[ Published in the Sept 2012 issue of Game Developer Magazine. ]

Most game designers think that human play-style preferences can be mapped to a spectrum with Player vs. Player (PvP) on one side, and Player vs. Environment (PvE) on the other. Players who prefer PvP are aggressive, and like competition. Players who prefer PvE are more passive, and don’t want to compete—like Care Bears.

Most game designers are wrong.

While this PvP / PvE split may well be the best way to categorize some of the features of an MMO server, the research that I have been doing over the past few years seems to indicate that this model has nothing to do with actual human motivations. From what I can tell, there is no such thing as someone who doesn’t enjoy winning in one form or another. Care Bears are a myth, and thinking about our players as PvP or PvE completely misses how humans are actually motivated—which in turn makes it harder for us to design games that appeal to them. The opposite of Player vs. Player is actually Team vs. Team. At least, that’s what my research subjects are telling me.

In the May issue of GDMag, I wrote an article called “The Five Domains of Play,” in which I explained how I have been using the Big Five model from modern motivation psychology to study how game design elements can appeal to different kinds of players. In doing so, I’ve been conducting “qualitative interviews” with players, where I give them the Big 5 test (you can take it for free here: www.personal.psu.edu/~j5j/IPIP), and then I talk to them about what satisfies them when they play games. Before I explain why Care Bears don’t exist, I’ll need to explain a bit more about the Big Five model, and how we think of competition as players.

What’s a Facet?

In Big 5 terms, a “facet” is one of the measurable atomic “spectra” of personality. Take adventurousness, for example: If you score high in adventurousness, you are someone who is more inclined to be interested in what’s over the next hill, around the next corner, inside the box, and so on. If you score low in adventurousness, you’re more interested in what you know, your “stomping ground,” the familiar cycle of routines, and the known. Humans, as it turns out, show something like a normal standard distribution along the spectrum of those two extremes.

The core of my research has been to correlate facets like that with game elements. Unsurprisingly, the adventurousness facet correlates remarkably well with, for high scorers, a preference for exploration and discovery in gameplay. Low scorers in this facet show a marked preference for base building and “exploration through conquest.” In the words of one of my interviewees, “I only explore something after it is part of my domain.”

Let’s jump to the competitiveness facet. Different researchers call this facet different names, most of which focus on the opposite end of the motivation spectrum: compliance, accommodation,and cooperation, for example. (From what I’ve read, many scientists seem reluctant to let the idea of “competitiveness” headline the facet, which seems like some kind of attempt to be philosophically politically correct. I think it’s amusing.)

The International Personality Item Pool (seen at http://ipip.ori.org, where much of the core data for this research is stored) describes the competitiveness facet thusly:

“Individuals who score on one end of this scale dislike confrontations. They are perfectly willing to compromise or to deny their own needs in order to get along with others. Those who score on the other end of this scale are more likely to intimidate others to get their way.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? On one side, we should have nonconfrontational Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing players, and on the other hand we should have tea-bagging Halo campers. Right?

That’s certainly what I expected from this facet when I started this research, so I formulated my questions accordingly: “Do you seek games with competitive play in them?” “Do you prefer PvP, PvE, or something else?” “Do you play online multiplayer deathmatch?” Each of these questions would trigger conversations about their play styles and preferences.

I knew my theory was off-target in some of my earliest interviews. One of my very first interviewees was a low-competitive-scoring player who loved Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing… and Halo deathmatch. Loved it. As in, one of her top five games of all time.

Player vs. Team

After the sixth or seventh person with a score on the cooperative side of things regaled me with tales of their Call of Duty awesomeness, it was pretty clear that something was wrong with this theory. So I started interrogating my victims in new ways, looking for insight.

Looking at my surveys, I noticed something: while my cooperative players were often happy playing games like Call of Duty, Halo, and League of Legends, my competitive players were playing a lot more StarCraft. So I dug in and made the connection that would help “fix” my survey questions. (By “fix” I mean that I started getting answers to my questions that lined up their personality scores with my predictions.)

Players with a high score in competitiveness often have little-to-no preference about whether  they are on a team. They generally don’t care about the rest of the team, as long as they personally have an opportunity to crush their opponents. These players tend to prefer  StarCraft 1v1 and Call of Duty free for all. On the other end of the spectrum we have cooperative players, who rarely report getting much satisfaction from the personal victory of a StarCraft 1v1 match, but report a huge sense of satisfaction from their team winning. From what I can tell so far, there’s are few (if any) humans with a strong motivational desire for both of those experiences. They are motivational opposites.

But What About Care Bears?

Earlier, I said that Care Bears are a myth. That’s a slight exaggeration; if we reduce our examination to just this competitiveness spectrum, there is next to no one out there who doesn’t enjoy competition in some way. “Care Bears,” as we imagine them as a kind of player we design for, are supposed to be wilting, super-friendly sweethearts who just don’t appreciate the finer points of a good win.

They don’t exist, or if they do, I haven’t found any. What I have found is “Don’t-Care Bears.”

Don’t-Care Bears are usually people with a competitiveness score somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They are neither strongly competitive nor strongly cooperative, so they’ll be happy to take competition if it’s there (and enjoy it), but they just don’t seek it out as one of their primary sources of satisfaction. They may find greater satisfaction in other kinds of things, depending on their other motivation scores. For example, people with a high score in the thrill-seeking facet have reported that they like the “thrill-ride” of a competitive experience, but such a player may be just as happy to get that particular kind satisfaction from a single-player action ride as from winning a competitive multiplayer game.

So how does this revelation affect the way we design games_? Well, people who are playing primarily single-victor competitive experiences want to feel like they are kicking ass at other people’s expense. People who are playing primarily team-based games want to feel like their personal contribution mattered to other people’s victory, regardless of whether they got the highest score on their team.

Organize your features accordingly.

Of course, the best games already do this. This dilemma has been the primary constraint in the evolution of the way modern shooters are scored. In their online competitive modes, most modern shooters blend a “PvP” score (kills) with a “TvT” score (match score). Each is exquisitely balanced against the other: personal kills have features like the “brag tag” and kill streaks to celebrate the solo warrior, yet the kill streak rewards often benefit the team, and the overall game is generally won and lost by some kind of team score. It wasn’t always this way. Originally, competitive multiplayer had only one mode: deathmatch. The idea of a “Team Deathmatch” was exotic until designers experimenting with human satisfaction quickly discovered that it rocked, and each new game has brought better and better ways of balancing these conflicting motivations together in the same game.

This isn’t accidental. We wouldn’t be such a wildly successful industry if we weren’t able to satisfy a broad spectrum of motivations for something as fundamental to playing games as the desire to win. But while we’re getting better and better at this every day, we still end up with games that have failed to accomplish this. As amazing as the online PvP play is in Dark Souls, its team play consists mostly of ganging up on people. It is a satisfying PvP experience, but the way the team mechanic has been implemented puts a team player almost exclusively into the role of Bully #2. Oops.

If you believe that the people who like being nice to each other and cooperating together on tasks (PvE) do not also enjoy soundly thrashing their enemies in combat, you need to stop believing that, and organize your features according to the idea that they do want to compete, but together, against a common foe.

If you have one takeaway from this article, take the PvP / PvE mindset and delete it from your mind. Replace it with this: PvP / Don’t-Care Bears / TvT.

Jason VandenBerghe is a creative director at Ubisoft, which he has to admit doesn’t exactly suck. You can read his intermittent blog and various scribblings at www.darklorde.com. He can be reached by email at jason.vandenberghe@ubisoft.com.