The Seven A’s In Game Design
I’ve had this notion I’ve been noodling for a while. And by “noodling,” I mean, like, “catfish noodling.” Like, you stick your arm down a swampy dark hole and hope you return with a truly Herculean underwater beast. But if you do it wrong, you’re dragged down in the depths. Or a water moccasin bites your weenie. And then sunfish lay eggs in the orifices of your bloating corpse.
Okay, maybe it’s not like catfish noodling. Maybe it’s more like Ramen noodling? Mmm. Ramen noodling. Cheap. Saltbomb. Warm. Delicious. Also: no water moccasins.
Where was I?
The notion is surely not original. The notion is probably something smarter minds have conjured long before now, and I’m probably just playing catch up. But, either way, it’s helping me think about game design a little differently; we’re rocking up an Android app for our (hopefully eventual and unstoppable) film release, and in thinking about the game, I started thinking first about the players.
And I thought, “Well, you can’t please everybody.”
And then I thought, “Except, I don’t even know who everybody is. Who will play this game?”
And then I thought, “Mmm. Ramen noodles. And catfish.”
And finally, I thought, “Y’know, if you could identify certain subsets of game players, you might be able to target them more efficiently — so while you may not be able to please everybody, you may be able to directly please a greater number of players.”
The notion is then to set aside the notion of “game genre,” and instead worry about the, erm, “genre” of player — or, really, the archetype of game player — you’re hoping to attract, appease and engage.
Let’s talk about these archetypes. You’ve got:
The Action Hero
(aka, the Adventurer, Indiana McLane)
The Action Hero wants, well, action. This is less overt than the title suggests, and while it certainly could involve, say, First-Person Shooting or any combat-heavy game experience, really it suggests straightforward action of any variety: platforming, survival horror, athletics, whatever. The Action Hero gets his kicks by putting himself in the middle of the madness: it’s all about movement, motion, activity, the dynamic doing of clicking buttons or rolling dice in a real-time “shit is happening right now” kind of situation. Halo. Call of Duty. Madden. Tekken. In pen-and-paper RPGs, any game that cuts to the quick of the action: 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars, or maybe Exalted.
(aka, the Team Player, the Social Gamer)
The Ally does not want to play alone. The Ally gets her kicks first and foremost from connecting with other players — she’s still a player, mind, and is still interested in the game. But her game experience — or, rather, her enjoyment of the game experience — is shared with others. Any PNP roleplaying game likely appeases The Ally, though even in each game there are ways to play more cooperatively and less competitively (Hunter: The Vigil obviously offers stakes for playing together rather than separate). Any MMORPG also suits this player, but so do “local” games like Rock Band.
(aka, the Agitator, the Kid In The Sandbox)
Some players just want to play. Anarchist sounds negative, but it’s not — this player just wants to break the rules. It’s playtime, after all, and in an imagination run rampant, it’s a crazy romper room of fun. So, a game like Grand Theft Auto yea verily appeases the Anarchist. Drive around! Blow shit up! Ramp the car! Club a hooker! Once more, any PNP RPG likely can appease this type, though some are modeled more distinctly to allow this kind of play-style. D&D4e probably allows it less than, say, Spirit of the Century.
The Answer Man
(aka the Puzzler, the Riddler)
The Puzzler wants to put all the pieces together — the game experience is one big Sudoku match, and the play experience has An Answer. Even if it doesn’t, the Answer Man (note that in this post gender articles are arbitrary, so chill, TMeeps) seeks to put order over chaos and find the puzzle, the conundrum, the query. Probably the poster boy game experience for this would be something like Bejeweled, but even if you look back at a game like Doom, it had a lot of elements to appease the Answer Man — keycards, mazes, arrangement of elements. So too, Braid. In terms of PNP RPG — what? Probably D&D (any edition) again? Dungeon-crawling serves this well.
(aka the Artificer, the Creator)
Ahh, the Artist. Probably a saner, less schizo version of the Anarchist. The Artist wants to own the experience in the same way, but she wants more than just play and chaos. She wants a result. She wants to hang something on the fridge afterward (er, metaphorically). She wants freedom. And customization. A good PNP game-table experience might be, say, Changeling: The Lost, which gives you lots of axes of customization both before game and during it (Kith?Seeming choice, Oathcrafting, Dream-Shaping, etc.). Any PNP game that forces you to “roll up a character” serves the Artist less, I suppose. In terms of video games, MMOs offer ways to appease the Artist: think of how City of Heroes lets you design your costume.
(aka the Strategist, the All-Powerful)
Hello, God-Gamer. The God-Gamer wants control. The God-Gamer wants every game to have that board game element to it — move pieces like an absolute being, like an arbiter of all She sees. The game experience is something she sees in an almost top-down view, even when it’s not really in a top-down view. Any RTS game serves the Arbiter well: Dawn of War, for instance. Again, D&D4e is a good example of the top-down: moving your pieces, viewing the battlefield as much as “commander” than as “combatant in the thick of it.”
(aka Storymonkey, the Narrative Investment Dude)
The Audience enjoys the experience. The Audience is along for the ride and wants to achieve a conclusion of story. That’s not to say the Storymonkey is passive; no, he can be active and want to define his own place in the narrative, but it’s that sweet sweet narrative juice that keeps her going. In Grand Theft Auto, he doesn’t waste a lot of time ramping motorbikes into old people — no, he goes to the next mission to see what’s going to happen next in the saga. Once more, PNP RPGs often give a lot of juice to the Audience, but again, some more than others — any game that actively seeks to put story elements into play is rewarding to the Audience. Old-school Vampire: The Masquerade was a game that appeased even those players that didn’t play all the time because of the metaplot. Other games, like 3:16, encourage you to create new story elements on the fly as the game continues, which offers different reward to the same type of player.
What Does This Mean, Exactly?
Well, it just means that when you’re conceiving a game and its scope and spread, it helps to think about who you’re designing this for. It’s probably not useful to try to appease all seven of these archetypes (which conveniently begin with A! Just like “archetype!” It means I must be right!), but it does mean, I think, that a game that serves three of these is better than a game that serves one. And that’s not that hard to do: again, a game like Braid is a game that serves three of these very well: the Action Hero (jumping!), the Answer Man (jumping puzzles, and weird time-based mechanics!) and the Audience (what the fuck is going on!).
It’s just one more axis by which you can examine your game design — yes, you want to look at your game, but another way to look at it is through the eyes of its (eventual) players.
In other words, you’re asking: “For whom am I designing this game? Who are my players?”
I dunno. Whaddya think? Make sense? Make no sense? Am I missing anything?
What are some example games that appease more than one type of player archetype?
[Edited to combat perceived gender biases.]