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A Bifurcation of Games and Audience
by Jason Whisler on 04/19/10 08:41:00 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.


When I think about a lot of games these days, I often wonder, is this even a game?

Enough chai can do that to you.

But seriously, I think about the millions of dollars and extreme efforts put into many of today's games to make hyper-realistic graphics and physics coupled with rockstar quality sound and intricate AI.  Then compare that to chess.  Something seems to have happened to game-making, and it feels like something with diminishing returns.

After enough pondering and enough chai, I came to the conclusion that there are 2 fundamentally different types of games, with 2 different respective audiences.  Of course any black/white distinctions like these are only academic and in reality all games just lie on a point along the continuum between the two extremes.  But it's food for thought.  And thought is tasty.


Think of Chess, Go, Frogger, Counterstrike, and Plants Vs Zombies.  These games are a largely transparent system of rules that are there to be explored and understood.  They're straight and to the point, have nearly infinite replay value, and are completely focused on the game mechanics.  They're all about exploring many different approaches to a complex problem for which there is no perfect solution.  Making this type of game doesn't usually require the latest and greatest in technology.


The hardcore gamers in this crowd do not care what they play.  They will play anything on any system and play it over and over until they are so good at it that it bores them.  Their minds are built to drill down into the game's mechanics and see the true game underneath any fancy frosting on top (they know that cake's a lie).  If there's a dominant strategy, they will find it, beat everyone with it, and then move on.  These folks want a game that has deep and complex rules even after you know them intimately.  They form those groups of people still playing that game from 12 years ago.


Think of any game that's had (or will have) more than 3 sequels.  Specifically you could think of Resident Evil, God of War, Fable, etc.  These games are about creating an interesting experience for the player.  They want to maximize the immersion the player feels with the game.  Most have a directed narrative which, in some cases, even manage to form a complex plot and feature interesting characters.  These games tend to be single player games that people play through a single time.  They also tend to feature the latest in graphics and technology, and cost a lot of money to make.


These are the gamers who are always chasing the latest and greatest thing.  They buy every console and every other game that comes out.  They swing with the trends and chase anything shiny, controversial, or stamped with their favorite company's logo.  They can be fickle, have short attention spans, and complain a lot on internet forums.  They're the driving force behind the constant need for more, more, more.  And they have a lot of money to spend on games, which of course makes them important.

Some Conclusions & Additional Ponderings

  • Neither of these types of games or gamers is "good" or "bad".  They exist side-by-side and can even form a healthy complement to support a wider diversity of game development, which is always a plus.
  • The different types of games correlate roughly around genre lines.  Single player console games tend to be Play-Me-Games.  Multiplayer PvP games, puzzle games, and strategy games tend to be Gamey-Games.
  • As with any medium, knowing your target audience is very important.  It's about more than just who will buy your game.  It's also about they way people will talk about it, what they want to get out of it, how long they will keep playing it, and how your brand will ultimately be formed in the public's opinion.

Let me know your own thoughts and conclusions.  Thanks.

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Matthew Woodward
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I think you're conflating two separate axes of player categorization here (IMO, obviously):

The first is preference "games as challenge" vs "games as experience", which is what I think you're primarily pointing at. Some people value games because they are a challenge to be overcome, others value games because they are an experience to immerse in (and, as you say, most gamers likely fall somewhere between the two).

The second is something roughly along the lines of the old "casual vs hardcore" distinction, which seems to be an underlying current coloring the description of the gamer types. In particular, I don't think I'd be comfortable directly linking attention span to the first axis as seems to be happening here, because it doesn't align with my experiences of either side of the coin.

YMMV, obviously - and it is high time that more people realized the underlying truth here, which is that not all gamers are after the same thing from their games :)

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Bart Stewart
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While it’s important not to stereotype individual gamers, I think it’s possible to observe some distinct playstyle trends and preferences among gamers in the aggregate. In this case, it sounds to me like you’re describing Chris Bateman’s “Casual” and “Hardcore” gamers.

What you call “gamey-gamers” are actually Casual gamers... but that’s “casual” in the sense that they don’t get locked into any particular game. These are the folks most likely to say, “it’s just a game” and go do something else.

The Hardcore gamer (as described by Chris Bateman) sounds like what you’re calling the “Play-it Gamer,” who invests personally in a game and who cares about particular games for their social and dynamic qualities.

Another way of looking at this is the distinction I’ve been drawing for several years now (such as in
k-mmorpg.html ) that gamers can be grouped generally into two categories: either they look at games (especially MMORPGs) as places to “play in,” or as places to “live in.”

The “play in” gamer, whom I associate with Richard Bartle’s ( ) Achiever and Killer (or as I prefer to call them, Manipulator) types and with the “Gamist” preference from Ron Edwards’s original GNS model ( ), sees the game as just a game. It’s a set of rules to follow (or break) for fun -- the idea that anyone would invest emotionally in the code that implements those rules seems bizarre to these gamers.

On the other hand, the gamers who like to “live in” a gameworld (Bartle’s Explorers and Socializers, whom I believe equate to Edwards’s Simulationists and Narrativists respectively) see the gameworld as a “secondary reality.” For the “live in” gamers it’s fun to pretend that the gameworld is a real place, either to understand that place’s dynamic systems through exploration or to roleplay an alternate life as a character there. These gamers do invest personally in the gameworld, and find it hard to understand how anyone can dismiss a deeply-realized place as “just a game.”

Obviously “play in” and “live in” is painting with pretty broad strokes. Real gamers are more nuanced than just those qualities. But I’ve found that as a first approximation to understanding why certain gamers prefer certain kinds of games, “play in” and “live in” is a workable starting point.

I would say that, based on this, I might rearrange some of your game genre associations. Turn-based strategy games, for example, are likely to appeal mostly to “live in” Explorers who enjoy trying to see the high-level patterns of force in the gameworld. It’s the “play in” Achievers who prefer RTS games for the fast-paced resource allocation gameplay, which is a logistical function and not “strategic” at all.

But your larger point is, I think, backed up by observation of actual gamers playing real games. Some people do prefer to treat games as simple rules-following action, while others have a stronger preference for treating games as alternate realities.

If so, then the question is: how should that information be translated into game designs?

dana mcdonald
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Hey Bob, it's nice to see another cheerful post from you.

Great article. I have been thinking a little bit along the same lines. I have been playing King's Bounty Armored Princess and I have appreciated how it seems the developer determined that it was a gamey game and didn't waste any money on voice actors or cutscenes. Dialogue is just little painted portraits of the characters, and it is just there to give you an excuse to keep playing. Because they didn't add in all of the fluff (that their real audience probably didn't even want) they made a really great game that they probably wouldn't have had the money to do if they hadn't been so focused.

Joshua McDonald
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I'm going to have to disagree with you, Matthew. To me, the idea of a "games as challenge" vs "games as experience" spectrum is flawed because challenge is a key part of the experience. The experience of Rambo-ing through a shooter on its easy difficulty setting has little resemblance to the experience of carefully creeping around corners and cowering behind cover in the exact same game on its hardest difficulty setting.

Independent of the difficulty in the hypothetical game above, it can vary greatly in the degree of how pre-scripted the experience is. Is this game (whether difficult or easy) one where you are meant to go through the carefully pre-planned set of events and encounters created by the developer, or is it a more open one where you are given rules and an environment and told "See what you can do with this."

Going back to the original article, the first of these would be a play-me game while the second would be a gamey game.

Matthew Woodward
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Ah, I'm not being clear enough again! I'm not trying to point at a potential classification of games, I'm trying to point at a potential classification of what people value in the games that they play.

I'd absolutely agree that many games can deliver both ends of the spectrum, but my anecdotal experience and observations suggest that (if you're willing to simplify a bit) most gamers fall on a specific point on this spectrum. This is not a fact that I feel is widely acknowledged within various spheres of gaming.

Jason Whisler
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Thanks everyone for the comments. I guess I should have been more explicit in explaining that these categories were just interesting lenses through which to view different games and players. This particular line of division is by no means the only one you could draw, and as I said, no games or players will actually fit into either of these black & white definitions. There's been so much talk lately of casual vs hardcore games and gamers, I was trying to find a different axis to explore.

@Matt - I think your idea of challenge vs experience is close to what I was pondering here. Of course the vast majority of games feature some of both and most players want some of both. The interesting part is how different elements of a game's design draw people in and for different reasons.

@Bob - I think you missed the main idea in the article, which was not about casual vs hardcore games. For gamey-games, I consider chess to be a casual game and Counterstrike to be a hardcore game. For experience-inducing games I would consider something like Mario Party to be casual, and God of War as hardcore. I think your thoughts on how much interactivity is vital to providing fun in a game is worth exploring in more detail.

@Bart - Again I was trying to get away from the casual-vs-hardcore debate, but everyone's brain seems to be wired for it right now, and that's ok. I had heard of Bartle's 4 different types of gamer's before, and I think it is another excellent frame of reference to use in this type of thinking. I also like your ideas about "play in" vs "live in" gamers, I'll have to give that some thought. And you hit the nail on the head with your question about how should this all be applied towards making better games. That's what it's all about!

@Joshua - I have thought a bit about how the difficulty of a single player game affects a game's position on the axis. I think that as you require more skill from a player, they're forced more and more into thinking about the mechanics of the game, which slides them further towards the gamey-game side of things. And of course this means that even a single game doesn't rest on a single point on the axis. I've noticed for example, that even on the same difficulty ranking, if I play through a level of a shooter multiple times I'll have very different experiences. The first time I'll be surprised a lot by the enemies and the interesting events that unfold. After I've mastered a level when I go back to replay it, I will be focused instead on clearing it as fast as possible without dying, etc. I think it's usually a good thing for a single game to be able to support a large span of the axis of challenge to both attract a larger audience in the first place and to keep them playing.

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Jonathan Lawn
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@Matthew Woodward

I think you've got it. Games have a certain amount of "gaminess" and a certain amount of "wonder" (just to change the terminology in a controversial way). It costs developers to insert "gaminess" (iterations and play-testing) and "wonder" (art assets, dialog, sound, etc) though the cost of any increment depends a lot on the state of the game, how clever the developer is, etc.

However this cost doesn't necessarily relate to how much any given player will appreciate it, and players vary wildly. Some think it's well worth another $2 on the price to improve the dialog. Others don't, but would pay $2 to have the game balance improved. Knowing the market helps developers work out what they need to do to their games, in planning and iteratively.

I think the interesting point from the article is that (for a mid-price game at least) perhaps the market does push developers one of two ways, either towards appealing to players who are happy to see past presentation to the game or towards trying to satisfy those who won't bother to examine the game under the packaging, but want that initial burst of "wonder".

Is there a market for those non-AAA games that try to develop both fairly equally? (My suggestion for an example of this is Mount and Blade.) Or do many people here think that developing the "gaminess" is so much cheaper than the "wonder" (experience) that there is no excuse for leaving it suboptimal?

Jonathan Lawn
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@Bob dillan

Did you mean "I am critical because I love dana" or "I am critical because I love, dana"?

Just curious.

Mustafa Onder
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I have a similiar vision like you Whisler. I see games that has no replayability (Play-Me-Games in your terms) as consumable games. You play/consume it, after finishing it you have to buy another one in order to continue playing/consuming. Unfortunately that model works fairly well in our consumption based society.