GameDev Thoughts: Game Design Lessons Learned From Studying Bartle’s Taxonomy

Bartle’s Taxonomy was one of the earliest attempts to have a glance at a player’s mindset when they were playing a multiplayer game with other players. This method of player classification is used extensively by game developers to know and to better understand the players’ needs for a better multiplayer environment in games. It is also used to identify the demographic the game is being aimed at in order to create the best single player experience possible for any given game.

The concept of Bartle’s Taxonomy was of course brought forward by the one and only grandfather of MUDs, Richard Bartle, who was one of the first creators of MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon, in 1978. His role in the industry allowed him to observe players’ reactions in multiplayer environments.

His observations stated ways to divide a game between players for a richer and intuitive multiplayer experience. He found out these ways by having long and detailed discussions with players who tried his MUD. All those interviewed by Bartle were asked questions about what they wanted from the game. Each of the players had their own response, which was different than that of other players. These led to arguments between the players, as each had their own justifications due to the fact that they were invested in the game for dissimilar reasons. These disagreements led Bartle to find threads of similarities in opinions between the different players. His final observations, stated that different players were a part of either of four distinct groups. These groups were Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and lastly, Killers.

Achievers. The players belonging to the group of achievers played the game to achieve the goals as defined in the game. They want to stay on top of all the leaderboards and the get the highest score imaginable. They also want to finish the game as soon as possible in order to get the achievements faster and to get the most XP from a particular level. In order to entice these forms of gamers, developers should create some special achievements which are extremely difficult to get so that these players stay hooked to the game. Initially designed as a low-cost way to attract and retain players, achievements are now an important part of the gameplay experience. If your game targets these players, make sure that the player is continually feeling challenged by continually teasing them with more goals.

Explorers. These players play games to explore new stuff, be it geographical, material or even abstract. They love to find out the ways how the game works, to reach and find places no other player has reached before. For them, the gameplay acts as a tool which aids them in their pursuit of exploration. These kinds of players are not after the top score; they are content with the minimum needed in order to move forward in the game to explore new stuff. Game developers have special items in the game in order to make explorers happy, easter eggs being the most prominent of them. These easter eggs keep these explorers addicted to the game resulting in higher engagement rates for the game as well as a literal treasure-filled experience for the player. If your game targets these players, make sure that there’s always something new to explore in the game world, whether that’s literal exploration, new mechanics, new items, or even new interactions with the game world.

Socializers. The third category of players like the game for its interpersonal aspects. These players play the game to be a part of a community or group or clan. They trade stuff amongst themselves and make use of the chat feature to stay connected while in game. They tend to heavily prefer multiplayer games due to their social aspect. The socializing aspect of the games have been given a boost by services like Twitch and YouTube which allow for a better way of social interaction among players. If your game targets these players, make sure that there’s a large social component in your game. I personally don’t have direct experience developing multiplayer games, but in every game I make I always make it a goal to have players communicate with each other about the game. Whether that’s setting up a Wiki or starting a Reddit community, it’s always paramount to get players more involved and engaged.

Killers. Last but not the least, these are those kind of players which play the game to assert dominance over their peers or other players. They gain a certain form of enjoyment by being a pest for other players by getting in the middle of their gameplay and spoiling it. The leader of any clan can also act as a killer player by imposing his will and dominance over other players. These form of players usually harass other players using mods or cheats and target players weaker than them. As a kid growing up, I was one of these players. I would constantly try to troll other players and was quite the griefer. I eventually grew out of this phase in my late teens, but having this background has allowed me to get into the psyche of this player type — these people usually like getting reactions from others. When designing your game, make it as unrewarding as possible for players to grief others, and make it as rewarding as possible for players to act in a socially positive way.

Important Takeaways: Bartle’s Taxonomy allows game developers to learn about the kind of players they want to develop the game for in a fast and efficient manner. If your game targets Achievers, make sure that the player is continually feeling challenged by continually teasing them with more goals. If your game targets Explorers, make sure that there’s always something new to explore in the game world, whether that’s literal exploration, new mechanics, new items, or even new interactions with the game world. If your game targets Socializers, make sure that there’s a large social component in your game. When trying to mitigate Killers in your multiplayer games, make it as unrewarding as possible for players to grief others, and make it as rewarding as possible for players to act in a socially positive way.

GameDev Thoughts: A Few Common Pitfalls To Avoid In Indie Game Development

First off, good controls are essential. Make sure that your button layouts are intuitive and match up with gaming norms. This means that you typically shouldn’t have your pause button on “D” or something odd like that. Similarly, make sure your controls actually feel responsive, with very few frame delays. Controls with delayed responses aren’t fun to use and will simply cause frustration. Finally, make your controls as comfortable as possible. This ties in with intuitive layouts as well, but this also involves how often you’re holding buttons or rapidly tapping them. If you’re not careful, your layout might cause cramps, so try to minimize these potential problems as much as possible. Most control problems are fixed by playtesting rigorously and figuring out what works and what doesn’t; there isn’t a magical fix for every game.

Next, consider how long your tutorials are. It’s obvious that a player needs to know how to play the game, but you’ll lose players if you have them waiting for too long. While an exceedingly long tutorial might be a sign of an overly complex game, you can minimize the problem by breaking it up into chunks and only displaying information when it becomes relevant. The best tutorials are the ones that you don’t realize you’re actually playing. Integrate your tutorials seamlessly into the game itself by properly segmenting it so that the player isn’t too overwhelmed.

Another pitfall to avoid is poor aesthetics. Gameplay is always number one when you’re reviewing a game, but poor visuals or sound will definitely leave a bad impression and may stop players from giving your game a chance in the first place. You’ll have to consider if your visuals are inside of the “Uncanny Valley.” Your art should either be fully realistic or stylized, because anything in between will just look cheap. Even though that stylized art is easier to make, it’ll appear more “complete” and leave a better impression. Don’t plan on going for realism unless you can hit the nail right on the head because it’ll just worsen your game overall otherwise.

Besides the game’s overall look, you also should pay particular attention to your game’s user interface. The UI is usually shown to your players for the entire gameplay loop, so if it looks bad, your game as a whole looks bad. This can also cause players to quit before they give your game a chance if you show this gaudy UI in trailers or screenshots, so you should do whatever you can to avoid making a bad one. Remember, when it comes to UI design, less is more.

Finally, don’t include unnecessary voice acting. Only add voice acting if it is truly professional and fits the game. Just like with the other aesthetic factors, if your voice acting is bad, your game feels cheaper as a whole and will leave a worse impression. If your actors aren’t capable or your microphone isn’t good enough, don’t even try to add any voice acting; reading plain text is oftentimes much more enjoyable than having to listen to cheesy acting.

Important Takeaways: Bad controls make the game harder to play for everyone, so make sure the controls are intuitive, ergonomic, and responsive. Avoid making long tutorials because players don’t want to have to wait through them; either make your game less complex to allow for shortening the tutorial or break the tutorial up and only show information when it’s relevant. Aesthetics are the final factor that can make or break a game’s quality from the eyes of a potential consumer. Avoid the uncanny valley by going either full realism or stylized and make sure your UI isn’t tacky since it’s usually with players for the entire game.

GameDev Thoughts: A Few Quick Tips On How To Become A More Productive Game Designer

Many people new to the gaming industry have a warped idea of what being a game designer actually is like. First off, game designers don’t just orchestrate the entire creation of their games. In fact, most of the time, most of the ideas that go into a game don’t even originate from game designers, but rather the others on the team. In reality, a game designer’s job is to recognize those good ideas from the team and then expand upon them. Game development is a collaborative effort, and that’s something that you need to understand.

Next, adding onto the collaborative effort point, try to be a person that’s enjoyable to debate with. Debates and iteration on ideas are healthy for development, and will greatly improve the final product with enough of it. On the contrary, if your debates just upset people, you break your team’s bond and ensure that you’ll never enjoy the benefits of debate in the future. These spirited conversations are good for your game and for your thoughts on game development in the future — try to encourage open lines of communication.

In addition to being a person open to debate, you should try to be an accepting person. If someone comes up to you with an idea and you shut them down for the idea being “stupid,” nobody is going to come to you for advice in the future and your game is going to fall short in the end due to lack of feedback. Whenever someone on your team comes at you with an idea, even if it’s an idea that you don’t particularly like, you should salvage all of the good bits and come up with something even better. Be a person who likes brainstorming, as other members of the team love to be around a source of new ideas. Even the worst ideas have good elements to them, so be open to them.

Now, it’s time for something unrelated to the previous points; get some programming experience. Game development is a slow process with lots of iterations. If you have some personal programming experience, you can immediately create iterations based on your ideas to see if they end up fun or not. Without this experience, you’d have to pass ideas along to the team first, and that middleman slows down the process substantially. With faster iterations, you can work on previous ideas instantly without being disruptive to the overall development process.

In addition to that programming experience, you should also get some design experience. A game designer with game design experience, crazy right? Well, without that experience nobody will hire you in the first place. Go create some small-scoped games in Unity or another free game engine and get that experience to secure your position in the future. With every game you make, regardless of how small, you’ll slowly acquire the skills needed to succeed in larger projects in the future. You can’t just become a great game designer without designing games. Work on some small projects in your free time, learn a new programming language, do anything! You can’t gain experience without experiencing game development. If this is something that is off-putting to you, game development might not be for you. Becoming a great game designer is a matter of dedication, practice, and learning from others.

Important Takeaways: New game designers often don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. First off, understand that you are not the conductor of an orchestra, but rather just one of the players; you don’t run the show, you work with everyone to get the job done. Next, make sure you can debate without angering others or you won’t be able to reap the benefits that debate brings when they inevitably avoid you. In addition to being a friendly debater, try to be an accepting person in general; don’t just shut down ideas, but rather try to salvage any good parts of those ideas for use in improving your game.

Find out how to program in at least one language so that you can create iterations yourself, greatly speeding up the development cycle and allowing for iterations that would otherwise be too troublesome to try and create. Also, obtain some game design experience by creating some smaller games so that you can actually find a job as a game designer in the first place; nobody wants to hire someone with no experience, even if they have great potential. Remember, it takes a lot of time, practice, and patience in make it as a game designer in this industry.

GameDev Protips: My Thoughts On Energy Systems In Game Design

We’ve seen a trend for the past few years, particularly in the dreaded world of social games, towards “energy systems”, namely systems which restrict one’s playtime. Generally, this will be done through either an “energy bar” or a timer and, perhaps more nefariously, there is usually the option to bypass these restrictions by paying a fee. These systems, if not abused, can be highly effective in ensuring that a player returns again and again, compulsively and almost inexplicably, to a game. But when implemented incorrectly, as they so often are, they serve no practical purpose other than to alienate and annoy the player. Let’s examine a few examples of excellent and poor implementation of the “energy system”, and see whether or not, as a designer or player, you should embrace them.

Energy systems have three main goals in mind, which are, in informal order of significance: habituation, content restriction and monetization. Habituation is key to developing a reliable, steadfast group of customers in any industry; this is particularly true if microtransactions and the like are a significant part of one’s game, meaning the greater the exposure, the greater the likelihood to buy will be. As such, games will put certain actions on a timer, encouraging players to return to the game at various points throughout the day.

This idea was made mainstream by MMO’s which incentivizes “resting” in order to gain in-game experience upon logging back into the game world. This can be done while offline, however, after a time limit, the bonus stops stacking. This heavily encourages players to log back on in order to reap the rewards of the resting bonus, as the majority of us will strive for efficiency in games when possible. However, most players probably find this system quite enjoyable, as they view is as a “bonus” for coming back to the game.

Yet this behavior becomes less acceptable to the player the more blatant it is, especially when games don’t seem to provide much content to make up for it. This is most definitely the case for social games with the most obnoxious monetization system, which are, essentially, nothing but time-based “energy systems” which “rewards” the player for logging on every few hours, thereby making it a part of their routine. Not only is one penalized for not logging in often enough, but one is mechanically prevented from proceeding after a couple minutes, instead of being forced to wait until a timer has been completed. There is some logic behind this, as it is intended for these games to become a part of a player’s daily routine, making it more likely that it would be opened automatically.

As we have briefly discussed, these systems specifically focus on making the player feel rewarded. Interestingly enough, the MMO-style resting mechanic was originally designed as a penalty, but, perhaps predictably, this did not sit well with the players. So it was labeled a “reward” system instead, and the reception was far more positive. Not a single thing was changed, bar the name, yet players preferred the idea of a bonus to that of a deduction. Perhaps this is also a result of the illusion of freedom — players feel as if they don’t have to check back in, as it’s only an optional bonus.

Finally, there is the most heinous crime of all, the injection of microtransactions into gameplay. We have briefly touched on this, but most social games give players the option to lift the onerous time restrictions by paying a fee. While this may, at first sight, appear to be an easy way for developers to make some extra money, it is, of course, entirely detrimental in the long run if the game isn’t designed properly. In a game without microtransactions, players are usually able to play the game unrestricted by artificial time-barriers. With the freemium model, however, players are usually gated with in-game currency and are forced to stop playing or shell out real dollars to accelerate progress. This is usually fine if it doesn’t come at the cost of the gameplay experience — something that’s quite controversial within both the development and player community.

Important Takeaways: Energy systems are a method by which developers attempt to control when, and for how long, you play their games. This is done with three goals in mind, namely habituation, content restriction, and monetization. Most developers know that they will make the most money if they can get players to keep coming back for more, but not as many realize the harmful effects the unwarranted insertion of microtransactions can have. As such, it’s important to remember that, while offering incentives to your players is nice, at the end of the day it is a game’s actual content that keeps it afloat. Make sure that your game’s core gameplay loop isn’t compromised during the process.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Train Yourself To Think Outside The Box In Game Development

Being an indie game developer is one of the most challenging professions you could ever choose from. Why? Because you are constantly coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to solve problems. Also, because there are no guarantees of success. You’re probably just winging it on a day to day basis. But really, think about how many problems we face and deal with on our day to day life. But how many times do we go out of our way to either solve these problems for ourselves and for others? Seldomly. The most influential people took a common problem and found a better solution to said problem. That is why as a game developers need to be constantly pushing yourself to think outside the norm and to find solutions, not only for yourself, but for your peers. I’m always trying to share as much information as possible for this very reason. For example, let’s say during the process of development you come up with a truly amazing procedural terrain generator. Don’t just keep that to yourself. Show the world!

Remember, to think outside of the box, you must constantly feed the analytical and creative side of your brain. This can be done passively as you listen to intellectual podcasts on your drive or bike ride to work (if you have a day job), or it can be more active like taking apart common household items and putting them back together. Whatever you are doing to fuel that analytical or creative part of your brain make sure you are doing it on a routine basis. If you wake up at 6am every day make sure to flip on that podcast before you go out on that run. Think of the brain as a muscle that constantly needs to be worked on in order to improve. Always seek to find differing opinions from other people as well. Steer clear from people who always agree with your ideas — the biggest quantum leaps in growth for me personally have been contentions from other people. Solve puzzles and word problems. To push your game development abilities to the next level, you can easily turn mental exercises into a hobby. Set a goal for yourself to beat a certain number of levels in a puzzle game every day — perhaps even right before you start coding.

Challenge yourself as a game developer to do something you would not normally do in order to broaden your scope of knowledge. Have you tried painting, sampling music, or voice acting? Each of these professions works at solving problems on a day to day basis. As a painter you need the right tools, what instruments work with which medium, and what is the inspiration for your next piece. Without all of this and an artistic hand, you are doomed to fail as a painter. As a person who samples music you need the right equipment, you need to understand what music sounds right together and how to piece music together the right way. And lastly, as someone who does voice acting you need to understand the tonal inflections and phrases of people of different races, genders, and nationalities. Your range of voices should be diverse and you will need to understand how different people sound when exhibiting different emotions. Each of these professions takes skill, but most importantly, they take practice.

As a game developer your work will not be that much different than if you were actually a painter. You will need to know how to transform tools into technology. How to make software do what you want it to and when you want it to on command. You are a creator and an innovator that can manipulate your environment using code. To think outside the box as a game developer, you need to constantly be teaching yourself how to think. You will need to glean from thought leaders in your industry new perspectives and not be afraid to take risks with unconventional pathways or methods.

Pushing yourself as a game developer is simply not thinking about new ways to slice an onion. It is thinking about ways to substitute that onion for something else, ways to get that onion to slice itself, and to elevate your idea of the word “slice”. Once you think that you have come up with every idea possible, it is time to enhance that idea even more and to consider the practicality of that idea. Thinking outside the box means creating something both novel and comprehensible. Remember that the best game ideas are the ones that actually work well when it gets past the idea phase.

Important Takeaways: As a game developer, you need to expand your way of thinking in order to grow. Listen to podcasts, solve puzzles on a daily basis, and most importantly, try to do something out of your comfort zone every day. Finding new ways to solve a particular problem is the heart of a good game developer. Being open to new ideas and willing to test new methods is what separates mediocre game developers from great ones.

GameDev Thoughts: Why Are Modern Roguelike Games So Popular?

Roguelikes are one of the oldest genres in video game history, but they have never reached mainstream popularity until recently. Why is that? Well, this probably comes down to usability issues. Old roguelikes are incredibly complex to start and have a high learning curve when it comes to understanding the game’s user interface. People don’t want to dive into that bundle of confusion that initially results, and thus the genre was relegated to the hardcore niche. Roguelikes are making a return in the past few years, and here’s my take on the reasons why.

The answer here again relates to usability. Modern roguelikes tend to borrow mechanics from other genres that make them seem more familiar, such as platformers or shoot-em-ups. Because of this familiarity, people can finally dive right into one of these games and not feel completely confused, and this has caused the genre as a whole to skyrocket. This raises another question, though; why do people enjoy roguelikes? While some people might denote this as a “roguelite” instead, the general opinion is that roguelikes usually have two main aspects to them: randomized levels and permadeath. Both of these have mass appeal — people enjoy randomized levels as they enjoy learning how to adapt to a game’s scenarios via improvisation rather than just learning how to do something then repeating that over and over. The randomized nature of these levels also allows for creativity in the solution to every problem, and thus constantly challenges us to find the best answer. People really enjoy the feeling of exploring the unexplored, and if designed correctly, roguelikes should give that feeling with every passing playthrough.

With that out of the way, why do people like permadeath? Well, this is a slightly stranger enjoyment, but I believe people enjoy it because it forces you to change up your strategy every playthrough if you no longer have access to a permanently progressing character. In addition to that, permadeath can give each playthrough meaning. People enjoy that feeling of tension with video games, and enjoy being creative with what they can do to beat every level with a more tangible form of punishment, so permadeath is sometimes a natural fit. It’s worth noting that many roguelikes today have slight amounts of persistent progression that lasts throughout playthroughs, but that doesn’t get rid of any of the benefits of permadeath. These persistent progression mechanics instead usually serve to enhance the game experience and helps players feel like they’re making actual progress even through numerous deaths, so that they don’t quit due to sheer frustration.

Important Takeaways: Modern roguelikes have been picking up in popularity because they’re actually playable by a majority of mainstream gamers. Older roguelikes never hit mainstream partly because players hate feeling utterly confused upon booting up the game. In addition to just being more playable, players are able to enjoy the core aspects of roguelikes: randomized levels and permadeath. Randomized levels make every playthrough fresh and allows for players to work through whatever the game throws at them by giving them the potential for more creativity in their problem solving. Permadeath gives a feeling of importance to each playthrough, and forces you to change your strategy to adapt to the tension of losing your character. These two elements are powerful in their own rights, but when combined, prove to make popular a very compelling genre. That’s not to say that every game with randomized levels and permadeath are good, but that these elements serve to greatly enhance what makes many video games fun in the first place: challenge and discovery.