Holiday Magic- Commander Tournament Design



This article is about building a competitive Magic: The Gathering commander tournament that provides both an arena for structured contest and a space for promoting the values of the commander variant of magic- multiplayer, political and social play with a heavy emphasis on individuality, creativity and theme. To sum up the proposal:

  • A tournament format based on four player groups, where winners and losers are paired off in standard swiss style using match results
  • An additional layer of sportsmanship rankings ensuring players remain cordial and play to the spirit of the format
  • A final layer of personalised points awarded by opponents for particular accomplishments within each round- clever political play, creative deckbuilding, absurdly complex combo execution etc.
  • A prizing system using prizes with low monetary value but high specific value to either commander players in general or the specific prizewinner, to avoid ‘value’ players.


It’s been a while, things have been busy and the last major article took a lot out of me to write, but I’m back and this year I plan to be writing on the regular since I’ve moved houses and will now have a good friend and tireless encourager leaning over my shoulder and telling me to stop browsing reddit and start making the world of games theory a better place.

On my way home for Christmas I listened to a recent episode of Monday Night Magic. In it the hosts discuss the experience of an experimental commander tournament.

To briefly cover this for non MTG players, commander (sometimes known as EDH) is a social format of MTG, designed to facilitate multiplayer games rather than 1v1 matches and to encourage creativity and individuality compared with competitive magic where players tend to build their decks based on strict archetypes. It does this by giving players access to more or less the entire list of magic cards ever printed, but requires a hundred cards in a deck (rather than sixty as normal) and limits players to only one instance of each card (rather than four as normal). Consequently, each game is a lot more variable and less predictable, creating interesting and enjoyably chaotic situations, particularly when multiple people get involved.

Inevitably, however, people have tried to repurpose the format for competitions, albeit usually with the goal of a fun, social experience rather than an eye-bleeding test of skill and derring-do. The tournament discussed was one such attempt and sadly it was somewhat ham-handed. I won’t go into detail here, you can listen to the podcast for more info, but suffice to say I thought it would be an interesting experiment to put my money with my mouth is and come up with a proposal for a commander tournament myself, doing so methodically to show some of the aspects of social design that I work with and I think are an area that most designers overlook.

The Basic Problems:

To start with we have to overcome a common social perception- serious competition is not ‘fun’. The two exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. Consequently, if one wishes to make a ‘serious’ tournament, one must do so at the expense of making said tournament optimally entertaining for the average magic player. To some extent this is true- part of managing any ‘serious’ competition involves making sure your rules are established in advance, communicated and kept to rigorously, to avoid the event falling into disrepute. Inevitably some tedious bureaucracy develops from this, but it can be minimized and a charismatic TO (tournament organiser) always helps.

However, a large part of this perception stems from a simple trend in competitive play. In competition, every attempt is generally made to avoid spontaneity, random events and extraneous variables. Interestingly, these are often the things deliberately injected into ‘fun’ events to make them more ‘fun’. From my observations, I suggest that the way they accomplish this is to make the event outcomes less easy to predict, preventing players establishing a pre-conceived model of what’s going to happen (I’ve lost my first three games, I have no chance). The problem is, this kind of addition often makes who goes home in what position a bit too much luck based for the average competitive player, so this is one of our first objectives. How can we balance on the one hand a legitimate contest with on the other hand the kind of spontaneity that keeps players involved and on the ball? 

The second major issue is that for a game like Magic, competitions are largely motivated by prizes. Having a prized event means players will come wanting to win and feel disappointed if they don’t succeed. As was discussed on the podcast, an event whose parameters are not clearly outlined before anyone puts their money down is likely to get a lot of ill will when it comes to prizes, as might an event whose prizing structure is seen to be potentially biased away from skill or too random. In particular, when an event has prizes that have an easily evaluated financial value then the tournament will attract players whose entire tournament experience is predicated on an attempt at financial gain. So how do we create an incentive model that rewards the best players on the day, but does not encourage behaviour out of place at a primarily social event?

Finally, an issue near to my heart. Part of the purpose of normal tournaments is to measure your skill against an unknown field. Your opponent is simply your opponent, rather than Tom or Dick or Harry. Skilled competitive players learn to be able to adopt this mindset even when playing against familiar faces, but this is cross purposes of a commander tournament where social and political interaction is a core of the game. Commander games are exceptionally good at developing a story of alliances and betrayals, vendettas and grudges and so on. Where in conventional competitions a player is encouraged to simply ‘play the game’, optimizing their play based on the probability of what could happen based on the information they have about the cards, rather than their knowledge of the opponent, here we wish to encourage players to interact with their opponents and get to know them, both for social reasons and to raise the level of play in the areas that make commander so compelling. So how do we encourage interpersonal interaction and political play while ensuring players make friends rather than enemies?



Building the tournament structure

Let’s begin with a basic framework. I think the basic shell of the tournament model used by the tournament that sparked all this is quite solid. Players are divided into ‘pods’ of four and play a multiplayer free-for-all in that pod. The first player to be taken out gets a point, the second gets two and so on with the last player standing receiving four points. From there it’s easy to have further rounds structured swiss style, with winners grouping off, losers grouping off and so on. It’s important that these pairings be determined purely by match results so let’s call these basic points MP or matchpoints. Since we may score players in other ways, say for sportsmanship, we don’t want a player with a weak deck but who is really nice being paired off against the terrifying combo-master.

In the tournament discussed, players were additionally given a sheet at the end of each round where they had to mark their favourite opponent and least favourite opponent in the group. These marks would grant either positive or negative points, in an amount potentially greater than the match points.

Let’s pause for a moment here because this is an example of really stupid event design.  By forcing a player to rank their opponents systematically, one forces them to not only pick out someone as better than the others (which isn’t so bad) but to pick out someone who is worse (which is). In most cases, a player’s opponents will all be quite cordial and fun to play with and they’d stand up happy with a fun game, regardless of how the cards turned. If at the end they have to think about which player to give a black mark, they’ll spend time pondering over all the little issues trying to be fair, which is going to make them see otherwise quite normal, decent opponents in a very critical light. Quite the opposite of what is wanted at such an event.

Instead, let’s use a similar system: at the end of each round players get the sheet and instead it has some checkboxes for each opponent:

  • Was this player enjoyable to play with?
  • Was this player’s deck creative and/or thematic?
  • In your opinion did this player keep to the spirit of commander?

For each of these checkboxes a player has three options- they can place a tick, which will give that player a bonus point (I’ll call these SPs to contrast with MPs), they can leave it blank which will be neutral or they can place a cross, which will subtract one point. In the case of both tick and cross, a player can only award one per round per category. These represent the opportunity to reward or punish exceptional behaviour, rather than a necessary choice. It should be emphasised to players before scoring that a blank sheet is the standard case.

So here we have a core points framework-

MPs are based on match results, are public and determine seeding.

SPs are based on creativity and conduct and are kept private.

By itself, this goes a little way towards incentivising good behaviour and creativity, but doesn’t really do much for the other issues we need to resolve. So let’s add some spice.

One of the main tensions that would occur if we purely use this system in the context of a normal tournament with normal prize structures is that people would feel like SPs are just another metric to attack in order to optimize their score. Consequently they would be shy of the political play that makes commander so fun, worried that if they backstab someone that person will mark them down and they’ll lose out on points. We need to counteract that, which luckily isn’t that difficult. The first step is formally acknowledging that such behaviour is acceptable, normal and not to be penalized. The simplest way to do this is by giving that behaviour a recognized place and incentivising it slightly. Let’s say something like this:

In addition to the basic SP checkboxes, a player has the option of awarding an opponent ‘medals’. Medals are worth a point and are from a list of pre-determined titles like

The Nicol Bolas award for most magnificent bastard

The Richard Nixon award for political misplay

And so on. I’m not going to go too deep on this concept here, but suffice to say you can have a list of such awards going anywhere from “The one with nothingness award for most absurd combo execution” to the “Hello Kitty award for best deck presentation” depending on your particular goals for the tournament.

This creates a framework which shows that certain behaviours normally to be frowned on are acceptable within the tournament framework. It’s not entirely a novel concept, I’ve seen this executed both in games (particularly Steve Jackson games like Illuminati and Munchkin) and in tournament frameworks (primarily Warhammer Fantasy Battle tournaments). In both cases, formal acknowledgement of such behaviour forewarns players to be aware of it, lessening the sense of betrayal when they are, for example, betrayed. This also opens up an alternate prizing front where players can be rewarded for receiving the most awards of a certain medal, or a certain category of medals. If aware of this possibility, players may seek alternate ‘win-conditions’ while participating- aiming to be the best sportsman, most conniving manipulator or to have the coolest deck theme.

(To successfully implement the medals system it might be necessary to have some kind of structural restrictions such as a maximum of four medals per round, you get a point for every two medals you give out. This incentivises players to use the system and prevents the tension wherein optimisers don’t want to give their opponents bonus points, so don’t hand out any medals. With this caveat that strategy will lose them points in the long term. There’s no perfect way of solving it- a player might still try and equally distribute the points, perhaps giving more to the person with lowest MP to reduce competition for the final standings, but at least this system gets the optimizer considering whom to give which medal to)

Now we have a scoring structure with three aspects- match scores, conduct and creative play, with some overlap in the latter two scoring systems. I think this model does a fairly good job of partly answering all three of the problems noted earlier in the article

  • By widening the axes on which prizes are awarded and accomplishments are tracked, we increase player engagement by giving them additional goals to aim for when the primary ones are out of contention
  • By adding a formal behavioural check we cause players to be more aware of their conduct and consequently more capable of entering into the desired attitude for the event
  • By formalizing and incentivizing behaviour suited to the commander game but out of place elsewhere, we support players who wish to act in contextually appropriate ways and help avoid them being penalized by players who would otherwise be upset at those actions.

Now, a final question that must be addressed is prizing. Normally tournament prizing in magic is either cash or ‘product’- booster packs of random cards that have a fairly stable market value/demand and consequently are just as good as cash with a little more effort. This is problematic for this kind of tournament, since such prizing will attract players for the wrong reasons- this is definitely a tournament to be played for the tournament, not the prizes. However, a good TO wants to offer their players something exciting to look forward to for many reasons- to build hype and attendance, to keep motivation up on the day and to make the event feel more worthwhile afterwards. Consequently, prizes must be hard to convert into cash, but have high value for the kind of player interested in commander. Off the top of my head, here are some examples of how I might prize such a tournament

1)      A card alter commission of the player’s commander by a respected card alterer

2)      A commander specific deckbox, perhaps a custom cut and engraved wooden or metal one

3)      A big binder full of useful commander deck building cards with moderate-low market value.

4)      An original piece of art from one of the commander card sets

5)      A chance to play with some local community figures- podcasters, pro players, judges or similar.

6)      A prebuilt, themed commander deck full of tricky to find or quirky cards- something cool like a dinosaurs deck or a zombies deck

7)      A pick from a set of useful-for-commander medium-to-high value singles for minor prizes. It’s important that these not be the object of major competition, so a player should be eligible for no more than one, and none should be of monetary value much greater than the tournament entrance fee.

By choosing from these, or similar, you ensure players have something unique and exciting to compete for, but that those prizes are not too attractive to folks in it for the money. Alternatively, once things get rolling, you can also simply hand out certificates and trophies, since prestige is a heady gift in its own right.


So there you have it. My attempt to nut out the framework for a potentially successful commander tournament. If you’re a MtG TO or just an avid player who has comments, let me know and I’d love to chat about actually implementing such a tournament or the no doubt many problems it has.

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


LoLCG public preview


It’s been six months since the LoLCG project kicked off, a pretty intense six months at that. We’ve gone through several major incarnations since then and it’s time to show the working a bit. I’m releasing the first playable preview of the game today as a celebration of six months for us, the World Championships and the end of Season 3 for all. Looking for something to do while LCS is off the air and you await the upcoming preseason changes with anticipation? Look no further- you can try the LoLCG today!

Right here, right now! 

I admit I’m a little scared to put this thing out. It’s been a lot of work and what you see here is only a tiny part of it. It’s also fresh off the presses- we haven’t tested this little preview set at all, so in a sense it’s a bit of a test in itself. Will it be understandable? Will it be cool? Most of all, will it be fun? Those are questions only you can answer, so be our guest and try it out.

I’d like to thank both the LoLCG testing group and Riot themselves for their incredible assistance in keeping this thing trucking along- almost any other company I know would probably have C&D’ed this project, but as far as I can tell Riot actively altered their policies to allow it- and other fan projects like it- to happen. They are, in the most genuine of senses, champions.

As always, I welcome your feedback in whatever form it comes- the best way is through the project email at There’s a lot of work still to do, there probably won’t be a real release until sometime next year, but I hope this whets the collective appetite.


Extended Player Psychographics

“The soul of a game is its players.”

This is kind of a mantra for me, something I repeat a lot when I get caught up in the technicalities and artisinal aspects of game design. Understanding players and in so doing figuring out how one can provide what they need through your design is an incredibly important part of growing as a designer. Doing that is what this article is all about! It’s a pretty complex topic and it can’t be done quickly. Nevertheless, I’ve summarized as best I can in a TLDR that, in itself, is probably TLDR. I should note that I am a pretty ecumenical designer and so this article is written in broad terms so it can be applied to videogames, tabletop games, board games, social spaces etc. This means it’s sometimes a little vague in terms of direct examples, but I hope that the shell argument is clear enough that you’ll be able to apply the profiles provided to your particular area of interest


This is an article extending and developing Mark Rosewater’s Timmy-Johnny-Spike analogy of player psychographics. In it I re-evaluate and add to Mark’s archetypes under a more general context, and add two more families of psychographic archetypes based on the work of Richard Bartle and Roger Caillois. The result are the following families of archetypes:

The Rosewaters, who are characterized by what they find meaningful in their own actions during play. The Rosewaters are Mark’s original three psychographic profiles.

  • Timmy: who finds the theater and narrative established during play meaningful.
  • Johnny: who finds the opportunity to express his individuality and creativity through play meaningful
  • Spike: who finds the opportunity to overcome legitimate challenges in play meaningful

The Cavottas, who are characterized by what they find meaningful in what can be taken from the game-artifact. The Cavottas are an extension to the original MTG psychographic profiles. Vorthos was originally suggested by Matt Cavotta, Melvin by Mark Rosewater, Richie by myself.

  • Vorthos: who finds the diegetic environment set up by the game meaningful
  • Melvin: who finds the craftsmanship invested in the game meaningful
  • Richie: who finds the context in which the game is situated meaningful

The Bartles, who are characterized by what they seek to accomplish through their play, external to the objectives of the game itself. Each Bartle is based on one of the four suits in Bartle’s suits analogy.

  • Ace: seeks to build concrete markers of achievement and progress for both in order to track and order her progress and for the status and recognition those achievements may convey. Ace is based on Bartle’s ‘diamond’ player-type
  • Jack: seeks to discover, learn and understand more in order to further his knowledge both of the game itself and of the world more broadly. Jack is based on Bartle’s ‘spade’ player-type
  • Daria: seeks to observe other people and use those observations to build relationships with them, using the game as a vessel to encourage this. Daria is based on Bartle’s ‘heart’ player-type
  • Ryan: seeks to advance his social standing and use games as a vessel for determining his position in the heirarchy of his peers. Ryan is based on Bartle’s ‘club’ player-type

The Caillous, who are characterized by the state they most desire to achieve through playing a game. The Caillous are based on Caillois’ analysis of game types and why the experience provided by each is meaningful.

  • Calomel: wishes to achieve a state of decreased import, where his decisions are of no real consequence. Calomel is based on Caillois’ Alea(chance) game-type.
  • Petra: wishes to achieve a state of order, where the environment conforms to known laws. Petra is based on Caillois’ Agon(contest) game-type.
  • Mica: wishes to achieve a state of true loss of self, where he is entirely absorbed by the experience of sensation or altered perception. Mica is based on Caillois’ Ilinx(vertigo) game-type
  • Opal: wishes to achieve a transportment of the self, where she inhabits the identity of another. Opal is based on Caillois’ Mimicry game-type

These archetypes are intended to provide a more holistic set of psychographic tendencies in game-players, expanding on the card game/system design focused Timmy, Johnny and Spike. While TJS align closely with the natural interests of game designers, accounting and designing for these other profiles may give designers a larger spectrum of perspectives from which to evaluate their work. In the article proper, I more thoroughly explore the motivations and typical behaviours of each archetype, sticking to the spirit of Mark’s original analogy in presenting each as a character.

It’s worth noting, as Mark did, that in reality these analogy-characters are more subtle tendencies in players, who are likely to identify with many, if not all of them depending on the specific game or context they are in. With fourteen profiles rather than three, it would be impossible to explore every combination to demonstrate this as Mark did. Once I’ve recuperated from this wall of text, I might go into considerations more. In the meantime, dear reader, it’s important not to get trapped into the idea that you are ‘a Timmy’ or ‘a Ryan’- these profiles are hyperbolic representations of desires and tendencies that are all present in everyone and come out to play, as it were, depending on perspective and context. For designers, understanding what properties engage which desires and behaviours is important. For players, it can simply be interesting to understand the many and diverse motivations that bring people to the table and as such have a greater appreciation for how other players may see the same games differently.



Let’s begin with the classics. If you’re already familiar with these guys, don’t skip ahead! I’m going to look at them in a slightly different light here. Mark’s original analysis was to type these players by their motivations- desire to have fun (Timmy), desire for recognition (Johnny) and desire to prove oneself (Spike). Unfortunately, these profiles are quite vague and even in the in-depth followup Mark wrote, there are lots of subcategories and profiles within each archetype that fog things up. Timmy in particular ‘plays to have fun’, which even when looked at in-depth is a little trite- Everyone plays to have fun, we just all get our fun in different ways. This particular case led me to try and clarify what makes each of Mark’s players truly unique and in doing so spawned this epic voyage through the psychology of play. I’ve contextualised these profiles in terms of how they relate to winning, but I’m not sure that’s the most accurate way of expressing it, especially given the various ways in which a player can be considered to ‘win’ a game.



Timmy plays games because they provide spectacle and theater. He appreciates mechanics that create dramatic tension, moments of wonder and cinematic hyperbole. You’ll find Timmy playing games that allow him to make grand gestures and express dramatic points. When the end is certain, or even sometimes just likely, he is inclined to make plays that have no effect on the game but he feels are symbolically important. Timmy loves to tell stories about the time he carried his team, landed a one in a million headshot or top-decked the right card at the perfect moment. For Timmy, games allow him to inhabit larger than life stories and be a part of the action. Winning the game is only meaningful to Timmy if the victory fulfills his expectations based on the ‘plot’ the game has developed.


Timmy’s traits:

Timmy is typically outgoing and enthusiastic- he gets caught up in the action and can’t help but share what he’s feeling. Since the subtle narratives that games tell when a player has a deep understanding of them are often very attractive to Timmy and these take a while to come to appreciate a game fully, he will often have difficulty approaching new games, but have a deep passion for those he has invested a lot of time into. He gets frustrated when games are predictable or become about calculating minutiae rather than advancing the plot. At his best, Timmy makes playing with him deeply enjoyable by sharing his vision of the narrative with charisma and flair, helping awaken the Timmy in everyone else. At his worst Timmy begrudges things which don’t fit his vision for the game and becomes sullen if a game or opponent denies him his symbolic statements and victories.


Designing for Timmy:

To design for Timmy a designer needs to have an understanding of narrative theory and an appreciation for the tropes of both their game’s genre and their aesthetic’s genre (science fiction, horror etc). Games which reliably create tension and cinematic moments will be immediately attractive to Timmy, but only games which have a deeper, more interactive narrative will hold his attention for long, so a game ideally suited to Timmy must be both superficially spectacular and dramatic to get his attention but also create deeper, richer narratives through its mechanics to keep him digging deeper and grow his love for the infinite stories the game can tell.



Johnny plays games because they allow him to express his creativity. He appreciates mechanics that allow for many permutations and subtleties, edge cases and unique interactions. He likes being able to have the opportunity to gather information and use it to make creative choices. Where Timmy likes to let the game create its own story, Johnny wants to make the game tell his. Johnny likes to do things the hard way, putting limits on himself to force the creative juices to flow. Ironically, he often spends a lot of time looking at what everyone else is doing just so he doesn’t end up inadvertently doing the same. Johnny often takes pride in having a ‘style’ that he sticks to, regardless of the obvious choices to be made. Winning the game is only meaningful to Johnny if it was a result of a choice he made based on his own initiative.


Johnny’s traits:

Johnny is typically studious and knowledgeable, eeking out every bit of information about a game he can get his hands on. While he wants to make his own mark on the game, he’s not necessarily egotistical- he eats up the exploits of others and uses their cleverness to fuel his own creativity. As such, Johnny tends to create extremely strong and deep communities and friendships with other like minded players. At his best, Johnny is respectful of the efforts of others to forge their own space and enjoys sharing his own knowledge to help others deepen and personalise their own play. At his worst, Johnny is stubborn and spiteful, trying to force individuality from a game in ways that don’t add to the experience and making bad choices just for the sake of being different.


Designing for Johnny:

To appeal to Johnny a game needs to have clear areas in which he can personalize his play. Even superficial elements like character customization can succeed at holding his interest for a while, but ultimately a game needs to provide many permutations and routes which lead to meaningful destinations. For Johnny, it’s not enough to be able to go right or left at a junction where both paths ultimately lead to the same ending. Anything that breaks the illusion of agency (portal 2) is damaging to his experience. For single player games it can be enough to provide enough legitimate options for him to personalize his journey, but for multiplayer it’s important that a game does not just provide an outlet for mechanical and technical skills but for both strategic and tactical creativity. It’s important to recognize that Johnny is a very social player- he shares his experiences. If he finds that his experiences are too similar to everyone else’s he will become disillusioned with the play. If his community consistently provides new discoveries, ideas and perspectives, the game at its heart will retain his loyalty.



Spike plays games because they allow him to test himself. Spike doesn’t care a lot about individual mechanics, he cares about how they come together- if they create a game where he is legitimately tested and has to earn his progress, whether it be through determination, creativity or skill, he will enjoy the experience. Spike plays to achieve the peerless sensation of triumph that comes from diving into an uncertain situation and through every trick in the book making it come out alright. When the end is certain, Spike feels no compunction to keep playing- he is only engaged while everything is still on the line. Winning the game is only meaningful to Spike if he had to work for it.


Spike’s traits:

Spike is typically calm and determined, unfazed by most losses and ready to dive straight back into another game after only brief reflection. While, like Johnny and Timmy, he plays to win, often he sees individual victories as far less meaningful compared to a larger trend. As a result, Spike can seem intimidating or impassive, where in reality he is fiercely calculating what he could have done differently and preparing for the next bout. At his best Spike is an asset to the community, willing to invest his time into helping other players up their game so they can give him a real fight, pulling the level of play ever upwards with him. To paraphrase Ben Stark, Spike doesn’t want to play against people who don’t make the best decisions possible- thus providing a genuine test of his abilities. At his worst, Spike can devolve into a win at all costs psychology, spending their time crushing players below their level and avoiding fair fights to prove to himself he can compete.


Designing for Spike:

On the surface, designing for Spike is a relatively simple affair. It’s necessary to make sure the game can challenge a player who is growing in skill constantly and that the skill of a player has a serious impact on their success- truly random outcomes or clear advantages for a player not balanced by taking turns or similar will quickly turn Spike against a game. The more of these elements a game contains, the shorter each instance needs to be so Spike can play, reflect and dive back in repeatedly, deriving his accomplishments from a sample of many games played rather than single instances. It’s also important the game has obvious methods by which a player can measure their development- time spent, score, ranking, hitpoints and so on all give a player yardsticks to see their progress. It’s important to recognize that these yardsticks are not specifically to allow Spike to measure himself against other players, but to measure where he was against where he is. For Spike, putting in the work and getting results is what is meaningful, not beating others. There are many ‘Spikes’ for whom this is also an important psychological factor, but it is not a property of their ‘Spikeness’- it’s a property of their ‘Ryan-ness’, which will be explored below.



Where TJS are focused around areas of the game in which the player’s direct interactions and the resulting outcomes are essential, the Cavottas instead take a more hands off approach. Their appreciation is rooted in the game as a piece of craftsmanship or authorship, as it exists without their specific interaction. That is not to say they do not enjoy participating in and acting on the game, but this is not the primary reason they engage with it. I’ve made some significant alterations to Mark and Matt’s original vision here, since I think there is a huge difference between deep involvement in fiction and involvement in craft or culture. 



Vorthos plays games to engage in Diegesis. Diegesis is a term that encompasses becoming swept up and involved in a fiction. Sometimes this is a designed fiction (the official lore) sometimes it’s Vorthos’ own fiction- constructed around the ‘official’ version. Like all the types in his subfamily, Vorthos’s interests are largely independent of the play of the game itself. Instead, he is interested in the aesthetics of the game on their own. He takes his time to stop and appreciate the scenery, even at the cost of efficient play. He roleplays characters or imagines himself in their position, becoming emotionally involved with the fiction. Where Timmy is interested in the narratives that he creates through his own play, Vorthos is interested in experiencing and exploring those that already exist within the game to their fullest. His own interactions with the game act primarily as a ritual to get him into the right frame of mind to immerse himself in ways that non-interactive media like film and books cannot achieve. At the deepest level of immersion he might experience events during a game from the perspective of a character within the fiction. Vorthos finds games that provide a compelling and thoughtful aesthetic meaningful.


Vorthos’ traits:

Vorthos is typically attentive and involved, becoming deeply immersed in both the actual play of the game and exploring the aesthetics and narratives designed into it from the outside. Like Timmy, Vorthos looks for the story in a game, but in a more impersonal fashion. He’s quite happy to play a weaker element and lose to stronger ones because that makes sense. Like all members of his subfamily, for Vorthos winning isn’t the point. Often Vorthos creatively finds ways of developing the atmosphere of a game, whether it’s by gathering accessories that set the mood or by adding his own take on unexplored elements of the fiction. At his best Vorthos contributes to the atmosphere of the game through characterful play and sheer intensity. At his worst, Vorthos becomes a vocal nitpicker- loudly complaining about anything which damages his sense of immersion.


Designing for Vorthos:

The most crucial element in designing for Vothos is internal consistency- ensuring the story the game creates does not contradict itself or bring up absurd situations (unless, of course, that is the entire point of the game). These are the things that shatter Vorthos’ immersion and reduce the integrity of the game for him. Most Vorthos’ are capable of a reasonable level of suspension of disbelief and are willing to tolerate some allowances for the sake of gameplay, but sloppy, derivative world building or tacked on elements will kill his interest very quickly. To attract a Vorthos to a game, there need to be strong aesthetic hooks which he can latch onto and pull himself into the story with- companion literature, biographies of key characters, lore available online or on the game’s box and so forth. ‘Getting in the mood’ is very important to him: encouraging and enabling a ritualistic descent into the space of play will help Vorthos find his place greatly. 



Melvin plays games to understand how they work. For Melvin, everything can be broken down into smaller and smaller bits and then rebuilt to do interesting things. Melvin spends his time tinkering with programs or old cars- experimenting with changing rules, modding and so on. Through these activities, Melvin comes to appreciate how things fit together and what makes the gears spin and the wheels turn. The reward for Melvin is in often more in watching the machine in action than using it for its intended purpose, because to him the process itself is a thing of beauty far beyond whatever rewards success might yield. That’s not to say Melvin is entirely uninterested in the outcomes, but it’s more about testing his understanding of the mechanisms of the game than the victory-centric motivations of Timmy, Johnny and Spike. Melvin finds games that produce intricate, elegant interactions and actions meaningful.


Melvin’s traits:

Melvin is typically curious and careful, making sure understands everything properly. He’ll often propose hypothetical scenarios to see if he’s reading the game the same way as other players and be the one to write into the designers for clarification if not. While Melvin can sometimes be a terror for designers he can often be their best friend as well, both by making sure everything is seamless and by expressing his delight when it is. Melvin is likely to be more ecumenical in his choice of games than most, since pulling apart many games can give him insights into common trends that run through them all and consequently appreciate novel takes and creative uses in designs. However, it is distinctly possible for Melvin to become exclusively attached to a very complex or large game as he sorts through the many subtle permutations it creates. At his best Melvin can be incredibly insightful and develop the way a game is played in new and unexpected ways. At his worst, he can lose sight of the intent of the game entirely and try and force it to act like other things he likes, working against rather than with the existing mechanisms.


Designing for Melvin:

The most important consideration for designing for Melvin is to leave the mechanics visible. For analogue games you can’t help but do this, but often videogame designers are inclined to hide the numbers and interactions away in a black box. For turbo-Melvin this is no obstacle, as he rips apart the game’s code to dig into the raw, seething numbers inside, but a less technically adept Melvin the inability to get at the man behind the curtain can be frustrating. This isn’t to say that analogue game designers can’t do anything to court Melvin, though. Mechanics which build on or subvert mechanics from other, similar games can attract Melvin’s interest, designer blogs or articles on why choices were made likewise. Melvin spends a lot of his time appreciating a game outside of actually playing it, so it’s there that considerations can be made for him.



Richie plays games to engage with culture. For Richie, a game isn’t just something to be taken on its own- games exist as part of a cultural fabric, interlinked with each other. Richie is in the truest sense the ‘meta-gamer’, who plays games to see how they relate to each other and discover the story they tell as a collective whole. Richie is attracted to games with cultural weight- award winners, genre definers and long histories. He enjoys being a part of this larger whole. His stories are full of anecdotes about how he met a famous player or how he has an original copy of this or that game. To Richie, context is everything. Richie finds games which allow him to experience connection to a larger culture meaningful.


Richie’s traits:

Richie is typically independent and detached, though at times he can become incredibly passionate and involved if he feels a situation is important enough. Like Melvin, he’s likely to play a lot of different games, though he selects them for their cultural relevance rather than their mechanical properties. Richie is inclined to be a collector of cultural artifacts like misprinted cards or limited edition memorabilia. He’s likely to inhabit communities directly linked to a game’s author or (for older games) governing body and to take part in official events. He might try and re-create famous games or events or organize meetups to watch historic tournaments. At his best Richie makes the game a more profound experience by broadening the perspective of his fellow players and allowing them to experience the game in the larger context he sees. At his worst, Richie can (and will) constantly identify shortcomings of a game compared to other games or self-importantly fixate on a single game as ‘the most important’, trying constantly to reinforce that perspective and looking down on all others.


Designing for Richie:

Designing for Richie can be as simple or complex as you like. Simple things that attract him are genuinely unique collectibles or other articles associated with the game that have historical weight. These encourage him to buy into the game and give him the motivation to invest further time and effort into getting to know it. Unfortunately, these won’t be enough to keep the attention of a serious Richie. Hosting events, openly discussing the legacy of design on which the game is based, giving the developers the chance to build their image and hold conversations with the public, these give Richie a more subtle but enduring way of placing the game in context and finding their place within that context.



In a sense, the Bartles are the original player psychographics- at least, I haven’t been able to find an earlier attempt to specifically categorize the motivations of players. Compared to the Rosewaters and Cavottas, the Bartles are more broadly focused, based around what they get out of playing games. Perhaps as a legacy of arising from a massively multiplayer game which attracted certain types of players, the Bartles are typically framed around their social perspectives and interests. Richard’s article was, after all, titled ‘Players who suit MUDs‘.



Ace wants to gather material markers of progress and prestige through playing games. For her, satisfaction is largely derived from what remains after the game is played- a notch on the scoreboard, some achievements, an acknowledgment of skill from a fellow player. Unlike Spike’s internal focus, Ace cares deeply about how she is perceived and will often go out of her way to play in a way that is likely to be noticed by her community. Ace is often an avid collector and enjoys structured experiences with goals that can be seen long before they are accomplished. She likes setting out to accomplish something and the feeling of satisfaction she gets when she gets it done.


Ace’s traits:

Ace is an externally focused personality, it’s important to her not just how she sees her achievements, but that she can demonstrate them and use them for social leverage. As such, she’s likely to place a high value on symbolic objects- trophies, collectibles and other markers of her position. While Richie tends to collect things to position himself in relation to a larger phenomenon, Ace collects things to add to her own identity, so she places a particular value on unique markers of achievement such as trophies. Where a formal marker is not available, Ace may create her own system of goals and mark them with whatever is at hand- setting out to collect a certain set of items or noting down games in a notebook that she can use to track her play. At her best, Ace is pragmatic and dedicated, motivating other players to become more involved in the games she plays by providing a highly visible example of what can be accomplished, at her worst Ace can poison the climate of the game for other players by demanding they conform to structure and play according to plan, which for many player personalities is neither relaxing nor particularly engaging.


Designing for Ace:

Modern videogame design has been heavily influenced by Ace’s presence in the market. The compartmentalized, structured nature of most traditional videogames ideally suit Ace by providing a clear structure of progression. The advent first of scoreboards and then of achievements granted her tangible, persistent markers that are difficult to come across in analogue games outside of competitive communities that award participation or success in competition. Ace is the sort of person who wants to get her black-belt because it means she has a black-belt- a marker that anyone can recognize. If a game provides opportunities for this kind of notoriety, it’s likely to grow on Ace and involve her over time. It’s important to recognize that while Ace is driven by the desire for formal achievement, an internal sense of progress and accomplishment is important to her enjoyment. Thus she tends to find games that provide a structured, long-term sense of progress attractive over throwaway experiences- for example, a game with a set of pre-compiled scenarios may attract her more than one with randomly generated ones since she can methodically play her way through them from a ‘start’ to a ‘finish’ rather than having to set her own artificial goals. 



Jack wants to discover and learn through playing games. For him, games provide an endless supply of novel experiences he can use to uncover interesting facts and ideas. Unlike Melvin, he’s not so much focused on investigating the game’s inner workings as a piece of craftsmanship, but more on the opportunities for investigation the environment of the game throws up. Best of all are discoveries that can be applied outside of the game itself, rewards for using the system to learn and grow. Jack sometimes enjoys wandering and following his nose, sometimes methodically covering an area of investigation and then applying the results.


Jack’s Traits

Jack is the most internally focused Bartle: it’s most important to him that he learn and discover, regardless of what other people think. All that matters is that he feels he’s learning something new. Ask him what he finds cool about a game and he’ll open up and bombard you with trivia about how it relates to other games or even just other challenges, whether he feels the game is ‘relevant’ or not. Jack is amongst the most likely personalities to get obsessed with a complex, intricate game system since the more he plays the more he comes to appreciate the discoveries in the system. Unlike the more externally focused personalities, he doesn’t feel a huge pressure to share his discoveries, unless it is to confirm them, so his involvement in player communities is likely to be in the form of speculative commentary (‘I wonder if this is related to that’, for example) or checking to see if his discoveries are valid (‘has anyone else noticed that X is a thing?’). At his best Jack is an incredible asset to the player community, communicating how the game is connected other media, real life challenges and problems. At his worst, Jack becomes fixated and isolated, participating in community play only if necessary and ignoring the intended goals of the game in a way that frustrates or annoys other players.


Designing for Jack:

Designing for Jack on a basic level is elementary, simply requiring that the game throw up interesting situations and having a level of complexity that allows for prediction and investigation- the sort of qualities that game designers almost always seek in the first place. On a higher level, however, providing connections to outside fields of learning or problems with subtle notes- references to real world sources or call-outs to well known problems can help Jack latch on and find significance in his investigations. Sid Meier’s games are an excellent example of games with elements heavily suited to Jack’s interests from the technology placards in Civilization to the philosophical musings of leaders in Alpha Centauri.



Daria wants to share time and develop bonds with people through games. For her, games are a way of breaking down social boundaries and getting people relaxed into a good time. She loves the intimate cooperation or friendly, no pressure competition the games create and consequently how they expose the best (and sometimes the worst) of people she’s interested in. Sometimes Daria is more interested in observing people and figuring them out, sometimes she’s more interested in making sure they have fun, but whatever the case, her attention is on the people she plays with as much as the game itself.


Daria’s traits:

Daria is an internally focused personality, an odd notion for someone who appears strongly attached to playing with others.  For Daria though, unlike Ace and Ryan, it’s what she gets from others that’s important to her, not the other way around. Daria loves company and finds being around others a relaxing and pleasant game in and of itself, with formal games serving to enhance the intimacy and intensity of the contact. Daria loves to play co-operative games or work on puzzles, especially if she finds competitive games cause other players to hold a poker-face or maintain a certain distance from her. That said, when competition can be had in an open and friendly environment, she’ll often be amongst the most enthusiastic players. Daria has a tendency to be one of the most polarized players in terms of what games she likes and dislikes, finding single-player or complex, intricate games that require intense focus on the system completely un-engaging while loving games that provide rich social interaction and memorable experiences.


Designing for Daria:

Designing for Daria is of particular concern for game designers creating games that follow the traditional videogame model of a single player story and competitive multiplayer, neither of which modes fundamentally appeal to Daria, especially given the tendency to limit communication and social interaction between players in multiplayer videogames in order to curb abuse. Being able to directly observe other players is important to her, so her enjoyment of games is somewhat threatened by the increasing dependence on anonymous online play in some areas of the games industry, leading to a polarization between Daria communities of ‘social gamers’ and game-focused communities of ‘hardcore games’. Given the spur of this discussion was MTG, I think it’s an excellent example of game that manages suit Daria while being highly competitive at its core. While the analogue game is most suited, MTGO has developed a surprisingly social turn thanks to developments in streaming and sub-metas based around non-traditional formats like Commander or Momir Basic. It’s this more personal, localized kind of community that Daria thrives in and if a game provides the capability for players to build smaller, more focused social networks, she’ll likely find a group in which she can make connections and build relationships that make playing the game more worthwhile to her.



Ryan wants to show he’s the best through playing games. For him games are a controlled environment in which he can demonstrate he’s on top of the heap. The specific reason varies, sometimes it’s a part of his sense of self-worth, sometimes it’s peer pressure that demands competitive success. Whatever the reason, it’s important to Ryan not only that he’s a winner, but that people know he’s a winner. Ryan enjoys pushing games to the limit, beating challenges others have set him and building his reputation. Unlike Spike, however, he also enjoys thoroughly beating people at a lower level because it will demonstrate his capabilities and reinforce his social position. 


Ryan’s traits:

Ryan is the most externally focused Bartle- his sense of accomplishment is based on his relative position to others. Unlike Ace, for whom the badge for 100 hours played is just as meaningful to her if all her friends have it, for Ryan it’s important that he got it first. Ryan is the archetypical hyper-competitor, eager to fight and win. Yet, since winning is the point, if not held to account he’ll tend towards playing easier opponents and challenges rather than going for a ‘fair’ fight, especially if he’s having trouble. You could think of it as an inbuilt match-making system that will try and balance things at about a 75% win rate- enough that Ryan feels he’s on top of his game, but not enough that his victories are trivialized. At his best, Ryan is a passionate and honorable competitor who embraces legitimate challenges is motivated to persevere by failure. At his worst, Ryan will become the archetypical ganker or smurf-player, seeming to play only to ruin the experience of others.


Designing for Ryan:

Designing for Ryan is actually a well established part of modern game design, since Ryan tends to be the guy everyone else gets annoyed at for exploitative tactics, subtle cheating and other ‘unsportsmanlike’ behavior. Of course, Ryan isn’t compulsively attracted to these tendencies, but he is more likely to engage in them if he’s having trouble and they’re a possibility. Preventing the opportunity for such behavior is of clear importance to ensuring Ryan plays fair. It’s important to note that Ryan is a very externally focused personality, he cares how other people perceive him. Developing strong cultural stigmas in the game attached to picking on easy targets can push Ryan towards competing with his peers rather than dominating lower level players, if the latter activity will genuinely discredit him (and not just a throwaway identity created for that purpose). Running limited size leagues that reset regularly may keep him engaged by giving him the opportunity to show he’s on top with less incentive to go all out and engage in unhealthy behavior to get there as a persistent, universal league might.



Unlike the others profiles, the Caillous are more indirectly created, rather than adjustments or refinements of existing profiles. Caillois’s work was primarily in cultural and social analysis of games and rituals, rather than psychological analysis, but I’ve tried to derive the basic psychological arguments he was making as part of his categorization of games. The particular insight of Caillois was to note the kinds of experiences that people seek during play to distance themselves from their day-to-day state of life. You could call this the ‘transportment’ that games offer, and each of the Caillous seeks a different kind of transportment.



Calomel wants to relax and feel like there’s no consequences when he plays. For Calomel, games provide an opportunity to escape from the very real dangers and risks of daily life. In play, he can put things on the line, try for a one in a million and do many other things that he can’t justify risking outside of the game. Calomel tends to like games with a high degree of uncertainty or variance since they allow him cathartically indulge the desire to all-in. For Calomel, games are less impactful than the rest of his life.


Calomel’s traits:

Calomel tends to be laid back and relaxed, not investing in victory or begruding a loss. He likes make risky or over-the-top plays, but isn’t particularly concerned if they fail- for him that’s what games are for, the experience is liberating. Unfortunately, Calomel is also the most likely to have difficulty with gambling or other game-like situations that have real-life implications, as he may make real losses if he slips into his desired, playful mindset. At his best Calomel is fun loving, enjoyable company who helps people into a playful mood, at his worst Calomel can end up taking too many risks for the sheer sake of it and disrupting the natural flow of a game, frustrating other players.


Designing for Calomel:

Elements of chance and risk-taking in a game are crucial for Calomel, since his understanding of play is as a consequence-less microcosm of his life. Being able to take the risks he can never take in reality is cathartic for him- in fact, the very act of committing to something where he has a high chance of losing is something he’s likely to do under normal circumstances, so a friendly, competitive game that provides that chance is fundamentally appealing to him. Providing largely inconsequential opportunities to try his luck- like randomized rewards or guessing games to determine turn order help Calomel get in the mood to play. There’s an ethical aspect to designing for Calomel as well- it’s important for your game not to provide a gentle ramp of consequences to risk-taking as is so prevalent in the gambling sector. This is the sort of property that will hook Calomel in and have him taking risks he’s fundamentally opposed to without realizing it, leading to extremely problematic outcomes. Providing a sharp distinction between ‘no real consequence’ risk and ‘actual consequence’ risk in games whose purpose is to entertain Calomel is crucial to his ultimate enjoyment and healthy participation.



Petra wants to feel like everything is ordered and comprehensible when she plays. For Petra, games provide a space where the rules are known and must be obeyed. In everyday life, the rules of society and laws of the reality are too complex to be fully grasped, so Petra must stumble along making guesses and struggle to understand how things work. In a game, the rules are established, known and absolute, giving her the opportunity to make clear and logical decisions and feel justified in the consequences those decisions create. For Petra, games are more ordered than the rest of her life.


Petra’s traits:

Petra tends to be meticulous and formal, making sure she has everything understood and that everyone else understands how things work. If she finds ambiguity, she’ll want to clarify it and establish a clear ruling on how it should be resolved. While she can become very invested in a game she plays, she tends to be very respectful both in success and failure so long as she feels everything was conducted within the rules as she sees them- the correct outcome was reached. She’s likely to spend quite some time studying a game before actually playing it, reading guides, wikis or rulebooks to make sure she understands how things work. At her best Petra is magnanimous and knowledgeable, helping other players understand the intricacies of the game patiently. At her worst, she can be intolerant of errors or inconsistencies, arguing about and begrudging issues that other players find trivial.


Designing for Petra:

It’s important a game maintain an internal consistency within its rules for Petra to be attracted to it, since this appeals to her sense of logic. Situations where things behave strangely due to wordings or odd code interactions can ruin her sense of structure within the game world. It’s not important that the game be realistic, per-se, just conform to the expectations it sets out- if a different outcome occurs each time something happens, that is just as clear a ‘rule’ to Petra as if the same thing happens. Unexpected or unintended interactions are frustrating to Petra, as this is partly what she plays games to avoid. Similarly as for Melvin, making sure the logic of the game is visible is important to engaging Petra. Unintuitive mechanics are fine so long as they are clearly explained so they’re not unexpected when they occur. Petra does not inherently enjoy discovering the rules of a game through playing it, she prefers to go in understanding how things work, so providing well designed tutorials and other educational resources for her will help her prepare for play.



Mica wants to see the world completely differently when he plays. For Micah games provide a space in which he’s allowed to let go and experience freely, which means he tends to avoid games with too much structure or heavy focus on objectives over participation. Mica is particularly attracted to games with an intense sensory component and flowing play that leaves no time for pondering or rational thought. For Mica, games are a kind of meditation, wherein can be had a loss of self and total absorption in the moment. Games allow Mica to enter a different state of awareness than the rest of his life.


Mica’s traits:

Mica tends to be spontaneous and intense, quickly able to focus and lose himself in an activity he finds engaging. He can tend to be a little impatient and dislike being interrupted and pulled out of the flow of things. He has a tendency to enjoy taking things to extremes, particularly more physical games, pushing himself beyond the point where normal thought can cope and forcing himself into a state momentary reaction. He enjoys games where this sensation can be had in a simpler form- reaction games like Tetris (in the later stages) or rhythm games like Rez. At his best Mica has a powerful but unspoken charisma that draws other people into the zone. At his worst, he is likely to be snappish and antisocial, engaging only in solitary activities where his flow is less likely to be disrupted.


Designing for Mica:

Mica is perhaps the most difficult and potentially alien profile for the typical game designer, as he tends towards the playful and spontaneous over the methodical and rule-bound. In fact, Mica is rarely attracted to most of the games the rest of the profiles enjoy, instead seeking thrills and experiences for his play- skydiving, moshing, watching a big screen film. Many games do not aim to provide the same kind of experience these activities do, but this is not to say they cannot. An ideal game for Mica is simple but intense, requiring absolute awareness and focus, a property which is most commonly created by reflex mechanics.



Opal wants to become someone else when she plays. For Opal, games provide a space where she can see things from a different perspective and experiment with acting based on that perspective, without being held accountable for the mental shift. Opal is the classic roleplayer, not just pretending to be another character but diving deep into their personality, becoming them in every possible way. For Opal, games provide a ritualised and accepted space where this activity can be performed. She can shed her everyday identity and experiment with others, whether that be a dictator, adventurer or toy pony. In so doing, she gains a measure of perspective and adds to her own identity in subtle ways. Games allow Opal to be a different person than she is in her everyday life.


Opal’s Traits:

Opal tends to be creative and empathic, as her temporary inhabitation of others demands she both have the imagination and understanding to shift her perspective. She is likely to become attached to characters others may find inconsequential because their design has caught her imagination and she has internally fleshed them out as a part of her play. She is also likely to very strongly roleplay her part in a game, making moral or practical judgments that fly against the structural mechanics of the game because that is how she imagines her character would act. When this causes severe conflict with the gameplay, she can become disillusioned very quickly. At her best Opal is capable of shifting frames of reference with fluid grace, bringing a game to life for others by totally inhabiting a character while never losing sight of the overall play. At her worst, Opal can totally stymie a game by fixating on particular character or context and trying to force the game to revolve around that one small part.


Designing for Opal:

Depending on the circumstance, Opal can find many things helpful to her play. Detailed lore and background premises, tangential commentary by characters that helps develop the precise nature of their perspective, vivid illustration of people and places she may wish to inhabit and so on. Naturally, Opal will be drawn to games with a very high level of thought and craftsmanship invested into these elements. Yet she can also be highly interested in games with a strong but vague aesthetic, if she has a pre-existing interest in that aesthetic. A simple, open premise can give her the creative freedom to dream up characters and contexts of her own to step into the shoes of. In both situations, however, it’s critical to convey why she would want to inhabit such a premise or character, what the experience has to offer her. Understanding and promoting the underlying themes and conceits of an aesthetic design is key to engaging Opal, providing important questions she can feel she may be able to come to terms with by inhabiting a character in the game.


Congratulations if you made it this far! As you’ve read you’ve probably identified with many of these profiles, which I again should note is what’s intended. You may also have noted that several of the profiles feel quite similar to each other- for me the two that stand out like that are Melvin and Jack. While this is the case, there are always subtle differences that illustrate the intricate perspectives people adopt towards games. Melvin is captivated by the specific artifact of the game while to Jack it’s only a tool with which he can deepen his overall understanding of the world. Where doing something clever but very specific to your game will attract Melvin, Jack will only be engaged if he can see how it connects to other things outside the game.

Of course, someone can be both Melvin and Jack, with one profile gaining primacy depending on their mood- if relaxed and wanting to forget about life for a bit, the Melvin tendencies might surge. If curious and captivated by a larger genre, Jack may take the lead. Both result in behaviours of superficially similar appearance, but what engages their interest is significantly different enough that it can have a meaningful impact on whether they get into the game. This is the major weakness in Mark’s original psychographics articles I wanted to address- He typed players primarily by their behaviour, rather than digging to get to the underlying motivations and desires.

The process of psychographic profiling one is an endless one, so it’s hard to criticize anyone for stopping where they did ( I’m quite sure Mark, Richard and co. Actually have far more sophisticated mental models that they simply haven’t had the time or inclination to put to print). This is where I reach my limit for the time being- so feel free to dig deeper or dissect further. It’s an intriguing and engaging line of study, extremely valuable for being able to analyze your own work. It’s also rewarding in more general terms, my exploration of player motviations has allowed me to sit down and have fun with many people I might otherwise not be able to and recognize and quell the negative aspects of my own tendencies when they begin to peek through.

In any case, I hope you enjoyed the read and look forward to discussing it with you if you feel like having your say.


Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Uncategorized


Hiatus Update

Hey folks, just a quick note to say I’m not dead and that things are still going on. I’ve been pretty nutso busy with actual design work behind the scenes here, getting another iteration of LoLCG done and working on the final art and frames for Wild Abyss, which is coming along extremely well as well. 

I have several half to two thirds written articles sitting waiting to be polished off and put up, so I hope to get those up in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned! 

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Posted by on August 29, 2013 in Uncategorized


How the Gamer got their Spots: A brief history of the public perception of gaming.

This weekend I attended PAX, which was mindblowing in many ways. While there I attended several panels, one of which inspired me to write this. It’s something I’ve been aware of and thought about for some time, but never really had the space to talk about. Now I do. So here we go.


This is something I heard at PAX a lot: ‘what will it take for gamers to get out of being a niche culture and be accepted into the mainstream socially and politically like, say, film or music are?’. It was the overarching question and theme on a panel hosted by various industry and journalist luminaries. To me it sounds odd. On one level I identify with the sentiment deeply. I love videogames, tabletop games, card games, roleplay, pretty much anything ludic. Another common comment was on how gamers made being a minority part of their identity, a way of separating themselves and putting themselves above the legions of fashionistas and sports-ball players in highschool. As such, talking about gaming was not something you did unless you were pretty sure you were amongst other members of the lodge, having traded secret handshakes, awkward grins and rare magic cards. I shared that attitude for some time. Now, though, I talk about games with everyone. Often at length. I remember talking to an old lady I walked past on the way home from work for something like two and a half hours one afternoon. Sometimes, it becomes very hard to stop me. I’ve missed planes. I’m not shy about being a gamer, because for me that no longer makes any sense. This is not really due to my maturing and understanding that my hobbies aren’t something unclean and to be stigmatised. It’s due to something a little deeper.


I studied games at uni and during that time I read a lot of old books from the mid 20th century and earlier. I studied the history of games which, by the way, is really long. Like, seven or eight thousand years long just for ‘modern’ games. Kind of puts Pong into perspective. Another large part of my degree was media studies, which involved some indepth introductions to the history of electronic media. This, plus a poignant example brought up by one of my lecturers, made me reconsider the light in which I saw all modern gaming. Everything boils down to this: gaming is perceived as something new, an arising phenomenon that deviates from the normal pastimes of society. This is false. Historically, beyond the history of the 20th century at any rate, gaming is the norm. Not just children’s games either- card games, boardgames, party games, even single player games- solitaire is not a 20th century invention. Adults played games constantly and enthusiastically. Why then are the ‘new games’ -video, tabletop, card or other- seen as an oddity and attached to ideas of childishness and immaturity?


The answer, strangely enough, is technology. Not of games, but of everything else. The leisure of the 20th century west has been singularly defined by what media nerds (eg. me) call the ‘one to many’ media paradigm. First it was the radio, popular music and literature. Then cinema and television. The ability to minimize distribution costs of content allowed single instances of content to be universally (or at least very widely) disseminated. As a result more could be invested in polishing each instance, leading to more centralised and tuned media production while still increasing audiences. As a society, we ate it up and consequently shifted most of our leisure time from the traditional social pursuits of playing various games with those around us to reading, listening to or watching whatever was in vogue at the time. Perhaps the most ironic element of this shift was that it resulted in the professional athlete and the acceptance of the idea that we spend more time watching a chosen few play games than playing them ourselves. Broadcast media (and mass market printing) was a revolution in that it brought pursuits previously restricted to the uppermost social classes to the everyman. Literature culture, previously the domain of the wealthy, became a universally accessible. When public radio arose it allowed the populace to be more aware of their world than ever before and experience things previously limited to those who could afford to attend limited attendance events- concerts, speeches and demonstrations. Television brought sights from places few could ever hope to dream of seeing on a worker’s wage. Games, on the other hand, were seen as commonplace. There was status to be had in the broadcast media, buying into the intellectual leveling of society, being a part of something ‘big’. Games were left by the wayside as the preferred method of diversion, at least in part.


There was one thing that the broadcast media couldn’t do, however, right there in the word itself. Broadcast. Everyone got the same thing. Everyone read the same books, watched the same shows, listened to the same songs. That was good, in many ways, since it generated a more powerful sense of cultural identity than ever before, leading the way for reforms that ultimately led to modern social democracy and freedoms. Yet gamers will no doubt see the point I’m getting to: unlike games, you couldn’t touch the broadcasts. You couldn’t own them. They were not intimately personal in the way games gracefully and effortlessly manage to be. This was a limit of the new technologies. The same tools that allowed the mass dissemination of media meant that what was being disseminated had to be centralized. It was many decades before anything but token interactivity arose in electronic media. In that time the idea of games as a childish activity cemented itself, contrasted with the socially mature activities of imbibing the high culture composed by broadcasters, be they the latest musical phenomena, social discussions or elite sporting events. Only games with an aristocratic past continued to be acceptable pastimes, buying into the status free-for-all that permeated 20th century culture. Luckily for us gamers, it takes more than broad cultural reformation to take the gamer out of our collective soul. Everything I’ve studied supports the idea that games are fundamental to culture and, in a sense, humanity. We cannot help but create them, share them and play them. They shape our minds, our psyche and our interactions with others. It is an addiction we all share, so even when gaming was socially marginalized, in places it flourished. The sophistication and diversity of childhood games- still considered acceptable- skyrocketed. Creative types continued to innovate and sowed the seeds of the modern RPG, CCG and of course videogames. As broadcast media became less prohibitively restrictive over the years, interactivity began to seep back into our culture. The internet kicked off a new age not just for communication but for play.


Now we stand on the wheel, close to coming full circle. No longer is one-to-many media the accepted norm. It is challenged at every turn by constant interactivity, the natural state of play. The stigmas established by the mass media revolution are slowly wearing down as we acknowledge the value in many old cultural institutions and become ever more aware of the weaknesses of impersonal broadcasts. It may not be too long before the leisure norms of the 20th century are viewed as an aberration, a relic of primitive technology and social upheaval. So I have no reason to consider myself an oddity or a part of a minority. I am an average man, so long as I extend the sampling a few hundred years, rather than just the past fifty or so. The people who spend only a minority of their leisure in active play- those are the odd ones out to me. I don’t consider my gamer identity with a kind of oppressed pride, as a membership of a secret group. It does not make me special, or unhealthy. I’ve learned that all humans are gamers, openly or not. We all play. Some of us play quietly, not admitting that we need to but clinging to our little vices with fierce passion. Others accept it and embrace it even while those around them do not. The greatest number of all play and let play, sharing in that common delight of discovering patterns, enduring tension and delighting in triumph that all games create. though the methods change, we continue to play as we always have. To distinguish oneself by the fact one plays games is akin to feeling special because you are a man or a woman. Entirely natural, as it is something important to your identity, but neither particularly justified nor constructive.


So ends the tale of how the gamers got their spots. What can we learn from it? Another comment that came up a lot at PAX was that being a gamer gave us our identity, our pride. We’re a little afraid of it becoming universally accepted because we may just lose that. When what we consider gaming becomes something everyone partakes of, do we blend silently back into the mass of humanity, our passions diluted into the commonplace? Perhaps, but here’s a thought. The idea that play and games are childish took root most strongly within the 20th century. It has always existed to a point, but the 20th marked the lowest point of the acceptance of adult play. Consequently most of our modern games come from roots in games aimed at children which have since evolved, but even more strongly carry the 20th century stigma of adults playing children’s games. These games evolved because they carried inside them qualities that were so powerful that even under the pressures of society, we could not let them go. Positive qualities that are at the root of why we identify as gamers. For me it is my ability to approach challenges, to endure failure, to imagine vividly and to sit down across a table with any other gamer and share in a common passion. Every genre has its own unique qualities, from the speculative economies of TCGs to the handicrafts involved in LARPs and the exploratory accomplishments of speedrunners and glitchers.


It’s time, I think, to identify those qualities, the deeper things that make us love and venerate our games as meaningful and important to us. These- not the games themselves- are the root of our identity, and so long as we remain on the forefront of promoting and developing these qualities our identities will remain intact. Games are only a tool through which those values can be expressed. In doing so we can help shed the stigma of childishness that still clings to modern gaming and, more importantly, we can bring games back to their ancient position as the premiere contributors to the happiness and welfare of individuals and communities across the world. In a sense, gamers have a chance to open the eyes of society to a world it has forgotten. It’s not something to be entitled about, simply something to draw confidence from and take joy in succeeding at if you have the chance. That quest, of course, is in large part what this blog is about.


Serving Girls- Meaningful Characters in Games.

Sometimes people say the most hilarious things. Case in point.

Citizen Kane moment? Really? REALLY? Ok, ladies, gentlemen. Let’s get down to business. This is something that’s been brewing for a while. It’s something I wanted to talk about after Bioshock, but in that specific case other people did it better. Now with TLOU, I think I have a more general case to make in this regard. Bear in mind if the whole gender/sexism debate in games pisses you off this is going to make you both annoyed and probably uncomfortable, though it’s used just to make a broader point. I also realise the above is developer hype, but it fits with many opinions I’ve read or seen online in formal journalism, informal journalism and casual opinion.

When people talk about these games and praise them as narrative art, I find myself grinding my teeth a bit. I mean, all games are art, the discussion is about quality not absolute properties. These games get held up as comparable to other works of fiction of high notoriety- in this case Citizen Kane, when that is just simply not warranted. The reason this is done is because they are comparatively good when compared against other games. When the other games are as well written as call of duty or gears of war, this is like saying twilight is high art because it isn’t my immortal. If the industry is going to get anywhere, it has to hold itself to absolute or true comparative standards, not simply ones relative to other, less well polished produce from the same field.

That means we have to look at the ‘characters’ of these supposed narrative masterpieces in the context of other literature and evaluate them as such. I hate to break it to you, but they don’t stand up that well. We can (and do) blame that on the medium with excuses like

you cannot be held responsible for the actions of a character you cannot control.”

I’m sorry, but what? Art imitates life, and in life you are constantly responsible for the actions of people you don’t control. Sure, if we’re playing wish fulfillment fantasy then we want to make things different to reality. But isn’t the point of these games that they’re something beyond slaughter-porn-and-titties? Of course that sort of thing can be incredibly frustrating, but if you wanted to achieve literary significance your goal wouldn’t be to just kind of ignore or avoid it completely, but to address it in a meaningful way. I mean, forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole subtext of TLOU about parenthood and isn’t parenthood at least a little about ‘being held responsible for the actions of a character you can’t control’. Seems like a missed opportunity, at the very least.

There’s a particular issue I want to address here, and that’s the use of a particular character archetype in this kind of game. That being ‘young, pretty and somewhat assertive/hopeful woman/girl’. As a onetime writer and occasional character designer, let me tell you something about those properties in combination: they trigger the empathy instinct in about the broadest segment of mankind you can reasonably sample. It is no accident that when game companies set out to have a character you can empathise with and bond with (for a degree of bonding, we’ll get to that in a bit), we get characters like Alyx, Elizabeth and Ellie. Everyone wants to see the underdog come through, and nothing says underdog like plucky young lass in a tough ol’ world. It’s one of the deepest most earnest desires we have as a species. To see the vulnerable and meek- who are simply stand-ins for ourselves at some level- triumph. Your gender, ethnicity or age is immaterial in this regard.

The problem is, they aren’t actually characters, in the traditional literary sense. Their entire existence revolves around you. Without you they are lost. Anything they could do to even mildly offend the most touchy of players has been neatly circumcised to make them pliant, docile attendants to your every need and fantasy. This is not an idle metaphor. In Semitic cultures anyway, circumcision symbolizes submission to God’s will. Here, all that might be independent is cut away to fulfill the unwavering dedication to the validation of the player as the ultimate agent.

So, not only are these ‘characters’ forged from the most emotionally manipulative of character archetypes, but even that wasn’t enough to ensure you like them. They must constantly provide you with unconditional encouragement, succor, moral justification, material assistance (though only enough to ensure you can keep soldiering on, never so much that you truly depend on them) and, of course, beating it into your head that you’re helping poor little them in their time of trial. It’s the equivalent of having a puppy follow you around woofing and occasionally giving you candy bars made out of pure dopamine. A puppy that never, ever poops. They are tools that exist to make you happy, not to make a point. Which, I remind you, is what characters are all about. The tradition of literature is about characters you like because they are meaningful, not characters who are meaningful because you happen to like them.

The only reason you adore these characters is because they are basically the most compliant form of slave ever invented. To own another living creature’s loyalty and dependence so completely is why we buy dogs. So it is completely valid, in this case, to call these creations your bitches. I feel that stating this is not degrading towards women because none of these characters in any way resemble actual women. To portray these caricatures as wholesome, meaningful characters and your relationship with them as something positive and human, THAT is demeaning to women.

Any woman, hell any person, as intelligent and capable as they are superficially made out to be would get the fuck away from your homicidal ass as soon as possible. If you think differently… I’m sorry, but go actually meet some smart girls. They’re kind of cool, and they tend to be able to solve their own problems. Crazy, I know, but that’s the way things actually are. If they were portrayed as some kind of abused, demeaned, broken wrecks, their servility might be in character. They are not. It is not.

The point of this rant isn’t about the representation of women. I’m just stressing, as hard as possible, that these characters are neither deep nor the connection you feel with them somehow a literary achievement. They’re well crafted to achieve their goal, of course, but to be of literary significance a character needs to achieve more than that. Something like this, perhaps:

When I say literary significance, I’m speaking here about real significance, a character that connects with something widespread and primal, that makes you sit back and breathe out slowly because you’re not quite sure what to think. When you call out Citizen Kane moment, you’d better be fucking ready to defend that assertion on equal grounds. Do these deuteragonist characters match up to say, Y.T, Clare Abshire, Lyra Belaqua, Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger or Ellen Ripley? No they do not, and those are only in the ‘pretty high up there’ range for their mediums, not ‘greatest ever’. I’m happy to debate this. Please try. Please. No, really. Do. It will be so fun.

The most common response to this I hear is woah, man, back the fuck up, games aren’t books or movies, you can’t have characters like that. Well, from the same sources, apparently games are meaningful and their narratives powerful. Unless we want to cede that they are in reality simply manipulative and their narratives trite, which I sure as hell don’t, we have to take a step back and say, ok, yes, these were good. Better than normal for the medium at any rate. We achieved empathy, but we had to try SO hard. And better than normal doesn’t mean good compared to other things that have been around for a century or more longer and had time to develop themselves to the point of overcoming the problems games still have.

The next step is to achieve that level of companionship with a character archetype which isn’t quite as universally d’awww inducing. Say, an old lady or a teenaged guy. They can still be sweet and helpful, but if we can’t manage to at least avoid damsel syndrome then we’re pretty much boned.

Once that’s done, we can work on supporting characters that are… well, characters. They do stuff because they believe in it, not because it helps you. They don’t see you as the centre of the universe, and so on. When a game- specifically an 3PS/FPS- manages to have a supporting Stanislaus Katczinsky, an Ellis Redding, a Doc Daneeka, a Captain Nemo, then I think we can say we’ve hit a Citizen Kane moment. A character who is not inherently attractive, desirable, worthy of protection and adoration etc. A character who disagrees with you from time to time. A character whose respect you must win and who you come to respect as well, despite the fact they don’t always do what you want. That will be truly a moment for momentous celebration, but we’ve a long way to go yet.

And treating games like TLOU as the pinnacle of narrative potential isn’t helping us get there.

I want to stress that here I am talking about the FPS/3PS action genre. I think, by and large, RPGs and narrative centric games like Allan Wake are further along the track, though I think this is more largely due to their ability to throw loads of characters at you and hope you find one that sticks. That model has worked ever since Baldur’s Gate (I still have fond memories of Jaheira and Viconia shit-talking each other). Creating and implementing a single character who is universally meaningful- a Holden Caulfield or an Atticus Finch- without the crutches used right now, that is a real challenge.


It’s difficult to throw down punches like this because I actually quite liked all three of the games under consideration here. I’m also aiming these blows mostly at fellow consumers and critics, not the developers themselves. It feels awkward jumping at people simply for enjoying things and expressing how much they enjoyed it. This is my justification, and you can take it or leave it.

I care about games. I think the medium is amazing and important in far more ways than are generally understood. At the very least, gaming represents a revolution in the truest sense, full circle back to when our leisure activities largely involved play and social interaction rather than passive consumption of media. That means that, if history is any indication, the capability and importance of videogames is only going to grow and the extent to which we interact with them as a society is as well. I want the industry to find its way to a point where videogames can truly match more established forms of media in terms of the scope of what they can talk about effectively. Where a public who plays more and reads less will not lose out on the insights I have derived from other literature. Where games exist that are as powerful and meaningful as they are entertaining. I want to hear from a schoolchild that a game, not a book, taught them why science is important or how to cope with depression or deal with puberty or maybe just made them feel just that little bit better about being human. I want to be able to, when my kids ask me about war or unfairness or love or the mysterious beauty of the universe, reach up to the shelf and hand them a jewel case instead of a novel, knowing that is the best choice. My imagination predates the digital storage revolution, just FYI.

That is not a goal that will simply occur in time. It must be sought. There will always be a slight pressure towards it from those people who desire to make such meaningful games, but without the stronger pressure of consumers, the market will stymie progress. If there is no serious demand for a higher standard, there need be no serious attempt at supply. When you give something a 10/10, you’re saying it could not be improved in any way. It’s a tricky thing, because improving on what’s already ahead of the game is never intuitive, unless you happen to be competing with someone. If it happens, however, the world becomes a better, or at least a more interesting, place. I think that’s worth at least talking about.


Miniature Giant Shoulders: Jes Goodwin

I thought I’d do a little colour piece since I’m having trouble polishing some of my heavier articles. I’d like to tell you about an inspirational designer I have incredible respect for who most of you won’t have heard of. That’s because he doesn’t design videogames, or even board games. Hell, he doesn’t even design games. He designs pieces for games: toy soldiers. His name is Jes Goodwin


Jes is the head sculptor and miniatures director for Games Workshop. He’s been sculpting and designing miniatures for decades and has produced some of the most iconic science fiction and fantasy miniatures ever designed. He’s a tireless and dedicated artist who works in many mediums in that most practical of processes: turning ‘good ideas’ into something that everyone can love.

Jes in many ways is a pioneer in his field. When he started at games workshop, the company was still largely producing generic fantasy and science fiction models. Together with Jervis Johnson and Rick Priestly, Jes spearheaded the effort that would give the Warhammer IPs both their most enduring images and the secret to their success on the tabletop. His enduring contribution was to give Warhammer’s existing factions, particularly the Space Marines and Eldar, their visual character, in a way that has set the model for all future GW design.


Whether it was deliberate or not, Jes recognized the need for visual coherence and distinctiveness in a set of factions ultimately destined to be turned out in 3cm high pewter and plastic replicas. It wasn’t enough for them to have a few distinctions here and there. In an anticipation, perhaps even the source of the later videogame design idea of ‘silhouette recognition’, Jes set about giving the factions of 40k a look that would see them gain notoriety and serve as inspiration for a generation of artists, authors and game designers.

The ‘type specimen’ of the Space Marine, blown up from Jes’s sketchbook with the man himself in attendance, is the first that clearly describes the silhouette of the marine (though note that these elements existed pre-Jes, he merely refined them). Heavy yet sleek curved armor plate set off by huge armored pauldrons, a massively exaggerated chestplate emblazoned with a huge relief insignia. Menacing helm with a slanted brow. Plenty of real-estate for customization. Plenty of inherent menace. Instantly recognizable.

Jes applied the same methodology to ensuring that everything associated with the marines, weapons, vehicles, relics and more, fit coherently with this vision. The result was a fictional faction which at once is ludicrously overblown and desperately real. Most importantly, Jes’s Space Marines were a hit on the tabletop. It gets better. Having pioneered such an iconic design in the abstract, Jes turned his hand to the practical side and, after a few years of development, released a kit that would literally revolutionize the tabletop wargaming hobby. The second iteration of the Space Marine tactical squad, released alongside Warhammer 40k 3rd edition in 1998 has proved so enduring it remains the basis for all subsequent Space Marine designs to the present day.

Jes translated his elegant visual design into a modular kit that could allow a practically infinite variety of poses, alternate parts and additions. Affordable plastic Space Marines went from static, unexpressive statues to dynamic, expressive and easily customisable canvases upon which players could paint their stories. Underneath all this potential, Jes’s original design remained strong, giving each marine that unique, identifiable silhouette.


Jes’s other baby, the Eldar, are another great example of this craft. Eldar had existed since 40k’s earliest days, but as a faction of loosely affiliated alien pirates who used whatever was available. About the best you could describe them as was biker-punk elves in space. They had elements of the design they have now- peaked helmets and bodysuits

Jes was heavily involved in their long-term development, in particular the design of Eldar harlequins, a kind of nightmare clown troupe-come- balletic hyper assassins. Over time, he took the faction in hand and began to shape their direction. Like most of his work, he paid particular attention to the visual design and narrative of the Eldar. He kept and refined the iconic suits and helms but clarified the designs, using oval plating, ribbed carapaces and fluted, woodcarving-esque flourishes to weapons and iconography. Heavy robes and flowing fabric offset the lean, sci-fi bodysuits, creating a unique blend of future-fantasy. The archetypical eldar warrior, the dire avenger, is a perfect example of this design:

All of these- the miniatures, the full artwork and the concept sketch are Jes’s. He also gave the Eldar their iconic vehicle design- the Falcon tank chassis, a kit that has endured even longer than his Space Marines- the falcon is still sold today, unchanged since it was released in 1997.

Compare this, if you will, to the previous incarnation of the falcon, a licenced model produced by Armorcast based on pre-Goodwin designs.

Jes’s falcon has a unique silhouette and a design that echoes the designs of individual Eldar soldiers in every way, from the ribbed, flanged plates to the ubiquitous gemstones and oval casings. It’s also proved versatile enough to serve both as the chassis for a number of variant vehicles, and the spiritual inspiration for a line of heavier and lighter Eldar tanks.

Jes further innovated in the design of the Eldar aspect warriors, castes of fighters defined by a particular mode of warfare. His designs for these miniatures gave each a unique silhouette granted by a particular visual element- a tall helmet crest, chainsaw-sword, heavily set leg armor and long weapons or hunched, multi-limbed appearance. The aspects both helped the Eldar develop a racial personality and narrative character, and make Eldar armies incredibly distinctive on the tabletop.

A player can walk into a room and glance across the room at a gaming table. Once familiar with the models, in the space of a second they can easily identify an Eldar force and probably most of the different elements of which it is comprised. It is this factor that has made Jes’s designs so enduring. They are incredibly appealing and cohesive up close, but also thoughtfully designed for their intended purpose- toy soldiers on the tabletop.

As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of Jes. It’s mostly because he represents to me what it really means to be a designer- not only thoughtful and creative when coming up with ideas, but always pushing to turn those ideas into really interesting and viable products with a suite of highly developed technical skills and experimental process. To have both the level of inspiration Jes possesses and the skill to see it brought to life is a gift few can claim to own. To do it for over twenty years and still be constantly improving, having left a legacy of design that shaped the development of an entire community is truly inspirational.

Jes’s work has taught me a lot of important lessons about how visual design can be accomplished. Designing things to be recognizable, coherence across associated elements (members of the same faction) while differentiating factions with fundamental stylistic variations (angles vs concave curves vs cutbacks vs overlaps vs convex curves etc). Telling a story about how someone acts or fights purely through their look and so on. He’s also influenced me in the way I go about developing entire concepts. Everything must serve a purpose, everything must mesh and not just aesthetically- the aesthetics must serve a role in practical terms too. Jess’s marine designs were ideal for customization, a fact that has made them overwhelmingly popular for more than a decade. His implementation, not just the conceptual designs that supported it, was what put Warhammer 40,000 in the market leading position it is today.

Jes at a recent convention

Thanks to The Stuff of Legends for most of the images in this article


Posted by on June 26, 2013 in Uncategorized