Karma, Farming and Play Styles «

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The Karma effect and self-scaling universes applies the old management saying (and game design maxim) “You get what you measure” to MMORPG leaderboards:

Each of the massively multiplayer browser games I mentioned earlier capitalizes extensively on this Karma effect, to the point where some of them don’t even bother to have a graphical side anymore: all you have and play with, is tables with different rankings and statistics that define how well you do: amount of resources, number of bases, successful attacks executed… and that’s it. Playing the game merely means issuing commands with a button, and if your command worked those numbers get higher. And, boy, do you happily obsess over getting them up over time. Indeed one could say that games like these use only the Karma effect, throw a big fat SQL table and a user profile at it, sit back and watch user loyalty go through the roof.

It would be funny if it weren’t dead true. Most of these games feel like you’re using Excel to solve linear programming problems with starships as your desktop background while teenage psychopaths misspell obscenities at you.

Spreadsheet Games

Yeah, it’s that much fun. Now imagine it goes on for weeks. I used to call these “spreadsheet games” and only settled on farming games because at least it’s a verb that describes what happens to you.

I think the only think worse than how awful some of these games are is the fact they have tens of thousands of signups.

No shit, quite often tens to hundreds of thousands of signups. Not active players, of course, sane people give up pretty quickly on these games. But the games are successes in that they find an audience that can support their expenses.

I disagree, though, with the idea that scores and rankings work anywhere:

In society this number is often our salary, but for example in Reddit this is called ‘Karma’ and the founders are so aware of the psychological effect they don’t even bother to give an actual meaning to it! And they don’t need to: people will do what it takes to boost their Karma. So let’s dub this – extremely strong – effect the Karma Effect[…]

21st Century Game Design

There’s an awesome book titled 21st Century Game Design that did — no kidding here — actual research into gamers and did a cluster analysis to break down gamers into four groups (eat your heart out, Richard Bartle).

Their four clusters are Conquerors, Managers, Wanderers, and Participants. Conquerors want to dominate the game or other players and are motivated by (and even take pleasure in) anger, frustration, and boredom. Managers want to master gameplay more than win, and they enjoy plot and politics. Wanderers want experiential games that can explore, tinker with, and perhaps display finesse. Participants are not frequently gamers at all but are heavy socializers when they do, enjoying collaboration and shared emotion. (And grab the book, this is a small piece of the good content in this book; I took 5 pages of notes from it.)

Conquerors are the sterotypical “hardcore gamers” that comprise the bulk of gaming culture both by weight and volume (and that’s volume as in taking up lots of space and volume as in loud as hell). These karma, spreadsheet, farming games appeal squarely to the conqueror demographic with confrontation, violence, stark functionality, numeric goals, and explicit ranking.

Nobody’s exclusively in one of these clusters so high scores can pull at a lot of people, but they’re not nearly as universal a motivator as hearing the words “Hey, that was a nice move” from someone you respect. It’s harder to build a game that drives that kind of social interaction, but I think it’s more rewarding.

Mechanic 59: Pools and Controls
The blog post also shares some ideas about nesting the game within itself. When working on my game design I worked out how a single turn is nested into a match, which is nested into the base-building game, which is nested into the overall game community. It was a nice exercise in thinking of the entire system as a game to ensure it’s fun at multiple levels of abstraction from the core second-to-second mechanics. The ideas he comes up with remind me a lot of some of the ideas in Sean Howard’s 300 Hundred Mechanics project, especially the Composition Army and Procedurally-Generated Content Cards 1, 2, and 3.

(My thanks to David Bremner for his help in supplying the Windows desktop for the screenshot.)


  1. Why would I eat my heart out? I’m no statistician, but Nick Yee has done plenty of cluster analysis that largely backs up my player types theory.

    As it happens, I have Bateman & Boon, and even reference it in a chapter I wrote for a 2009 book edited by Chris Bateman
    (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1584506717/?tag=pushcx-20). The similarity between my types and the Bateman & Boon types pretty well ends at the fact there are 4 types in each one. They address different issues and are not contradictory; it really depends on what you want to use them for as to which one to use. Mine comes with a model, so it can be used predictively; it’s not going to help if you’re looking at personalities, though, whereas Bateman & Boon will.


    PS: Google blog search…

  2. It was intended as lighthearted teasing, not any kind of special rhetorical smackdown. Your model has been a useful design tool to a lot of people (self included), I was poking fun because it’s not a rigorous statistical model like the iHobo book and I’ve been big on that lately.

    I haven’t been able to read the book you recommend (my library doesn’t have it and won’t try to get it via inter-library loan until it’s 6 months old) but it sounds like they’re reiterating or furthering development of the model from 21st Century.

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