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?

Right, right.

A notion.

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.

The Ally

(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.

The Anarchist

(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.

The Artist

(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.

The Arbiter

(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.”

The Audience

(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.]


  • For the Answer Man, Portal.

    You mention City of Heroes… character generation was the only thing I liked about that game :) loved coming up with ideas and making a costume for them. I have the stand alone character generator on my computer.

    Could bring up Tale in the Desert for Audience.

    Overall, reminds me of that quiz that gives your Killer, Explorer, Socializer and something else percents. That was pretty accurate for me.

    • @Joshua —

      I could spend *hours* just making characters on City of Heroes and then running them around for another hour or two just to see them in action.

      I’m not familiar with Tale in the Desert. Enlighten?

      — c.

  • Gender is SO not arbitary in this post. I think you’re lying to yourself just a leettle bit if you think it’s arbitary.

    The Ally. The Artist. ‘Cause the womenz are just in it to customise pretty character costumes and create relationships/connect with other players…

    • @Jen:

      I’m really not lying to myself. For the record, I count myself as both Artist and Audience in terms of what I like to see in gameplay — and, for the record, I do not have a vagina.

      If it will soothe the apparent sting of imagined gender bias, I’ll go back and add “she” to another Archetype.

      But, seriously, it was arbitrary. They’re spread out through the seven.

      — c.

    • Fiddled with the gender articles to combat perceived gender bias.

      My wife, for the record, is an Answer Man. Which is why we tag-teamed Portal — she puzzled the puzzles, I did the button-hitting.

      — c.

  • I’ve never played it. It is a very open MMO. Most people just roleplay and craft. Build cities and stuff. I don’t believe there is any fighting or leveling. People are pretty hardcore about it. I like a good dungeon crawl, so I’ve never given it a try.

  • cheers!

    Sorry if it sounded harsh, but have def encountered those attitudes from gamers I’ve played with! Possibly too sensitive to it…

    • @Jen —

      Oh, don’t sweat it — I get it, I see what you were talking about, hence the change. I see why people might associate those things with female gamers; I didn’t, because I am those gamers. :) If a game appeases me, then it best appeases my Artist and Audience side.

      — c.

  • Excellent post. Not only do they all begin with “A” but I can pin most of my players down like butterflies on these pages. So, you must be right.

    Except, having run games at a FLGS for years, I think you forgot one:

    The Asshat

    This player loves to clown around and try to break the game. He makes fun of other players’ character names, always names his character something inane that’s funny only to him, and usually rolls whatever the maximum possible result is before rapidly picking up his dice and texting someone. Like the Ally, he is usually only at the table because his friends are there, and if they are doing something, he has to do it too.

    The games that appeal most to this player are video games like Halo (lots o’ teabaggin’) and CCG’s like Yu-Gi-Oh!. As far as PNP games, he is often drawn to D&D (any edition) or whatever his friends are playing.

    NEVER design a game with this archetype in mind. Unless sacrificing one person at the table is going to be a core mechanic.

  • I can never see this sort of list without thinking of Aaron Alston’s version in the old “Strikeforce” supplement for Champions. Good stuff here, but where’s the “Pro From Dover”? ;)

  • I would probably put myself somewhere between Artist and Ally. A little bit of Action Hero (cause guns are fun to play with in a game) but I stink at those games and try to eek out what little story there is behind it.

    • @Joshua —

      If I had a third axis, it’d be Action Hero. I love a lot of the action games — and, once upon a time, I was good at them. Now I just get murdered a lot. :)

      — c.

  • I’m a combination Action Hero/Ally/Answer Man/Artist. I know that sounds way to broad, but I just can’t narrow it down any further. I’m very eclectic and like a variety of activities.

    As for the Asshat, I agree. The only hope is to morph him into another “A” type. Mighty Morphin Power Gamers, GO!

  • One more for you to toss out:

    The Director:

    Very similiar to both the Ally and the Arbiter, the Director plays for the joy of Directing her companions to greater victories. The Director knows the abilities of all her fellow players, and weaves them in directed assaults against the conflicts the group represents. Alone, the Director is resourceful but she lacks the full gamut of her options and is severely limited. She loves to her of her group achieving victory through her cleverly laid plans, and is the character most likely to attempt to direct the game (whether the Game Master wants that to happen or not). The Director enjoys any game with a communal feel, especially MMO’s or team based-FPS. Any table-top game that has a group feel appeals to the Director.

    I add this one because I fall solidly into it, I’ve been told many times. I think most players that are usually the Game Master end up that way.

    • @Rick:

      I like that one, but it does not begin with “D,” and so it must be dismissed.

      … No! Hah! AUTOCRAT. Nailed it.

      I was actually toying with creating these archetypes almost like they’re archetypes *in* a game — which means, hey, maybe you can dual-class this bitch.

      Autocrat/Director seems like it plays well as a mix of Ally and Arbiter, yeah.

      There are also lesser archetypes attached to the greater ones, but that felt like I’d suddenly have like, a 3000-word post before I knew it.

      — c.

  • To let you know, I retained all right to derivative uses of my post so I am now suing you for changing it to Autocrat. As I am the Assinine Commentator, I reserve the right to go “Fuck you, clever naming scheme and simply understood rules. Taste my salty taint-scented D-Word. Neener Neener Neener.” My lawyer will be in touch.

    His hands are cold, fyi.

    • @Rick:

      That’s acceptable.

      I, however, am the Anal Speller, and I demand you spell “Asinine” correctly.

      Sick burn! You just got burned! You just got effed in the ay with my burning spellchecker syphilis! Boo-ya!

      — c.

  • It’s those damn kids on my lawn. With their sniper rifles.

    Yeah, I used to be decent. Not anymore. Played Halo 3 online once. Now I just play it for the story :P

    We logged on to EverQuest (yeah, doing it old school) last night for about half an hour, saw that our usual group wasn’t around and then logged back off. (Ally)

    Ok, I’ll stop spamming your comments now. Guess I should get some werk done.

    • I’m better at Call of Duty than Halo, these days. More practice than anything, I guess. But even still, I find myself raped all the time, with some 12-year-old calling me the n-word.

      — c.

  • Have you read Robin Laws’ (fairly) (well, in gaming circles) famous list of player archetypes? They even made it into D&D 4th Edition to a certain degree. I’d be curious to see where your archetypes diverge from his and where they overlap, but I can’t go and grab the book(s) now to check. So: Somebody check on that.

    I don’t categorize well as a gamer, which is part of what makes me a terrible player. My mood shifts and my archetype shifts with it.

    • @Will —

      See? Toldja smarter dudes handled this long before me. (I’m actually unfamiliar with those archetypes — possible I read them, but really, I have a mind like a sieve. I wish it weren’t true.)

      (Seeing your fresh comment — are the player motivations from 4e the same as Robin’s? I gotta read more. Stupid me must’ve missed them in the past.)

      — c.

  • I run games for Answer Men, but I’m an Audience, possibly an Ally, m’self. But I think that’s because I’ve found so few GMs who do investigative games well.

  • And the negatives!

    The Asshole:
    (AKA Douchebag, Twatwaffle)

    He thinks he’s funny, but he’s really not. He thinks he’s the life of the party, but people just want to kill him. You don’t know what his wife sees in him. He loves to argue, citing chapter and verse as to why someone or something can/cannot be a particular way. You want him to leave the group, but if that happens, you’re down to yourself and maybe two other people. So you grit your teeth and put up with him, for the sake of the game. FOR THE SAKE OF THE GAME.

  • Yup, I’m definitely The Audience (with slightly lesser parts of Action Hero). It’s why I can’t get into most MMOs, or sandbox games. I need to play through a story damn it. Running over little old ladies and beating cops to death with dildos from their own station gets old after about 20 minutes.

    Which, thank you for reminding me, I need to scour the hell out of this town for someone (anyone) doing a PNP.

    Which in turn reminds me of another type:

    The Dirty Old Man (I really tried to come up with an A)

    He’s the reason your party never makes it out of the tavern. At the slightest hint of the opposite sex he’s trying to land her in bed. NPC or PC, it doesn’t matter to the Dirty Old Man. As long as the body’s warm, he’s all over it like white on rice. The Dirty Old Man enjoys any game with any hint of sexual freedom. His personal favorites involve Grand Theft Auto and Fable II, where prey abounds. Needs a strict DM to rein him in if he’s even allowed at the PNP table.

  • I don’t think the DMG archetypes are quite the same as those that Robin put forward in Robin’s Laws, but I’d have to dig out both books to check.

    We certainly aren’t hurt by having a different slew of Archetypes to choose from, provided, I think, that we remember that everyone we know is more than one thing. There’s value to be had in reexamining the player motives and developing alternate categories (though over-categorization is dangerous, in my opinion). Also, Robin’s are pretty directly pointed at RPGs, and it looks like you’re aiming to capture a wider audience in your definitions.

    Great minds and all that.

  • IIRC, the version from Robin’s Laws was a bit different from the version in the DMG, but Robin Law wrote both. The DMG section is actually really, really well done and I was impressed it was in the book.

    Not sure where I’d map on your As, but I’m very much the instigator in the D&D archtypes. I get bored waiting for stuff to happen, and will quite frequently kick a door open to move things along. Which is why I like to play meatshields.

    One thing I find interesting is that at my table, I have two players who could be seen as Power Gamers or whatnot, but they have very different motivations and very different styles.

    One (Thorton’s player, from the comic) really enjoys the challenge of mastering/breaking a game system. If he can figure out ways to utterly destroy a game system, he’s perfectly happy. He’s actually stopped playing D&D 4E, because he and his regular group figured out how to be essentially undefeatable.

    Another (Toby’s player) just wants the most superpowers ever. Which can be tricky to balance out the rest of the party, because he’s not too worried about them. He just wants an ever increasing list of Kewl Powers, preferably ending with his character being able to blow up planets or something.

    We’re starting up a New Wave Requiem game in a couple of weeks. Player 1 is going for a Crone Mekhet, Player 2 is going for an unaligned Gangrel beatstick. It should be interesting.

  • To be perfectly honest, I’ve seen this stuff done a hundred times over, the most memorable times being the clusterfukc that was the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist model and the player types from Robin’s.

    As a linguist who deals in various scientific models, I will give you this advice: don’t take these seriously. They model reality, not represent it 100%. People will say “well, it’s more of a spectrum”, but that’s giving it too much credit. After all, there’s more than one dimension to gamers, so spectrums will describe only a finite amount of information on them.

    Models such as this are usable as a starting point, but you have to be aware of all the information that will slip through the holes, all the exceptions and idiosyncrasies.

    • @Marek —

      I did note in the post that I was surely treading ground that had been tread prior. So, while I understand the mention, you’re listing toward redundancy with the comment that you’ve seen it 100 times before.

      I don’t intend for this to be the basis of game design, I just aim for it to be a thought exercise in terms of encompassing multiple types of players in what might normally be thought of as a single-model or single-genre game. Yes, it’s good if you want to design a puzzle game, but if you can throw a bone toward the Artists or the Allies or whomever, then you’ve just cast your net a little wider.

      I don’t see the harm in that sort of conceptualization; any theory has the potential, when taken to an extreme, to be harmful to the process. That doesn’t make such theories dangerous to examine.

      — c.

  • Interesting. As games involve multiple player-tropes, can you think of a combo which would be least pleased by what you envision so far? Or what is a good mix? I’m thinking a Silver Pack of players, or a Hunter cell from v.1.


    • A combo of what ilk, @K? A combo of players? This isn’t about that, exactly — it’s about how games, at the game design phase, can start by thinking about the player types you might appease.

      — c.

  • I think his idea is (and I may be way off here), is that in an rpg or MMO or what have you, you’ll have more than one player at a time, and any game will be played by more than one archetype of player. So how do you go about designing a game that works for Asskickers AND Autobots? (Disclaimer: I am too lazy to scroll back up and remember what the 7 As are)

    • @Shawn/@Keith —

      Well, the “how” is a question for a whole other post. ;)

      Mostly, this is just saying, it helps to conceive of games that do serve more than one gamer trope. Try to paint a little more broadly — if you’re designing a combat-heavy Action Hero experience, what would that be like with a dash of Ally and Audience? Or Anarchist and Artist? Etc.

      — c.

  • I fit under all the archetypes, almost equally. It really depends on my current mood. The games that I am drawn back to again and again have a high level of re-playability or immersion.

    For Spore, it’s the artistic value of creating new and creepier creatures. Sims has a limited version of this, after awhile, it becomes repetitive, although I’d love to get my hands on the latest expansion. I love battle simulations like Medieval Total War, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, Warcraft III (the battles against players or computers). I love Half Life and Unreal Tournament and miss the LAN parties we had running them. SimCity and any variation of city building. I play Magic the Gathering online. Morrowind for the role-play. Oh, and then there was Thief. The list goes on and on.

    My ultimate game would combine all these factors, in a horror-fantasy-sci-fi setting. Is that asking too much?

    I love to be challenged mentally and creatively. I love to be able to get emotionally invested in what I am doing. I love to see my work recognized and displayed (Star Wars Galaxies – Home Show, way back when).

    In fact, I really enjoyed Star Wars Galaxies (pre-CU). I could happily spend days running my character’s business and city – and I did. When I got tired of playing mayor or merchant, I could RP. If I got tired of RP, I could decorate buildings. Or I could hang out in a catina and dance or play music. Or I could do science and figure out better recipes. Or design clothing. Or I could go out and kick some butt. When they added in the first instance for the game, the Corillian Corvette, I fell in love with raiding. I loved the open levels that were pre-CU, so that if I got bored with one class, I could go play another without giving up the emotional investment I had in my character. Then we were able to afford multiple accounts. It had almost everything I love in gaming.

    Then they went and put it on a level system like every other game. Then they made crafters obsolete. Piece by piece, some of the important features I loved in the game were changed. Sigh. I always thought they could do so much more with it.

    Now I have my own outline for the MMO of my dreams. :) Someday… maybe.

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