Game Design – The Legacy of Bartle

Balancing the Bartle

Right, so to make your game good you need to cater for all four groups.  That’s easy once you know about it.  Is that all there is to it?  No.  The most important part is to then balance the elements to please all four groups.

Successful balancing will consist of equalising the appeal but also making features optional.

List out the features of a game and assign each feature a score from 1 to 10 reflecting its appeal to each group.  By features I not only mean gameplay mechanics but also areas, items, story lines and so on.  Add the numbers up for each group and you can see how your game is currently skewed.  Now, perhaps you intend to appeal to a niche market and skewing is just fine, but a truly legendary game should balance its appeal to all four groups roughly equally.

Hmm, this balancing still doesn’t sound too hard.  I also mentioned making things optional though and this is where many games struggle as it’s the hardest bit.

Imagine the most dedicated of Killers has bought our shiny new FPS.  He loads it up for the first time (on launch day of course, so that by the next day he can shout “noob” at anybody who is just starting) and finds that he can’t go straight in.  No, first, he must write his character background and define his family tree.  Then he must design his uniform, select from a huge array of weapons, all with detailed stats and get the combat weight to under a value based on the character’s strength.  Then there’s a non-skippable cut scene and a twenty minute wait while a troop transport vehicle takes him to the front line.  He has already switched the game off and is looking to trade it in.

It’s all very well having these features and they will generally appeal to somebody out there but not everybody.  So, for every baffling choice in setup, have a default or recommended option.  Perhaps a quick-start option would be a good idea, to skip all the choices in one go?  If so, then make sure that the options can be changed later.

The really tricky part is in making sure that as many features as possible can be optionally skipped or ignored at your first play and yet also that this doesn’t detract from your game experience.  This then leads to another tricky part: if I don’t need the feature in order to enjoy the game, then why would I ever bother with it?  Simply put, that’s down to the player type.  Features designed to appeal to one Bartle group specifically should be optional but present.  They will then use it as it appeals to their playing style, regardless of whether it confers a benefit.

By following such guidelines you can avoid what is often a big, though surprisingly common mistake: expert mode.  Having a simplified system to get up and going, but a more feature rich system that beats it hands down may sound like a good idea but what about new players?  They will get beaten time and again by those who took the time to read about and learn the expert mode and will be discouraged.  Matchmaking (putting you with players of similar ability or options) can help to an extent but really that is just a work around for an already flawed model in some cases.  I’m not saying leave out matchmaking entirely, just be careful that you aren’t using it to shore up a flawed system.

Ideally, the more advanced features are there to appeal to those Bartle groups directly and not to unbalance the game.


Not every player is the same.  A good game will appeal equally to all types of player and we can use a feature rating system at the design stage to aid in this respect.  However, the features designed for any particular group should not make the game harder for those who do not wish to use them and as many features as possible should be optional in the early stages.

If you consider a game to be bad, then perhaps it is simply badly balanced and only designed to a appeal to a certain group of players.  Likewise, if you love a game to bits, is it just because it favours your style of play over those of others?  You may well love it, but it’s still a bad game when looking at the bigger picture… which is perhaps why you’re the only one that bought it and why you can’t get anyone else to play it.

The biggest and best games will always, whether by accident or design, appeal to all four Bartle groups.  Try assessing existing games in this context and you’ll quickly see how universally it applies and how well it highlights the successes and flaws in their design.


  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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