Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another

By Lewis Pulsipher [11.26.09]

 [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.

Many good players depend on intuition rather than study and logic to make good moves, yet the moves can be either Classical or Romantic. A Romantic player can also be a very cerebral or intellectual player who happens to prefer the Romantic style. Some people would refer to Classical players with derision as "mathematical" players. It is true that Classical players are concerned with odds and expected losses (though this alone doesn't identify or qualify a person as a Classical player). Nonetheless, Classical players do quite well in non-mathematical games.

Games sometimes tend to favor one playing style over the other. Chess is clearly a Classical game. Poker tends to favor Romantic play, because so much depends on bluffing.

 It's hard to say whether Classical play, in a typical one-player video game, would involve careful consideration of moves and rare resort to reloading a saved game, or would involve frequent saves and attempts at all kinds of different tactics to find out which one is best. I tend to be a Classical player, and I prefer the former, but I'm not going to make the mistake of assuming I'm typical! Certainly, video strategy games, especially turn-based, are going to tend toward the Classical, while real-time games tend toward the Romantic.

But this is only one way of looking at game playing styles. Another is to look at a player's reaction to fluidity and randomness. I'll call the three points of view the "Planner", the "Improviser", and the "Adapter" (who tends to represent the middle ground).

The Planner likes to plan ahead -- well ahead. He is likely, though not certainly, going to prefer a game where much if not all of the information is always available, e.g. chess. He's likely to prefer turn-based rather than real-time games. When it's time for him to make a play, to execute a strategy, he doesn't want to find that the game has changed drastically owing to a recent move by someone else, or because of the nature of the game itself. The Planner will often be a Classical player as well, though this is not necessary.

The "Improviser" doesn't like to plan ahead. He wants to adapt to circumstances at the time he makes his play, and he doesn't mind at all if circumstances change drastically between one play and the next, or in a short time (in a real-time game). Games with limited information availability aren't going to bother him, while games with perfect information aren't likely to be attractive.

The "Adapter" likes to impose order on chaos, he wants to be able to see ahead a couple moves (or a short while in real-time) and then adapt to them, that is, arrange to "take control" of what's going on. As you can see, this falls somewhere between the other two.

Once again, some games favor one of the three styles or another. Team video games, if the team actually tries to plan and work together, can be for Adapters. Two board games that fit the "Adapter" mindset are Vinci and RoboRally.

Vinci is a game with perfect information, and with little overt chance, yet you can't plan far ahead because the rise and fall of empires and selection of new empire capabilities results in great changes on the Europe-like board in a few turns.

RoboRally requires players to program movements of their Robot in a violent race through several checkpoints in a bizarrely-dangerous factory. Each player is dealt nine movement cards, and must lay five face down to be executed one at a time. You can plan a route, but you won't always get the cards you need. Chaos sometimes results from player mistakes, yours and mistakes of others.

 Civilization (board or video) tends to be a game for the Planner. Card games tend to be for the Improvisers, though some can favor the Adapter. Poker is a game for Improvisers, except that there can be long-term bluffing plans that are characteristic of a Planner. First person shooters tend to be for the Improvisers.

People might tend to assume that these playing styles are closely related to the role of chance in the game. But it's not a matter of "how many dice rolls". Some chance can be managed. Dungeons & Dragons, on the face of it, is full of dice rolls, but a player can do his best to minimize the number of times he must rely on dice to save his bacon, or he can "go with the flow" and rely on the dice.

If there are few dice rolls or equivalent, and some are very important while many are not, then chance is very hard to manage. Randomness is largely unmanageable chance. The Planner doesn't like randomness, while the Improvisor won't mind at all. Adapters like some fluidity as a result of what other players do, but don't much like randomness. Classical players tend to hate randomness, while Romantics may welcome it.

Diplomacy, though without any overt chance factor, is a good game for both Classical and Romantic players. The negotiations and alliance structures give both types plenty to work with. The Classical player tends to be better at tactics and strategy; he prefers long alliances to continuous free-for-all, for there are too many risks and incalculable factors inherent in a fluid situation. The Romantic tends to prefer the fluid state, and his big weapon is the backstab. Diplomacy could attract Planners, Adapters, or Improvisers, depending on how it's played.

In general, games that provide difficulty by requiring quick reactions tend to favor the Improvisor style and make Planning difficult. You don't have time to plan a lot in Halo or Combat Arms; you can in the "stealth" shooters such as the Rainbow Six games. Real-time games tend to be better for Improvisors, turn-based games for Planners. Games with most information hidden from the players make Reacting much easier than Planning, hence the AAA video games that usually use "fog of war" (hidden information, even the map is hidden to begin with) tend to be games for Improvisors more than Planners.

In other words, "traditional" one-player video games tend to favor the Improvisor rather than the Planner. But this will gradually change over time: as the market for video games continues to expand, many new players will dislike being time-challenged, they'll want to relax while they play their games, they'll want to play a little bit (one turn) at a time. The trend is already obvious in casual games.

(Parts of this was originally published in Dragon magazine, September 1982, and in revised form in The Games Journal, February 2005.)

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