So, you’re designing a game. Along the way, you will be faced with many options, and you’ll want to pick the one that makes your game better. Which one to choose won’t always be clear, but here are some questions that will help you decide.1. Who is the game for?
2. What are those players like?
3. What do those players like?
4. How do I create those experiences?
I’d like to explicitly reference the foundation of these prototypes: the original Player Psychographic profiles used by Wizards of the Coast in designing Magic: the Gathering. If you’re familiar with Timmy, Johnny, and Spike, you’ve probably already noticed how they inspired the profiles listed here. If you’re not familiar with the profiles, here’s an excellent place to begin: http://archive.wizards.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr220b
Profiles and Game Design Concepts
Any framework is only valuable to the extent that it can be applied to your game design for additional insight. In this article we’ll dig deeper into the profiles. We’ll introduce a few game design concepts that are particularly relevant for that profile. I’ll also suggest questions for your playtest feedback form.
The profiles fall into 3 main groups, based on what motivates them.
- Erin and Ingrid are driven by the goal of the game.
- Jenny and Kim are driven by the mechanics of the game.
- Anastasia and Leah are driven by the play experience.
In this article, we’ll continue by examining the play preferences of Jenny and Kim, our mechanics-driven profiles. From the perspective of Keith Burgun’s Four Interactive Forms, Jenny and Kim treat games as toys. They are not driven by the goal of the game (they don’t play to win), but they want to make the game do something interesting. Jenny uses the game as a vehicle for self-expression, while Kim wants to be surprised by how the game reacts.
Designing for Jenny the Clever
Remind me who Jenny is again?
Jenny plays to express her creativity and to find strategies that other players overlook. Even if she doesn’t win the game, she can take pride in completing objectives she makes up. Alternatively, she may play with the same goal as others, but will introduce arbitrary restrictions of her own design (playing Scrabble without using the letter “E”, for example).
What is parasitic design?
Most games offers players different viable strategies. A strategy is parasitic if it discourages the player from including other strategies. In other words, as soon as you start down this path, the rewards for continuing on the path are greater than the rewards for branching out and trying something else. Individual mechanics can more or less parasitic, depending on how strong the reward is for investing more into the mechanic.
Consider Ascension. The Wolf Acolyte card (which is Lifebound) is a little parasitic, as it gives the player a bonus for playing at least one other Lifebound card. Once you’ve reached the threshold (of playing another Lifebound card), the other cards you play don’t matter. Compare this to Cetra, Matron of Stars, which gives the player a bonus for each other Lifebound card played. Multi-unite is a highly parasitic design, as the rewards increase as the player invests more.
While parasitic mechanics are fine for Erin, who’s happy to snowball her way to victory, and for Ingrid, who’s interested in calculating exactly how efficient a parasitic mechanic is likely to be, Jenny would prefer a more modular design.
What is modular design?
A mechanic is modular if it can be productively combined with other mechanics. Consider a set of Lego bricks designed to create a motorcycle. If each individual brick were constructed so that it only connected with the adjacent brick in the motorcyle design, it would be impossible to take the same set of bricks and create, say, a pirate ship instead. Part of the appeal of Lego bricks is that they can be combined in many different ways.
Consider Star Realms. When a player plays a mercenary ship, that player gets to pick any faction for that ship. This makes it easier for players to activate the allied abilities of other cards in play, and encourages the player to explore a wider variety of factions.
What are “Golden Rules”?
How do you deal with an untestable number of possibilities? Provide unbreakable “golden rules” to allow players to resolve any conflicts that you did not anticipate (e.g. “In a dispute between the rules book and the cards, the cards win.” or “If one effect says you can, and another effect says you can’t, you can’t.”
Reference: http://mtgsalvation.gamepedia.com/Magic_Golden_Rules )
If you feel that your game has the potential for creating ambiguous situations (and thus requires a set of “golden rules”), you should consider how each profile reacts to ambiguity. Ingrid, for example, prefers games that are deterministic, as it is impossible to optimize an unpredictable system. Anastasia hates it when an arbitrary rule (e.g. “Each room can only be occupied by a single player”) doesn’t make thematic sense. Jenny, however, is willing to accept golden rules as they make it possible for the game to include more combinations.
Can the game be solvable?
The existence of a dominant strategy does not deter Jenny. To the contrary, if other players believe that there’s only one way to play, Jenny can use their predictability to construct a clever counter-strategy.
Consider Magic’s metagame. At the professional level, new archetypes of decks are created in response to the types of decks that consistently appear in the top 8. This also occurs at the local casual level, when a player dominates with a particular deck and other players try different counter-measures to compensate. One player in my local group had a powerful combo deck. Once he got the pieces in place, he was unstoppable. I designed a disruption deck which enabled me to force my opponent to discard cards. While my creation often lost to other decks, it was able to defeat the combo deck that had been dominating the local shop.
What are the cosmetic attributes of your game?
Cosmetic attributes of your game don’t impact gameplay or improve a player’s chances to win. Therefore, they are often ignored by Erin and Ingrid, and may be overlooked by designers. However, cosmetic elements will allow Jenny to show her creativity, and give her a more fulfilling experience.
It’s important that these cosmetic attributes don’t impact the game in any meaningful way. If you present these choices as another puzzle for the player to solve, or if there is a “right” solution, you’re designing for Ingrid and Erin, not Jenny.
Consider most RPG games that allow you to select your character’s hair color. While this doesn’t have an impact on the gameplay, it allows a creative player to invest in her character.
What should you ask in your playtest report?
“What aspects of this game do you look forward to exploring in future plays?”
Watch for what Jenny adds to the game, like role-playing the characters, and inventing backstories.
Designing for Kim, the Explorer
Remind me who Kim is, again?
Kim plays to see what happens next. Once the game becomes predictable, Kim gets bored and moves on to another game.
Some game designers give up in the face of such unpredictability. If a player isn’t playing to win, and acting in her own self-interest, it’s not the designer’s responsibility. Even if you abdicate responsibility for Kim’s experience, though, you are still responsible for the experience of her opponents.
What is juicy mechanic?
Lens #64 in The Art of Game Design is the Lens of Juiciness. A mechanic is juicy if it is sensitive to the slightest action of the player, and gives the player significant rewards. If your game rewards the player’s movement and decisions in the same way that biting into a ripe peach yields flavor, then your game is juicy.When designing for Kim, you’re more interested in creating big, splashy effects than balancing the game.
Consider any Match-3 game with cascading effects (e.g. Marvel Puzzle Quest). Sometimes, a slight change (swap two symbols) leads to a satisfying chain of explosions, re-arranging the entire board.
Consider coin-pusher arcade games. They have an addictive quality, as players anticipate the next coin causing an exciting (and profitable) avalanche.
What can I ignore?
Balance. Game designers (and especially game developers) work hard to produce balanced games that support different viable strategies, and ensure that all players have an equal shot at victory. These efforts are wasted on Kim, and possibly even counter-productive. Kim is looking for a surprising turn of events that has a large impact on the state of the game, such as causing a player to lose half of her resources (or double her holdings).
Consider Cosmic Encounter. As Peter Olotka said on the Ludology podcast, “Balance is for wimps.” Reference: http://ludology.libsyn.com/ludology-episode-91-olotka-encounter
Consider Innovation. Each card seems overpowered until it’s trumped by an even more powerful card in the next age.
What is look-ahead?
Look-ahead is a measure of how confidently a player can predict the next few turns of the game. While some profiles (especially Ingrid) prefer a long look-ahead, as it helps them plan their strategy, an unlimited look-ahead may cause analysis paralysis in some players or cause other issues. (Reference: http://keithburgun.net/uncapped-look-ahead-and-the-information-horizon/ ) Fortunately, Kim prefers games to be unpredictable, and to have little, if any, look-ahead.
Consider Alhambra. While you have some knowledge about which tiles are available for purchase currently, and you can calculate how many tiles of each color remain in the bag, you do not know exactly the order in which the tiles will appear (and thus, which currency they will require). Imagine how Alhambra would be different if you laid out all the tiles at the start of the game, and could influence, through your purchases, which currency each tile would require.
Consider Knightmare Chess, as opposed to standard Chess. The unpredictable effects of (hidden) cards reduces the effective number of turns a player can plan for.
How long can my game be?
If you’re targeting Kim, your game may be a series of random and entertaining events that eventually determine a winner. If the whims of fate can decrease your resources, those resources should not require a lot of effort to acquire, lest the game feel frustrating. Conversely, players will not value resources that they gained through chance as much as those gained through careful action. Finally, any player who has been eliminated from a game (or still in the game, but with little chance of victory), would prefer the game to end soon, so another one can begin. For all of these reasons, your game should be exciting, but short.
Consider We Didn’t Playtest This At All. The title of the game, and the widely varying strengths of each card show a blatant disregard for game balance. However, as each game is fairly quick, the game doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Can the game be solvable? (Dominant strategy)
If your game is predictable enough to support a dominant strategy, then there isn’t enough chaos for Kim.
What should you ask in your playtest report?
“Would you like to play again?”
“How many times do you see yourself playing this?”
It’s good to have at least one Kim-like player in your playtest group, even if you’re not designing expressly for this profile. This playtester will try unusual strategies, and will look for ways to break your game. For example, if one player hoards resources, will that prevent the game from ever reaching a conclusion?
About the author.
Chip Beauvais started designing games in 2006, and hasn’t been able to stop.
He has a masters degree in Mathematics from Tufts University.
He lives in Maynard, MA with his wife, daughter and two bunnies.