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
Players meeting you halfway
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 introduced earlier. There will be some overlap in the questions, but not all questions pertain to each profile.
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.
As designers, we have direct control over the goal and mechanics of the game. Thus, it’s easier to anticipate the reaction of (and thus, design for) the first four types of players. You have less control over the experiences that Anastasia and Leah have, but they are also willing to meet you halfway.
For example, once you’ve exceeded Ingrid’s threshold for output randomness, she’ll dismiss your game as a luck-fest, and never look back. But, if your sci-fi game arbitrarily restricts when players have access to the science lab, Anastasia will invent a backstory for you (“All the scientists go out for Thai food on Thursdays, so …”). Likewise, Erin prefers to play games as-written (otherwise, finding opponents will be difficult), but Leah will happily use any house rules that make the game more fun for her group.
When focusing on these profiles, you need to consider the game experiences that players have. For an experience-focused approach to game design, I recommend reading Scott Nicholson’s thoughts on design, especially his book, Everybody Plays At The Library, which references “gaming experiences” in the subtitle.
Designing for Anastasia the Storyteller
Remind me who Anastasia is again?
Anastasia likes games that tell an interesting story. While the story should be cohesive and consistent, she’s willing to use her imagination to make the story work. You want Anastasia to form an emotional bond to your game, as Mark Rosewater describes in this Driving to Work podcast.
Consider Once Upon a Time. While the game establishes a goal (be the first player to use all of your cards), Anastasia doesn’t care about whether she wins or loses, as long as the story is interesting.
What is the difference between immersion and engagement?
Immersion makes the player feel that she is in the world that the game represents. Engagement, on the other hand, occurs when a player is lost in the gameplay and mechanics. When designing for Anastasia, be aware of rules or mechanics that break the magic circle, or snap the player back to reality. Be particularly aware of adding rules to balance the game, or to avoid broken states.
Consider a hypothetical inventory system that limits players to 3 items. Does it make sense that a character could carry three giant swords, but can’t carry four rings?
Consider Chess. A player may be deeply engaged in the gameplay, and not notice the passage of time or his immediate environment. However, this is a different experience from feeling immersed in an ancient battlefield, hearing the chanting of the bishops and smelling the knight’s steed.
What is the difference between simulation and evocative game design?
Simulations are detailed-oriented, based on what you can see.
“I buy a sword. I enter the dragon’s cave. I slay the dragon.”
Evocative games are emotion-oriented, based on what you feel.
“I open a booster with a rare Sword card in it.”
“I shuffle the Dragon’s Cave deck and draw 3 cards. Yes! I drew the entrance card!”
“I use the edge of the Sword card to etch a line in this mouse-pad like material.”
As a designer, it’s very tempting to dissect an interesting system to its essential components and recreate that system in a game. While this approach may work when designing for Ingrid, it won’t yield the expected results for Anastasia. Instead, you should examine the same system looking for the emotions that the users of the system feel. Move your mental camera from the omnipotent third-person view, which sees all the interlocking cogs, to a first-person view, where you see a single worker. Use your game designer’s empathy to track that user’s emotions, and then develop your game with the goal of recreating those emotions in the player.
Consider Star Trek. The television shows and movies doesn’t simulate space travel. There are a lot of boring details that are omitted. Instead, it evokes the audience’s perception of what space travel could be like. The producers of the show have to maintain a balance between including enough detail to be credible, and overwhelming the audience with too much detail.
What is narrative arc?
Anastasia prefers games that have a beginning, middle, and end, where each phase has a different feel than the others. This doesn’t necessarily mean making the players do different things as the game progresses, but that is one way to achieve the goal.
Consider Metro. While players are doing the same thing each turn (add a tile, score any completed paths), as game progresses, the paths get longer, and fewer incomplete trains remain. This increases tension and gives the end game a different feel.
Consider Nexus Ops (or any 4X game). Early in the game, players explore to discover the location of valuable mines, and battles are infrequent. By the middle of the game, all the exploration tiles have been revealed, and players spend more time battling for control of valuable spaces.
When would you choose to play like Anastasia?
Even if you usually fit another profile better, you may choose to play like an Anastasia if you’re teaching the game for the first time, or playing with kids, or playing a specific type of game.
What should you ask in your playtest report?
“How would you describe the game you just played to a friend? What stories would you tell?”
“What moments in the game are memorable?”
Designing for Leah, the social player
Remind me who Leah is again?
Leah plays for the experience of spending time with her friends. When designing for Leah, your responsibility shifts from creating an engaging game to making a social experience possible.
- Consider Win, Lose, or Banana
- Consider Crappy Birthday
- Consider Timeline
- Consider Cash N Guns
- Consider Telestrations
- Consider Balderdash (player-generated content)
Should I include a trading mechanism?
Trading games usually involve evaluating resources, which is punishing to new players. When an experienced player teaches the game to a new player, she has to decide if she will use her experience to gain an advantage over the new player. If she does, it cause the new player to have a suboptimal first impression of the game. If she doesn’t, she may have a suboptimal experience while teaching the game. As most games are played with a mix of experienced and new players, a trading mechanism may hinder the player base’s organic growth.
Also, trading in a two-player game can be problematic, as trades usually benefit one player more than another. One approach is to make the resources have different relative values for each player. One player’s trash can be another player’s treasure. Evaluation, however, can also induce AP, as Ingrid tries to figure out if she’s getting as much of a benefit from the trade as her opponent.
Consider Bohnanza. The active player wants to trade away the revealed beans, otherwise, she will be forced to harvest beans before they score the most points. Likewise, non-active players want to trade away beans in their hands to have more efficient turns.
When is a game really an activity?
Every game requires the players to take some sort of action. In Chess, players move pieces around on a board, and in Uno, players draw cards into their hands and discard a card on their turn. For goal-oriented players, such as Erin, these actions are a means to an end, but are not interesting on their own. In fact, Erin would get the same enjoyment if you removed the Chess board and players simply wrote down their moves.
For players that are not goal-oriented, such as Leah and Anastasia, the activity of the game must be appealing. This could involve interesting components in your game (the “toy factor”), or how players interact with these components, or each other.
Unlike other aspects of the game (like trading), incorporating an interesting activity in your game for Leah doesn’t make your game any less appealing to a goal-oriented player, like Erin. You can tell that players are enjoying the activity of the game if scoring (and declaring a winner) feels like an afterthought.
Consider Ugg-tect. While the game has a goal (get your teammate to do what you want), the activity of the game (bashing each other with inflatable clubs) is entertaining and enjoyable.
Consider Twister. The activity of the game, contorting your body to touch the required colored spots, is the entire game.
What is the atom of a game?
An atom of a game is the smallest meaningful part that gives the core experience of playing the game. Small atoms are especially important for social party games, as they allow new players to drop in (and, possibly, old players to drop out). This is especially important to Leah, who doesn’t want to exclude anyone.
Consider Apples to Apples. An atom begins when the card to match is revealed, and ends when the judge selects a winner for that round. At that point, a spectator can easily join the game, without disrupting the flow for the other players.
Consider Gauntlet (the arcade game). This is one of the first video games to allow new players to enter while the game is in progress
What must you avoid in your game?
Be wary of anything that spoils the fun. Leah will avoid or ignore anything that makes the game less fun, she may be playing with people that fit other profiles. If Ingrid discovers a clear path to victory, she’ll take it, even if it’s not fun.
Mark Rosewater – “Players will do what they need to in order to win. If this creates a boring game, they will do the boring things and hate the game (and you) for it.”
Consider Imperium. If, on your turn, you don’t control any countries, you get two free stocks in countries of your choice. In theory, this should allow the player to take over a country (after a few rounds) and get back into the game. However, my wife figured out that having some stock in each country (without over-investing in a single country) would give her the best chance of winning with the least effort. On her turn, she took one stock each from the two countries in the lead, and then sketched while the other players took their turns. At the end of the 2+ hour game, she won.
What should you ask in your playtest report?
Of all the profiles, Leah is the least likely to reflect on the game afterwards. Other factors, such as her current mood, and the people she’s playing with, have a much bigger impact on her game experience. The game is just a vehicle. Even so, you can prompt her to talk about the experience with vague questions, and see where she takes the discussion.
“Did you have fun? Did your friends have fun?”
Next time Chip looks at how to optimise play test feedback from each of the 6 profiles.
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.