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  • Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another

    [11.26.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  [In a detailed design article, academic Lewis Pulsipher discusses different game play styles, and how today's games have adapted to suit them.]

    A big obstacle for beginning game designers is the common assumption that everyone likes the same kinds of games, and plays the same way that they do. If they love shooters, they think everyone loves shooters. If they like strategic games, they assume everyone likes them. If they love puzzles, they suppose everyone does. They may say they understand the diversity, but emotionally they don't.

    Sometimes the nature of the traditional video game, a kind of interactive puzzle or interactive movie for one person, obscures all the different things games can be. Today I'm going to rely on 50 years of playing games of all kinds to describe some quite different points of view

    The first, of course, is that some people really prefer interactive puzzle/movies, "games" that have no human/psychological component, while other people strongly prefer games involving two or more people. In fact, "multiplayer" in the non-electronic game hobby doesn't mean "more than one player", it means "more than two, each a separate side". A two-player game provides some human/psychological interaction, but it's the more-than-two-sided games where the human element, not the puzzle-like challenges set by the video game designer, becomes paramount.

    A second difference has been called the "Classical" vs. the "Romantic", following philosophers who have discussed this difference in a variety of contexts (e.g., Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian). A more modern term for the Classical player is "min-max", someone who tries to maximize his minimum gain (or minimize maximum loss) in every situation -- the "perfect player" of mathematical game theory, if I recall correctly.

    The Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move his opponent(s) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to little details which probably won't matter but which in certain cases could be important.

    The Classical player does not avoid taking chances, but he carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the Classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than on discovering brilliant coups.

    The Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple his enemy psychologically, if not physically, on the playing arena. He wishes to convince his opponent(s) of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his Romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically.

    The Romantic is willing to take a dangerous risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximize his minimum gain. A flamboyant, but only probable, win is his goal. He may make mistakes, but he hopes to seize victory rather than wait for the enemy to make mistakes. The Romantic is more likely to try to "get into the head" of his opponent, to divine which strategy the opponent will use and play his own strategy that best counteracts it.

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