I’ve long noticed players playing games in multiple ways. Sometimes, we like to watch. We like a story. Other times, we explore. We want to find everything. And sometimes, we compete heavily. We couldn’t care less about story, as long as we win. So many variations. I’ve been working on categorizing them. So far, I’ve identified 4 core ways of playing:
- The “Rollercoaster” mode exemplified in Uncharted 3, where setting and theme present a message to the player (“What do I do?”, “Why am I doing it?”),
- the “Experiment” mode where players discover systems and explore how they work (“What happens when X happens?”, “Can I get X to happen?”),
- the “Mastery” mode where players practice optimizing those systems (“Can I be the best?”, see American Football, for example), and lastly,
- the “Application” mode, where players take mastered knowledge and apply it in creative or artistic ways: Play-as-performance, Creature creating in Spore, player-defined achievements in Nethack, Narrativism (from GNS theory) in indie pnp RPGs.
There is a clear sequence here, where players focus primarily on one aspect of the game, then (potentially) move on to the next. Players seem to always walk through these stages every time they play. Players start in rollercoaster mode, doing things like playing a tutorial, learning who they represent and why they are playing. Sometimes they stay in this mode – they find the designer-driven message compelling. Other times they move into system comprehension (“experiment”) and then on to system perfection (“mastery”) and creative “application”. Note the player absolutely controls which mode they are in, but it is in the designer’s best interest to guide them down the path!
I started studying this because I noticed players approaching games in these really fundamentally different ways. We would talk about “story games” and “game-y games”, and different players gravitated to different kinds of games at different times, but I couldn’t find anyone who had explored why. Note that most modern games include multiple modes, but take place at different times and on different time scales, because the player is focused on one mode at a time.
Interestingly, these modes are often at odds with each other, and I-as-designer have to make design sacrifices in one mode’s experience to improve another. Dialogue trees are great for presenting narrative and setting, but undermine experimentation. Experiment-focused games (such as Nethack) demand a wide variety of shallow systems and should be easy to explore, while mastery-focused games (like Counter-Strike) have relatively few systems and narrative, but they are very deep and need to be capable of being very challenging. These design tensions are pervasive throughout the different forms of game-play and deserve deep study.
Knowing which mode you are designing to is paramount to being successful. They often seem to determine the difference between popular success and failure. If a player comes in expecting to be swept up in a grand epic, and get a few shallow systems with no story, they aren’t going to continue. I-as-designer need to facilitate my desired play mode as quickly as possible, to guide player expectations. This appears to me the initial foundation of all player-designer game-communication – the guidance of player movement through this mode sequence to the desired mode.
Charles Pratt got me to write this, for which I’m very grateful. I’ve found this lens of looking at game design extraordinarily useful in my work, and I hope it helps you too. The mode names are the best descriptors I’ve come up with, and I’d appreciate any feedback on fleshing them or the theory out.
Edit: I’d be remiss to not mention Ben Smith’s work over in the Indie RPG space, which I stumbled onto recently and is deeply exploring similar space.