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Play Style DOES Matter

Since Warren Spector demonstrated Epic Mickey at E3 2010, there's been a microburst of gaming media coverage of his design philosophy that "play style matters." It's about time.

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.


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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