Player Motivations: for Novelty or for Sport?

There are many ways to classify players. I most commonly hear casual versus hardcore. This classification is not very useful, since it seems to describe the level of commitment to a game, not the type of commitment. I struggled to classify myself, since I enjoy both casual and hardcore games. I noticed, however, that I had a very different play style compared to many other players, in both casual and hardcore games. I realized that these differences in style could be explained by a difference in motivation. So I propose a new classification based on two kinds of player motivations: for novelty versus for sport. These two groups can be described like this:

Players for novelty (adventurers):

  • Believe games are about trying new things
  • Prioritize accessing new content
  • Care very little about metrics
  • Play recklessly
  • Embrace randomness and imbalance
  • Like things to change

Players for sport (competitors):

  • Believe games are about overcoming challenges
  • Prioritize winning
  • Focus on metrics
  • Play cautiously
  • Get outraged at randomness and imbalance
  • Like stability

This is a spectrum, and while many players will fall somewhere between the two, the direction a player leans will greatly impact the decisions that player makes during the game. I, for example, lean far on the novelty side, meaning I am more of an adventurer than a competitor. Even in physical sports, which obviously are designed more with competitors in mind, I would try to make the game more novel. Because of this, I wasn’t the most competitive. I remember one time in elementary school when I got bored during a game of dodge-ball and thought, “How long could I last without moving my feet?” The children on the other side of the spectrum thought I was being an idiot, since not moving my feet would obviously put me at a disadvantage. I didn’t care about the disadvantage; I just wanted to see what would happen.

Another example, this time with video games, is Super Smash Bros. I like to play timed battles with a random character, on a random stage (no stages removed from the random selection), with all items turned on and with the maximum number of players. Many Smash players probably cringed while reading that last sentence. This introduces tons of luck. You could end up winning a round, not because you have better tactics and reflexes than another player, but because the perfect item happened to drop right in front of you while your opponent is distracted by a random stage hazard, allowing you to deal a final blow a second before the clock hits zero. Many players try to avoid these situations by only playing stock mode on the simple Final Destination stage with all items turned off.  Such a player will feel satisfied that any victory was a result of his or her own skill, and nothing else. It is the pleasure of learning to overcome a difficult problem. Players like me, though, would look at this setup and think, “Why spend all your time playing only half a game?” Sure, the game is unfair and unpredictable with my preferred setup, but each match has a higher chance of seeing a combination of events I have not seen before, and for players like me, that means more fun.

You have two types of players who will judge your game in very different ways. One type wants more options. They are forgiving of bugs and glitches, and may actually appreciate them if if they do not completely block game progress. The other type wants games to be fair and predictable. They are more willing to replay the same or similar content without getting bored, but also more likely to complain about glitches, imbalance, and random number generators. They will prefer existing game mechanics to be deep rather than be introduced to new game mechanics.

Designing for Player Motivation

It is important to consider both of these kinds of players in game design. Many games support play styles preferred by both groups. In farming simulators, for example, players for novelty can focus their attention befriending villagers, collecting rare items, etc., while players for sport can focus on becoming millionaires. These differences can often make interesting gaming communities. An adventurer playing for novelty might discover a glitch in a game that is then used by a competitor playing for sport to set a new speed-running record.

Some game mechanics, however, tend to appeal to one side of the spectrum more than the other. Sandbox and open world games tend to attract adventures playing for novelty since they encourage discovery and do not have as clear of goals. Competitive and linear games attract players for sport because they are more controlled, more fair, and more clear about objectives. By considering these two kinds of audiences, we can tailor the details of a game’s design to the things our players most hope to find.

Of course every player is unique, so no classification is perfect. Most adventurers need at least some goals to get started. Most competitors will appreciate the occasional game changer. Nearly every game design will need to account for both motivations, regardless of the expected audience. Many game design decisions are highly controversial because they appeal more to one side of the spectrum than the other, earning game developers both praise and criticism. By knowing our players’ motivations and by designing for the different resulting play styles, we can design games that both can enjoy.

Where are you on the player motivation spectrum, and how has that affected how you play games? Do have any other ways you like classify play styles? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

4 thoughts to “Player Motivations: for Novelty or for Sport?”

  1. I like the spectrum you have going here. However, I think the titles you give playing could use a bit of tweaking. There are some players who play for novelty but play cautiously, and there are some competitive players who play recklessly because they prefer the advantage that comes with unpredictability. Perhaps players could be divided by goal-oriented vs. experimenters?

    1. I’m not sure playing unpredictably is the same as playing recklessly. If I play a farming sim and pass out every day because it costs less to pay the doctor than to lose productive time, then my choices are more calculated than reckless. Likewise, if I am playing a competitive game and constantly change tactics with the intent to fool opponents, it is because I am being cautious of the possibility of my opponent figuring out my tactics, as opposed to trying something that would jeopardize the mission just to “see what would happen.”

  2. Ty, have you spent much time looking at Magic: The Gathering? I don’t play it much, but I really enjoy reading about its design, and i think there are some really interesting that have been written and said in regards to MTG that you could apply here. In particular, I wonder if you are familiar with the character spectrums of Timmy, Johnny, and Spike- it’s a pretty interesting theory.

    1. I have only played MTG once when I friend was teaching me. After I read your comment I looked up a Timmy, Johnny, Spike article. Spike would definitely fall into the “for sport” category. Under my classification, Timmy and Jimmy would have been in the same “for novelty” group, since they both focus on the way they win rather than on winning for winning’s sake. I can imagine the differences between Timmy and Johnny being either masked or noticeable depending on the type of game.

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