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Hey Bro - It's All Relative! - The Theory of Game Relativity
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Hey Bro - It's All Relative! - The Theory of Game Relativity

December 8, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

This article presents a theory of game characterization along with a concrete and practical tool for using that theory to enhance key aspects of any game design currently under development.

Einstein Say What?

Mention the Theory of Relativity to someone, and you generally get one of two responses: a nod, wink, and faux-knowing smile, or instead a glazing of the eyes and emergency brain shutdown. Most people recall that a tousle-haired fellow named Einstein was involved, but the truth is that very few know the innards of the theory. Putting a nice little wrapper on it, all the theory tells us is that certain qualities of the natural world that were heretofore thought of as constant, are in fact dependent on the frame of reference, or perspective, of the observer. Back in the day, this little ditty blew some hats off to be sure - after all, how on earth could a meter-stick or a minute not be constant?

The problem with the Theory of Relativity is that it's really hard to get any day-to-day useful information out of it. After all, why do we care if the meter-stick is only a 93 cm-stick as it flies by at nearly the speed of light? And we can't even verify Einstein's theory with our naked eyes (observing differences in atomic clocks that have been flown around the world, notwithstanding).

Fortunately, the Theory of Game Relativity is a whole lot more practical, and has direct, real-world implications for game designers. It can innovate and evolve designs, help predict emergent gameplay, and identify paths of least-resistance for reaching more players (a.k.a. customers). All of these things contribute to a game's creative success, and ultimately, the all-important profit margin.

In the Ozarks, It's all Relative

What is the Theory of Game Relativity? Simply put, it is the following statement:

"The qualities of any game experience - even whether the experience is a game at all - are dependent upon the frame of reference of the observers and participants."

Some classical game theorists (Caillois, for example) have spent a considerable amount of effort trying to answer the fundamental question "what is a game?" The problem with a global game definition is that it fails to take into account the frame of reference of the observer or participant. This frame of reference has a huge effect, as illustrated below.

Levels of Enjoyment

At its simplest level, Game Relativity (GR) is intuitive and obvious. To wit, you and I may both sit down for a game of Unreal Tournament. Let's assume for a moment that you are a seasoned veteran and I am a newbie. By mutual agreement, we begin a match against each other. Certainly in this case, we are both playing a game, but what type of game are we playing? For me, it will likely be frantic, tense, and maybe even frustrating depending on how competitive I am. For you, the game may be diversionary, lacking in tension, and perhaps accordingly non-compelling. Same global game experience, two very different individual experiences.

Unreal Tournament 2004

If It Quacks Like a Game, It's Not Necessarily a Game

Now let's extend GR a bit further: Guillotine Pachinko! It's the French Revolution, the guillotine is oiled up, and you and I are members of the bloodthirsty crowd. An unfortunate noble is ushered up to the machine, and three baskets are placed underneath the platform.

Being sporting types, we start a wager regarding which basket the ol' melon is going to end up in. For you and I, we are taking part in a simple game of chance. For the victim, however, there is no game at all. Although he is unwillingly part of the global game experience, he is in no part a participant of the game, and therefore his experience of the same event will be markedly different than yours or mine. To the noble, there is no game, and this has nothing to do with the life-or-death stakes - it's just that there is no game at all from his perspective. However, if the noble casts his own bet on the outcome, though, then he has now transferred the gaming experience onto himself (but it will still differ markedly from yours and mine).

Luck Be a Lady Tonight - But I Don't Need Her

Another concrete example of GR is a casino. If I saunter up to the craps table and place a bet, I am certainly playing a game of chance. I may win, I may lose, and my experience will depend upon a variety of factors like my previous gambling experience, my bankroll, how seriously I treat the matter, and so on.

For the casino, though, there is a major difference: it is all business, no game. Once again we can take the same global experience, but cast it into two very different individual experiences: mine and the casino's.

To quote Danny Elfman, "Why Should I Caa-a-a-a-are?"

Why does GR matter to us as game developers? Easy answer: considering and exploring GR can result in a more successful product. Despite sounding like a pie-in-the-sky concept, a tangible method is presented below for exploring and harnessing GR. First, though, we must define a few terms.

Relativity Defies Classification - So Let's Classify It

Every individual on the planet is just that - an individual. This could theoretically result in 9+ billion points of view for any game experience. From a practical standpoint, we can reign things in a bit. Below are 10 archetypal game player perspectives:

  • The Gamer<1>: sees the game as an opportunity to maximize his utility/success
  • The Player<1>: sees the game as an opportunity to have meaningful experiences
  • The Builder: sees the game as an opportunity to create (mold the world in his own image)
  • The Socialite: sees the game as an opportunity to interact with other people
  • The Politician: sees the game as an opportunity to achieve positions of status both within and without the game
  • The Opportunist: sees the game as an opportunity to create non-game gain (tangible or otherwise)
  • The Disruptor: sees the game as an opportunity to maximize his experience through minimizing others'
  • The Unwitting Participant: doesn't see the game as an opportunity for anything - he doesn't know he is part of a game experience
  • The Non-Gamer: sees the game as a fruitless opportunity in which he has no desire to take part

The GAMER and PLAYER can really be broken down further into the "twitch" GAMER/PLAYER and the "thinker" GAMER/PLAYER.

Further simplifying things, the UNWITTING PARTICIPANT and the NON-GAMER are not relevant to our purposes, and can be summarily ignored. This leaves 7 archetypes to worry about.

Trivial Pursuit Gone Bad

The important thing to remember about the different player archetypes is that each one has a different perspective, which is generally closely associated with that archetype's goals.

Figure 1: The Game and the Archetype Pie.

Consider a game design, represented in Figure 1 as the small circle in the center of a larger circle. Each player archetype occupies a wedge in the larger pie. In essence, each pie wedge is interfacing with (i.e. "seeing") the game differently, because each wedge touches a different part of the game circle.

The demographic to which a game appeals can usually be classified as belonging to only a few of the player archetypes. For example:



Some games have much larger categorical appeal. To wit:

Unreal Tournament: GAMER/PLAYER primarily, with elements of DISRUPTOR, SOCIALITE, and even BUILDER (modders/level builders)

Or for the "full-house" of categorical appeal:


Is it any wonder why Everquest is such a success? A big reason is that, at its heart, the game appeals to an incredibly wide number of player archetypes - virtually all of them, in fact. Note that this is not stating that all players will like Everquest, but rather that Everquest has appeal to all player types (there is a difference). Also, simply appealing to an archetype doesn't mean that the game is good, or worth playing. Naturally, there have been many other competing MMORPGs that appeal to the same player types as Everquest, but none have been as successful. At the end of the day, it still takes solid design and polish to make a success. However, the flip side of things is that if you don't appeal to an archetype, then it doesn't matter how good your game design is - that archetype won't play it!

Note that a game will many times appeal to a category that may or may not have had design intent. Case in point, the many games to which the DISRUPTOR finds a liking: PK'ing in Diablo, TK'ing in CounterStrike, spam-jabbering in MMORPGs, and cheaters in all multiplayer games.

SimCity's fourth iteration

Unintentional appeal is not always a bad thing. For example, take the OPPORTUNIST appeal of Everquest. It is unlikely that the designers of the game fully anticipated how much of a real-world economy would develop out of the game (selling of game items for real-world dollars, so much so that Everquest ranks registers on the list of world economies). However, the OPPORTUNIST saw through the pattern of the game and figured out that real-world gain could be seized through the game experience (and thereby achieving the goal of that player archetype). It cannot be denied that this functioning real-world economy only added to Everquest's popularity, financial success, and overall "buzz".


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