This is in response to an MMOCrunch article asking what motivates PvP in MMOs.
In regard to MMOs, my experience suggests that players who love PvP in current MMOs focus more on bragging rights and the rewards of victory than on the combat itself. All combatants want to win, of course. But MMO PvP is not like the PvP in Killer Instinct or Call of Duty 4, in which players are more likely to remember cool combos and surprising events than whether they won or lost a particular match.
It's important to recognize that the thrill of battle and the thrill of victory are distinct from one another.
They are generally separate, though they can be the same -- and that, I believe, is the ideal. By now, most developers are familiar with the concept of flow. Flow is when the end and the experience become one. It's when we become lost in the moment because the moment is completely fulfilling. The concept is thousands of years old, actually. In the past, it was called inspiration (God working through individuals) or wù-wèi (無為 or 无为, a central concept to Confucianism and taoism). Flow/inspiration is essentially communion with the "game". It occurs when the participant is able to accept the game (its rules, goals, setting, etc) without reservation and without struggle.
Repetitive actions are often (necessarily?) a key component. Repetition diminishes struggle by increasing familiarity with both thought and execution. It diminishes reservation by normalizing and internalizing the setting and goals.
I doubt that challenge is a necessary component of flow, as this graph suggests, because flow includes the elimination of challenge. When Michael Jordan "entered the zone", he wasn't trying anymore; he was simply doing. In my Asian Philosophy course in college, we never did come up with a perfect English translation for wù-wèi, but my best guess is "effortless action". It can occur with actions as complex as NBA basketball or classical guitar; it can also occur with actions as simple as gardening or swimming. Flow is not limited to challenging tasks.
Flow is not the completion of challenges, but the fulfillment of self. It's the realization of self by means of participation in something. And because it's the realization of self, different actions produce flow for different individuals (though some aspects of self are universal).
It can happen through exploration. I'm an explorer, so it's easy for me to lose track of time and all else while flipping through pictures (notice the repetitive action) like these or reading. It can happen through something as passive as listening to music or watching a movie -- simply absorbing something of personal relevance.
Engagement, rather than challenge, is necessary. The experience must fill the appetite. Perhaps engagement can take the form of challenge, but there is necessarily no struggle in flow (struggle and challenge are not completely synonymous).
Anyway, I didn't originally intend for this article to be about flow. =P
My original point is that victory and combat are related, but should be analyzed separately. Well-designed rewards won't always support poorly-designed combat; and vis versa. Each should be able to stand on its own.