Player Types: The Challenge Model

People play games to win. People who play Massive Multiplayer Online Games are no different. Their play takes place in a Virtual World, but they are still playing a game, and they still want to win.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles on Player Types in "A" list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. My first goal over the next few months is to develop a comprehensive list and description of unique player types. To accomplish this I will need your input and observations.

Massive Multiplayer Online Games aka Massives

This discussion involves Massive Online GAMES. To be more specific, this discussion involves games involving hundreds of players which take place within a Virtual World.

People may choose to experience a Virtual World such as Second Life or they may choose to play a Massively Multiplayer Online Game that is conducted in a Virtual World, such as World of Warcraft. The key observation is that people choose to purchase Massives to play a game.

Previous Works

Anyone with an interest in Player Types should start by spending time at:
   Richard Bartle’s site and
   Nick Yee’s site


Player Types & The Challenge Model

1. Introduction

People play games to win. People who play Massive Multiplayer Online Games are no different. Their play takes place in a Virtual World, but they are still playing a game, and they still want to win.

Current Massives do not have a win condition a player can achieve. Therefore players create their own meta-game(s) within a Massive to define a personal win condition. These meta-games define observed Player Types.

Observed Player Types can be mapped to a Challenge Model, with one axis defining the degree of challenge a player desires, a second axis the size of the social group a player wants to interact with and a third axis the length of time per play session.

By mapping Observed Player Types to the Challenge Model the Observed Player Types become generalized and thus suitable to further analysis. By analyzing generalized Observed Player Types, insight into the underlying motivation of these players may be revealed and a True Player Type discovered.

Understanding these True Player Types enable us to design better games.


2. Personal Win Conditions

Current Massives do not have a win condition. In Scrabble, once the last tile is laid down, the game is over and the score added up. In crossword puzzles the goal is to fill in the puzzle. Bowling has a set number of frames; once these have been played a winner is determined.

A player sits down for a game of Scrabble with her family, without taking any preliminary preparations. Another player enters a high-school Scrabble championship after memorizing the 101 two-letter words and Q words that don’t need a U. A third player enters the National Scrabble Championship with a top prize of $10,000 after memorizing as many words as possible. Same game, three different approaches, three different Personal Win Conditions.

In a similar fashion a player can approach Massive content with different levels of preparation. Gear, consumables, research and party members are all variables players can control in approaching content. A player may want to beat (win) a particular dungeon or raid, but will choose a personal level of effort to bring to the attempt.

A player may choose to play a crossword puzzle from TV Guide (easy) or one from the New York Times (hard).

In a similar fashion a player can approach Massive content looking for different degrees of difficulties, choosing a certain sub-set of available content based on difficulty. A player may want the best gear (win) that she can get without doing any raid content.

Bowling League play can be conducted at the local, county, state or international level. The movie The Big Lebowski has at its heart a trio of men who live for bowling and choose to compete only at the local level. This duality shown in the movie, loving an activity yet choosing a level of engagement with it, is the foundation of The Challenge Model discussed below.

In a similar fashion a player can approach Massive content choosing different levels of competition. One player may choose to experience raiding content at a relaxed pace, planning to see it all (win) before the next expansion. Another player may choose to be one of the first on her server to experience the content. Yet another player may choose to compete with all players and be among the first to experience content over all servers. (See WoWProgress)


Players choose their degree of engagement to a game, and craft a personal victory condition based on their own preferences. This engagement can be mapped on The Challenge Model below.


3. The Challenge Model

Social Group Size

100+ |
      4 |
      3 |
      2 |
      1 |________2________3________4________5
          Entertaining                                  Challenging

Observed Player Types can be mapped to a Challenge Model, with one axis defining the degree of challenge a player desires, a second axis the size of the social group a player wants to interact with and a third axis the length of time per play session.

The Challenge Axis runs from Entertaining to Challenging.

Entertaining is reading "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, doing TV Guide crossword puzzles in pencil, playing a pick-up game of basketball at the gym. Entertaining is running a marathon with the goal to finish, no matter how long it takes. Entertaining is playing a game leaning back in a chair, refreshing beverage at hand, with music or TV on.

Challenging is reading "Foucault’s Pendulum" by Umberto Eco, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in ink, playing professional basketball. Challenging is running a marathon with a specific time goal. Challenging is playing a game leaning forward in a chair, headset on, cell phone off, with a total focus on the game.

The Social Group Size is the number of other players one is engaged in cooperative play with.

Length of Time Played per Session (Session Time) could be added as the Z axis to the Challenge Model. However for ease of discussion I prefer to refer to Session Time as a separate axis going from short (10-15 minutes) to extreme (6 hours +). The midpoint is 45 to 90 minutes.

1 |________2________3________4________5
   Short (15 min)                    Extreme (6 hours +)


Example 1: Solo Questing in WoW

Challenge: 1, Social Group: 1 Solo

Session Time: short +

Quests direct a player where to go and what to do. A typical quest can be completed in 15 minutes.

Example 2: City Push in War

Challenge: variable, Social Group: hundreds

Session Time: 4

A city push in War requires hundreds of players and may last for hours over multiple zones. The challenge involved is variable as the challenge involved in player vs. player is dependent upon the quality of the opposing side. At its best, the challenge in a City Push is 5, when a City Push is weakly opposed it is a 1.

Example 3: Trial of the Crusader (ToC10), 10-man Raid in WoW

Challenge: 2, Social Group: 10

Session Time: 3

ToC10 is mostly a series of scripted encounters with a short learning curve. That is the challenge goes down as the encounter is learned. Players may make this instance more challenging by being under-geared for it and/or grouping with players that do not know the encounters. Players may make this less challenging by being over-geared and/or using consumables.


4. Using the Challenge Model, an Example

By mapping Observed Player Types to the Challenge Model the Observed Player Types become generalized and thus suitable to further analysis. By analyzing generalized Observed Player Types, insight into the underlying motivation of these players may be revealed and a True Player Type discovered.

Through in-game observation and reading countless forum posts and blogs I have identified a number of Observed Player Types. I believe that identifying Player Types in this fashion is too specific. It is tied to a particular game and/or style of game, and thus not predictive. My alternative is to map these Player Types to the Challenge Model. I will illustrate this by discussing Auction House Guy.

Auction House Guy (AH-guy)

Challenge: High, Social Group: 1 (solo)

Time: short (3-4 sessions a day)

Akrux of Mug’Thol says: "Think of the AH as a mini game within WoW with gold as the scorecard." Auction House guy (AH-guy) is potentially in competition with all players on a server. AH-guy uses in-game money as a means of tracking his win condition. Often he will express a specific monetary goal he is trying to achieve, with some individuals expressing a goal of reaching the hard gold cap of 214,748 gold (in WoW). (Note in WoW spending 15,000 gold to enhance a character is close to the norm.)

Doing a search on "Auction House" WoW will give an indication of the extent of this activity.

Most players of WoW use the Auction House. What makes AH-guy unique is his treating gold as a means of keeping score. Often this is expressed as a desire for a specific amount of gold within a specific time period, for example, "I want to have 75,000 gold before the next expansion." Alternatively, score-keeping may be expressed in terms of daily time spent, for example, "I log in 3 times a day for fifteen minutes each and make "x" gold per week."

Step One is identifying Observed Player Types, in this case AH-guy. Step Two is asking Why?

AH-guys comes from two groups of players: those with not enough content to keep them challenged and those with not enough time for other activities. The key observation is that these players want to maintain contact with the game world, and so, invent their own AH mini game.

The first group is high challenge players whose available game play time exceeds the game play time of their regular social group (such as a guild). They prefer solo play to interacting with unknown people. This group has run out of Game Designer rewards to acquire except when playing with their regular social group. Let’s use a more generic name for these guys Too-Much-Time-Guys. Too-Much-Time-Guys guild may raid for 12 hours a week, and he desires to spend 20 hours a week in game.

The second group is composed of high challenge players who do not have much time available to play in any one play session. This is a diverse group, including players bored of current content and waiting for an expansion, to players with real life constraints, such as a new-born. Let’s use a more generic name for these guys Not-Enough-Time-Guys.

Step Three is refining our analysis into True Player Types.

Too-Much-Time-Guy (TMT-guy)

Challenge: High, Social Group: 1 (solo)

Time: variable

TMT-guy is a high challenge player trying to keep himself busy between organized social group activities. Some TMT-guys will play a second Massive and/or console games to keep themselves occupied. Of concern to developers is that this is a first indicator that a player is underserved and may be starting the process of weaning himself from a game.

AH-guy typically spends a short amount of time per session, as that is all the time needed to accomplish their goals. TMT-guy has more time to spend and would be willing to spend more time per play session given a challenging activity.

Not-Enough-Time-Guy (NET-guy)

Challenge: High, Social: n/a

Time: short

NET-guy is a high challenge player trying to find interesting content within his limited playing time constraints. NET-guy limits himself to solo play as he may have to leave the game unexpectedly. He is fiercely attached to the game world, and creates his own meta-game rather than play other games that are more suited to his time constraints. The amount of time he spends per session might be stretched if he can leave unexpectedly without impacting other people’s play.

Both Too-Much-Time-guy and Not-Enough-Time-guy may enjoy playing a meta Auction House game, but it is more from lack of anything else to do that meets their criteria. Designers have two concerns with these guys, 1. they are likely candidates to cancel their subscriptions and 2. they are in a position to manipulation the Auction House and negatively effect game play server-wide.

Following are a few ideas illustrating how understanding these True Player Types enable us to design better games.

Epic Quests. Very long, involved epic quests such as in EverQuest would keep both these True Player Types involved in a game.

Observer Mode. Create a system where Not-Enough-Time-guy can join an individual or group (as a ghost) where he can use his skills to mentor others. In a similar fashion create a system where Too-Much-Time-guy is rewarded for mentoring new players through content.

Rares. Too-Much-Time-guy would be quite involved in tracking down and defeating rare spawns as long as the reward was usable. A slight upgrade to her current gear or a side-grade would be appropriate, perhaps in the form of a gear enhancement item. Ten-twenty hours of game-play for a piece of gear would be acceptable to TMT-guy. Some games have areas where mob density is too high for current server conditions, TMT-guy could be used to thin the herd.

Realm Enhancement. Both TMT-guy and NET-guy would participate in unstructured activity, pvp or pve, which would lead to a realm benefit, such as taking a Keep in Dark Age of Camelot. The key for NET-guy is that the game play is unstructured. They key for TMT-guy is that the benefit gained is meaningful.

The above ideas could be fitted into most existing Massives. The more interesting challenge is to find novel game play to appeal to these True Player Types.

I will discuss other Observed Player Types in a similar fashion in additional articles.


5. Challenge is a Moving Target

Over time as a player learns a specific Massive she gets better at it and the game gets less challenging. This is not just a function of a character leveling up and/or getting better gear. The player behind the character becomes better over time and needs more challenging content to remain at their preferred challenge point.

For example, a player with a high level character decides to start a new character at level one. Content that player previously found challenging, when first leveling up is now too easy, as the player is now a better player.

In a similar fashion, over time the Massive Community gets better at Massives in general and the games get less challenging. Massives are social games, and the social structures that exist in and out of game excel at teaching the community how to play.

For example, if current high level WoW players (with no knowledge of EverQuest) were to roll new characters on an older game like EverQuest, the WoW players would significantly outperform players new to Massives.

A player’s desired level of challenge may change from game session to game session. A player that enjoys a high challenge raid (A-Game) may also enjoy logging in and playing on a more relaxed, less challenging level (B-Game). This desire to not always bring one’s A-Game is frequently overlooked by developers.

For example, a chess player may play in a rated chess tournament a few times a week. This same chess player may also enjoy a friendly game of chess in the park.

In current Massives, players looking for more challenging game play move towards playing with larger social groups. It is more challenging to coordinate a game activity with a lot of people than just a few people. I believe this movement towards larger social groups is because that is where designers put the most challenging content and not because of a desire for an individual to change the size of the social group they are playing with.


6. Interaction between Low Challenge (LC) and High Challenge (HC) Players

Low Challenge (LC) Players can only exist if:

1. The new player experience is easy, fun and very polished and
2. High Challenge Players already exist in a game.

Note: in a new game HC Players may come from the game’s Beta population.

A Massive is a very complicated game. The Massive beginner experience teaches players the basics of how to move a character and interact with the environment. But there is much that the beginner experience does not teach.

A High Challenge player wants to test himself against the game as soon as possible. A High Challenge player finds bugs first. A High Challenge player explores content, then writes a map/guide. A High Challenge player optimizers her skills to get to content quicker, such as perfecting spell rotations. A High Challenge player sells hard to get items/gear.

A Low Challenge player would prefer to wait until all the bugs are ironed out, until guides and maps are put up on fan sites, and until there are people who can mentor him in game. A Low Challenge player wants to read guides, know where gear drops, be taught their spell/ability rotation and generally how to get through content. A Low Challenge player buys hard to get items/gear.

Before World of Warcraft this combination of a very polished new player experience combined with a large number of High Challenge Players did not exist and may partially explain WoW’s early success. (Note: WoW’s months long, highly populated beta produced a large number of High Challenge Players.)


7. Player vs. Environment (PvE) and Player vs. Player (PvP)

Player vs. Environment (PvE) is designed to be beaten.
Player vs. Player (PvP) is not.

PvE has a Challenge Level determined by a game designer.
PvP has a Challenge Level determined by other players.

A quick note on griefers and killers.

My contention is that griefers are outliers. That is they exist in the player base primarily because of designer neglect, but are not wanted in our Massives.

A movie theater manager may remove a loud patron who exceeds the movie theater expectations of decorum. Movies theaters are not designed with an expectation of bad patron behavior. Similarly a pro football player may be ejected from a game for egregious behavior. Football game designers recognize that some player will have bad behavior and have instituted rules to separate these players from the game.

I will go into more detail on griefers and killers in a future article, along with some suggestions on how to remove this behavior from our games.

PvP and PvE players can be mapped to the Challenge Model. PvP has the possibility of being more challenging than PvE. PvP is more variable in its Challenge Level than is PvE. For example, WoW has numerous Battlegrounds, instanced PvP mini-games. The Challenge Level in any particular game is dependent upon the quality of other players and the Challenge Level can vary widely from game to game.

I will illustrate this with what I consider a pure form of PvP, fighting over resources.

In WoW there are resources which are gathered and used in professions. These resources, such as herbs, spawn in semi-random locations throughout a zone. In order to successfully farm these herbs, one must know where they spawn and the easiest routes to get to them. On a PvE server this is a low challenge activity. If two players spot an herb, the first one to click on it gets it. There may be non-player characters near the herb but in the main these are not a challenge.

On a PvP server this is a variable challenge activity. It is low challenge if unopposed. It is a high challenge activity if opposed.

Two players, one herb, only one will farm the herb. This is pure, meaningful pvp.


8. What would H. G. Wells do?

H. G. Wells is considered the "father of science fiction", by penning "The Time Machine" (1888), "The War of the Worlds" (1897) and "The First Men in the Moon" (1901) among others. What is less well known is that H.G. Wells is also the grandfather of Massives, by penning:

Little Wars

Floor Games

"Wells wrote a ground-breaking work when he penned Little Wars, which started the hobby of military miniatures war-gaming." -- Gary Gygax, March 2004

Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren’s "Chainmail: rules for medieval miniatures" is a direct descendant of "Little Wars".

"Dungeons and Dragons" is a direct descendant of "Chainmail", and the rest you know.

Before you sit down for your next design session, clear your mind of skills, classes, attributes, etc etc etc. Think back to H.G. Wells. He started our industry with some model soldiers, measuring tape and dice. Think what he would do if he had our tools.


Future articles will discuss Player Types using the Challenge Model.


A game is a form of play with goals and structure. Kevin Maroney


Difficulty does not equal Challenge.


And now for your moment of Zen, a loaded die and rolling cup found at Hadrian’s Wall.

Latest Jobs

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Malmö, Sweden)
Gameplay Director (Project Fantasy)

Arizona State University

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Assistant Professor of XR Technologies

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Animation Tech Programmer

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN, USA
Assistant Professor in Game Design and Development
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more