Wednesday, 29 March 2023
Ten Player Motives #5
When we first started conducting surveys into how and why people play games, we discovered that one aspect of the play experience was almost universally loved by our respondents: excitement. The example of Bejeweled shows that this was somewhat misleading, however: yes, everyone enjoys feeling excited, but one person's rollercoaster is another person's vomit-inducing nightmare. Time-constraints do make games more exciting, but they also exclude certain players who do not want to feel that stressed when they are playing games. For the most part, however, the thrill-seeking motive is something that everyone enjoys, provided the game doesn't take it too far.
The self-adjusting speed of early puzzle games like mega-hit Tetris worked extremely well to ensure wide appeal. A game like Super-Hexagon divides players and turns off a great many who can't get to grips with the level of challenge, but Tetris adapts beautifully to the skills of the player. Lower difficulties give even unskilled players time to work out how to put the tetrominoes together, whereas a skilled player can jump ahead down the speed curve to find the place that's exciting for them. A huge range of brilliant puzzle game designs in the 90s and 2000s delivered thrill-seeking play that was fundamentally not about winning. The player of an endless mode never wins: defeat is inevitable. Yet players still have fun doing it.
There are other ways of tapping into the thrill-seeking motive that aren't just time constraints and gently-ramping pressure. Among the most iconic are the high speed racers that were extremely popular in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s. The Need for Speed franchise is the commercial the poster child, although Criterion's Burnout series is arguably an even better example. These games were so perfect at pushing player's high speed buttons, that EA bought Criterion and gave them the Need for Speed franchise to develop.
In the 2010s, another way of leveraging the thrill-seeking motive was added to the game design lexicon: the battle royale. Pioneered by PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds but then cloned and tweaked by Epic's Fortnite as a supplement (or replacement) for its underwhelming Save the World mode, the battle royale throws a hundred competitors into a simultaneous knock out tournament. These games are fundamentally about the victory motive - everybody likes to win, after all - but the excitement of being fielded against ninety nine other players in a sudden death, winner-takes-all format was palpable. So much so that even if the victory motive is why people say they play, the excitement is the reason that they stay. After all, only one player wins in each round... if victory were all it was about, these games would not have the thriving player communities that they do.
In a marvellous act of circularity, the success of the battle royale format led to game developers adding this to other existing game mechanics, leading to the return of the puzzle game in a surprising new format. Tetris, for so long the epitome of thrill-seeking purity, has come back as Tetris 99, combining the excitement of the original with the seat-of-the-pants glory seeking of the battle royale format. It is a striking reminder that while ideas come and go in videogames, there is always room to combine something old with something new to take players somewhere very familiar in a new and interesting way.
Ten Player Motives will return this Summer on ihobo.com.