Game Design – The Legacy of Bartle

Modern games sometimes lose sight of the fact that there have been a lot of games that came before.  Even the worst of the old games can teach us a lot about game design though, even if it’s just a list of things to avoid.

In this article I will be covering the Bartle model of player types.  It is, in my view, a great benefit for any game designer to keep the model in mind when designing any type of game, although frequently it is either not known about or discounted as specific to certain genres.

Hopefully, what follows will not just be of interest to budding game designers but also useful to players as they can use the information and techniques described below to form a framework in assessing what a game does well and where it falls down, rather than just posting that a game sucks on a forum without any supporting arguments or evidence.


Richard Bartle is perhaps best known for developing the first ever MUD game in 1978, which is now sometimes referred to as MUD1 so as to avoid confusion with the games that followed in its wake.  MUDs (multi user dungeon/domain) were the forerunners to the MMORPGs of today, which are still sometimes referred to as graphical MUDs.

Bartle’s interest in game design was still strong by the time these Johnny-come-lately descendants of his work appeared and so, in 1996, he published a paper outlining his theory of player types in online gaming.  The proposed model was later revised to add more player types, but in my view the revised model over-complicates the subject and the original’s four groups are sufficient.

A few years later, Erwin Andreasen and Brandon Downey took the model and created a test to assess players, categorising them into the four Bartle groups: Achiever, Explorer, Socialiser or Killer (also called Diamonds, Spades, Hearts and Clubs, respectively).  There have been many variations on such a test but the official Bartle Quotient test is still available online if you wish to see where your own playing style lies.

Know Your Players

The results from this test demonstrate that players usually fall into all four categories at once, with the proportion of interest per category being the difference between players.  This is valuable information for a game designer.  If you wish to appeal to all types of player and to appeal to more aspects of what each player enjoys then all four types of play must be present in your game.

Let’s look at each group in turn:

Achievers, or diamonds, wish to measure their own success.  The game must be beaten!  They need every item within the game, useful or not.  They want to see every ending that the game has and earn every unlockable feature.  If the game has a score then the top of the global leaderboard is the place to be.  Trophies or achievements were perhaps the biggest bonus of recent times to these players.

Explorers, or spades, need to learn the game and know every nook and cranny.  If something bars their progress then it must be overcome.  They may draw maps, write guides or watch every second of cut scenes.  They take a lot of interest in the plot of the game too, so while a sandbox title may at first seem ideal for them, if there isn’t plenty of backstory and plot to learn then they may tire of the game.

Socialisers, or hearts, are all about other people.  They’re the ones chatting in the lobbies and sending friend requests.  They need to communicate about the game and so will always join the forums, even if just to admire the Achievers and use the guides produced by the Explorers.  Even in single player games you will find Socialisers as long as they have somebody to tell about the game either online or in real life.

Killers, or clubs, seek action and plenty of it.  Perhaps blowing things up or even building them up just to put your mark on a place.  They love competing with other players, either becoming the heroic leader of others or the villain that everyone fears.  While achievers need levels and equipment to pull off the kill and explorers use their insider knowledge, the Killer wants to be able to rule instantly by skill alone.  For the Killer though, it is the domination over others that is the thrill and not the score or ranking, making them the most likely to teabag your corpse or camp your spawn point endlessly.

Putting it to Use

Although this model was designed for multiplayer gaming, and more specifically for MMORPGs and their ancestors, I believe that it has a wider application in game design.

Sure, in modern times we don’t need to cater for each group as consciously as we used to, as support for them is almost automatic now.  We have trophies/achievements for the Achievers, tip sites and YouTube for the Explorers, forums for the Socialisers and online competitive multiplayer for the Killers.  These are available almost as standard, but the design of the game itself should also respect the diversity of the players.

Let’s look a FPS games as a good example.

Surely these games have one category in the bag from the very start.  Killers get to kill people and even better, it’s other players.  They can mock them over the comms, turn crouching into the latest insult to the fallen and drive people mad with their lightning reactions.  What else can we do for them though?  They like to be feared, so a ranking system would be useful.  They may also hunger for clans to lead so that their entire team can dominate the world.  In general though, we don’t need to add extra features to draw Killers to an FPS as they already pre-ordered it months ago.

Achievers are also well catered for thanks to ranks but this time it is for the status rather than for the fear it brings.  If you would like them to pre-order the game, then how about some exclusive pre-order bonus weapons?  Unlockable weapons and customisations will appeal too, along with any kind of in-game points or currency that they can save in order to obtain these rewards.  For an achiever it is all about the chase though, so these things have to keep coming or the game will be seen as completed and they will move on.

Explorers will need interesting map layouts to learn.  Ideally, these will have distinctive scenery so that they can relay clear instructions to team mates, as it’s no good saying, “let’s group up by the third corridor on the left… no, my left… from where I am now”, in the heat of the battle.  If it is possible to glitch into unintended areas then all the better in the case of some Explorers.  It isn’t just about physical exploring though, so to really appeal to Explorers, the game must have distinction between the opposing forces.  There must be a plot and a reason to fight over each location.  Objectives within the game such as assassination of a specific target or capturing territory will also appeal and stop the Explorer writing the game off as mindless.  A strong single-player campaign will also be a bonus as it sets the back-story for the online action.

What does this leave for socialisers?  Sure, they can whine about the Killers on the forums and join a clan, even chat over the comms but surely these people are getting a raw deal?  Not if we add Facebook integration.  How about a system that informs them of the achievements of friends, even if not in the same session, or updates them on what their friends have done since they were last online?  How about a feature where the community team secretly make a fancy video highlight reel for a particularly successful player each week in secret?  How about the ability to trade equipment with other players, perhaps through the clan or donate in-game points/cash?  There could even be areas where you need to give another player a leg-up to reach a higher area or an online cooperative campaign mode.  Socialisers definitely don’t need to be left out.

So, even in a Killer dominated field like an FPS, the Bartle model should still form the bedrock of game design in my opinion.  I could just as easily outline how it could be applied to anything from a sports game to a strategy game but the FPS genre will suffice as an example of how the Bartle quotient is no longer the preserve of those who love pointy hats and swords.

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  1. Probably one of the most interesting and informative piece of internet prose i’ve read this year.. Who is the enigmatic Codex?

    Oh, and I took the test, i’m an Explorer, no surprise there..

  2. I agree with Jacko, informative and interesting at the same time. Can we have more from Codex please?

    It would be good to see what he thinks about controller design.

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