Saturday, March 6, 2010

Experience-oriented vs. Competition-oriented Design

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.

Experience-oriented Design

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.

Competition-oriented 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.

The Tension

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.


Copperbird said...

Which type is a roleplaying game?

Kenny said...

Hmm, which do you think (if any) is strengthened or weakened by adding a persistent world to it? Probably you are aware of it but Keen had a similar post earlier this week and I was arguing in the comments that adding a persistent world to a PvP-oriented (player-skill-driven) game is a bad idea for numerous reasons. Your reasoning seems to underscore my thoughts but you might have a different take on that one - one I'd like to hear.

scrusi said...

I think you're onto something here with the general distinction between experience- and competition-oriented design, but I find some of your conclusions quite puzzling.

For one, how can you equate experience and time-sinks when they are clearly quite opposite to each other? Timesinks are usually the parts of a game that do not add to the experience at all. Completing your 235th "Fetch ten bear asses" quest is a timesink, not an experience. As is mining sacks full of copper, running an instance for the 20th time, or scanning planets in Mass Effect 2. Adding these to an experience-oriented game is just as bad as adding them to a competition-oriented one.

Moving on, most MMOs do discriminate between players based on skill, even before the level cap. Yes, time invested can be a substitute for skill in many cases, but that isn't necessarily untrue for competitive games either. Learning a lot of opening moves in chess has very little to do with skill yet a lot with success, for example.

Assuming equal investment of time, the more skilled player will be of higher level while below the level cap and have better gear at the level cap. That's your arcade highscores right there. (This is ignoring PvP as that clearly is a competitive element.)

Speaking of arcades, people could spend money there to increase their highscore through buying continues. If that is different from the themepark (and who are we kidding, sandbox as well) MMO ability to spend extra time for an improved "highscore", then only because spending money is even worse than spending time as a medium of competition.

Even ignoring all that, using skill as the measure of difference between competition-oriented games and experience-oriented ones is problematic. Let's have a look at Half-Life 2. Whether you play death-match or the single player story, the set of skills required is pretty much the same. It is the same game you're playing only that one version provides competition against other players while the other provides an experience. Skill, it seems to me, has little to do with that distinction. You need it for both to be successful, only that one shoves points into your face afterwards while the other gives you cutscenes.

Finally, I find MMORPGs are focusing woefully little on providing an experience. I'm unsure what to categorize them as, but experience-oriented they are not. Or if so, they fail horribly at it.

Nils said...

@ scrusi:
He is talking about the in-game-stat called 'experience'.

Kenny said...

@Nils: No he's not. :]

@Scrusi: I think the most important distinction is that in experience-based games all timesinks are just there for their own sake - I mean to be what they are called. After you advance through a timesink in an experience-based the grand total of your skill-gain is fuck-all. In a competition-based game every single thing you call "timesink" (like opening moves in chess) serve to better your chances against your opponents. Also I could argue that in order to possess the skill required to be a good chess player you have to possess the knowledge of the opening moves.

Moving on, please note that playing HL in a single player mode is not competition-based. By definition if you play a single player computer game (nowadays at least) you are expected to win. By design. Who would buy a game that is not possible to win except if you have twitch skills like fata1ity? HL, in it's single player mode, is a pure experience-based game, you can set the difficulty, you have a storyline to play through (maybe a few times) - it only becomes competition-based when you start playing it against an opponent.

However, thinking about what I just wrote I'm not sure if it's the player vs player facet that separates the two types of games. I mean look at PONG, yes you can lump it under the experience category but it is very much a competition-based game even if you're playing it alone. Maybe the better way to make a distinction would be that a game is competition-based if it features opponents using the same rulset as the player (meaning no handicap/rubberbanding for example). Not so tidy and neat but might work better, hum?

evizaer said...


A persistent world necessitates timesinks. Thats the only reason why the persistence would matter.


"For one, how can you equate experience and time-sinks when they are clearly quite opposite to each other? "

Experience-oriented games focus on letting as many players as possible have a common experience (getting through the game and seeing/hearing what there is to be seen/heard). The only thing that matters to advancing the experience in an experience-oriented game is time. A game or mechanic whose sole requirement is time should be called a timesink. Compare this to a competitive game where time is invested, but without skill development the time yields no result in the game, and you can see the clear difference.

"Assuming equal investment of time, the more skilled player will be of higher level while below the level cap and have better gear at the level cap. "

Notice the switch from sufficiency (being able to obtain a level) and efficiency (attaining levels faster) skill tests. Competitive games focus on and rely on the sufficiency skill tests implied by competition itself--I play against you, and if I am sufficiently skilled, I will beat you; we don't both win the game and I just win it faster to show that I have more skill.

In a themepark MMORPG, skill doesn't really matter throughout 90%+ of the gameplay, because anyone can succeed given enough time. There's no guarantee that anyone will be able to beat Gary Kasparov in chess given a significant amount of chess training.

"Even ignoring all that, using skill as the measure of difference between competition-oriented games and experience-oriented ones is problematic."

All games involve some skill unless they are entirely determined by chance. The distinction between experience- and competition-oriented games is that the competition-oriented games place skill discrimination as the focus, where experience-oriented games place experiencing the content as the focus.

In an experience-based game, you may gain skill through playing, but the game doesn't care about your skill--it usually won't provide ways of directly showing you your skill level, especially avoiding any direct competition between players where one wins and others lose.

Experience-oriented games are not meant to be lost by the player. Competition-oriented games need to be lost in order for the game to have meaning.


I think you understand the distinction I'm making best. There is certainly room to further specify the difference, though. I hope I've clarified it a bit in this comment.

RaydenUni said...

I've been classifying games with a content vs mechanics axis for a while. It might be interesting to use content/mechanics as one axis and competition/experience as another axis.

As an example of what I mean by content and mechanics, Go and Tetris are games that are extremely mechanics based. It is the rules of the game that are interesting, not the variety of situations. Adventure games or a JRPG are extremely content based. You play the game for the story, all of the spells, the different zones, the monsters.

Some games are heavily weighted towards one or the other, and some are both. Competitive multiplayer games are generally more mechanics than content based, but this isn't always true.

If we were to draw a 2d graph with one axis as content/mechanics and the other as experience/competition, we could then describe games like so:

Go, Tetris, Chess: mechanics/competition.
MTG or other CCG: content/competition
Final Fantasy: content/experience

It's the mechanic/experience on that seems a bit more difficult. Braid seems to be the closest thing, and it still has enough content to prevent it from being purely mechanics.

I'd be interested to see what you think about classifying games like this. I'm net sure that crossing these two classifications is as useful as it could be. They might be too similar (content:experience, mechanics/competition) to be much use.