RPGs provide different players with different experiences according to their playstyle. When designing an RPG it's important to remember two things: One: not everybody is the same as you. Two: Not everyone is different from each other. Different people want different things but they want different things together. Players fall into groups and by describing these groups we can consciously design our games to cater to group tastes (or not as the game requires).
The book Swords and Circuitry by Neal and Jana Hallford defines a list of player groups as they see it. This list a good starting point that you can refine or change using your own experience. The game industry is ever changing so there have been a few developments since this book was released. The most important change is the rise and ubiquity of the internet which allows games to have embedded analytics in games. Analytics allow us to stop guessing about player behavior and start confirming things. It would definitely be an interesting exercise to try and confirm or refine this list based on how players actually play an RPG. Here's the list of player archetypes:
- Problem Solver
- Treasure Hound
- Story Chaser
- Navel Gazer
The following sections go into a little more detail from the book mixed with my own interpretation.
Frag has fallen out of use a little but in gaming it's a verb meaning to kill, popularized by Doom, Quake and other PC first-person-shooters. With our knowledge of the word frag refreshed we can now guess what this archetype might want from a game; things to kill. This player wants combat to feature frequently and be enjoyable. They want to be a force of destruction that hacks a path through the world. Games that allow NPCs to be killed will find their NPCs dead, so the game should handle that and still be completable. In this generation it's no longer acceptable to allow the player to unknowingly cause the game to enter an uncompletable state.
- Combat should be fun and have depth.
- Combat should be frequent and a prominent part of the game.
When designing for this character the combat is most important. Second to coombat iself is are the items and systems that enable combat; spells, armor, swords and so on. Enemies should be varied and the combat should intrinsically fun regardless of external game rewards such as XP or gold. The fun in combat comes from the player being able to try things out and from prevailing against perceived risk.
As the fragmaster is to Conan the Barbarian so the Problem Solver is to Sherlock Holmes. The problem solver wants to out think the game. If they're faced with a challenge they want to overcome it. Finding a hallway full of lethal radiation they'll search for a radsuit. Facing a dragon guarding a door they'll look for a way to sneak past it or appease it.
This player wants to use strategy, they want to combine objects or actions with their wit to resolve problems in the game. If the combat rewards clever thinking over brute force, then it's appealing to this player type. Problem solvers do not need hand-holding or overt guidance, present a problem to them and they will explore it, on their own, with glee. Throw in a little mystery and it will be irresistible.
- Flexible game objectives with multiple possible resolutions.
- Ability to combine objects, actions and strategies to come up with creative solutions to problems.
Gameplay built from systems and small pieces that can work together will play very well with this type (such as Magicka). Emergent gameplay can be hard to balance, especially for persistent multiplayer game.
The treasure hound wants loot. All the loot. The rarer and more powerful the loot, the better. To them the game is giant shopping mall to be pillaged. Every item in the world will be opened and investigated, every living creature struck down and relived of their possessions.
This player wants to search through the shops and merchants of a city and be rewarded with unusual items. They want to hear rumours of ancient treasures and be able to unearth them. Some may want to amass the largest amount of gold, others only see the gold as a means to end, an enabler to be over prepared for the challenges the game has to offer.
- Frequent and valuable loot.
- In game economy to sell less interesting items and gain more interesting ones.
- Powerful inventory system especially with respect to organization and ways to discover more information about items.
Economies in single player games are usually underdeveloped but one could imagine reoccurring services - teleporter use, armor maintenance etc that might cost a fix sum a month. Then the player could also get revenue from owning land or from tribute. This kind of revenue balancing plays well with the treasure hound.
The game acknowledging collectable items by providing player housing and display stands plays with the treasure hound. As do cosmetic upgrades to the player's property.
The issues with this type are it's hard to create a lot of loot content without causing game imbalance or a lot of junk items. Players like to find items that are useful or a vast improvement over what they're currently using. A sword of attack plus 1.1 isn't likely to get a player's heart racing if they already have the sword of plus 1.
The treasure hound doesn't necessarily want loot for it's in-game abilities, it's rareness, emotional meaning, history or appearance may all be equally appealing.
The story chaser wants to play the game and experience an epic story. They don't really want "Bad Endings" and find having to do meaningless tasks for a "Good Ending" unrewarding. They want a cinematic experience first and an interactive experience second.
- A storyline that rewards their efforts.
- Well written dialog and a solid plot.
- Ability to talk with game characters and follow one or more story threads.
The story chaser is more inclined to play high-production games with voice acting, facial animation and motion capture but remember the root of their desire is the story and that can provided just as well by more modest games.
For the navel gazer the game must be all about one person; them. Their guy should not just be the focus of the plot but they should be the most awesome person in the world. The richest, best dressed, most feared and admired, no other may approach the stature they'll obtain.
The navel gazer likes to upgrade his skills and then see the benefit of the skills directly in the game world. If he previously couldn't hack a level 5 security system, when he upgrades he can.
- Significant opportunities to add and tweak character skills.
- Skills present a clear and frequent benefit to the user.
- An easy visual way to track their skill advancement.
This player enjoys notoriety systems. If he defeats the dragon and next time he goes to a town people mention it or seem in awe then that's going to press the right buttons. Skills with limited use are ignored with predujdice; the swimming, puppetry etc. all skills of limited, one-off use do not appeal to this player.
The tourist wants nothing more than to explore. To experience the new and novel; places, cultures or people. RPGs can provide the tourist with experiences that would be much trickier in reality; the surface of Jules Vernes' Mars, the irradiated wastes of Fallout, medieval kingdoms and so on. This player is less interested in effecting the world or having a story revolve around them instead they want to explore.
The more immersive the world the better, high quality ambient sounds, 3d vistas, virtual reality; the more the tourist can feel like they're really there the better. They will create their own goals from the environment; can they climb that high mountain over there, can they gain access to the very top of the keep, the depths of abyssal dungeons. They want to see the mechanisms and machinery in the game working, the creatures interacting with the environment and the people living their own particular cultures.
- A large explorable world.
- Detailed environments that invite player interaction.
- Game maps that indicate where a player has and has not been.
There's a tricky balance for this player; you want the world to be accessible but at the same time you want to avoid making the game too easy. It's ok to make the tourist work a little for what they want; that way it makes the reward all the richer.
Use these archetypes when designing your game, consider how your experience plays for each player type. These are called archetypes because they represent a purified, distilled player; in reality a player is a mix of all these labels and then some.
If you make a game that appeals more to a Fragmaster than Puzzle Solver type, you're going to arrive at a title the feels like Diablo. Give primacy to the Story Chaser player, and you're going to arrive at something similar to Planescape Torment. In the end, it is going to be how you mix and mesh the preferences of all these different kinds of players that will determine the final feel the style of the games you wish to make.
- Swords and Circuitry by Neal and Jana Hallford
Have fun and go make some experiences!