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Hey Bro - It's All Relative! - The Theory of Game Relativity

Designer Sigman takes a witty look at a theory of game characterization, integrating the concept of 'guillotine pachinko' with the archetype carousel to create a concept with practical, real-world implications for game designers.

Tyler Sigman, Blogger

December 8, 2004

26 Min Read

This article presents a theory of game characterization along with a concrete and practical tool for using that theory to enhance key aspects of any game design currently under development.

Einstein Say What?

Mention the Theory of Relativity to someone, and you generally get one of two responses: a nod, wink, and faux-knowing smile, or instead a glazing of the eyes and emergency brain shutdown. Most people recall that a tousle-haired fellow named Einstein was involved, but the truth is that very few know the innards of the theory. Putting a nice little wrapper on it, all the theory tells us is that certain qualities of the natural world that were heretofore thought of as constant, are in fact dependent on the frame of reference, or perspective, of the observer. Back in the day, this little ditty blew some hats off to be sure - after all, how on earth could a meter-stick or a minute not be constant?

The problem with the Theory of Relativity is that it's really hard to get any day-to-day useful information out of it. After all, why do we care if the meter-stick is only a 93 cm-stick as it flies by at nearly the speed of light? And we can't even verify Einstein's theory with our naked eyes (observing differences in atomic clocks that have been flown around the world, notwithstanding).

Fortunately, the Theory of Game Relativity is a whole lot more practical, and has direct, real-world implications for game designers. It can innovate and evolve designs, help predict emergent gameplay, and identify paths of least-resistance for reaching more players (a.k.a. customers). All of these things contribute to a game's creative success, and ultimately, the all-important profit margin.

In the Ozarks, It's all Relative

What is the Theory of Game Relativity? Simply put, it is the following statement:

"The qualities of any game experience - even whether the experience is a game at all - are dependent upon the frame of reference of the observers and participants."

Some classical game theorists (Caillois, for example) have spent a considerable amount of effort trying to answer the fundamental question "what is a game?" The problem with a global game definition is that it fails to take into account the frame of reference of the observer or participant. This frame of reference has a huge effect, as illustrated below.

Levels of Enjoyment

At its simplest level, Game Relativity (GR) is intuitive and obvious. To wit, you and I may both sit down for a game of Unreal Tournament. Let's assume for a moment that you are a seasoned veteran and I am a newbie. By mutual agreement, we begin a match against each other. Certainly in this case, we are both playing a game, but what type of game are we playing? For me, it will likely be frantic, tense, and maybe even frustrating depending on how competitive I am. For you, the game may be diversionary, lacking in tension, and perhaps accordingly non-compelling. Same global game experience, two very different individual experiences.

If It Quacks Like a Game, It's Not Necessarily a Game

Now let's extend GR a bit further: Guillotine Pachinko! It's the French Revolution, the guillotine is oiled up, and you and I are members of the bloodthirsty crowd. An unfortunate noble is ushered up to the machine, and three baskets are placed underneath the platform.

Being sporting types, we start a wager regarding which basket the ol' melon is going to end up in. For you and I, we are taking part in a simple game of chance. For the victim, however, there is no game at all. Although he is unwillingly part of the global game experience, he is in no part a participant of the game, and therefore his experience of the same event will be markedly different than yours or mine. To the noble, there is no game, and this has nothing to do with the life-or-death stakes - it's just that there is no game at all from his perspective. However, if the noble casts his own bet on the outcome, though, then he has now transferred the gaming experience onto himself (but it will still differ markedly from yours and mine).

Luck Be a Lady Tonight - But I Don't Need Her

Another concrete example of GR is a casino. If I saunter up to the craps table and place a bet, I am certainly playing a game of chance. I may win, I may lose, and my experience will depend upon a variety of factors like my previous gambling experience, my bankroll, how seriously I treat the matter, and so on.

For the casino, though, there is a major difference: it is all business, no game. Once again we can take the same global experience, but cast it into two very different individual experiences: mine and the casino's.

To quote Danny Elfman, "Why Should I Caa-a-a-a-are?"

Why does GR matter to us as game developers? Easy answer: considering and exploring GR can result in a more successful product. Despite sounding like a pie-in-the-sky concept, a tangible method is presented below for exploring and harnessing GR. First, though, we must define a few terms.

Relativity Defies Classification - So Let's Classify It

Every individual on the planet is just that - an individual. This could theoretically result in 9+ billion points of view for any game experience. From a practical standpoint, we can reign things in a bit. Below are 10 archetypal game player perspectives:

  • The Gamer<1>: sees the game as an opportunity to maximize his utility/success

  • The Player<1>: sees the game as an opportunity to have meaningful experiences

  • The Builder: sees the game as an opportunity to create (mold the world in his own image)

  • The Socialite: sees the game as an opportunity to interact with other people

  • The Politician: sees the game as an opportunity to achieve positions of status both within and without the game

  • The Opportunist: sees the game as an opportunity to create non-game gain (tangible or otherwise)

  • The Disruptor: sees the game as an opportunity to maximize his experience through minimizing others'

  • The Unwitting Participant: doesn't see the game as an opportunity for anything - he doesn't know he is part of a game experience

  • The Non-Gamer: sees the game as a fruitless opportunity in which he has no desire to take part

The GAMER and PLAYER can really be broken down further into the "twitch" GAMER/PLAYER and the "thinker" GAMER/PLAYER.

Further simplifying things, the UNWITTING PARTICIPANT and the NON-GAMER are not relevant to our purposes, and can be summarily ignored. This leaves 7 archetypes to worry about.

Trivial Pursuit Gone Bad

The important thing to remember about the different player archetypes is that each one has a different perspective, which is generally closely associated with that archetype's goals.

Consider a game design, represented in Figure 1 as the small circle in the center of a larger circle. Each player archetype occupies a wedge in the larger pie. In essence, each pie wedge is interfacing with (i.e. "seeing") the game differently, because each wedge touches a different part of the game circle.

The demographic to which a game appeals can usually be classified as belonging to only a few of the player archetypes. For example:



Some games have much larger categorical appeal. To wit:

Unreal Tournament: GAMER/PLAYER primarily, with elements of DISRUPTOR, SOCIALITE, and even BUILDER (modders/level builders)

Or for the "full-house" of categorical appeal:


Is it any wonder why Everquest is such a success? A big reason is that, at its heart, the game appeals to an incredibly wide number of player archetypes - virtually all of them, in fact. Note that this is not stating that all players will like Everquest, but rather that Everquest has appeal to all player types (there is a difference). Also, simply appealing to an archetype doesn't mean that the game is good, or worth playing. Naturally, there have been many other competing MMORPGs that appeal to the same player types as Everquest, but none have been as successful. At the end of the day, it still takes solid design and polish to make a success. However, the flip side of things is that if you don't appeal to an archetype, then it doesn't matter how good your game design is - that archetype won't play it!

Note that a game will many times appeal to a category that may or may not have had design intent. Case in point, the many games to which the DISRUPTOR finds a liking: PK'ing in Diablo, TK'ing in CounterStrike, spam-jabbering in MMORPGs, and cheaters in all multiplayer games.

Unintentional appeal is not always a bad thing. For example, take the OPPORTUNIST appeal of Everquest. It is unlikely that the designers of the game fully anticipated how much of a real-world economy would develop out of the game (selling of game items for real-world dollars, so much so that Everquest ranks registers on the list of world economies). However, the OPPORTUNIST saw through the pattern of the game and figured out that real-world gain could be seized through the game experience (and thereby achieving the goal of that player archetype). It cannot be denied that this functioning real-world economy only added to Everquest's popularity, financial success, and overall "buzz".


Get Your Gedanken Hat On

It is quite practical to evaluate the "relativity" of any game (concept, prototype, release, or otherwise). The method is to, one by one, assume the role of each player archetype and evaluate the game using the following two questions:

1) Can I use the game infrastructure to accomplish my archetypal goal? If the answer is "yes", how strongly?
2) If not, why not? What changes would be required in the game for me to accomplish my primary goal?

Step through the pie going wedge by wedge, and jot answers down for the two questions. Don't worry about what the answers are - the goal isn't to try to make every archetype answer "Yes" to question number one. No one game is all things. You are simply characterizing your game, and this data will be used to identify low-hanging fruit that can improve your game's features and appeal.

The better that you can truly assume the archetypal roles, the better the results of the experiment will be. Think of it as role-playing. Obviously, no one person belongs to all archetypes. But the beauty of the human mind is that one person, with a little effort, can pretend to be each one of the archetypes! The truth is, you can do it better than you might suspect.

After you answer the two questions from every archetype's perspective, it's time to put your designer hat back on and look at the answers. If the answer to question one is "yes" - great, then you have appeal to that archetype already. If the answer is "no", then pay close attention to question two. It may be that, with a small amount of additional work, you could add a feature that will make it possible for the archetype to accomplish its goal. Making it possible means that you are creating appeal for that archetype. Creating appeal means that archetype may want to play your game, thus enlarging the pool of interested players and buyers.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts, this Gedankenexperiment can have three interrelated benefits. The benefits are briefly described below with a few real-world anecdotes. Then a complete example is presented in which the experiment is applied to a hypothetical game under development.

Benefit #1: When Did this Design Crawl Out of the Water and Sprout Legs? (Relativity on Innovating and Evolving Designs)

The first obvious benefit that the experiment can have is in identifying ways to improve and alter your core design in ways that will make it appealing to your originally intended demographic. After evaluating the game from each archetype's perspective, you may discover ways that you can make the game appeal more strongly to those archetypes you've already targeted simply through the inclusion of additional features. Ideally, any proposed changes will be small, but it is quite possible that large changes may rear their head. Needless to say, such large changes will be infeasible if the project is already well-along, but a game in pre-production is another story altogether.

This benefit is illustrated by the hypothetical example presented later in this article.

Benefit #2: What did you say you use the game for? On second thought, I don't want to know... (Relativity on Reaching More Customers through Secondary Intents)

The GR exercise can also help you reach a greater audience for your game by pinpointing ways you can appeal to originally-unintended archetypes without reducing your game's focus. This is possible because you might be able to add small features that suddenly make the game enticing to these alternate archetypes, but not at the expense of alienating your core archetypes. The point is, you've been designing the game from the beginning from a certain viewpoint - you have a game Gestalt in mind, and you have been trying to achieve it. By looking at the game from new perspectives, you can stumble upon new features or ideas that can be incorporated to widen your game's appeal without compromising its original concept.

It is even possible to discover through this exercise that there will be no additional development required to accomplish this goal of reaching out to more archetypes - perhaps you already have the features in the game but you simply need to alter the game's marketing to be more inclusive of these secondary player types.

Example: Medieval Total War built name recognition on the base of its excellent and engaging real-time battle mode. However, the game included a very detailed and expansive turn-based strategy engine that was a significant improvement even from its Shogun predecessor. While this strategy mode was certainly intended and built-in from the beginning, the PR campaign for the game emphasized the real-time action to a greater degree than it did the turn-based meta-game. You could in fact play the entire campaign mode without ever fighting a real-time battle - a point of significant interest to the "thinker" GAMER/PLAYER. This is a prime example where a game had "built-in" full appeal to an archetype subclass that was not really its primary target. That secondary demographic could have been targeted more directly by the marketing without any actual changes required in the game's development. Of course, the publisher may have had other priorities - the real-time action was the selling point, perhaps. But the example still illustrates how, sometimes, appeal to a different archetype already exists and could be leveraged further.

Benefit #3: Future-play Palm Reading (Relativity on Predicting Emergent Gameplay)

Before explaining how the GR experiment can predict emergent gameplay, it's worth taking a moment to consider why emergent gameplay matters. Simply put: it gives a game legs. If you make a game that players can figure out new and secondary ways to play that you never intended, it can go a long way to helping prevent a fizzle and fade life-cycle and adds the potential for an evergreen product - or at least one that continues to sell in meaningful numbers for longer than a few months.

The key to understanding how the GR experiment helps predict emergent gameplay is the wording of question #1, "Can I use this game to accomplish my archetypal goal?" This is an open-ended question that is not related to the design intent. In other words, the archetype simply wants to know if the game infrastructure can be used and abused to his delight, not whether the game was intended for his delight. If the archetype can answer "Yes" to the question but the quality was not design intent, then there will very likely be some sort of emergent gameplay. If the archetype can answer "Yes" but there was design intent for that, then it's not emergent gameplay - it's performance by design.

Example #1: Revisiting the Everquest example, put on your OPPORTUNIST hat and examine the game. Your goal is use the game experience to create tangible non-game gain. Do any opportunities exist for this, and if so, what are they? Without too much strain, it's possible to make the leap that virtual items, given their scarcity, could have real-world value. Suddenly, a form of emergent gameplay has been born: playing solely to make items, selling these items, and consummating deals (both inside and outside of the game).

Example #2: Hypothetically, let's say that you are designing an action-adventure Privateer-like game. On your way to making the action portion compelling, you create a full-featured economy model to support the player's choices. It could be that the economy represents a viable gameplay alternative in itself - could a player with the right interests completely occupy himself with economic actions, and never actually touch the space-battle portions of the game? If so, then you have "accidentally" created massive appeal for a different player type than your core target.

Hog-Tying it All Together

The following hypothetical example ties in everything we've discussed so far. It establishes a hypothetical game design and then showcases how the simple experiment described above can improve it.

Shiver me Timbers

Assume that I am designing a single-player game about piracy in the Caribbean entitled Crimson Seas (sorry Mr. Weisman; sorry Mr. Meier). The game is midway along in development; it is not practical to restructure the entire game at this point, but there is still some room for feature addition or alteration. One lazy Sunday while not coding/writing/producing, I decide to put on my thinking cap and perform the GR exercise outlined in this article.

As the game stands pre-experiment, players take the part of a budding pirate and sail across the Spanish Main in search of fame and fortune. There are a variety of ships, crew specialists, and locales available to the player. Currently, armament and combat details are abstracted into one ship stat: FIREPOWER. Cargo is also abstracted - when the player captures a prize, he gets units of CARGO, which are worth differing amounts of doubloons depending on the port in which it is sold.

With all this in mind, I dutifully take on the roles of the player archetypes, and answer the questions. I ignore the NON-GAMER and the UNWITTING PARTICIPANT, of course, because they have no bearing on the situation.

The answers from the exercise are given below:

Archetype Carousel: Round and Round I Go

GAMER: Yes, the game already provides for me to pursue my goal. However, some of the abstracted elements could be expanded which would allow me to concentrate even more fully on maximizing my utility. I like details because more details allow me to tweak settings to and try to break the system, or at least optimize it.

PLAYER: Yes, the game already provides for me to pursue my goal quite well. I can have interesting and engaging experiences, complete with dramatic story lines. While there are certainly features that could improve this, the game is already strong in this area. No immediate feature requests come to mind.

BUILDER: No, the game does not provide obvious opportunities for me to pursue my goal of creating. Features that might please me would be some sort of editor, ship customization ability, or some other way for me to personalize my experience or expand the game in my image.

SOCIALITE: No, the game does not provide obvious opportunities for me to pursue my goal of interacting with other people. A multiplayer option would naturally be nice. There may be other ways to interest me, but they aren't readily apparent.

POLITICAN: Yes, the game provides some opportunities for me to pursue my goal of achieving status. Through successful pirating, I can become a renowned pirate - at least within the game. However, my opportunities to achieve status would be considerably stronger if there were other people involved or if my success in game could somehow be expanded out of game.

OPPORTUNIST: No, the game does not provide obvious opportunities for me to capitalize in a non-game related way. There may be some things I could do if I really put my mind to it, but nothing obvious comes to mind.

I'm Dizzy but Strangely Satisfied

Now that I'm finished with the archetype impersonation session (and feel a bit schizophrenic), I sit back and read the results. Preferably, I ingest them and let them gestate for a few days, and also share them with the rest of the core design team. On their own, the ideas begin to bounce off of each other and combine like a freakish chemical reaction ("it's alive!"). The following practical, achievable ideas result:

Cannon details: With minor additional work, I can replace the abstracted FIREPOWER stat with the ability to outfit a ship with different cannon sizes (3 lb., 6 lb., 9 lb., etc.). In doing so, I reach out more fully to the GAMER, who likes crunchy bits because they provide more min/max opportunities. In addition, the BUILDER may like the ability to custom-arm his ship with specific cannon types and sizes as well, tailoring his ship to match his own vision. This decision will add a bit of additional complexity, but not so much that I'll scare anyone off. Also, behind the scenes in the combat routines I can just combine the cannons to get my original FIREPOWER stat if I wish, and thereby not require a whole new combat mechanic.

Ship customization: Aside from the cannon change above, I really don't want to change anything about how the ships function. They are already designed, balanced, and functioning well for the stage of the game. However, the BUILDER would really like more opportunities to personalize his game experience. In a pirate game, what are the most shining personifications of a pirate? Well, naturally himself and his ship. The game already includes provisions for naming your pirate and increasing his skills, but as far as ships go, there are really no customization options beyond how many cannons you have and what type of ship it is (which determines performance, cargo capacity, etc.).

Given that I want to keep the current ship implementation more or less unchanged, any new customization options must not affect gameplay. Window dressing, though, is fair game. After mulling some ideas over, the concept of creating a personalized pirate flag presents itself. The game interface is already set-up to display bitmaps of ship and nation flags on various screens. It would take very little work to add the ability to import custom flags which can be assigned to the pirate ship. Even a simple in-game or out-of-game flag editor would be straightforward to create.

Hand-in-hand with the flag customization, a pirate should be able to name his ship - after all, the ship's name was the bellwether of the pirate himself; if a merchantman saw a ship bearing in with the name "QUEEN ANNE'S REVENGE", he knew he was under threat from Edward Teach (Blackbeard) himself. Adding the ability for the player to name his ship is also a miniscule change that should more than pay for itself by providing additional immersion (PLAYER) and customization potential (BUILDER).

Titles and Online Ladder: Despite the SOCIALITE and DIPLOMAT's cries for the opposite, Crimson Seas must remain a single-player game. Multiplayer mode, while attractive, is just not feasible to implement this late in the development cycle. A decision was made early on to limit the game to single player, and there is no reason to change that focus - it was never intended to be multiplayer. However, with a little creativity, some of the social aspects of the game could be increased. The game already has a built-in RPG-style infrastructure to track pirate-advancement in the form of pirate rank (experience) and possessions (personal gold treasury, special artifacts, etc.). It would be cool to add the ability to export this data and share it. Taking it a step further, what about setting up an online ladder where players can upload their pirate's info (including custom flags) and then the pirate can be ranked against other people's pirates? To keep the integrity of the system, a small client would need programmed that can export and handle the data transmission without allowing the player to modify it by "embellishing" his accomplishments. Extending things a bit further, what if the game also tracked a few more things about a pirates career, like "biggest take", or "strongest ship", etc.? These little side facts could also be included in the pirate's profile. Online, the ladder could be sorted by all these different pirate stats. Getting really wound up now, weekly competitions could be sponsored where the pirate with the biggest take that week gets some sort of prize (t-shirt, etc.). Or perhaps a specific goal could be presented ("It's 'sack Panama' week!"). And finally, a hosted chat room with a Pirate Tavern theme could be added to the game website so players could socialize and boast of their travels.

Without too much work, I've made the game appeal more strongly to the POLITICIAN (likes to achieve with respect to others), SOCIALITE (likes to interact with others and discuss pirate adventures, etc.), and the GAMER (likes the competition aspect of measuring his pirate up against others'). All this was achieved without altering any gameplay.

Crimson Seas with the Sun on the Horizon

With these new modifications in mind, I'm confident that I've made Crimson Seas appeal to more players, and also appeal more strongly to the players I was already targeting. Although some of these feature ideas may have eventually occurred to me in other ways, using the GR experiment really helped catalyze their inception and also gave me an organized framework to structure them.


When it comes down to it, GR is intuitive and often seemingly redundant to discuss. It seems pedantic to state that each person may view or experience a game differently. The very obviousness of this fact, however, allows us to completely step over it without a second thought - we design a game with a target demographic in mind, but we can miss the chance to reach additional demographic subsets. In addition, we may lose the opportunity to make our core game significantly better with only a small amount of additional effort. And finally, we might not capitalize on giving our games better "legs" by including features that allow for and encourage emergent gameplay.

Will all designs benefit from the Gedankenexperiment outlined in this article? Certainly not. But a few extra minutes spent with a pie-chart, a pencil, and an open mind is a small price to pay for the chance of improving a multi-million dollar game. Relatively speaking, you can hardly afford not to give it a try.


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About the Author(s)

Tyler Sigman


Tyler Sigman (he/him) is the co-president, co-founder, and game design director for Red Hook Studios, makers of Darkest Dungeon I and II. He has designed over a dozen other published videogames and boardgames, including the BAFTA-nominated turn-based "Age of Empires: The Age of Kings" (Nintendo DS), the twin-stick dragon shooter "HOARD" (PC, PS3), the boardgame "Crows" and more. His favorite game of all time is Sid Meier's Pirates! for C-64. He can be reached at tyler at redhookgames dot com.

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