The Hierarchy of Needs - Pt. 2

Psychology & Game Design #3

Hello my wonderful readers! In last week's post, I showed you this image of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and talked about my theory behind the top three needs of this hierarchy corresponding to three types of reasons that we play board games.

So... where to go from there? The whole point of this blog series is to point out that understanding human behavior can help designers create better gaming experiences. Today, I'm going to expand upon the three types of players I outlined in last week's post and give some concrete examples of how games can be better designed to tailor towards these players.

1) Belongingness & Love

I should start out by highlighting that not everyone falls into specifically one of these categories. Most people probably fall into some combination of two or even all three of them. I would venture to say that this one is probably the most common. People seeking to satisfy this need play games for the sake of social interactions and wanting to have memorable experiences with others. Almost every single gamer, to some extent, plays games for this reason. Humans are social creatures!

How can designers capitalize on this? By focusing on creating games with as much player interaction as possible. Games should always be designed with a player's experience at the table in mind. This means decreasing downtime between turns, encouraging player discussion and interaction as much as possible and/or attempting to create memorable moments and situations for players to share in.

For one great example of a game that is built to create a memorable shared experience, take a look at Dead of Winter. A cooperative, story-driven game, Dead of Winter is all about working together to survive an ever-changing apocalypse scenario while simultaneously suspecting each other of foul play. The game is built to put players on edge and make them constantly vigilant about what is going on. You're always paying attention to what other players are doing on their turns and doing your best to help each other survive (or perish, if you're the traitor). Regardless of how the game ends up, you'll typically walk away with a memorable experience that you got to share with others, which is why this game appeals to so many. It provides the social fun that we are trying to fulfill by playing games.

2) Esteem Needs

The second reason that people may play games is to satisfy their own competitive itch. Lots of people like to play games because they like to try to win. And there's no shame in that! After all, in theory that is the goal of the game itself. This one is probably the easiest of the three reasons to cater to when designing a game because it typically doesn't require much effort to satisfy.

To best fulfill those competitive itches, winning the game should feel achievable by every player, if possible. I understand that some more complex games have steeper learning curves and if you are playing them for the first time against a seasoned veteran player, you may not have any hope of winning. If a designer wants their game to satisfy more people, however, they should try to minimize that hopeless feeling as much as they can. Here are three tips to consider when designing a game with competitive players in mind:

1) Luck SHOULD play a role... just not a very big one.

Luck shouldn't be the deciding factor in who wins and who loses, but luck can do great things to help level the playing field a bit for newer players and to keep things interesting for returning players, forcing them to change things up, which leads to my next point...

2) Prioritize multiple strategies.

There should never be one strategy that is superior to all other strategies. If I can sit down and play a game the exact same way every time and always win, then it's really not a very competitive game. It won't feel satisfying to the other players who will feel like they never stood a chance and it won't feel truly satisfying to the winner because the game wasn't truly competitive. Winning won't feel like it means anything if its easy to achieve every time you play.

3) Consider implementing catchup mechanics.

Not all games need this, but some games can easily suffer from runaway leader problems. If the game is only halfway over and you are losing, it shouldn't feel like it's totally impossible to make a comeback. When designing a game, it's important to keep this is mind. If needed, implementing mechanics to help aid straggling players or disadvantage winning players can be very helpful in maintaining a close game right until the end.

3) Self-Actualization

This last one isn't about winning games or having a fun time, it's about doing your best and feeling satisfied with your efforts. Win or lose, you want to walk away from the game feeling like you played well, and actually accomplished something. This is the need that I would argue is the least common and also the most difficult to cater to. How can we make a game that allows players to feel like they played well and did their own best when they lost?

Truth be told, I don't know exactly how. One great example from my own experience has been that of Wingspan. This game allows for really interesting and variable engine-building, which essentially means that you are building your own, better and better resource and point-generating machine. There are plenty of times that I lose Wingspan, but most of the time I still come away from it feeling like I played well because I will have built this cool and efficient system that is uniquely mine.

Catering to this need requires rewarding players in some way other than winning. You have to find a way to make a strategy feel satisfying even when it isn't the winning one, which is hard to do.

What do you think? How can games best accomplish allowing for that sort of satisfaction?

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