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Fundamentals of Game Design: Understanding Your Player

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In this chapter from Fundamentals of Game Design, 3rd Edition, you'll learn about the characteristics of certain kinds of players, what kinds of feelings different players like to experience as they play, and the importance of demographics: men and women, boys and girls, dedicated (“hardcore”) players, and casual ones. All this information will help you define what kinds of people you want to entertain and, in consequence, what kind of game you should build to entertain them.
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The player-centric approach that this book teaches demands, above all else, that you understand your player, not merely as part of an audience of consumers, but as an individual who has an emotional connection to your game and, indirectly, to you. We often think that we know what players want from games, but much of this knowledge is intuitive and based on what we want from games as players. In this chapter, you’ll learn about the characteristics of certain kinds of players. We’ll begin with a way of looking at what kinds of feelings different players like to experience as they play. Next we’ll examine several familiar demographics: men and women, boys and girls, dedicated (“hardcore”) players, and casual ones. All this information will help you define what kinds of people you want to entertain and, in consequence, what kind of game you should build to entertain them.

VandenBerghe’s Five Domains of Play

Jason VandenBerghe is a Creative Director at Ubisoft, and he has been studying issues of player motivation for several years. In his lecture “The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games,” delivered at the 2012 Game Developers’ Conference (VandenBerghe, 2012), VandenBerghe proposed a way of understanding different kinds of players and why they choose the games that they do. You can apply this as part of the player-centric approach to game design by thinking about your representative player in these terms. In the next few sections we’ll take a look at VandenBerghe’s five domains of play.

The Five-Factor Model

VandenBerghe’s work is based on a well-known psychological model of human personality traits called the Five Factor Model. This concept, also known as “The Big Five,” explains personality traits in terms of five nonoverlapping domains: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (which is defined as a tendency to experience negative emotions). The names of these traits produce a convenient acronym: OCEAN.

The opposite ends of these scales are resistance to new experiences, lack of conscientiousness, introversion, disagreeableness, and stability. After thousands of surveys, the model has proven to be remarkably stable across ages and cultures.

These traits produce observable patterns of motivation and behavior: People who are open to new experiences seek them out; people who are agreeable seek social harmony; and so on. Based on his understanding of the Five Factor Model, VandenBerghe proposed that we play games to satisfy the same motivations that we feel in real life, and this is particularly true if we are unable to satisfy them in real life. Play gives us an outlet.

The Five Domains of Play

VandenBerghe correlated the five traits of the Five Factor Model with five domains of play that might fulfill them—which can also be thought of as aspects of a game that players might be motivated to seek out. Here are his five domains of play and what they mean for understanding a player.

  • Novelty. This correlates with the first trait, openness to experience. Players who seek novelty like games that include a lot of variety and unexpected elements. People who don’t like novelty seek familiarity instead: games that offer them a comforting sameness. These players might prefer Words with Friends to a science fiction extravaganza set in a strange world with strange rules.
  • Challenge. VandenBerghe correlates a desire for challenge—and perhaps more specifically effort and control—with the trait of conscientiousness. High-challenge players prefer games that are difficult and require precision to win. Their conscientiousness drives them to act, to accomplish things, and perhaps to try to complete everything in a game. Low-challenge players like sandbox games and others in which the player is free to fool around without being required to achieve something.
  • Stimulation. Particularly via social engagement, this naturally correlates with extraversion. These players enjoy party games and others that involve interacting with other players. Those who prefer to avoid stimulation prefer games they can play alone, games that let them be the only real person in the game world.
  • Harmony. Chapter 1, “Games and Video Games,” described harmony as a quality of a game, the feeling that all parts of the game belong to a single, coherent whole. In this case, however, VandenBerghe is referring to social harmony and correlates this motivation with the personality trait of agreeableness. He sees cooperative games such as Little Big Planet as good examples of games that offer social harmony, and strictly competitive games, such as the Street Fighter series, as ones that offer this quality’s opposite, conflict.
  • Threat. This domain is the most peculiar one because players’ reactions to it are the opposite of what you might expect. The game quality of threat (an element of danger, or frightening content—anything that is likely to generate unpleasant emotions) is popular with people who have high neuroticism scores in OCEAN tests.

In other words, people who have a tendency to experience negative emotions actually seek out those emotions. He includes players of the survival horror genre in this category.

In his talk at the Game Developers’ Conference, VandenBerghe further subdivided each of these domains into six “facets.” For example, threat is really composed of six other qualities of games: tension, provocation, gloom, humiliation, addiction, and danger. However, there isn’t room to discuss all 30 facets of games here. To learn more about them, please download his slides at

Bear in mind that these are not binary, on-off qualities. They are continuums, sliding scales. What’s more, they don’t describe what players always like; our moods change. Sometimes we might want high-energy action, and at other times we might like a slower-moving adventure game with lots to look at.

VandenBerghe’s point, and mine, is that by keeping these qualities of games in mind—these domains of play that people seek out—we can decide as designers how we want to entertain them: what experiences our games will provide.

Another Domain: Attitudes to Storytelling

One question that VandenBerghe didn’t address, but that makes a big difference among players, is how they feel about stories in games. Some are dogmatically opposed to the inclusion of story-like material in a game. They dislike any narrative content such as cut-scenes, and they think of the game primarily as a system of rules that they must learn to master. The story merely interferes with their enjoyment of this process. These players prefer tactical or strategic immersion in the game (as we explained in the section called “Immersion” in Chapter 1). They have no interest in narrative immersion. To them, the non-player characters (NPCs) in the game are not people to be interacted with but symbols to be manipulated. These players prefer games of pure action or strategy, or multiplayer games that make no effort to tell a story because the main point of the game is to interact with the other players. Some genres are more suited to storytelling than others, too. Sports games, for example, gain little from the inclusion of storytelling.

For other players, the story is not only part of the game, it is the main reason for playing the game. They believe in its characters and are concerned about what happens to them. The events in the game are a part of a plot to which they are contributing as active participants. They may even care less about the gameplay than they do about the story, using cheats or walkthroughs to find out what happens without having to overcome all the challenges themselves.

Few players are this extreme, however. Most enjoy a certain amount of storytelling in a game, so long as it is coherent with the gameplay and doesn’t slow them down. At the very least they find a little framing narrative to be useful in establishing context: setting the scene and explaining who the protagonist is, what she is trying to achieve, and why.

As you think about your plans for the game and your target audience, keep in mind that some audiences loves stories passionately, some hate them utterly, and many like a dash of storytelling with their gameplay. Decide which audience you want to serve, then check out Chapter 11, “Storytelling,” which discusses how to include stories in games in detail.

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