Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Types (And Why It Doesn't Apply to Everything)
Richard Bartle co-created MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), the text-based precursor to today's MMORPGs, while studying at Essex University. He ended up formulating the theory that all MUD players could be broken down into four main types: killers, achievers, explorers, and socializers. This theory has since been used in all sorts of game design situations where it doesn't apply - let's look at what exactly it does tell us.
Back in the MUD
MUD is a text-based adventure game (no graphics at all, only text) that had the then-unique attribute of being able to be played alongside other human players. It was one of the first online persistent worlds created, and you can still grab a MUD client today, connect to a server and play.
It's a simplified version of pen and paper role-playing games in that the player has to imagine the world according to the information the Game Master (the server and the writer of the game, in this case) provides. The possible situations are limited compared to pen and paper RPGs, since the player can only interact with the elements and situations the game maker has planned.
It might appear plain or even boring today, but MUD is significant as one of the first online games - it has been around for 30+ years.
A Theory, a Tool, a Specific Scope
Bartle's player types are a way of classifying players of MUDs (and later by extension, and over-extension, MMORPGs) according to specific psychological aspects of their personality and how they prefer to play in a virtual world.
They are based on the compilation and observations of the results of a forum discussion (that lead later to The Bartle Test - which, despite bearing his name, was not created by Bartle) between MUD players about what they thought was fun in the game and what they thought others found fun about the same game.
From the observations and summary of the answers, Bartle theorized that MUD players could be split into four types, giving psychological portraits of players populating a virtual world for fun:
- Killers like to provoke and cause drama and/or impose them over other players in the scope provided by the virtual world. Trolls, hackers, cheaters, and attention farmers belong in this category, along with the most ferocious and skillful PvP (player versus player) opponents.
- Achievers are competitive and enjoy beating difficult challenges whether they are set by the game or by themselves. The more challenging the goal, the most rewarded they tend to feel.
- Explorers like to explore the world - not just its geography but also the finer details of the game mechanics. These players may end up knowing how the game works and behave better than the game creators themselves. They know all the mechanics, short-cuts, tricks, and glitches that there are to know in the game and thrive on discovering more.
- Socializers are often more interested in having relations with the other players than playing the game itself. They help to spread knowledge and a human feel, and are often involved in the community aspect of the game (by means of managing guilds or role-playing, for instance).
Summary of Bartle's player types.
In the above diagram, the horizontal axis represents a preference for interacting with other players vs. interacting with the world and the vertical axis represents a preference for (inter)acting with something vs. (inter)acting on something. So, achievers prefer to act on the world, while socializers prefer to interact with other players.
Bartle found that players tended to belong to a primary category, but drifted between several others depending on their mood, situation and preferred goal in the game. Having categorized those type of players, drawn to the same virtual world for different reasons and still acting and interacting in the same playing field, he was now able to better balance the game.
A stable MUD is one in which the four principal styles of player are in equilibrium. This doesn't imply that there are the same number of players exhibiting each style; rather, it means that over time the proportion of players for each style remains roughly constant, so that the balance between the the various types remains the same. Players Who Suit MUDs
Fine-tuning specific mechanics in order to raise or decrease the number of players of a certain type, while still keeping the MUD interesting for all the other types - that's what Bartle's theory was first formulated and used for.
In the modern context of MMORPGs, the theory still can be applied in order to monetize the game through a personal on-boarding process adapted to each player's type, retaining them through meaningful play as well as the careful balancing of the number of players of each types.
Use and Misuse of the Player Types Theory
What is the point of having such psychological portraits in your game designer toolbox?
Well, it definitely helps you to target your audience and to make decisions about your game design - if you're making a MUD. And when making more technical decisions about your game mechanics according to the type of player you're targeting, it allows you to pinpoint and design mechanics that will sit well with your game and the audience playing it.
But it's important to remember that the types are based on observations of MUD players, and cannot necessarily be extrapolated to miscellaneous other types of game.
Recently, Bartle has given several talks on the subject and warns against the usage of the player types theory in other types of games than MUD (and even MMORPGs). His main point is that the theory might be incomplete for other types of games.
Player Type Theory: Uses and Abuses by Richard Bartle. Delivered at Casual Connect Europe, February 2012
I strongly suggest you watch the whole talk; it's interesting and thoughtful, and will help you understand the abuse and misconceptions of the player types theory in today's industry.
The following examples of the misuse of the Player Types are extracted from the above talk:
The movement of gamification is a recent obvious example of the abuse of Bartle's Player Types.
Bartle calls it a bandwagon. A designer reads the summary; "four types of player? Okay, let's roll with that." They don't know why or how, but still they try to slap the theory on a non-MUD (or even non-game) activity.
This is how you end up with, for example, a shoe selling website that grants you points each time you buy a pair of shoes. With a certain amount of points, you get the access to a specific pair of shoes you can only buy thanks to the points you collected. So far it sounds good - it's viable and works for achievers.
Nevertheless, consider an explorer who is visiting every part of the website. Imagine he gets points for it. These points are worthless to them - rather, you should reward them with a way to keep on exploring the site; they'll thank you by continuing to play (i.e. interact) and enjoy the site.
In the same way, a leaderboard won't necessary sit well with a socializer. He's not interested in rankings, he's more interested in meeting and getting to chat with and know more people.
A Nutty Example
Consider an achiever standing under a tree without moving for an hour. Eventually, a nut falls from the tree as a "reward". The achiever is glad: he's got a nut, no one else has a nut.
Now consider there's an in-game shop, and anybody can buy a nut. The achiever who stood under the tree will feel their achievement is undermined if anyone else can buy a nut with (whether with real or virtual cash). The achiever might get very upset about that point.
But other player types might not understand this feeling. And for example, if a socializer needs to get a nut to keep on engaging with other players, he might be inclined to just buy the nut. He might not even understand why he's upsetting the achiever by doing so.
You stood under a tree, not moving for an hour, for a nut ? You're crazy; I just got mine from the shop!
On the other hand, socializers would get very upset if an in-game shop allowed to buy friends, to buy connections. Consider an achiever who has money and just bought a guild: the socializers in the guild would be very upset by that.
Who's this guy? Why did he buy the guild? I preferred the former guild master!
For achievers though it would be merely one more achievement, and they wouldn't be particularly bothered about it.
The player types theory is there to remind you that you're making games for human players, involving their psychology in how they perceive and play your game.
By identifying clearly what your players are looking for (the most) in your game, you can do a better job of delivering it to them.
An easy way to remember the four categories of MUD players is to consider suits in a conventional pack of cards:
- Achievers are diamonds (they're always seeking treasure).
- Explorers are spades (they dig around for information).
- Socialisers are hearts (they empathise with other players).
- Killers are clubs (they hit people with them).
(This list was presented in the theory of player types in MUD.)
You may also be better equipped to balance the game you made to fit the players that already enjoy playing it and even bringing in some fresh players to its community.
Nevertheless, Bartle's player types theory mostly (and perhaps only) applies to MUD games. With a different type of game and using only this model, you could pass by a "non-recognized" type of players that would actually enjoy it but were left out of your design.
Bartle's theory has provoked many works and new models using it, built upon it, or trying to break it to propose a better model or a better comprehension of what pushed people to play games for fun:
- Nick Yee's "Motivations of Play in MMORPGs - Results from a Factor Analytic Approach" pinpointed parts of Bartle's model which didn't fit well with real game situations and the psychologies of players. Built upon the statistical analysis of 3,200 questioned MMORPGs players, it builds a new model made of three main components and ten subcomponents. Despite being built upon Bartle's player types, it also uncovers weaknesses in the original model - for example, showing Killers as a part of the subcomponent "Competition" of the main component "Achiever". (In Bartle's original theory, player types are assumed to be non-correlating.)
- Jon Radoff's "Game Player Motivations" is an acknowledged example of building upon Bartle's player types and going further by presenting a model that explains why people play any type of game for fun.
- Gamification proponents have been pondering over the subject of player types for a while and this field has been the source of some of the latest talks from Bartle. But the same movement has also proposed studies and thoughts according to their own practice and considerations (as gamification is different from game development). For example, Dan Dixon's paper "Player Types and Gamification" is a nice retrospective based on Bartle Player Types and Nick Yee's "Motivations", as well as an analysis of the shortcomings in gamification when trying to use those models.
Thank you for reading this article, I hope you've learned more about what Bartle's Player Types are and feel the same excitement as I do towards game design. Remember: nothing is set in stone and we're still in the early ages of what can be found and researched in this fascinating field.