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Following up on the initial thoughts on Rational Design, let's dig deeper to provide the Why, What and How of the process. This journey will be cut in 3 pieces, each with an overarching theme: the Player, the Game and the Work.

Alexis Jolis Desautels, Blogger

November 19, 2021

18 Min Read

Following up on the initial thoughts on Rational Design, I wanted to dig deeper to provide the Why, What and How of the process, using examples and hints on the way to build deliverables. The goal is to look at some of the theory behind it, yes, but also actionable ways to approach Game Design in a rational manner, regardless of your project, team size and personal experience. This journey will be cut in 3 pieces, each with an overarching theme: the Player, the Game and the Work.

It is often said that Design, especially Game Design, is perceived as the “Realm of Ideas”, i.e. designing is coming up with ideas. My answer to this misconception is that designing is actually coming up with answers, solutions. On a good day, that solution might also end up being a good idea. Why is this distinction so important? Well, games are an interactive medium, as in, they do not exist in a vacuum, but only through the experience of the user. Whether you use the medium of videogame to craft a product or a purely artistic experience, the nature of the medium itself is centered around the idea of a User using a System through Rules. Another lens used to look at this distinction is saying that, basically, as a Designer, you are your worst enemy, the main hurdle to overcome on the path to perfecting your craft. Why? If you look for a “good idea” while letting your own perception of “cool” drive your creative process, you are blinding yourself to the other users as a whole, all billions of them. While working on AAA titles, we used to jokingly tell junior designers, about an idea they were very attached to: “yeah, YOU like it...how many copies of the game will you buy? Not even one, you’re getting yours for free”.

So, in essence, while your own guts, feelings, preferences and pet peeves are not to be ignored, they should never be the driving force behind your design work. The first impulse should come from deep knowledge of the Users, who they are, what makes them tick, how they learn, etc. After all, you want as many of them as possible to be drawn to your game, really get into it and stay in it, forever!

In this first segment, we will look at the Users, your Players. We will look at some of the theory behind how to “map” the users and features into workable categories to inform your design decisions and how to break down the intricate notion of motivation. In all cases, we will look for actionable tools, documents and deliverables, while giving examples and warnings along the way. Let’s dive!

In many design-centric fields, like architecture and industrial design, User Modeling is a no-brainer, a go-to step that’s always undertaken in the early days of the Design process. In videogames, that notion is somewhat more recent, and was met quite often with distrust and disdain: putting labels on people, dropping players in buckets and categories is some evil marketing scheme that ignores the marvelous complexity of human nature, etc. But really, if I ask you a simple question, such as: “who is this game for?” Every answer you can provide will take you down the path of simplification, archetypingand demographics. As it should. While it might be impossible to hold a mental image of every single possible player of your game, you should look not for how they are different from others, but rather what they have in common. User Modeling is diverse, complex and all in shades of gray, but is an important first step to “designing with intentions''.

The First Rule of User Modeling, and not a very popular opinion, is: use every model you find, for every model is right in its own way. As a designer, your first task should be to look at a model and find the value in that model, i.e. what is this model doing better than the other models, or what does it focus on? This exercise will have many benefits: first, it will take you away from the rather amusing but pointless exercise of looking for the “best model” and spending countless hours with fellow designers arguing on the merits of your favorite one. Second, when looking at any model, it will help you distinguish between the useful and less useful parts of that model. Finally, getting a 360 degree view of that field is the best gateway into humanistic and behavioral psychology, a science with many critical learnings to be applied by game designers.

Here’s a shortlist of my favorite models to consider while building your knowledge on the topic, why I feel they add value and a simple warning on their limitations.

Richard Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types (1996):

Reference Paper

Take the test

How can I use this model?:

Like all models, it would be ideal to have part of your potential player base take the test beforehand so you could work off actual data on that population...which pretty much never happens. So, the next best thing you can do, with any model, really, is to look at what your game is offering, your current intentions, and to map those on the player types represented here. This is a way to challenge your design intentions and validate your choices: “What are we giving to these guys? Don’t we have too many features speaking only to this crowd? Are we ok with this?” You might end up not changing anything to the game direction, but doing so with intention is the important thing here.

Take the chart, map features and keywords inside it and create a short slide presentation explaining your intentions in regards to the player types.

Why is this the best model?:

  • It is deeply rooted in videogames study, so it feels closest for most designers and is therefore easy to use

  • It teaches that no one is only one thing

  • It teaches that our preferences and inclinations can vary depending on context, so our score might change between a FPS or a MMORPG, for example

Why is this the worst model?:

  • Bartle’s Taxonomy is often criticized for the dichotomous nature of the questions, the oversimplification of players and what motivates them, etc

  • If you think using only this model will give you a deep understanding of human nature, well, yeah, you’ll be disappointed

Nicole Lazarro’s Four Keys to Fun (2004):

Reference Paper

How can I use this model?:

This model has a lot going on to help you use it properly. It defines action verbs and links them to specific emotions and types of fun. Also, it looks into things you can do to increase or decrease the predominance of a certain type of fun. So this model is really not about classifying the user with a label so much as to think on the desired Player Experience you are trying to generate (presumably linking that to other models that can help you categorize your players) and then mapping your design intentions, again, to challenge your feature set, your development priorities. Players typically switch between “fun modes” over the course of a play session. Having 3 potential types of fun present is the best guarantee to draw players and keep them engaged.

Create a short slide presentation detailing how you generate each of the 4 types of fun, using your feature set, key moments in the game, etc.

Why is this the best model?:

  • It is centered around the idea of Player Experience

  • It examines the emotions created by the various interactions

  • It thinks about how different objectives, challenges and rewards will make people do things differently, for different reasons

Why is this the worst model?:

  • It teaches you close to nothing about the players themselves, who they are, what they’re made of, etc

  • It “only” shows what could happen to them once they interact with a set of systems and design intentions

  • Using this model alone will not tell you much about the user personas themselves

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954):


How can I use this model?:

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Maslow’s Pyramid, the most “overrated” and “overused” piece of psycho-pop of the 20th century, part of every HR and entry-level business class out there. But there are some really good reasons to consider the Pyramid for your design toolbox (also, the full thing is worth a read). The key here is order and prioritization. Everyone needs certain things to be fulfilled before they worry about more complex stuff. That’s the lesson. Teach the Health System before expecting the player to join a guild, etc.

Break down your current feature set and map it over the Pyramid, trying to determine where every feature lies; what needs it can fulfill. You will quickly see if you have balance and progression issues in your overall proposition, if your game is “bottom-heavy” or “top-heavy, for example.

Why is this the best model?:

  • It doesn’t come from videogames specifically, so it’s not blind sighted by its own medium

  • It’s universal; pretty much everyone follows something similar to that structure

  • Its core principle is simple enough that it’s easy for designers to communicate with it

Why is this the worst model?:

  • It doesn’t come from videogames specifically, so it’s blind sighted to the realities of our medium

  • It’s universal so therefore generic; it doesn’t look at how we are different at all

  • Using this model alone will not allow you to understand why different people want different things at different moments

For brevity’s sake, which is already at risk, I will not go over the many more very interesting models and frameworks that should be integrated by designers into their toolboxes. Worth mentioning are the Big Five Personality Traits, Reiss’ 16 Basic Desires, Fisher’s Personality Type System, among others.

All right, let’s move to our second aspect of knowing the player: Player Motivation.

Regardless of how we categorize players and the sort of shortcuts and archetypes we use, it all boils down to a simple question with rather complex and intricate answers: Why do people do the things they do? While it’s clearly beyond the scope of this post to really answer that question, we need to look at the available tools to tackle it through the lens of game design, because in the end, you want to craft an experience where players feel compelled to try, learn and get better at your game to ultimately have them stick around to bask in everything you created for them.

To keep things simple and actionable, I want to focus on two aspects of Player Motivation, the Theory of Flow and the Intrinsic/Extrinsic Motivation duo. In both cases, we will focus on a brief overview of the theory followed by explicit deliverables to complete during your conception phase or even later, if adjustments need to be made.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Theory of Flow (1975):


The Theory of Flow, expressed as such as part of 20th century work on positive psychology, is an age-old concept describing a mental state, often referred to as “being in the zone”. This mental state is somewhat of a Holy Grail for designers, since the effects on the brain of being in that state is somewhat akin to the build-up and culminating point of the sexual orgasm. It’s the magical zone performers of all kinds try to reach over and over again, when they perform the best and where their true self and talent is expressed the most. It’s what you perceive when your favorite artist starts improvising or getting into the groove of a rhythmic track, the prodigal footwork of an athlete crossing half the field by himself, perfectly in sync with his opponents, foreseeing their every move. It’s also very similar to the state that trained monks can reach while meditating, over-aware yet disconnected.

Once we think about what this means for videogames, we really can break it down into 2 ideas: Micro Flow and Macro Flow. The goal for designers, in both cases, is to craft the right conditions to bring players “in the zone”, in the short and long term.

Micro Flow:

Within the Rational Design methodology, Micro Flow is basically a conversion of the theory of flow into game design considerations: second to second, moment to moment, how do I bring the player in that state and how do I keep them there?

Let’s look at the important pieces of the theory itself. It is said that the state of flow can be reached if these three conditions are met:

  1. The activity must have clear goals and progress. This establishes structure and direction.

  2. The task must provide clear and immediate feedback. This helps to negotiate any changing demands and allows adjusting performance to maintain the flow state.

  3. Good balance is required between the perceived challenges of the task and one's perceived skills. Confidence in the ability to complete the task is required.

I would also add that the activity itself needs to be active, require focus and have the potential to hold intrinsic value for the player. Yes, this means that only games that challenge players on physical mechanics can hope to create the right conditions for this flow state to occur (more on physical mechanics in part 2 of this series).

So, looking at those conditions, it seems that the responsibility befalls different aspects of the game, which is true. For example, a good and constant framerate will help condition 2, where clear UI will help players reach condition 1. For now, let’s focus on what designers can do, from a conceptual level, to infuse purpose and intention into their designs. There are 3 key components to building and maintaining Micro Flow:

  1. Design the input flow as a pattern, a “musical, rhythmic score”

  • Pattern, beats and repetition in input can help bring the player in the physical performance state where the brain will open up to Flow

  • This is easily observed in classic platformers like Sonic, Mario, and obviously in music games, which are really efficient in Flow generation...

  1. Encourage and promote series of success

  • To reach the Zone, you need to feel like whatever you are doing is working, and it’s getting better and better

  • In games, this often means secretly cheating the player so that the more success they have, the more tolerant the game becomes to small errors!

  1. Give positive reinforcement

Any good slot machine or mobile app designer will tell you that engagement and the loss of self-awareness is mostly generated by constant “Nice!”, “Well Done!”, “+10 xp!”, “OVERKILL” prompts. These need to be designed with a scale so progression of feedback can be used to create the build-up necessary for Flow to occur.

Macro Flow:

Where Micro Flow is about moment to moment magic, Macro Flow is really about progression. Looking back at the Flow Channel from Csíkszentmihályi’s theory, it’s the idea that over time, as the player’s skills improve, so must the challenge presented to them. This prevents them from dipping down into Boredom. At the same time, we must be mindful of not increasing the challenge too much, or else they will rise into anxiety and eventually apathy, as they lose faith in their own ability to succeed. Macro Flow is designed with 2 approaches: Static and Dynamic.

The Static Approach is all about mapping out the different vectors of progression, from rising difficulty to new challenges, learnings, ingredients, changes in pacing, rewards, etc. As mentioned, this is typically worked in the RLD table (covered in part 3 of this series). A quick glance at the table should be enough to warn you on errors in distribution and scale.

The Dynamic Approach is all about systems used to better match the challenge to the skills of the player. As a warning, and in all fairness, these systems tend to be first features to be cut when time is lacking during production, but you should design them anyways! The idea is simple: what can I read from the game to know how the player is doing? Then, what parameters and variables do I have access to in order to make the game easier or harder? Cross this list with the other and build a system that will allow dynamic adjustments to difficulty so you can keep the players right where you want them to be, in the middle of that Flow Channel, between Boredom and Anxiety.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

We brushed on the fact that we are wired differently and how to map that using different models and systems. We talked about designing The Zone and how to keep players there. Now, let’s work with a very useful lens to better understand motivation as a whole: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

(Very) Simply put, Intrinsic motivation is what is left with you when you turn off the game. Did you learn something? Do you feel relaxed? Did it feel good while you were doing it? These are intrinsic rewards, and the fact that you would want those is intrinsic motivation. Did you reach level 85? Unlock a new power? Completed an item set? All extrinsic rewards, results of accomplishments you did when extrinsically motivated!

Research shows that while extrinsic rewards are not enough by themselves, they act as a great multiplier to your intrinsic motivation. If you have a shitty job, that pay raise won’t hold you for long, but if you love what you do, that extra 2$ an hour will go a long way to keep you motivated. The same is true for games, and any activity where you ask something of someone, really. So how do you work that idea?

First, you should document, in a few slides, your conscious intentions to design activities and rewards of intrinsic value: pleasure of manipulation, things to learn, discoveries to be made, great social and emergent systems to be used, etc. Things you feel would benefit the players even out of the game, things that will stay with them.

Then, you need to do the same thing for all extrinsic rewards and then map these out in a Rational Level Design chart (more on that in part 3 of this series). The key here is to think short, medium and long term, and also think back on those profiles we looked at earlier and look for rewards that will fulfill the many different player types your game may speak to.

Also, a great tool to use is the O.C.R. loops! The Objective-Challenge-Reward loop is the low-level mechanical expression of Player Motivation, and is for me the only real way to answer “what is a game?”, but that debate is for another day... So, how do we build and map these out?

  • Look for all the things you ask of the player and/or all the things the player might try to achieve

  • Determine if that thing is a Short, Medium or Long term loop: does it take seconds, minutes or hours to complete? Start by separating all your loops in these 3 categories

  • For each loop, write down the Objective (kill a bad guy), the Challenge (Aim and Shoot mechanic, Enemy selection mechanic - more on mechanics in part 2 of this series) and finally the Reward (10xp + random loot drop)

  • Map all the loops and start drawing connections and interrelations between them, while also visually indicating which Short loops are nested inside which Medium, which Medium into Long, etc.

You end up with a graph that allows you to quickly and visually evaluate the offer you are presenting to the players and whether or not your “motivation strategy” covers all your bases.

Example of loops for a classic RPG

As a bonus Cross of the Streams, you can then map your loops on Maslow’s Pyramid to see if you are feeding the hierarchy the right way:

You could also easily do the same things over Bartle’s Player Types or Lazarro’sTypes of Fun, etc. All these topics are simply different lenses looking at the player’s brain, and as you may guess, the question of how the brain works contains a myriad of other topics we haven’t even mentioned here, from perception, to learning, memory, etc. All things for another day, but most of that theory is well documented online and in specialty books.

I strongly believe that our first duty as we design the amazing experiences that videogames can be is to the users themselves. When a player invests in a game, with time and/or money, we make a pact with them, a pact based on the promise of that desired experience, and so, we can only fulfill our side of the bargain by really trying to understand who they are and why they were willing to sign that pact to begin with. There is a misconception that using any of these tools is a sellout, an abandonment of the creativity behind games, and that could not be further away from the truth! Designers are sometimes described as “architects of fun”, which I think is quite true, as we must build around the player, draw them him and amaze them with challenge and delight.

Hopefully you found some useful tips, inspiration and tools in this first part. In the upcoming release, we will look at low-level crafting and control of play mechanics through Rational Game Design, which in essence will constitute most of your tools to craft the experience you envision. Thank you for reading!

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