When analyzing game design, I note that some games aim to give as many players as possible a certain set of experiences and go no further than that, while other games aim to provide ways for players to compare themselves against other players. These two styles of design can be intermingled in a single game, but often the game will clearly point towards one of the two styles.
We can draw a distinction between two different kinds of design: the experience-oriented and the competition-oriented.
Most games are experience-oriented. They present you with a set of challenges that they expect you to overcome and areas that you’re supposed to explore. After you’ve explored and completed the challenges, you have experienced the game. You understand what’s going on—the mechanics are usually simple and act as a goad to keep a baseline of interest—you don’t have much need to play it again. Usually these games have a linear (or multi-linear) storyline that you would play through once; maybe you’d play through a second time if you really liked the game.
These games need to focus on immersing the player in an interesting environment. These games should be relatively easy. Or they can provide facilities for changing the difficulty setting to suit any skill-level.
Experience-oriented games may have sections of gameplay where skill matters, but usually these sections will be tests of efficiency where being better at the game grants you a minor advantage—experience-oriented games shouldn’t have skill tests that provide high barriers to content, because experiencing the game’s content is the focus of an experience-oriented game.
Experience-oriented games include the vast majority of JRPGs and single-player RPGs, and single-player games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Metal Gear Solid. Themepark MMORPGs and some sandboxes fall primarily into this category of design.
A competition-oriented game discriminates among players based on their skill. Experience-oriented games generally do not—they ask for no more than a time investment and a base level of ability.
Gaming itself started with competitive games where friends would play against one another at games of strategy like chess and go, as well as various card games and sports. Videogaming started with competitive games—but in these games players generally competed against the environment for high scores, only indirectly competing against one another through comparing scores. Arcade games were naturally competitive games based on sufficiency skill tests, because arcade games that let players play for a long time on each credit make less money and will be removed in favor of more profitable machines. From arcade gaming grew consoles and PC games as we know them today. As gaming became more popular, there was more financial incentive for games to be open to more people. Designers lowered skill barriers and games focused on the player’s experience instead of challenge.
Competition-oriented games are built to be played repeatedly. Players play the game through multiple unique times to learn how the game mechanics work and evolve progressively more effective strategies through trial and error. In order for a game to be competitive, its core gameplay must measure player skill in some way. The easiest way to do that is to pit two players against one another with even, usually symmetrical, starting conditions and similar mechanics.
Games like chess, go, stratego, othello, poker, backgammon, Counterstrike, Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare 2, the Halo games, bullet-hell games, and competitive RTS games like Starcraft, Company of Heroes, and Command and Conquer 3 are among competition-oriented games.
MMORPGs, because they rely on massive populations, naturally orient towards experience design. When people start playing MMORPGs, though, they aren’t sensitive to the fact that they are playing an experience-oriented game. The tickling they receive for spending time in the game seems like the tickling they’d receive for being of high skill and succeeding at a skill-oriented game. The distinction between a timesink-based game and a skill growth-based game is not readily visible to the everyday player, so they’ll continue playing the game under the impression that they are a good player because they’re continually rewarded as if they were one. The player will eventually thirst for a real skill test—they’ll want to show off their skill at this game they’ve invested so much time into. In this way a tension develops between experience-oriented and competition-oriented gameplay and design.
Competition-oriented design must discriminate among players—players are measured against one another and players can view that measurement. Good competition-oriented games make this measurement easy to read, though it may only be on a discrete “I won” vs. “I lost” scale. A game can’t discriminate and fail to discriminate at the same time. For this reason, a mechanic cannot be both designed in an experience-oriented fashion and a competition-oriented fashion.
Mechanics of the experience-oriented and competition-oriented varieties can be mixed within the same game, though, and often are. Themepark MMORPGs (and some sandboxes, as well) don’t discriminate until the very top of the time investment reward chain has been reached. This is how such games resolve the experience and competition tension inherent in an experience-oriented game design.
A themepark MMORPG based on skill doesn’t make sense. A game based on content exploration and letting all players have access to as much content as possible cannot be a game based on skill discrimination that uses content as a board and pieces are used in chess. This does not preclude themepark MMORPGs from having competitive elements. On the other side of the same coin, we can say that competition-oriented games will only be weakened by adding experience-oriented design ideas—if a game is to be based on competition, clouding that competition with timesinks can only weaken the core of the game.