Category Archives: Game Design

Player Roles: Observers and Participants

Standard disclaimer, take everything I say with a grain of salt, etc etc… views can change and every theory evolves.  I am by no means whatsoever an expert on game design.  Form your own opinions.

Fighting yourself

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post talking about what I viewed as a dichotomy between obsession and contextualization in ideal media consumption.  I ended up asking:

To summarize, my problem was an observation that some my best experiences with media happened when I obsessed over the content, whether that content be games, book, movies, or anything like that.  I was also observing that trends like escapism and long-term obsession were harmful to my overall health and overall media consumption.

This was really weird, and I didn’t like it.

Traditionally, when we talk about player motivation, we bring up classification systems like, for instance, the Bartle types of players.  These theories, for the most part, work well.  The problem isn’t that they’re wrong, but that they are riddled with problems when we rely on them for generalized design:

  • They’re limited in scope - Bartle types only describe player goals, not how they interact with those goals. They deal with player motivations on a somewhat surface level, but they don’t look at the root causes of those motivations, which causes us to run into bizarre edge cases that don’t fit neatly into categories.
  • They’re not as predictive or as useful as we would like – It’s difficult to design a game with Bartle types in mind. There’s not a lot of depth to implementation of Bartle types into games, and there’s not a lot of room for us to build theories on top of Bartle types.  We’d like a theory that allows us to expand in the future.
  • They’re trying to do different things than designers want - Bartle types (and similar classification systems) are designed to place players into categories – to explain in general terms what a player’s motivation is.  That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t really help us describe how players play games or what it looks like when players play games.  Essentially, these classification systems are just more information on demographics.  Bartle might be completely correct, but we’re looking for different information than he’s providing.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think Bartle is wrong – just that I don’t think his theory alone is sufficient when talking about player motivations.  I’m looking for a descriptive theory; one that describes what the process of playing a game looks like for the average player, and one that I can use to shape how my game treats the player and what it shows the player at any given moment.  If at all possible, I would want my theory to avoid interfering with Bartle types and to avoid replacing them, but rather attack a different part of player motivation so that both theories could survive in harmony.

Ideally, I’d like to use something similar to a narrative arc, but applied to players.  And because it’s been bothering me a lot over the past year, I want it to address some of the concerns I had in the previous article about the relationship of contextualization and obsession/escapism in games.

Let me steal a name for this:

There’s a data-gathering technique in anthropology called Participant observation – it’s not really all that similar to this, at all.  But there are things that feel the same at first glance, so it’s perhaps not so bad that the names and terms I’m using are similar.  Basically, Participant observation works off the theory that we’re best suited to gather data on a culture if we’re in that culture; but not so far in that culture that we lose our objectivity.  So the people using this method try to maintain a balance between their roles inside a group and their role outside of a group.

In a generalized sense, I would like think of players as a type of Participant observer – a researcher that immerses him/herself in your game to gather information.  It’s a crude, inaccurate and incomplete analogy that will break down steadily as you read through this article, but there are some useful parallels to draw from it.

To be more specific and more accurate, I propose that we’re incorrect  to talk about a player’s experience from a singular perspective, and that it would be more accurate to break the player into multiple sub-characters, who will switch control with each other as needed throughout the entire experience.  The idea is to think of a “player” as someone who consists of two entirely separate yet simultaneously acting individuals who advise each other and trade off control of the individual.

I refer to participants and observers as literally being separate people, working together to form a singular “player unit” – almost as if the player had multiple personalities that manifested themselves as they played a game or watched a movie.  The reality is, of course, probably more complicated, but this distinction allows us as designers to remove a large number of contradictions in our understanding of how players interact with games, because we no longer need to view player’s engagement as a singular static process.

Each “part” of the player fulfills one of two separate roles: the observer and the participant.

I’ll go into these roles in more detail below, but to quickly summarize, observers act as gatekeepers to gauge a game’s quality, the creators intent and execution, and the effect of the game on the player.  To do this the observer takes a realistic, objective approach to the media.

Participants take an approach that a game, its mechanics, and worldview, are real, or at least reflect reality in a completely perfect sense.  This is a more difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, but would be closely related to what we would more commonly refer to as a suspension of disbelief, or immersion, or a sense of empathy for what is happening in a game.

Worldview-Centric Design

I tend to write some type of essay or blog post about this topic around once every year. Like most of my views, my opinions on game design are constantly being revised and developed. This post may not accurately reflect all of my current or future beliefs about design.

You can read an updated version of this post at Gamasutra.


Normally I would start a discussion like this by going over some definitions. That’s a little bit tricky with this topic, because what I’m trying to do is explain some of the origins and reasons behind the definitions and heuristics that I use. There are only a small number of things I want to clarify before getting into the actual interesting bits of design philosophy. Continue reading

Pay-to-Win is not the problem

I’ve been reading up on it, and apparently mobile games are the future, so it’s time for a discussion on Free-to-Play.

I want to clarify at the beginning: I don’t mind the Free-to-Play model, and I think there are a lot of developers doing clever things with it. So if you’re hoping that this post is going to decry the scourge on the industry, it’s not.  Sorry.  I also want to clarify that this post isn’t going to be about how to build Free-to-Play games properly, and it’s not going to be a really detailed overview of every problem or issue surrounding Free-to-Play. Other people know a lot more about the nuanced details than I do, so they can handle all of that. Continue reading

Why don’t we include any RPG elements or puzzles?

I want to start this post off by apologizing for the lack of updates that you’ve seen on this blog over the past few days. When we initially started the Kickstarter, I had hopes that this blog would be updated daily, and for a while, it was.  Unfortunately, time constraints caught up to me very quickly, and I had to slow down the frequency of my babbling.

The good news is that my college has recently approved an Independent Study with Eyes Open.  For the next semester, all the way up to the Holidays, I’ll be able to devote an entire class to Eyes Open on top of all the development our team will be doing outside of school.  And one of the requirements of the course is that I keep you guys and this blog updated – with a bare minimum of 1,000 words a week. Continue reading

What does losing maximum sanity do for the player?

The mechanic of losing maximum sanity came relatively late in our prototype stage as I was thinking about ways to balance difficulty. I really like how it plays out, even this early in development while our game still has an unfortunate arcade-feel to it.

At the risk of speaking prematurely, I really like how the mechanic is shaping up, so I thought I’d talk about that. Continue reading

What is predictable collision detection and why does it matter?

One of the things I really want to emphasize during this Kickstarter is that Eyes Open is a very mechanically driven game. This is different than a lot of horror games for a number of reasons, not the least being that most horror games like Amnesia or Slender play out in the first person. These are games that focus on atmosphere and visuals to push their experience, even in the case of Slender where those visuals originally weren’t the most polished. A game like Slender can get away with never actually animating Slenderman and teleporting him around, because his appearance is so shocking that you’re going to be looking away most of the time. The environment is dirty and imprecise – you click on notes whenever you’re kind of close to pick them up, your flashlight never displays its battery state so you’re always guessing as to what position you’re actually in. It’s much less Super Meat Boy, and more Dear Esther. Continue reading

Should the player be able to walk through monsters?

This is a pretty straightforward question.  Our current build of the game, and the first build that will be publicly available to any backers, will have monsters that the player can dash through.  It drains your sanity like crazy, but monsters don’t physically impede your progress.

Should it stay this way?  I’ll go over my current list of pros and cons below. Continue reading

Why do we have a GUI?

The original Eyes Open was deliberately GUI free – we included a single number telling you how far you’d progressed in the game, but the thought was always that as soon as we switched out of an arcade-style prototype to real maps, we’d remove that as well. We were looking for an experience that was both immersive and simplistic. We didn’t want the player to need to pay attention to details outside of the game, and we didn’t want to the player to be crunching numbers and getting too gamey in the middle of our art. Continue reading