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Social Gaming and the Bartle Archetypes

By giving Social Games depth using a classic and implied MMO and MUD structure, their market can more appeal to Core Gamers...

Steve Mallory, Blogger

April 13, 2012

10 Min Read

Note:  I've made some slight edits to better reflect Dr. Bartle and the Player Types that he quantified.

With the advent and explosive growth of Social Gaming as a powerful and transitive force on gaming, more and more mainstream and core game developers see the potential for free-to-play gaming. 

Simultaneously, Social Game Developers are starting to understand and realize that their adherence to explicit monetary concerns present their own unique problems with maintaining quality, creating compelling experiences for the consumer, keeping a high level of player participation momentum while worrying about both player and market fatigue.

One such answer for social developers is to embrace the concept of the Bartle Archetypes when conceiving and developing Social Games.  These archetypes, loosely describing four types of players in virtual worlds based on the experiences they seek to attain, while inadvertently embraced by Social Games, can help create more compelling and focused experiences while, simultaneously, ensuring a high level of participation and monetization. 

Using CastleVille by Zynga as a starting point, a game that touches lightly on each of the Bartle archeytpes, we can see that by truly embracing this well known cornerstone of virtual world design, social gaming can transcend the creative limitations we've seen and create more rounded and coherent gameplay experiences without sacrificing the monetization and simple appeal that has led millions to play these games on a daily basis.

The Player Types (aka Bartle Archetypes, named for the man who accuratey quantified them, Dr. Richard Bartle, in turn based on his review of player behavior in MUDs) are four terms describing generalized behavior in a Multi-user virtual space.  For those that don't know, these archetypes are - and keep in mind that these definitions are my approximation:

    1.    Achiever:  This is the player who completes quests to earn experience points and maximize his avatars capabilities, whether through crafting, combat, or loot.  This can further be diversified, as the game allows, into PvE and PvP subsets.
    2.    Socializer:  This is the player who participates in the game for the social aspects.  Whether in a guild or similar organization with other like-minded players whose only source of contact is the virtual world to friends who meet not only in real life, but also congregate virtually.
    3.    Explorer:  This is the player who wants to see everything that the virtual world has to offer.  These players want "to boldly go", finding new locations, resources, vistas, easter eggs,
    4.    Killer:  This is the player who wants to encounter and destroy opponents.  Whether in a PvP or PvE environment, the Killer wants to take down enemies, discover the most efficient means to do so as well as potentially embrace the challenge of dealing with and killing other Players.

It is also worth noting that few players are purely one of these archetypes.  Rather, they tend to be a mix of the four.  Often, one is dominant, with the other aspects feeding into that dominant trait.  A Killer dominant player, for example, might have a strong mix of Achiever and Explorer to ensure they have the gear, resources, and experience to acquire new gear or abilities needed to kill the tougher mobs or other players.

Zynga, the dominant force in Social Gaming, has recently released CastleVille.  While containing many of the traits that are common to other Zynga developed games, it's inception and development was clearly done by a game development team with far more experience in more Core-focused, mainstream, pre-Social gaming because of its at least token attempt to encounter and engage the four Archetypes. 

Zynga games already and inherently have a strong push in the Achiever Archetype - players are driven to craft/build/expand and earn experience points.  The basic leveling system exerts a swhich provided a basic cap to gate the content and provide monetization options for acceleration to and through these gates.  However, much of this is simplified and understandibly so, given the compressed consumption times that the game and its players are placed under. 

However, that doesn't mean that the Achievers can't be embraced to an even greater degree.  Things like limited availability recipes for crafting, an achievement system per title (particularly intriguing given Zynga's creation of a unique delivery network) that provides tangible benefits to the player are just two ways that Achievers and their personal drives can be embraced, accentuated, and used to bring them even deeper into the game.

CastleVille went a step further by increasing player agency in the world by lowering the gate requirements for explorers, something that players of more stringent games like CityVille were prevented from doing easily without a reliance on either heavy monetization or fellow players.  

But how can Explorers be better served?  Right now, there is a finite amount of space and access to that space is both part of the experience point gate as well as integrated into a straightforward social and monetization process tied to a specific widget used for revealing new playable spaces.  Explorers get the most benefit of their game experience by providing unique and interesting locations to find, view, and exploit. 

One way to do this is to remove the Experience Point Cap (or psuedo-cap, ala Castle size in CastleVille) and remove Narrative or Progression-based NPCs from the game world.  This would allow players, should they take the time and/or spend the money, the ability to unlock and expand and view the game world at their own pace. 

Using CastleVille as the example, to explore and unlock new gameplay areas, players must:
    1.    Have their Castle be a certain size, based on the sum of numeric values attached to specific 'Castle' objects whose availability is, in turn, partially derived by your experience level
    2.    Have a certain amount of coin
    3.    Have a certain amount of Exploration Crystals that have been modified in a crafting building, requiring the player to both sink time and money to raise the building and sink the time needed to actually expand.
Exploration crystals can be acquired by defeating enemies as a drop, posting a request on facebook in general or specifically to your friends, or receive them as gifts from friends.

So, there are three hurdles that must be overcome, per exploration request.  Why?  Part of it, assuredly, is the monetization aspect - you can purchase more crystals or other accelerators to build the crafting building.  Part of it is the build gameplay.  The player can build anything they want, within the constraints of content, in the game world as soon as its unlocked.  

To get around this, the notion of exploration needs to be tied into a more restrictive or proscribed building system for the Castle.  Players can only build items (or harvest goods) within a set distance from their existing castle - they can run around all they want, but they can only modify the game world in a limited manner.

CastleVille added the basics to the Killer Archetype by adding conflict in the form of the Gloom and its Minions.  When harvesting materials or other interactions in your castle, there is a random chance for the spawning of a Gloom minion.  These minions are an indirect threat to the player avatar.  They prevent interaction with your Castle items, and are an energy sink, but otherwise do not harm the player.

While not nearly as deep as the usual MMO Killer archetype, there is still the potential of conflict, the crafting and acquisition of gear for use against the Gloom Mobs, and the tension of reduced Castle output if the player does not banish the Mobs. There are better ways of engaging players with conflict.  The most straightforward is to induce a random weighted chance to spawn based on appearance in a specific location or, as the world is already broken up into a grid, every time the player enters a new square. 

This weighted chance, to determine both appearance and type of mob, would be based on things like:
    1.    Distance from Castle (see Explorer Archetype)
    2.    Number of Castle Improvements in the square
    3.    Types of Castle Improvements in the square

These mobs would also need to be limited based on:
    1.    Total number of mob spawned
    2.    Player Level
    3.    Type of mob spawned

Adding more Conflict would adjust the experience reward curve depending on how high a chance the mobs ultimately appear, but it also adds a greater incentive to move through the game world for Killers and provides a level of tension for Explorers as well.

In terms of Socializers, which is obstensibly the cornerstone of social gaming, CastleVille has very little real socialization.  While players can interact with their friends castles, granting aid, boosting production, and the link, it is all asynchronously achieved and the largest social interaction is the ubiquotous facebook wall spam pronouncing major events and the like, as well as a small amount of incentivization for both the giver and reciever of aid.  Which begs the question:  Why can't social games by synchronously social?

This is a very real issue with Social Games - and it is, understandably, up against some very real concerns, starting with the average play time.  Most social gamers participate in a Social Game in compressed chunks - 2-10 minutes tops - as the target audience, Women with Children, don't necessarily have the time to dedicate to a more serious amount of time to play. 

This seems like a hollow argument, particularly since the asynchronous gameplay is encouraged with benefits to both the aid giver and receiver.  With a large enough player base, a simple matchmaking system could ensure you'd find someone who is playing in their Castle.  If the numbers are right, and there is a worldwide facebook player base of 27 million CastleVille players, and if 1/5th of those people are playing simultaneously, that would be 5.4 million potential synchronous players. 

With the addition of systems and gameplay aspects already well known to MMO players, such as item trading, guilds (or, in the case of the CastleVille vernacular, Royal Alliances perhaps?), or Joint/Group Quests, there is a greater potential for breaking the limitation of purely asynchronous 'social' play and open up real-time, synchronous, truly social play and ensure that those people who want to play with their friends and in a greater community have the ability to do so and expand their game friends based on play, not limited exclusively to their friend list.

By embracing the Bartle Archetypes in the concept and implementation of their games, Social Game developers have the chance to break out of the self-imposed limitations of their platform.  These changes are systemic from inception - they must be addressed and considered during the design phase given their expansive and powerful implications to system and content design - but offer the chance to not only keep the existing social gamer market by not instituting a revolutionary change to mechanics, but by evolving them and catering to players who look for very specific qualities in their play. 

By fully embracing these archetypes, Social Gaming can become more than simply more relevant amongst Core gamers, but can cater to a much wider audience who will play the game longer, and thus, increase the window when these gamers can and will spend money on the title.

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