something I learned back in grad school about puzzles, about how the brain is delighted when it sees the answer of a puzzle, regardless of whether it actually solved the puzzle or looked it up in a walkthrough. It also made me think of this VG Cats Comic.
Anyway, it is a funny thing about humans, yes? We should think about it when we make our games. I offer to the commenters to share their own experiences about games where the joy was all about uncovering the surprise when the reward itself was pretty much meaningless.
For me, a good example would be the Wario Ware series, particularly the Gamecube version (of which I have fond memories of many hours spent playing with friends). I found that when playing this game, the joy and delight has little to do with winning the games, nor even winning an individual microgame, but instead comes from the surprise of seeing what crazy thing the microgame has you do.
This was especially true with the group microgames (and even moreso when playing with new people). "Which one will it be? Which one which one? OMG IT'S THE SNOT DODGING ONE I haven't seen that one in ages BWAHAHAHAHA!" In fact, half the time the surprise of the microgame (be it its visual style, its short-phrase instruction, or the pure wackiness of what it asked to do) would often result directly in failing that micro-game. But the reveal was so delightful that it didn't matter!
Alright, commenters, your turn!