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Play Style DOES Matter
by Bart Stewart on 07/23/10 05:51:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Since the demonstration at E3 2010 of the upcoming Disney/Junction Point game Epic Mickey for the Wii, a lot of coverage has been given to Warren Spector's use of the phrase, "play style matters." Gamasutra's interview today is a good example.

To which I say: it's about time.

So many games are made in which most if not all of the challenges and rewards are focused solely on one style of play -- namely, the style dubbed the "Achiever" by Richard Bartle, which enjoys and expects play content to be about following the rules in order to accumulate tokens that determine one's place in a hierarchy. Some day I'm going to do a numerical study on this, but for now I'll simply assert that the vast majority of games have this one style of play as either their primary or only focus.

Why?

Certainly there are lots of people who like this particular form of challenge/reward. Serving them with games they can enjoy makes sense.

What about everybody else? When did their money stop being accepted as legal tender?

What about the people who play for the thrill-ride experience? There are some games that lean toward satisfying this play interest, such as the Call of Duty-style shooters... which then insist on shifting their focus toward multiplayer competitions for achievement tokens and leaderboard status.

What about the people whose favored form of play revolves around relationships and the stories about interesting characters (told either by a developer or by the players themselves through roleplaying) that dramatize those relationships? Why are Quantic Dream the only developers making narrative-rich games? Why are BioWare (and perhaps Valve) the rare developers who take the time to build stories around characters who are so well-drawn that we can enjoy feeling that we're interacting with them on an emotional level?

What about the people who care about the logical consistency of a gameworld, whose favorite form of play is exploring the levels of systems and the interactions among the pieces of systems that add up to create function? What games these days do anything more than wink at this playstyle preference with repetitive "hacking" puzzles, or pat themselves on the back and call it "choice" if they give players more than one way to kill?

Where is the MMORPG designer who comprehends that a crafting system focused on mass-manufacturing objects for sale utterly fails to deliver on what the word "craft" means? Why are Bethesda Softworks seemingly the only developers who seem to grasp that the real point of an "open-world" or "sandbox" design is that it supports discovery of the game's world-systems?

Play style matters because people are different, but they're all willing to pay good money for a game that satisfies their differing playstyle preferences.

I first started to understand this when I studied psychology and game design around the same time. I started writing about personality models in the 1990s -- right about the time of the peerless Ultima Underworld, produced by Warren Spector.

And I've been talking about what I called "player-centered design" -- AKA "play style matters" -- since at least 2005. A brief sampling (links are to my external game design blog):

Bartle's Player Types and Keirsey's Temperaments
Styles of Play -- The Full Chart
Player-Centered End-Game Content
Personality Types and Gameplay Preferences

Player-Centered Crafting Design
Player-Centered Crafting Design +

Full-Spectrum Games
Bartle, Keirsey, and Chris Bateman's DGD1 Gamer Demographic Model

And that's just me. There are plenty of other people, designers and gamers alike, who have talked about this concept of making games that different kinds of people can enjoy.

So, to all you game journalists and game designers and thoughtful gamers for whom the concept "play style matters" comes as a revelation: welcome to the party, pal.

Now get off your collective backsides and do something about it. It's time to prove that you understand what "play style matters" actually means: that continuing to monomaniacally emphasize only achievement in nearly every game is a failure of the entire computer game industry. Gaming will achieve its full potential -- commercial and critical -- only when game designers provide content which demonstrates that they understand and respect more than one playstyle.

There is still a place for achievement-focused games. Not every game needs to try to offer meaningful amounts of content capable of satisfying the human desire for achievement as well as that for sensations and relationships and knowledge.

But there damned well ought to be more than one such game every ten years.


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Comments


[User Banned]
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Carl Chavez
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The problem with "balance becomes an issue" is that balance is most important to Achievers, because of their focus on the game rules. A game that emphasizes play style could allow somebody to be superpowered and godlike if that's how someone really wanted to play. Perhaps that same person could try playing as a weakling on the next playthrough. When I play a game like Civ, there are definitely certain optimal strategies, but it can be really fun to role-play. "Multiple ways to play" only becomes "all actions = the same" when single actions create the same result each time. Games where play style matters, like Dwarf Fortress or Civ, are different because it's the cumulative effects of multiple actions by both the player and the surrounding environment that create different situations through each playthrough.

[User Banned]
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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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For a single player game, I would even argue that true non-linearity, or freedom of action to solve a particular problem in the bigger context of the game's plot/story cannot let itself be shackled by the notion of "balance". For example in a fantasy world, what if, because of the nature of the world, playing a magician is drastically easier than playing say, a rogue. If it's credible and believable that a magicians Ice Nova that freezes everyone in 3 miles to ice cubes easily nets the player the win, whilst a rogue has to wait for the night, having to buy expensive poison so he can finally sort of have a chance at killing the bad guy, then I really have no problem with that.



It really doesn't matter all that much when you play a character if it would have been easier on you if you had chosen to play as a different character, as long as the outcoming difficulty is believable within the context. You chose to play this character, now deal with it.



Take the fight between a level 1 magician of most games with a level 1 fireball and a level one warrior.

There is this naked tough guy running at a FIREBALL. A BALL OF BURNING FLAMES OF FIRE. I don't know, but I would say that pretty much no matter how tough you are long as you don't have serious protection, the fireball would easily own. Yet in most games, in order to make it "balanced" the warrior would take some damage, sometimes even get close to dying, but they would always have a chance at dealing a hit on the magician with their short sword.



Of course, in multiplayer games balance is an issue, no question about that. I'm specifically pointing at single player games.

Brian Shurtleff
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@Bob



"Balance is not "achiever", the idea of balance is that there is not a dominant method of play so that the other methods have no meaningful use."



I think the "meaningful use" is the point we're arguing here.

We're saying it can and often does have meaning to us non-achievers. Meaning in spades.



I'm in complete agreement with Carl-- some of my most memorable gaming experiences were playing Fallout with various cripplingly 'bad' characters just for the pure joy of roleplaying as them or discovering the quirks of the game-- like "can I beat the game without ever entering combat?"

Is that the dominant way to play that game? Hell no-- it was much much more difficult than playing 'normally'. But the most fun I've ever had playing a game? YES. The reason it's one of my favorite games of all time? YES.


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