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Adapting to Gamer Types in Game Design: A Beginner’s Guide

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

There are over 3.5 billion people on earth who play video games as a form of entertainment, which is a medium that has outpaced almost every other form of entertainment.

This is a result of game developer’s ability to tap into the fundamental psyche of what motivates humans. However, the fuel behind what motivates us varies depending on our background and circumstances.

What Are The Different Gamer Types?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. There are a few different sets of lenses to categorize different gamer types through which game designers can use to view and understand player behavior better and identify ways to tailor the gameplay to support a variety of players, especially players whose motivations and play styles don’t naturally align with the game designer’s own player preferences.

I’ve been designing games for more than 25 years, and the “taxonomy” for classifying players has evolved dramatically over that time.

So go over a few different models (or lenses) available you can use to design better player experience.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

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Bartle’s Player Taxonomy

The oldest system that got popular was Bartle types. It felt like a clever system built atop two axes (Act vs Interact, Player vs World) and a lot of people clung onto it very hard.

The downside was that it oversimplified the complex nature of player motivations.

image7
(Credit: Bartle 1996)

That said, Bartle player types provided the groundwork that evolved into modern models. So let’s start by looking at an in-depth version of this framework:

Killer

Players focused on competitive victory over other players, via direct competition

Example in-game activities:

  • Structured Player vs Player
  • Auction House monopolies
  • Ganking (unstructured ambushing of other players)
  • Leaderboard competition

Games perfect for Killers:

  • Call of Duty
  • League of Legends
  • Among Us

Achiever

Players focused on status, achieving preset goals

Example in-game activities:

  • “World first” encounters
  • Obtaining rare items and structured achievements

Games perfect for Achievers:

  • World of Warcraft
  • Steam games with achievements
  • Bayonetta

Socializer

Players focused on positive interactions with communities, networking with friends or organizing allies

Example in-game activities:

  • Organizing guilds
  • Chat room
  • Helping new players

Games perfect for Socializers:

  • Final Fantasy XIV
  • Among Us

Explorer

Players focused on seeking the unknown and discovering the well-hidden

Example in-game activities:

  • Completing in-game maps
  • Uncovering all hidden collectibles
  • Finding rare spawn points
  • Deciphering hidden mechanics

Games perfect for Explorers:

  • Subnautica
  • Potionomics
  • Inscryption
  • Dredge

Bartle’s framework was designed for online multiplayer games (MMOs and MUDs), and doesn’t apply as cleanly to other genres.

Its other major flaw, at least as it was often used, was assuming players landed in one square of the graph. In reality, players can have motivations from multiple quadrants, to different degrees.

It was a good start, but game psychology has come a long way since then.

Self-Determination Theory

Next, researchers published the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) model, providing another perspective on human motivation backed by evidence rather than anecdotal observation.

SDT can be broken up into three motivations:

  1. Mastery: the drive to be more skilled
  2. Autonomy: the drive to be able to make decisions that fit your sense of self
  3. Relatedness: the drive to interact with, connect to, and care for others

HEXAD

Since SDT was a general purpose model, Andrzej Marczewski created a hybrid of SDT and Bartle known as HEXAD, bringing SDT’s insights into the specialized language of gameplay:

image5

You can follow the link above to read the details on his own site, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Socializers seek relatedness
  • Philanthropists seek purpose and meaning
  • Free spirits seek autonomy and self-expression
  • Achievers seek mastery

The remaining two archetypes are specific to games, describing how someone relates to the system in a broader way:

  • Players seek rewards, following whatever path leads to them
  • Disrupters seek change to your game’s system (positive or negative), intentionally diverting from the expected path

In my opinion, this is a strong system for player profiling, and more evidence-based than Bartle alone. But it eventually gave way to the final archetype system on our list.

Quantic Foundry

image3
(Credit: Quadratic Foundry)

Quantic Foundry’s model uses even more data and breaks motivation down even more precisely into twelve categories.

Again, you can follow that link to read directly from the source, or get the overview right here:

Seeking immediate adrenaline rush and excitement:

  • Action motivations provide this through the game itself:
    • Destruction
    • Excitement
  • Social motivations provide this through player-player interaction:
    • Competition
    • Community

Seeking long-term growth:

  • Mastery motivations provide this through thoughtful play:
    • Challenge
    • Strategy
  • Achievement motivations provide this through visible signs of progress:
    • Completion
    • Power

Seeking enjoyment through play and curiosity:

  • Immersion motivations focus on the experience the game provides:
    • Fantasy
    • Story
  • Creativity motivations focus on what the player can bring to the game:
    • Design
    • Discovery

This model makes it easy to connect the broad insights about motivation directly to a specific element a game designer can add to their game. For this reason, it quickly grew in popularity among game designers.

I regularly use it when consulting with gamification clients and in my game design courses, as it creates effective strategic thinking around content, different types of players and crafting game mechanics.

Even more archetype systems

The systems above are probably the most influential in the field of game design, and useful to study if you’re looking to examine player archetypes in your own work.

But there is no end to the taxonomy of player types, because humans love to examine our own identities. We are all individually unique, but we also love to find our similarities as we zoom out to broader groups.

This means that other taxonomies exist for specific genres and gaming subcultures. This is especially visible in the tabletop space, where players self-identify with different labels and use them to seek out playgroups and communities that best match their own priorities.

For example, tabletop RPGs have their own specialized taxonomy:

  • Actor – energized by being in character
  • Explorer – energized by novelty
  • Instigator – energized by taking action
  • Observer – energized by adapting around others
  • Power Gamer – energized by rewards
  • Thinker – energized by planning

And some strategy card game communities adopt a system invented by Magic: the Gathering designers:

  • Timmy/Tammy — motivated by the experience of gameplay
  • Spike — motivated by mastery
  • Johnny/Jenny — motivated by self-expression

Ultimately, there are infinite ways to organize human motivation. Like any model, these are useful tools to provide insights and help you structure your work—not rigorous laws you must follow as closely as possible.

So let’s talk about how to put this approach into practice.

How to Adapt to Different Gamer Types as a Game Designer?

There are so many options, what model should you choose?

Identify your goal

It really depends on your goals and on the game you’re making.

Are you game designers trying to communicate a shared design approach?

Or are you game developers making sure your game world appeals to a particular audience?

Ultimately, any of these systems can be useful, and your specific needs are going to determine which one works best.

But if you need a starting point, I recommend the Quantic Foundry system I covered earlier. From there, you can create your own player groups based on the audience you’re going for.

Only the World of Warcrafts of the industry are trying to appeal to everyone. That takes heavy funding, well-understood frameworks to build on, and a ton of effort spent on access, ease, and polish.

Most game designers can instead accept that their game only appeals to certain player types, and choose a framework that helps them understand that subgroup.

Strategy games have a dramatically different audience than cozy games or simulation games do. And that is okay!

“Casual gamers” vs. “Hardcore gamers”

We haven’t even mentioned the most common player taxonomy, but just about any gamer already knows about it: the casual–hardcore spectrum.

Casual gamers, or players who engage with your game sporadically and lightly, enjoy a game that lets them seamlessly enter, enjoy the experience, and take breaks when life interrupts them.

Hardcore gamers, on the other hand, deeply and thoroughly extract every ounce of value from the experience. They will shape their lives around your game, taking time out of their day to collect rewards or waking up at unusual hours to fight unique bosses.

Both can exist in the same game and many mobile gamers fall into both playing styles. In fact, it’s rare to see a mobile game succeed without having elements that appeal to both. So now in addition to multiple complicated models of player archetypes, we have a whole new axis, with its own tradeoffs and blurred lines!

Instead of trying to make this into an even more complicated chart, let’s focus on the real question a game designer needs to answer:

How do any of these models help make better games?

Designing for different player types

The gaming world is as broad, diverse, and deep as the real world. Many people don’t even realize that there are game genres they would enjoy if only they knew about them.

Even as a young gamer who’d never read a game design article, you probably had some idea that different games were designed for different audiences: the casual gamer, hardcore gamer, mobile gamer, console gamer, PC gamer, and so on.

Armchair generals like to make these into stereotypes, saying that all mobile games are for casual gamers or that fierce competition can only happen in first-person shooters on console—even though the truth has repeatedly been proven to be the opposite.

Player archetypes allow us to go deeper, understanding the many ways games can appeal to us.

image6
(Credit: Andrzej Marczewski)

As a game designer, you can do so much by looking through these different lenses and finding ways to engage with different playstyles.

To use another example from the creator of HEXAD, so many questions come up just from examining the different subtypes of the “disruptor” archetype:

  • How can you channel griefers into structured competitive play instead of messing with newbies?
  • Is there a way to allow destroyers to upset the status quo in a way that makes the world more interesting?
  • How can you ensure that influencers and improvers outweigh the impact of “black hat” disruptors?
  • What contributions could influencers make to other players’ experiences that each of the other player archetypes would find satisfying?
image2
(Credit: reddit.com/r/place – an example of the forces of organization vs disruption)

Popular games appeal broadly to many players. Socializers network with others while achievers take down level challenges and explorers seek out the furthest corners of the world.

You achieve this broad appeal by understanding your audience, and then slowly expanding the boundaries of your content to include more and more players.

If you try too hard to appeal to everyone before you’ve appealed to a very specific core set of players, your game will feel sterile, forgettable, and at worst insincere.

If instead, you appeal deeply, strongly, and memorably to a niche, your mechanics will be stronger, your vision clearer and your content more focused.

But what if you’ve built a game and have an audience, but aren’t sure who to reach next?

Tracking player engagement

This is where telemetry matters a lot. Telemetry, or collecting aggregate data around player behavior, is the best way to create evidence-based solutions and understand the game psychology at play in your game.

Rather than assuming that players of your game belong to a particular archetype, add new features and see what appeals to them.

image1
(Credit: Dark Souls Reddit)

The above image shows where players died and where they tried to help each other the most. This can identify problems in the level design: are players being challenged in the appropriate locations, or are they all dying to what’s supposed to be an easy fight?

Just be careful; this data is meant to inform your decisions, not replace them. Maybe almost no one is finding the Poison Scepter of Orcish Glee, but that’s fine if the explorer players that do are elated to have a rare item, and if they find its unusual playstyle appealing.

Still, this data is very helpful for measuring the impact of your decisions as you patch, update, or rebalance your game. While it’s more useful for a live service game than a single-player one, we still used this exact tracking data approach in Ori 2 to figure out which level designs killed players unnecessarily.

Easy ways to add appeal to your game

Here are some examples of what you can do to broaden the appeal of your game, from extra features on top of core gameplay to deep philosophies at the core of your design.

While I could pick one of the models I discussed and label each of these with a different player type, the goal isn’t to follow a model like a checklist. Instead, I want to encourage you to think like a designer and understand how these decisions fit your game and your goals.

  • Create multiple characters to describe different types of people playing your game
  • Use that language to expand features for those players:
    • “Timmy (novelty player) will love this card, even if Spike (competitive) won’t”
    • “Sarahs of the world will always drown people in the Sims pool just for the laugh, but Deborahs of the world will want to be warned of the consequences and avoid that at all costs”
  • Reflect and reward the player’s actions with achievements or in-game rewards
    • Players who feel the game ‘sees’ them are more emotionally connected
    • These moments can be even more rewarding than power, gear, or rank
  • When it doesn’t break the game’s balance, allow players to be weird
  • Add easter eggs to be discovered by the most diligent
  • Don’t be afraid to celebrate player success
    • Allow a player to be ‘overpowered’ as the reward of thoughtful strategy, successful exploration, or skill mastery
    • Create achievements and visuals that reward players for accomplishments
  • Allow both careful planning and well-executed rushes to win
  • Celebrate what players discover, as long as it doesn’t become the best way to play
    • Fix game-breaking bugs or bugs that force players to use them
    • Let the little bonuses for something silly or clever slide
  • Give players metrics to compete over that don’t undermine core gameplay:
    • Scoreboards
    • Timers
    • Progression scores
  • Support self-expression and mechanisms for players to show off:
    • Cosmetics
    • Customizable gear
    • Diverse solutions to level and encounter designs

A Final Thought on Gamer Types

Invested players love to self-identify as archetypes, and now you’ve seen how game designers like to think about the concepts too.

This makes them a useful bridge for gamers who want to move into game development, either as a hobby or a career.

If you might be one of those people, or just want to learn to think more critically about the games you play, try these two experiments:

  • Choose an archetype (in any system) that describes you well, and a game you couldn’t stand. Think about how you’d redesign that game to fit your own motivations better.
  • Now pick an archetype that you don’t identify with at all, and redesign your favorite game to attract players of that archetype.

Let me know what you came up with here in the comments or on the Funsmith Club Discord.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

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[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

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[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
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