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Five Ways Games Appeal to Players

April 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Complements and Conflicts Between Appeals

Reading over these appeals, you may notice that they aren't at all mutually exclusive -- and, in fact, that's entirely the point. This allows us to discuss the many ways in which they intersect for good and ill, and how to design games to capitalize on these intersections.

Finding and exploiting a game's glitches, for instance, offers subversion-related appeals in breaking the rules, but it may also offer accomplishment-related appeals in giving oneself an edge against opponents, or even just in uncovering the secrets of the game system. Playing Dance Dance Revolution offers accomplishment-related appeals in achieving a high score on difficult songs, socialization appeals in dancing alongside other players, and recreation appeals through physical exertion.

Different game appeals sometimes map to different game mechanics, but they don't have to. A game can offer imagination appeals entirely separately from accomplishment appeals by having narrative cutscenes that feel completely irrelevant to player input, but it could also blend imagination and accomplishment by making dialog interactive, even challenging.

Dialog scenes in Mass Effect 2, for instance, offer an appeal of directorship by allowing the player to choose how to respond, but there's not much room for a the appeal of perfecting one's skills; some responses yield objectively better results than others, but the best responses are clearly color-coded, and generally achievable so long as you choose consistently "good-guy" or consistently "bad-guy" responses.

In contrast, dialog scenes in games like L.A. Noire and Deus Ex: Human Revolution add an additional layer of challenge by requiring the player to gauge characters' facial expressions and body language in choosing the most effective responses.

No less important than blending appeals, of course, is anticipating how different appeals might conflict with one another. This offers designers an opportunity to prioritize features, or offer additional context for features, based on the appeals they most want to encourage. As I described in an article in Eludamos, for instance, "dying" in a game is usually hugely disruptive to storytelling, but it's typically considered an appropriate way to make players feel they have something at stake in failure.

In other words, it's a traditionally-accepted concession to accomplishment appeals at the cost of imagination appeals. Some games do, however, anticipate this conflict and attempt to compensate for it, such as by explaining away death through narrative means -- reviving as a clone in BioShock, or finding out that the death was a mistake by an unreliable narrator in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

A more dramatic approach is to completely exclude certain features to ensure that the appeals you most want to encourage are most salient. Consider, for example, how game designers might deal with the potential conflict between imagination appeals and socialization appeals. A cooperative, multiplayer campaign like in Borderlands or Gears of War offers opportunities for socialization with friends, and may even help make challenges more manageable -- but these appeals may come at the cost of imagination if your friends have a tendency to chat over cutscenes.

Demon's Souls also features cooperative and competitive multiplayer mechanics, but it prioritizes imagination appeals (like being drawn into a tense atmosphere) over socialization appeals (like chatting with friends). You can't communicate directly with other players through voice chat, but only interact with them as ephemeral ghosts or indirectly, by leaving brief messages written on the ground. By forcibly isolating players in their own dangerous worlds, the result is arguably much more thematically and stylistically consistent than it could have been with a voice chat function.

While it won't always be obvious which appeals are likely to conflict and why, describing game features according to this approach does at least offer a means to critique what has worked and what hasn't worked in existing games. And by considering all of these appeals on even standing, it's my hope that we might see more games that experiment with prioritizing some of the least widely utilized appeals, for the sake of innovation, exploration, and -- if I may be permitted to say so -- fun.


This theory of game appeals represents an attempt to cover a lot of ground. That said, I see this not as an all-encompassing, universal taxonomy, but as a starting point for a way of thinking about games that sees potential value in a broader range of design approaches.

Moreover, I also see plenty of room for additional appeals, or for taxonomical reshuffling as further research recommends. Do skill-free "social games" have more complex workings than I give them credit for by only describing their appeals in terms of recreation and chance accomplishment? Do motion-controlled games like those on the Wii and the Kinect -- or athletic sports, for that matter -- deserve an entire category separate from recreation, breaking kinesthetic activity into more varied and nuanced appeals? I would have loved to have investigated such questions myself more fully, but I'm hoping others will suggest how to fill in the gaps.

Beyond being a mere theoretical exercise, however, I also hope that these discussions can lead us to designing an even broader variety of thoughtful and innovative games. When designers and developers define games as obstacle courses whose primary purpose is to elicit "fun," we miss out on other kinds of engagement and experience. And when we describe players as if they could be so easily fit into a small handful of categories themselves, not only do we forget that we can intrigue and delight one player on multiple levels, but we run the risk of never reaching the players -- or creating the genres -- that we have yet to discover.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

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